Informality in Education / Music / Thanksgiving!

Informality in Education

Teaching has, for me, been an informal activity.  What I mean by this is that students call me by my first name and students talk more freely.  My informal definition of a good lesson is when students both learn something new, and laugh at least once during class.  There of course needs to be a balance between formality and informality, especially in a Math class, but my personality lends itself to the informal end of the spectrum.  Having students call me by my first name is something many teachers I have spoken with wouldn’t do, but is still important to me.  Perhaps I am not yet ready for the title “Mr. Farrell”.  Respect is very important in a classroom, and my belief is that students referring to me by my first name will increase respect instead of diminish it.  The entire classroom dynamic relies on mutual respect between students and the teacher.  In general, names are very important to me.  I try my best to learn my students’ names as quickly as possible, especially at the University.  Stony Brook is such a big school that it is possible that none of a students’ professors or teaching assistants know their name.  Of course, the classes I have taught at Stony Brook have had < 50 people in them which made learning names much easier.  To the reader: Think of a time you met someone, just briefly.  Perhaps days or weeks later, you see them again and they say “Hey (insert your name here)! How ya doin’?”  It feels good when someone remembers you.  This is something I try to do for my students within the first few days of class.  With all this being said, it should be noted that I have been very uncomfortable in the past referring to cooperating teachers by their first name, even when they request it.  Still, I am curious to learn what advice my cooperating teachers this coming Spring semester will give in reference to me and students being on a first-name basis.


One of the many reasons I love it here in Budapest is the people I’ve met.  It seems I can always find someone that shares an interest with me.  For example, I like to play music, to sing music, and occasionally, to write music.  Some of the students in the same BSME program also like these things!  It goes without saying that I like music.  99% of people like music.  Many of my friends know that one of my absolute favorite bands is Imagine Dragons.  Much like books, I like the type of music that makes me feel something; Happy, sad, nostalgic, relaxed, energized, overwhelmed.  These are all feelings I get from music.  Imagine Dragons in particular reminds of my family.  A lyric that has recently resonated with me from an Imagine Dragons song which I believe is less known: The Unknown:

“Mama bless me, with magnet eyes for purple.”

I am very lucky to have found a group of friends that not only enjoys the same music as I do, but will also sing loud and without care.

Thanksgiving Day Picture!

Our Thanksgiving Feast in all its glory:

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Spherical Geometry Workshop

István Lénárt from ELTE University conducted a Spherical Geometry Workshop for BSME students.

lenartStudents were introduced to the basics of spherical geometry and its uses in education through using Lénárt Spheres, the educational tool invented by the professor himself. They also experimented with oranges, using toothpicks for points, rubber bands for lines, and markers for circles. The professor made a reference to the Paris attacks, explaining that if students are exposed to different systems of geometry, and different viewpoints in every subject, this will help them accept differences in society.

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An afternoon on Gender and Mathematics

Jessica Deshler from West Virginia University, who is currently a Fulbright Scholar at Central European University in Budapest, spent an exciting afternoon with BSME students last week offering a colloquium lecture and a workshop on Gender and Mathematics.

The colloquium lecture introduced BSM and BSME students to research findings on Gender and Mathematics, and it raised such a high interest from students that questions kept flooding Jessica long after the end of the talk.

The workshop helped students to analyze classroom observations experienced at the BSME Practicum course from the perspective of gender issues, and to discuss ways in which they would be able to promote gender equity in their own classrooms.

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BSME students gave a highly successful talk at Varga Tamás Days on Mathematics Education

BSME students Zoe Peterson, Sean Farrell, Matthew Garvin, Nolan Winkler and Marcos Munoz (from left to right on the photo) gave a talk at Varga Tamás Days, Hungary’s most significant annual conference on Mathematics

They talked about The Educational Philosophy of Hungary vs  United States (slides).  The talk was received with great interest and was a huge success.

