Over the weekend, in Pacific Grove at the CMC-North conference, at a late dinner with a bunch of my former colleagues and some twitter-folk I was reminded of a moment from Palm Springs last month that I had planned on blogging about. For whatever reason it fell off my radar, but Dan Meyer was kind enough to bring it back to the forefront of my mind. Dan asked Avery whether he ever got push-back from people at his workshops who claimed that Avery’s ideas “would never work with my kids” when they learned that he teaches at a small, independent (private) school that primarily serves high SES students.
Dan’s question reminded me of this moment when I was at Palm Springs in November. I was at a workshop—the first workshop in fact—in which the presenter came from the Phillips Exeter Academy. If you don’t already know, Exeter is a private boarding school. Small class sizes, privileged population…perhaps you’ve heard of it? The presenter introduced himself and his school at the beginning of the talk, so I assumed we were all on board. He spoke about how the classes worked at Exeter—the Harkness table mythos—and how the curriculum developed over students’ time at the school. At some point during the talk, the presenter showed us a blog from a teacher in a typical public school situation who was using the Exeter problem sets in his classroom: Harkness for Thirty. Shortly after this very part of the talk, a woman seated at one of the back tables asked our presenter about his classroom setting. He told her the information I outlined above. Said he had classes of about 14 students. She immediately replied
“We can’t talk”
and followed it up with
“You’ve just lost all credibility.”
I remember writing down on my paper “Wow!” I couldn’t believe the rudeness. More importantly I couldn’t believe that her attitude towards his classroom situation—which was very unfamiliar to her own—meant that she shut out all possible benefit of the ideas being discussed because her idea of a classroom didn’t match up to the classroom situation at Exeter.
Every classroom situation is different. At the same school, even moving from one section of the same course to another section of that course—taught by the same teacher, no less—can require different approaches. Obviously, not everything we hear about in a conference, even in an individual workshop, will work for us without adaptation—whether it’s to better suit our student body, to better suit our teaching style, or to reduce cost, or de-technify something, we make changes to things we learn about all the time. I can’t remember the last time I took something someone handed me, and handed them to students unchanged. So of course we are not going to find the perfect match for our needs at a workshop at a conference, no matter how well we select our speakers. It just doesn’t exist. We have to take what we can use, discard or postpone the rest, and make new ideas work together with our old ones in the environment we have.
But to dismiss everything a teacher says because they teach at a different type of school that you?—Wow.
Avery had a great answer for Dan’s question. Avery talked about how he sees the professional role of teachers as one where their job at a conference is to find the parts that work for them, with their students. I liked Avery’s response. And this is something I think about, as I too teach at a private school. Students who attend my classes are mostly there because their parents can pay the 37,000 dollars a year it costs to go there. My classes this trimester are 10, 10 and 13 students. Last trimester I had a “large” class of 18…teaching Topology to juniors and seniors. I know that I have it good.
Just because it was on my mind, I decided to track the types of comments regarding “my school” versus “your school” that I heard at Asilomar last weekend. I was surprised—and happy—that I didn’t hear that many. Both of these came out of the first workshop I attended:
8:14 am: “teaching at a demographic such as mine…75% free and reduced lunch…”
8:44 am: “for those of us teaching at school’s where students are mostly far below basic…”