Beyond 90 Minutes of Math and Reading

Teaching in a variety of educational settings has taught me there are many ways to facilitate learning.

If there is one great thing about expeditionary learning, is it incorporates many academic content areas, or school subjects, into a real-life learning experience. The challenge with this kind of learning experience is it does not fit very neatly into the typical public school schedule.  

I have seen more than one attempt at expeditionary learning fail in a public school setting, not because it was ill-intended, but because “expeditionary learning time” was seen as separate from traditional learning time, i.e., math, reading, and other core subjects.  The “expeditionary learning projects” became a burden for teachers, students and parents, and quite unspecial.  Students’ final products took the form of lackluster brochures and trifolds, and the regular curriculum suffered.  In the end, it wasn’t really expeditionary learning at all.  There just wasn’t enough time for that in the school day.

By now, the few remaining loyal readers of The Unrealized Maine Classroom willing to slog through my typical 2,000-plus word entries might be getting tired of the time issue.  It is an ongoing theme, as I firmly believe that lack of proper non-instructional professional time is the primary roadblock to engaging and inspiring lessons in schools.  I wholly admit, though, that this time issue has taken over my precious blog in a slightly more grandiose manner than even your humble blogger expected.  The deeper we dig into what is needed to make the public school experience special for our children, the more prolific the great time drought becomes, surreptitiously weaving its way into every single dang topic I choose to expound upon.  Just last week, I wrote about two teachers’ separate experiences trying to make the most of their efforts in public and private schools.  I hoped to conclude with a roadmap for Maine schools to become the Finland of America, and jump to the forefront of public education prowess.  Before I knew it, the time drought had snuck in through the door and laid a big fat bulging egg mid-blog, wiggling and wobbling throughout my accounts of those teachers’ excellent stories.  By the end of the entry, after I pontificated about the great underutilized and underappreciated population of educators known as support staff, the egg had hatched, like a squawking, extroverted rooster chick, jumping up and down crying, “Time!  You can’t pull this off without infusing way more professional time into the work day for planning and revising!”

I can’t pretend that it won’t happen again today, nor can I promise to fend it off.  But today’s post is about what themes we need to incorporate into the school day to make the daily experiences in our beloved, publically funded learning institutions engaging, inspiring, and meaningful.  Time plays a role, but it is more of a supporting role than a leading role.  Maybe nagging role is a better term.   

As a district-wide math strategist, one might think I would be biased toward maximizing the amount of time allocated to math class in elementary and middle schools.  I am not.  I am an advocate for teaching lots and lots of math every day in schools, though.  That sounds contradictory, but let me explain.  Firstly, the reader needs to know that I am a musician and possess a great appreciation for all artistic expression.  I believe in the whole being, as goofy as that sounds, being nurtured throughout one’s life.  I think every elementary, middle and high school is responsible to nurture the whole child, to encourage that child to explore all of his or her potential talents, interests, passions and challenges as a human being.  So indeed I cringe the cringiest cringe whenever I hear of a school or school district minimizing instruction in the arts to make room for longer math and literacy classes.  Math is great, but math is a language of problem solving that only makes up a single element of a complete learning experience.  Math without its applications is like phonics without sentences, paragraphs and stories.  Grammar, syntax, sentence structure, and composition all are necessary in order to master a language, just like fact fluency, knowledge of operations and their properties, place value and algorithms are necessary for learning the language of problem solving.  But when we bloat math class to 90 minutes or longer every day for elementary students, it is no wonder so many of them turn ill when they are faced with taking math tests in middle school.  Math anxiety comes from having bad experiences in math, and who doesn’t have some form of math anxiety these days?  Sadly, if you tell a group of fourth graders they will be foregoing their math lesson today for any reason, there will be a great and noisy celebration.  

Math class should occupy about an hour of every child’s day in public elementary schools.  But math-related problem solving and creativity should be happening all day, whether it is in science, social studies, physical education, art, music, or at recess.  Likewise, art should be happening throughout the day, and science and music and all the other things.  

Interdisciplinary learning is not just a nifty idea to mix up all the subjects; it is the way learning happens in the real world.  

The real world is too often absent in traditional school lessons.  Jo Boaler, in her book, What’s Math Got To Do With It, talks about a hideous, fictitious place called “Math Land,” where all the most bizarre math problem scenarios happen.  Trains travel toward each other at constant rates, children bake cupcakes in batches that must be divided into thirds, and pizzas are constantly being sliced up in weird ways.  In time, these scenarios become almost as nauseating as the animated child-characters that usually accompany them in textbooks.  In Boaler’s book, she encourages teachers to avoid Math Land as much as possible.  High School teacher and TED Talk phenom Dan Meyer encourages this also.  Math happens all the time in the real world, it turns out, and when it does, it is far more engaging than when it happens in Math Land.  

I acknowledge we can’t completely do away with Math Land.  We will wind up there on occasion by default.  You can’t engage, inspire and enlighten all the people, all the time.  We’ll also visit Grammar Land, and other very bizarre but boring imaginary theme parks.  We will take our students there begrudgingly, or by accident, but it mustn’t be the norm.  

All teachers will incorporate instructional scenarios into their lessons that are not always thrilling to every student.  I have played drums since childhood, and I remember my drum teacher insisting that I learn how to play songs that I detested. Each of those songs had some element that was essential to my learning, though, whether it was a fast shuffle beat, or a tricky left-handed fill.  And I became a better musician because of it.  I believe people are better problem solvers if they attempt to solve problems they might not otherwise be interested in solving.  It is one way discoveries are made.