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Important This American Life Episodes about Education

I am a big fan of NPR’s weekly podcast This American Life, which is essentially an hour-long show about lives in America that often highlights, features, and does investigate journalism into some of the biggest social, governmental, and human problems facing America nowadays. Being particularly interested myself in education and the current horrendous state it is in of reflecting institutionally racist and classist policies, I thought I would share a few episodes that have deeply touched me and give good looks into what American education actually looks like nowadays and historically. Particularly wonderful in This American Life’s style of journalism, I think, is that it really focuses on the human beings involved in the stories and their feelings and needs, which is far too often overlooked or swept under the rug.

Best ones I’ve listened to:

#1a & 1b) The Problem We All Live With – “Right now, all sorts of people are trying to rethink and reinvent education, to get poor minority kids performing as well as white kids. But there’s one thing nobody tries anymore, despite lots of evidence that it works: desegregation. Nikole Hannah-Jones looks at a district that, not long ago, accidentally launched a desegregation program. First of a two-part series.” I cannot recommend this highly enough and from my experience in schools ranging from the most expensive undergraduate university in the United States to a Level I Chicago Public School serving a 95% African-American and Latinx population to here in Budapest, Hungary, I would say that this is a fundamentally important idea whose realization would be one of the most positive social changes that could happen in our lifetime. Crucial questions raised in this episode of what really determines success, what life opportunities are available to which people, and why things are the way they are.

#2) Three Miles – “There’s a program that brings together kids from two schools. One school is public and in the country’s poorest congressional district. The other is private and costs $43,000/year. They are three miles apart. The hope is that kids connect, but some of the public school kids just can’t get over the divide. We hear what happens when you get to see the other side and it looks a lot better” -> Another important story about the vastly different qualities of school systems across the US.

Ones which I have not gotten to, but need to and plan to:

#3) Two Steps Back – “Ten years ago, when he was still a reporter for NPR’s All Things Considered, host Ira Glass did a year-long series on a Chicago public school where things were getting better. Test scores were rising. Students were motivated. Last year, changes at the school dismantled some of the programs that had made for the school’s success, and one of the best teachers in the school is thinking about quitting. We devote the whole hour to this story, about the rise and fall of school reform.” Obviously important to anybody who is thinking of going into a high-needs district or getting involved in the serious change that needs to occur in (especially urban) education.

#4a&b) Harper High School Parts One and Two – “We spent five months at Harper High School in Chicago, where last year alone 29 current and recent students were shot. 29. We went to get a sense of what it means to live in the midst of all this gun violence, how teens and adults navigate a world of funerals and Homecoming dances. We found so many incredible and surprising stories, this show is a two-parter…We pick up where we left off last week in our second hour from Harper High School in Chicago. We find out if a shooting in the neighborhood will derail the school’s Homecoming game and dance. We hear the origin story of one of Harper’s gangs. And we ask a group of teenagers: where do you get your guns? Harper has set up a donation page here.” -> A school a mere 20 minutes by car, 45 minutes by public transit away from my apartment and home university and, in fact, named after its first President; despite this, I have never been to it, never met or interacted with any of its students, and am largely disconnected from it by the respective communities that we live in, Hyde Park being patrolled by and under the jurisdiction of a private police force.

Others I’ve listened to and/or are tangentially related to education, but super recommended:

#5) “Ïs This Working?” – “Stories of schools struggling with what to do with misbehaving kids. There’s no general agreement about what teachers should do to discipline kids. And there’s evidence that some of the most popular punishments actually may harm kids.” – an interesting and fun topic not quite as serious as those above it, however the stories contained within bring up similar questions and issues about how our society is actually organized and to what degree schools reflect or could change that.

#6) Harold – “A parable of politics and race in America. The story of Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, told two decades after his death. Washington died on November 25, 1987.” A very thorough look at one of the defining moments of change in Chicago, and the backlash it was met with, as well as bringing up the questions of how much our environment has changed since those times. Especially important for understanding education in Chicago in terms of historical context.

#7) A Not-So-Simple Majority – “We take it for granted that the majority calls the shots. But in one NY school district, that idea — majority rules — has led to an all-out war. School board disputes are pretty common, but not like this one. This involves multimillion-dollar land deals, lawyers threatening to beat up parents, felony criminal charges, and the highest levels of state government. Meanwhile, the students are caught in the middle.”

