Teaching Tales

Ethnomathematics teaches that mathematics is inherently part of Western culture. A New York Times magazine story quotes Ethnomathematics: A Multicultural View of Mathematical Ideas by Marcia Ascher:

The relationship between the length of the hypotenuse and lengths of the sides of a right triangle is an eternal truth, but that does not mean that any other culture need share the categories triangle, right triangle, hypotenuse ... A critical issue is that, as it stands, much of mathematics education depends upon assumptions of Western culture and carries with it Western values. Those with other traditions are, as a result, often turned away by the subject or unsuccessful in learning it.

Michael Lopez of Highered Intelligence singles out a quote by an ethnomath founder:

Mathematics is absolutely integrated with Western civilization, which conquered and dominated the entire world. The only possibility of building up a planetary civilization depends on restoring the dignity of the losers.

Lopez says we should learn winner's math.

The story does quote David Klein, a professor of mathematics at California State University at Northridge, carefully pointing out that he's a political liberal.

"Mathematics is a worldwide monoculture. Look at the chalkboards in math departments at universities all around the world -- in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America. You will see the same symbols everywhere you go on this planet, except perhaps in colleges of education where fads reign supreme.'' Klein says he does spend some class time discussing the math of Mayans, Egyptians and other early civilizations. ''But ancient techniques and early discoveries in math will not take students very far who want to do something in the modern world with mathematics,'' he says.

In the Washington Times, Walter Williams' writes that public schools in many cities sabotage black academic excellence. Affirmative action in college admissions is no solution. I think Wiliams would be angry if black students were told that math is a white thing and they wouldn't understand.

If you think ethnomathematics is looney, check out critical math, which is "Attempting to Connect Anti-Capitalist Work with Mathematics Education." Actually, the Math of Frankenstein is attempting to teach anti-capitalism instead of math.

War Is a Big Deal

A Seattle English teacher asked sophomores to express their feelings about war with Iraq.

Jim Miller wonders why the essays "all come to the same conclusion, against freeing Iraq."

That's not quite fair: A few students think war might be justified. Maybe. The larger problem is that they can't argue logically using facts, perhaps because they've only been asked to express feelings. Here’s a doozy:

I, however, want to know one thing: How can we even consider going to war, when there are so many people who cannot fathom that it could be a good idea?

We cannot treat war as if it is just a decision we have to make. No: War is a big deal. I want to put that on posters. Forget trying to make people take a side -- the first priority is to get people to understand how incomprehensibly huge war is. Millions have been killed in previous wars. That is an insane amount of people. To me, a million deaths is not even a tangible thing.

As an ex-editor I can tell you: These essays are the best of those submitted. Think about that.

Cruelty to Children

I find it hard to believe. Could any teacher, regardless of political beliefs, tell a soldier's child that Mom or Dad was a "bad person" for serving overseas?

Joe Katzman is reporting on charges that children in Maine, mostly seven to nine years old, have been harassed by teachers and counselors because a mother or father in the National Guard has been deployed.

The Maine National Guard's family assistance counselors say they've received 30 complaints from all over the state.

Education Commissioner Duke Albanese advised schools to be "sensitive" to children from military families.

Perhaps the complaints arise from anti-war teachers who don't realize that a child in the class is worrying about a parent sent overseas. But the Guard tells schools which students have a deployed parent, so the school can offer more emotional support. Maybe children are misinterpreting what they hear.

I can't envision elementary teachers so cruel or callous that they'd denigrate a parent's service to a frightened child. Furthermore, I think that almost all Americans want the best for our men and women in arms. I believe that's true for those who oppose the war -- a few crazies aside -- as well for those who think the war is justified. So I'm hoping the Maine story is exaggerated. Hoping against hope, maybe. I don't want to believe it.

Teaching Rommel to Read

Rommel was passed to fourth grade in a Washington, D.C., public school, even though he couldn't read. His former teacher, Tyler Currie, wrote in the Washington Post:

I take out the kind of book a child should be reading at the end of first grade. "Let's see," I say, opening to the first page.

Rommel handles the first word -- "the" -- just fine. After that the book might as well be written in Aramaic. He can't read another word.

In his defense, he says that he knows the word "c-a-t," which his mother taught him.

"That's really good," I say.

"Rommel, do you know what sound this letter makes?" I ask, pointing to the letter "f."

He furrows his brow and makes the sound "g," as in go.

After a year of one-on-one teaching, starting with phonics, Rommel was reading Harry Potter books.

Rommel is now learning to read at an astounding pace. We are saturated with letters and sounds and stories, and he absorbs it all like a starved, desiccated sponge. I almost forget his official classification: learning-disabled. His progress is an awful indictment of the school system. It's not that he couldn't learn. We simply never taught him.

We're not likely to pay for private tutoring for every illiterate student, much less to find volunteers like Currie. But if reading was taught well in the first place, it wouldn't be necessary.

Joanne Jacobs used to have a paying job as a Knight-Ridder columnist and San Jose Mercury News editorial writer. Now she blogs for tips at JoanneJacobs.com while writing a book, Start-Up High, about a San Jose charter school. She's never gotten a dime from Enron.

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