Vena Cava – Returning to the Heart of Education

Last year, I received a mathematics problem-of-the-week submission that threw me off my guard. Being a new teacher at a highly alternative Expeditionary Learning school had been tough – the student community was closely connected to their teachers, resistant to change, and at times downright derisive concerning anything perceived as ‘different’ from what they had experienced in the past. Despite the tumultuous start to the year, I persisted in my beliefs of creating a math classroom that reflected a great depth of understanding that would help students in the ‘real world’; I spent many hours creating problems that related to the students lives and (hopefully) gave them a purpose and curiosity for the work.

This particular problem of the week had been a fairly typical reading experience until the last section: the self-assessment. In essence, the student wrote that math was stupid (his actual word choice, not mine) and would never serve the students in the real world. Then, he admitted that he has learned (about himself) that he tends to get frustrated by math problems fairly early on and shut down. Then, he repeated that math was a waste of time and wouldn’t be useful to any of his classmates in the real world.

I wondered what to do about this situation. It hurt to read those statements when I had been investing so much time in preparing activities that would be relevant and benefit students, and it made me want to be angry and somehow turn it around and blame it on the student. I knew that with such emotions involved, I would need to ask for outside opinions to come to a clearer understanding of the situation.

So I went to one of my colleagues, gave him the paper, and asked him what to do about the self-assessment. He read it and promptly responded “Fail him and move on. He was being a jerk.”

Something didn’t feel right nor conclusive to me about this plan forward, so I also asked a fellow humanities teacher. She also replied “Give him an F. His writing is both poor and didn’t follow directions. Not to mention it’s inappropriate.” As you might imagine this solution did not settle my stomach, either.

Lastly, I went to our science teacher, a person who – when I first walked into the school from a Montessori background – seemed to be a physical manifestation of a Montessori Secondary Guide without having ever read a bit of Montessori. He read the statement, thought for a moment, and then launched into his characteristic overly loud analysis.

“Dude,” he started off, “in the middle sentence, he is actually telling you something he has learned about himself… isn’t that what you want? Not some bull that he knows you want to hear – this is truth. And in the first and last sentence, we have to ‘read teenager.’ He’s not actually saying that math is stupid. What he’s saying in his primitive and prideful way is ‘math is challenging for me and makes me feel inadequate. It’s not the math that’s ‘stupid,’ it’s that the math makes him feel stupid.”

Eric’s analysis was exactly what I needed at a really trying time in my teaching career. What I needed was not to get angry, or to blame problems my students were having on them. What I needed was to connect with this kid in a way that showed him that he was capable and brought him ‘back to life’ educationally. The advice brought me back to ‘The Heart’ of Education, so to speak, and rejuvenated my practice.

As educators, it’s easy to get caught up in our frustrations, or the details of test scores and the pressures of raising them, or the differing viewpoints on how to create compliance in the classroom. But the purpose of education is not to raise test scores or create compliance, but to facilitate learning. And if you are like me – constantly questioning the status quo (educationally: the inherited pedagogies we are surrounded by and likely with which we were raised) – then it’s important to return to the heart of our practice once a month and ask: what is this all about and how am I to live my beliefs?

So one year ago, Eric and I started the Vena Cava Club, inviting educators from across the Denver Metro Area to meet on the first Tuesday of every month and discuss the positive aspects of our pedagogy. To return to the heart of what we are doing and rejuvenate our energies. It’s been a huge success, and it’s time, we’ve decided, that we expand the Dialogue. We invite you to read, reflect, analyze, comment, and contribute to Vena Cava: Returning to the Heart of Education. Together, we’ll get back to what this educational game is all about.

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