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Differentiated Instruction/Learning and the Student-Centered Approach; or: What Makes Good and Bad Teachers

After the long-windedness of my last post, let me just jump straight into this one by defining to me what a good and what a bad teacher is, based on my personal experience both being a student who has been subject to varying levels of teaching (including some of the best of the world, thanks to my privilege and wonderful professors at the University of Chicago and now here in Budapest, as well as a few select individuals at my middle school and perhaps even high school who strived to actually care about their students and realized the intrinsic importance and huge responsibility of being a teacher in that they do, in fact, have the opportunity to impart life-lasting values and habits of mind into their students – I, too, of course, have had some bad ones who have been overly authoritarian, bad at explaining things, and ultimately cared more about things such as their research or individual time to actually take up the mantle of teaching youth) as well as a teacher for my life’s work so far, and prospective teacher for my far less important ‘career’ which, yes, I guess helps to pay my upcoming bills.

So, without further ado, here’s what a good teacher is, plain and simple: one who sacrifices. To be a good teacher, one must sacrifice. Teaching is not, never has been, and never will be about the teacher. Teaching is about the students. Let me repeat that a million times louder: You are not important; your students are. Good teaching is not curriculum-focused, enrichment-focused, defined by the use of aids or any particular strategies or methods, but rather good teaching is defined by the focus on the student. The goal of teaching is student learning and growth. What is the only thing that matters in teaching? The students. Please, please, please, please please take this as your Marshall Fields “The customer is always right” mantra, because in education, I think, this is the only area in which that is actually true. Student growth and learning (,which as my earlier post suggested can be thought of as people becoming more independent, pushing for their own freedom, having greater ability to stand up for themselves, do what is right, follow through on their values, and ultimately turn this knowledge and growth back into one’s community to help others do the same and live happily together,) is what definitionally matters and is what the teacher is supposed to be promoting. The teacher does not necessarily know best – sure, perhaps, about the content knowledge (although we all know sometimes even that is not true), but – at least about life and the student’s lives. What is education supposed to be about if not enrichment of the lives of the students who undertake it? How can one focus so much on assessments and standardized tests which teachers themselves believe are not useful, caring so much about the curriculum which one is made to teach but does not necessarily have the ability to teach in the way it’s supposed to be taught and even more often the time, resources, and funding to do so, when teachers could be instead helping their students live the lives which they want to and coming to be independent and self-reliant and motivated human beings who have actually learned the important skills and mindsets for experiencing joy, contributing to something greater than themselves, giving back to one’s community and society, and enacting the change which they wish to see in their and other’s lives….i.e. promoting happiness? This is what a good teacher does. A good teacher resists the administrative and societal restrictions/expectations/necessities which are negative and harmful to the best of their ability, refuses to let that crap get in the way of their students actually growing as human beings and hopefully learning some thinking skills and productive habits along the way, and ultimately forms connections with their students, lets them know that they are valuable, and that life is not found in following or giving in to such arbitrary rules and tasks imposed on one by others, nor is it supposed to be.

This, I think is wonderfully embodied by something that the headmaster (I believe, but may be incorrect?) at Zöld Kakas Líceum here in Budapest explained to us about her students recently, something along the lines of “They don’t have problems. Their problems are/were the absolute stupidity they had to deal with at the previous schools, which made them do ridiculous things.” As a school that seemed very effective at ‘turning students around’, allowing for and teaching to the diversity of its student population, letting students’ intrinsic motivations and desires ultimately determine what they do and do not learn, respecting its students, building good relationships between its students and teachers, and focusing on the important things like having mentorship and counseling/therapy resources available for its students, such that they can work together on the things that ultimately determine individuals’ life happiness such as the ability to build and keep relationships, deal with struggles when they arise, find connection with other people and display empathy, and discover the way of life that one wishes to live in and aspects of oneself that one thinks are important and wishes to develop/display to the world. This is the student-centered approach, and I dare say with full knowledge that one person should not be able to decide this, that it is, in fact, the only correct approach to actual teaching. To be a teacher, I think, often requires (as hinted at above) this sort of mindset of independence and nonviolent resistance to the negative and freedom-limiting aspects of our societies, as oftentimes they are not, in fact, actually geared towards meeting the needs and respecting (all of) the members that make them up. In some sense, what I am saying is that Gandhi is a teacher, Martin Luther King is a teacher, your mother was probably a teacher, social workers are teachers, GOOD politicians can be teachers – someone who taught you what somebody else did once (because they thought it was cool or were motivated by prestige and intellectual curiosity or money and industrial pressure to try and solve this problem to expand the productivity of the labor force or something like that, some of which can be important, but not as much as connecting with human beings and meeting their needs) and a definition they came up with or how to solve a particular very restricted set of problems that are likely to be too formal to be useful to actually meeting your human needs is not really a teacher. Not to the extent that you need, deserve, or should want to become (I say this, myself having taught mathematics in various capacities – obviously to an exponentially greater extent in the past, say, 2 years and presumably even more so over the next 3+ – since I was probably about 13). We all can do better.

