by Julia Steiny
Five high-school seniors cluster behind a pillar in a lecture hall at Rhode Island College. Behind them is a movie-sized screen, and in front looms a modest but intimidating stadium of seats. With the giggling and “Oh my God!s,” they’re reviewing the game plan for making their upcoming presentation.
To my eye, these students, urban and suburban, don’t seem academically challenged. But none of them passed the math section of last fall’s state test, which is now a graduation requirement. Fully 38 percent of RI’s seniors are at risk of not receiving a diploma. The field refers to them as the “Level 1s,” the lowest test level, “substantially-below proficient.”
While some people vigorously oppose the requirement itself, others organized “cram camps” to give these students urgent-needed help. The Northern Rhode Island Collaborative, an education-support organization, hired Christine Bonas to assemble educators to develop and deliver this two-week summer intensive. An ex-math teacher herself, and now guidance counselor, Bonas gets both the academic demands and the kids’ lack of motivation.
Because whatever kept the kids from learning math before, they’re into it here. The program is brilliantly designed. Teachers spent the first day asking students what they don’t like about their community. Answer: plenty.
Okay. So get into teams and pick one problem — like, no place for teens to hang out, bad public parks, a need for animal rescue shelters. (Yes, many shelters exist, but so what?) Then, build a business model with a plan that will solve the problem. Don’t whine; take an entrepreneurial approach. With your idea in hand, research the costs of rent, labor, utilities, equipment. Prepare multiple spreadsheets that explain income and outflow, start-up costs and maintenance. Develop “what if” scenarios for unanticipated expenses. Talk to local business leaders, provided by the program, about your calculations.
Lastly, learn how to pitch your idea. To add a competitive game element, local businesses pooled $1,000 seed money for the winning plan. I’m at their pitch rehearsal, but superintendents and business leaders will evaluate the final presentations tomorrow.
The giggly group emerges and makes a thoughtful presentation. Their business eliminates the hated condition of teens depending on family and friends for rides. They show us an example of eco-friendly electric mini-buses that will take kids to the mall, their friends’ house, wherever. The team wanted a cost-free service, but crunching the numbers ruled that out. (A snootful of Reality is such a good lesson.) Taking turns, students walk us through slides of spreadsheets that show us they’ve been steeped in manipulating numbers effectively.
Apparently, the these students’ final presentations were so good, the kids surprised even themselves. Business planning gave them a real-world feel for what they could actually DO with math skills. Bonas says “The light dawned on them that this is what math is for.” Bingo. This should have happened long ago.
Why can’t school be like this all the time?
Bonas was blunt. “As a former math teacher, I can tell you that you’re handed a textbook and told how to do it. We’re not able to think outside the box.” Partly that’s a result of the way teachers are trained, and partly because districts have gotten more and more prescriptive for their teachers. She says, “It’s a manufacturing process. You’ve got too much to do and you’ve got to get it done. You don’t have time to be a dynamic teacher.” She explains that “project-based learning,” where students actively pursue a project of interest to themselves, takes more work to plan.
“To teach them a slope, we (math teachers) put a formula on the board, give them graph paper and show them the rise over run. There’s always one kid who says, When am I going to use this? The teacher says, uh, well, see that roller coaster? Parabolas are how to keep them from crashing. That’s no answer. They don’t care. But if you ask a kid to show me how your business is going to make a profit, they can show you time on the “x” axis and increase in cost on “y”, suddenly we’re looking at a negative slope. Oh!, they say. Because we’re teaching in context. Parabolas have to have something to do with their lives. Making a profit is something they can care about.”
For far too long, project-based or “constructivist” learning has been at war with the “drill-and-kill” focus on building skills first. Skills are critical, but as Bonas notes, the kids don’t learn if they don’t care. Learning can’t be either/or. Get kids hooked on solving problems that matter to them, but stop them here and there to teach and reinforce the skills they need. Both/and. Bonas’ kids talked to bankers, attorneys, accountants. As one girl said about these interviews, “They, like, so opened my eyes to how much detail you need to have.” Of course details matter. Dream all you want, but the math has to work. Skills and projects need a healthy balance.
We’d have fewer “Level 1s” of all kinds if school were more engaging, creative, meaningful. Bonas says, “I’m amazed by the growth I’ve seen in just two weeks.” Now imagine the growth after a whole year of that.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at email@example.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.