Incidentally, when students ask that horrid question that grates on every math teacher, “when are we ever going to use this in life?” I usually give them an honest answer.  “It is possible you will never solve another quadratic equation again after this week.  But trust me, you will have some very complicated problems to solve in your life that far exceed this quadratic relationship in complexity.  So you are smart to figure out how to tackle this one.”  

That response doesn’t satisfy every kid who asks it, but it does illustrate something about math and reading.  They help us become better thinkers, and help prepare us to take on the many challenges we’ll face over a lifetime.  So do the arts, foreign languages, physical fitness, lab sciences, technology, all of the social sciences, and health and nutrition.  They are all connected, and they are all equally important.  

This is why public schools have a lot to learn from expeditionary learning, which aims to give students real life problems and situations to explore and investigate.  I am not suggesting every school try to be an “expeditionary school,” or try to squeeze so-called expeditions into their already stuffed daily schedules.  As we look at ways to inspire students and ignite their hunger for learning, though, we need to look at ways to not just teach math, reading, science and social studies, but to facilitate learning experiences that include math, reading, science and social studies as necessary keys to solving real-life mysteries and making real-life discoveries.

Public schools should also look into experiential education models that encourage students to step outside their “comfort zones,” which today tend to be more cramped and sheltered than ever before.  On my way to work this morning I was passed by what looked like a mother driving her son to school.  Her eyes were on the road, and you can guess where his eyes were.  There is a whole world squeezed inside a smartphone, but in reality Social Network Land and Internet Land aren’t all that far from Math Land.  It’s hard to take seriously what goes on in those places.  The former two tend to be far more enticing than the latter, and winning kids away from that place takes some outside-the-box thinking of our own.

I spent years working in environmental education at Tanglewood 4-H Camp and Learning Center, in Lincolnville, Maine.  We prided ourselves on providing a very special kind of learning experience there.  During the school year, groups of students would come for a day or multiple days at a time with their classes from school.  There was sometimes math in what we did with these kids, and sometimes science, history, music, nutrition, music, and storytelling.  But there wasn’t any element of “why do we have to do this,” when we took students out on the trail to learn about the history of the unique strand of Atlantic Salmon in the Ducktrap River, or how to calculate the volume of useful lumber on a small plot of land.  When you can see it, and smell it, and experience its relevance first hand, it somehow doesn’t beg the question, “why are we doing this?” or “when will we ever need this in life?”.  

At Tanglewood, those of us on staff worked long hours.  We were up early to help in the kitchen, host breakfast, and then we taught all day, rain or shine, often into the night.  We sometimes worked for twelve or fourteen hours, but we slept well, and we knew our visiting students were sleeping well off in their cabins, too.  We had worn them out with learning.  

In the summer, the theme was still environmental education, but it was no longer school.  Students were replaced by campers, and they were there on their own accord, for a week or more of summer camp in the woods.  There were anywhere from three to five hours of every day devoted to environmental awareness, which encompassed everything from forest and ocean ecology to nutrition and sustainable practices.  And we did all this on a pretty tiny budget.  Tanglewood was and is one of the least expensive summer camps around.  

Outside the traditional public school experience, there is a lot more emphasis on expeditionary style learning.  In these environments, kids discover things about themselves they never knew existed, and push the limits of what they had previously thought possible.   Can we not do that with our academics in public schools?

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Every single year I spent in the classroom there was always at least one student who went on vacation during the week before school vacation.  I would get a note from the parent asking me to “please assemble a week’s worth of math assignments in a packet so _____ can complete his homework while he is away.”  I quickly learned not to oblige when this happens, because most of the time these students do not complete the work.  And who can blame them?  Instead, I asked parents to do the teaching, and have their child help them with the logistics of the trip.  How much will every aspect of the trip cost?  How long will it take to fly to your destination?  Can you determine the average speed in miles per hour?  Is it the same traveling in both directions?  Why or why not?  What should you bring for spending money?  I would think it might be easy to come up with similar social studies, science and writing assignments of this nature, too.

At first, I was frustrated at these requests, that so many parents were taking their kids on vacations before or after their school vacation.  But when I really thought about it, why not?  What kind of essential life-changing learning experience is going to be missed during that week at school when so much could be learned from going on a vacation with family?  Whether the destination is Botswana or Disneyland, there are huge learning opportunities in such excursions.  They are expeditionary learning adventures!

We need to curb trends in public education toward this kind of learning.  90 minute daily math lessons and double literacy time probably is not the recipe that will make learning feel like an adventure.  Nor is it likely to yield any kind of meaningful results. Taking art, music, physical education and recess time out of the day surely won’t do much to engage children in learning either.  And we must ask, what is the one component, missing in most public schools today, that is absolutely necessary to do more of this outside-the-box thinking?

Wobble, wobble.  Wiggle, wiggle.  Bok, bok.  That’s a reference to the sneaky Time Drought Rooster, mentioned a while back.  As to be expected, it wobbled and wiggled its way into this post too.  It is time to get serious about time.  We can debate about school reform for eternity, but innovation in schools will never happen until teachers have enough professional time to innovate.  Until that day comes, true innovation, student engagement, and inspiration will be largely absent from our public school lessons, and excellence in performance will continue to be rare.

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James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I am a math strategist in RSU 5 (Freeport, Pownal and Durham, Maine), and have been teaching for ten years. These days I help oversee the math curriculum in my district and I coach and support teachers (mostly K-6) in their math instruction. My interests in education extend far beyond math, though.. I have been a passionate writer and musician since I was a young child. I have a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a certificate in math leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife and dog in Bowdoinham.