Now to ‘teaching’ as it is more so thought of in its limited capacity today:

Good teachers, even those who do not focus as much on their students as they should, differentiate their instruction. Here are a couple examples of pretty good teaching that I have experienced these few months in Budapest: in a class of mine, homeworks are always “pick x of these y>x problems that you want to do/most interest you.” These often include problems that spark the interest of the student by having such qualities as being told with a story, being related to a historical event or development of something within the Hungarian mathematical community and are always focused not necessarily on the content material that we are being presented with, but rather with ‘creativity’, ‘insight’, or ‘the ability to think deeply and apply a clever argument that a 2nd grade could understand.’ This class is wonderful and I feel like I am learning from it, because I am engaged with the material, it seems like I am developing skills which I can apply to whatever I so desire and life path that I choose to go down later, and there is a strong community aspect in the class of us all working together to solve fun, interesting, and challenging problems because that is one of the things that we believe math to be about. In another class of mine, I completed a homework assignment early, because I try to be responsible about it and I have loved the class, so I am always eager to get to work on it.  – However, upon submitting it, I was met with a message from my instructor saying that while my solution was correct, he actually meant to update the problem and wondered WHAT WE TOGETHER SHOULD DO about this dilemma – to accept this solution, have me do the new problem, or find some alternative. Before I even read this e-mail, my interest had been sparked by the problem and wanting to generalize the idea which we had to apply to solve it (i.e. showing that the Fibonacci sequence mod any number n always repeated), and had thought about while on a run. I suggested that instead of re-doing a very similar problem, that for that week, I would work on this instead as it was more interesting to me, seemed like a problem more on my level, and it was clear that I could easily already do the other problem. THIS was an example of true teaching. Rather than forcing me to complete a task which I was not interested in, would not have benefited from doing, and ultimately would have discouraged my learning via having me focus on grades and assigned tasks instead of actual understanding of material, growth, and development – instead of this, I was trusted by my teacher, talked to openly and honestly about the dilemma, and allowed to take control of my own learning and display my initiative. This is a mathematical moment. This is what teaching and learning is about. Students are not supposed to be beholden to teacher whims and demands, teachers are supposed to be teaching and caring about their students learning, and ultimately as Pólya György suggests, the point of teaching even a subject is not about content material, but about teaching students to THINK. The teacher is supposed to build, although really in my opinion the correct verb is emphasize, the student’s “desirable habits of mind” – independence, curiosity, ability to put into action the plans that one has made, belief in oneself and autonomy. Now, actually I disagree with Pólya a lot in one of his views on teachers, i.e. that he thinks of them as “salesmen”….that a teacher should be ‘selling’ the material and trying to get students interested in it. I think that this is in many ways wrong. Salesmen care about sales. Teachers should not care about sales – teachers care about people, about values, about meeting the needs of those who they have entered into this most important relationship with. What if the student does not want to ‘buy’ your ‘product’? What if their needs are not being met, and this is not helping that to be accomplished? What if their interests lie in something else, or they do not believe this will actually make them as happy or is as necessary for their lives as you claim/think it is (hopefully which you yourself believe because you have found it to be helpful and necessary in your life and you want to share that joy with others and contribute to your community of such similarly-interested people), who knows more about the student’s happiness and their lives? (Hint: the students, and if you disagree with this, think about where the root of that disagreement stems from, and whether or not it is because your teachers believed contrarily) How much do salesmen care about clients over their sales? I would beg to offer that whatever that amount is, teachers should certainly far surpass it and frankly be insulted by the comparison. A teacher should not act – a teacher should not lie (the ‘noble lie’, I will remind you, is one told by the pre-determined elite, not out of care or belief in those to whom it is told, but rather to promote order and foolish belief in consistency and the status quo – Emerson’s “hobgoblin of little minds.”), a teacher takes the opportunity that they have of open ears and young minds and plastic hearts and helps to let them mold themselves into the human beings living lives with each other in the way that they want to, yet are told a million times not to, because to do so would require trust and change and a belief in the equality and simple natural inner worth of people, which is certainly not the way that life is set up for us now. One of the best teachers I ever had started their course by meeting us the first week individually for maybe a twenty-minute to half-hour conversation about our lives and where we came from and where we wanted to go – and, in particular, what we wanted out of college and his class. This displays empathy. This displays care. This shows a student that perhaps, just maybe, a class may actually have some worth and be useful to them outside of the intellectual realm and limited amount of life that analytical discussion – rather than the often far-more important action, feeling, and meeting needs – can help us with. And, less importantly, but still amazingly, given the sad frequency to which I have seen the contrary be done, the class (wait for it….) actually became somewhat tailored to what we had said in those conversations! What a marvelous and absolutely no-brainer idea! Yes, these students will be a significant portion of time with their teacher for the next few months, and yes there will be involvement by all of them in what the class is, maybe perhaps this should be something that is focused on and used to the teacher’s advantage and actually treated like it matters instead of swept under the rug and forgot about for next semester, or school, or career, or life….(Another story, one of the best teachers that I have had academically, was not even close to that important to me life-wise until I discovered much later that she had been a documentary filmmaker, traveling the world doing location pieces but decided to become a Professor because she felt that her work was not actually serving the communities in which she was shooting and decided that doing so and working for companies which profited off of this was against her values. So, then, it appears she believed that going back to school to study political science and hopefully how to enact change through the education of other’s about their political systems and/or putting that into practice – which sadly did not happen – via some activism, was how to do that better.)

Bad teachers, contrarily, do not do this. The worst thing that a teacher can do, by far, is to not care about their students. I should have much more to say about this, and perhaps sometime I will when it is not almost 2 in the morning, but suffice it to say, bad teachers do not actively promote their students’ creativity, independence, interests, and make good uses of their time, as mutually agreed upon what that actually is – instead, bad teachers put themselves and what they believe that to be in front of their students and often do not listen or find it worthwhile enough to change their ways when a student comes to them with their feelings, needs, desires, and ideas about their own education and how it could be improved, and what they want to do with their life, because ultimately the bad teacher does not see that as their job, but rather allows themselves to be too caught up in their belief that they are an expert in what their content material is and that their job is simply to make their students learn it to the extent and in the way that the teacher desires. That seems like a pretty concise summary to me.

But, remember, if one as a student falls subject to such a bad teacher that fails to see one’s worth, that does not actually lessen one’s value, much as it would be convenient for them if that were the case. Rather, simply it is to be taken as more impetus to take charge of one’s education and life and learn outside the classroom, where most learning is done anyways. Society learned (at least a smidgen) from Martin Luther King preaching in the streets to mass crowds of people, Einstein worked in a patent office, Erdős Pál notably did not go to school for a portion of his childhood and developed his talents through independent work and urged the “epsilons” he found to do the same – did Pósa Lajos need any secondary school training or big formal mathematics education to prove Dirac’s Theorem by the time he was 15? No…in fact, it is possibly suggested that the reason there are so many mathematicians in Hungary is not at all because of the formal education system, but rather because of things like KöMaL, students being given the opportunity to work together outside of school, and following real interests rather than the tasks that one is assigned because (as most of us have probably experienced in our own lives) education and living the life that one wants to, including following one’s interests is not something that one necessarily is or needs to be taught, but can be one of the hardest, if not the most important lesson to take the time and actually learn on one’s own, then apply to one’s life. So remember this is important, remember this is probably what will make you happy, because pretty much everyone I’ve ever talked to is more excited and experiences more joy when following what they themselves actually want to do rather than focusing on the work life that they have been told they need to take as seriously as possible and remember that bad teachers weed this out of you. Formal education is not what determines your success nor happiness in life, in fact the numberous studies about anxiety and depression in college might suggest the exact opposite, but you have that power. You can make that time and listen to yourself and not give in. My mother said I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. Maya Angelou’s mother taught her that “Some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and more intelligent than college professors”, and she turned out pretty alright. I am sharing this because I believe my autonomy and freedom to be the things that make me happiest and want to share those joys with others so that I can contribute to something greater than myself, if I get to define good teachers and what they say, this is their lesson, stolen from Marshall Rosenberg: “Freedom is a request and need that only you can meet. No one else can meet it for you.” Nor can they teach it to you. It is up to you to be free, and don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise or lessen your freedom in any other way. You deserve to be free.

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Human Empathy in Education and Focusing on Important Needs, i.e. Allowing for and Respecting Differences and Creativity….in particular, students even making sure that this is met by resistance if this is not the case

“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” – Dr. Seuss

“Every morning when I wake up, I experience an exquisite joy —the joy of being Salvador Dalí— and I ask myself in rapture: What wonderful things is this Salvador Dalí going to accomplish today?” ― Salvador Dalí

“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” – Pablo Picasso

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”

“The only source of knowledge is experience. ”

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”

“Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.”

“Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character. ” – Albert Einstein

“Be sure to put your feet in the right place. Then stand firm”

“Whatever you are, be a good one.”

“The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.”

“No man is good enough to govern another man without the other’s consent.” – Abraham Lincoln

So, much like any awful millenial inspirational message, I have started with a plethora of quotes from very famous people who have changed the world. I do this because, I think, as people who have actually made differences in the world with their lives, effected social change, stood for values, and perhaps most importantly, inspired others to do the same, their words and messages are more important and effective than those with less amazing pedigrees to stand behind. In essence, what I mean to say, is that the source of one’s information is possibly one of the most important things that determines its quality, and one of the important tasks in life that one must take up, I think, is thus to choose good ones because ultimately what we are taught and choose to learn or believe is one of the most important determining factors in what we come to value and the lives we live. As has been said before, “The thought manifests as the word; The word manifests as the deed; The deed develops into habit; And habit hardens into character.” In particular, many people in life will lie to one, or tell them no, or try to limit their curiosity and interest and what they can and can not do, because ultimately they believe that their own thoughts, desires, and interests are more important than one’s own and that one must follow them, simply because they are in a position of power over one and have the ability to reward or punish one’s actions. The great thing, though, and the very important message that I want to pass on to my students, especially as I plan to continue teaching in under-served neighborhoods – to people of disprivilege, and ultimately those whose potentials and happiness society holds back through institutionally racist, classist, and overall systematically unequal practices and policies that make these people born in no way different than myself, have overall much worse lives, much less opportunity, much less freedom, and ultimately, thus, much less happiness – is that one does not have to listen. [Note, of course, this is obviously not a solution – MUUUUUUCH must be done besides, hopefully some of which will be addressed.] Happiness does not come from following other’s demanding wills, doing just exactly that which one is told, getting good grades, completing assigned tasks, or submitting instead of standing up for oneself. In fact, just the opposite – happiness, or at least the long-lasting intrinsic happiness that I have been able to experience in my life so far, comes from autonomy, belief in oneself, courageous resistance, and ultimately the ability to choose own’s one lifepath and actions for oneself. As Gandhi put it, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” Happiness does not rely on other people (although obviously and certainly it can be vastly enhanced by healthy and mutual relationships with others; certainly my friends and family I’ve chosen have been just as or more important to me than anything that I have ever done or will do), other people do not know what is best for you, and that is something that you must decide, find out, and figure out for yourself, so, please do resist others when they falsely claim the opposite. Resist these unbelievably dumb and outrageous and unequal policies, rage against our society and make social betterment and change happen, and ultimately trust yourself, believe in yourself, and understand that you are the master of your own life, and no one can make you do that which you do not believe in. Gandhi did it, Picasso did it (and such unbelievably cool and life-affirming things as deciding to uproot himself on a whim and move Vallauris because he liked the pottery on display at somebody else’s stand, whose factory he then proceeded to work in), Albert Einstein did it, and Abraham Lincoln absolutely did it as well. Who should we trust more, when faced with adversity, those who are trying to hold us back, or Maya Angelou, who “learned a long time ago the wisest thing I can do is be on my own side, be an advocate for myself and others like me” and urges us to remember, “If we accept being talked to any kind of a way, then we are telling ourselves we are not quite worth the best”?

I think this is a good time to emphasize the last two quotes I put at the top, both as a reminder to teachers/educators/bosses/parents/anyone in a position of power, really, and equally as importantly as a validation of those who are under that power, “No man is good enough to govern another man without the other’s consent.” In particular, with respect to education, “The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.” This is unbelievably important! Education should be free, pupils should be allowed to be free, everyone should be allowed to be free, and yet sadly, I think school can be and often is one of the places in life where this idea is followed the least.Honestly, right now with respect to this point, from my personal experience, I would say that an absolute shit job is being done. In the Chicago Public School that I served as a volunteer remedial tutor/extra support individual in, my evaluation of the teaching quality of the supervisor that I was put under, is that it is/was abysmal. Students were not in any way given the ability to think creatively, or independently, or even taught for understanding and comprehension, but rather made to sit and do absolutely nothing productive or aimed at teaching students material or, more importantly habits of mind, instead just things which were arbitrarily assigned to them. I have had countless students who did not know what multiplication or division meant or even represented, because they were never taught that crucially important fact, instead just told to repeatedly fill out worksheet upon worksheet of applying standardized algorithms/rules that they do not understand; not only did the teacher not attempt to explain this to the children, but rather would often literally tell students comments such as ‘just write ____ here’, ‘I don’t want none of this today’, ‘just be quiet/fill out the sheet.’ I will admit this is probably an extreme example meant to illustrate my point, and even with other teachers in the same “Level 1” underfunded 95% African-American and Latinx people school in Grand Boulevard, there probably was much better teaching going on…and especially, I would hope, there was much more respect for students, trust in them and their abilities, and ultimately care and focus on them as human beings and students instead of mindless, or drones to the school system and its tasks, or anything at all less than fully capable, important, and valued human beings. But as I hope everyone sees and agrees, the vast reason for the difference in achievement(s), whatever that may be defined to be, of certain people or groups of people is almost never intrinsic. The key factors that determine a successful life, at least ideally and I think in actual fact this does provide at least a decent approximation, are hard work, motivation, courage, standing behind one’s values, sticking up for oneself and being determined, contributing to something bigger, and providing a service to others. In particular, lots of these skills, when combined with knowledge, become absolutely powerful tools and ‘dangerous’ weapons to those who try to opposed them. The real problem is that lots of people are not, in fact, given the chance to be educated in such knowledge properly, are not taught the skills from this list which they lack by their schools (especially true for poorer or worse school systems), and furthermore can, in fact, have these wonderful positive qualities of theirs not valued or seen for their proper worth, and even perhaps discouraged and destroyed, or at least dulled down….

Oftentimes the first thing that I noticed when working with my students in this school was that they are absolutely shocked when I decided to actually take an interest in them and their learning. No one had asked them whether they had understood before, they did not know that they were supposed to be able to understand, that teaching is supposed to be focused on student learning, and that I cared about both their ability to voice their thoughts/concerns/life issues and what they really care about and are interested in instead of necessarily the school content material (if one can, in fact, call it that in this case of rote memorization and supervision like they were unworthy of an education) as well as that they learned about such fundamental math topics as fractions and division and the base 10 number system that almost everything in our world is expressed as. I’m guessing that these latter things almost everyone would agree pretty much impossible to live modern life without, and I am certainly not in any way saying (hell, nor would I even say it up to a much higher standard and level of math, as hopefully the fact that I have studied some more advanced mathematics means that I am actually interested in it and like it somewhat and think it can be useful as opposed to just that the force of habit bred into me by my schooling or parental and societal pressure to succeed in terms of landing a ‘good’ job or being able to show off my knowledge to others was so strong that I could not stop myself from just blindly following the path that was forced upon me) that students not learn these things and there is not a focus on that, even at a very early age. But, I think importantly, this is not the first thing nor most important thing that we should be teaching our students nor the #1 job of the teacher (despite the fact that as I have grown older, I have also tried to push myself to increase my content knowledge more and engage in mathematics much deeper, as I think that is, in fact, one of the ways that one’s self can feel this process of independent learning and discovery through doing and what the important tasks of the experimental scientist are). Rather, I think, the #1 thing needed in this school is not teaching for understanding, nor teachers with better content knowledge of mathematics (I’m sure my supervisor could do better if he tried), but, in fact much more empathy. How is a student expected to learn, think independently, do well on standardized tests (not that anyone should in any way feel obligated to do so, and this is only a road that leads to more and more competition and putting external motivations on people instead of allowing them to be free and come to life on their own terms), or even listen to their teachers, behave well, want to go to school, etc. if they are not given the proper doses of empathy, respect, trust, and encouragement that they need? Oftentimes modern life in a late capitalist society can be discouraging for any one, let alone imagine what children in these situations have to deal with – REAL problems that many people cannot possibly fathom (while for others, not fathoming them is a dream, wish, and desire that is never possible because, in fact, that is their daily life). I guarantee you from my own life experience that I would absolutely trade any content knowledge or learning that I have ever experienced (although I have learned a lot, and had many doors both mentally and opportunity-wise opened for me, and experienced a lot more than I ever could have possibly fathomed solely by working on my own or something like that…) for a constant supply of food, safety and security in my neighborhood and home life, the ability to know people cared about me, love and positive relationships with others, and a belief that the things that I do in life actually benefit myself and others if any of these needs of mine were not being met by my life situation. CLEARLY these are more important and as somebody who has struggled with depression before, I can say confidently that if I had done much less learning and focused on my academics or extracurriculars societal pressures less and tried to repair or actually deal with more directly and quickly the problems I have faced and relationships that did not meet my needs, I would be much happier than I am now and would have gotten to my current level of happiness much faster than I did. That is what matters, not whether or not you can prove some statement about the density of ball-packing in a non-Euclidean Geometry, which note is not the world we live in, nor even (although it is much better) whether you have read the latest research or new trend in education reform about how this ‘technique’ or method or belief that somebody else has about what is best for (your) students, despite never even having met them, knowing the life situations they are in, what the interests are and what they want out of life, let alone school are. Human connection, human empathy and knowing one’s students, knowing how to help them, what kind of help they need, which of their needs aren’t being met, and what their desires for the ways in which they want to unleash the motivation, creativity, and curiosity they naturally have in them. People are what matter, not assignments, nor even content material. Get back to the human element, educate people and allow them to be free and have their needs met, this seems like the easiest and most fundamental thing to deal with in education, it is absolutely shocking to me that this is given such a low priority as it is. Human beings matter, we are more than what we learn, we are more than what we do, we are intrinsically valuable and everyone has their own gifts and will almost universally be fine and come to understand themselves and how they can contribute to something greater and lead a life of service, joy, and happiness if ultimately we meet these needs which shockingly we do not. I am not even suggesting that we have a content knowledge problem, that teachers need to be educated better with respect to content (although I think that is true, eventually, and some of the best ‘teaching teaching’/’learning teaching’ this I have ever experienced mainly focused on this), but rather, first and foremost, let’s get people who respect these students more, care about their jobs, and want to help human beings grow and understand their worlds better and THEN once we’ve even met this fundamental human need and building block of any educational activity whatsoever, we absolutely can and should focus on the quality of the content material and mathematical discourse and all of that…





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