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Lunch with Larry

6 Sep

I recently wrote an open message to my congressman, Scott Peters, urging him to reject the proposed rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. In it I said, “When fads like “new math”, “phonics only” or “whole word” came along, they infected many jurisdictions but not a majority of the country. As their weaknesses manifested, these fads were abandoned before serious damage occurred.” Federally centered power would end that protection from bad policy. After reading this post, Professor Larry Lawrence invited me to lunch to discuss “new math.”

I met Larry briefly in Chicago at the April NPE conference. I knew he lived in Carlsbad, California less than 30 miles north of my San Diego home. I was intrigued by his proposal to get together and discuss the “Zen of teaching math.” So I agreed to meet him at a spot between our homes.

Larry has been called a “consummate teacher of math” and has a significant pedigree. After graduating from Morningside High School in Inglewood, California, Larry did his undergraduate work at Occidental College where he was a classmate of star quarterback, Jack Kemp. Barack Obama also attended Occidental. When finished there, Larry went on to Columbia University’s Teacher’s College pursuing a Masters degree.

It was at Columbia that Larry was introduced to a more profound grasp of the principles of mathematics and how students can successfully develop mathematical thinking. In 1958, almost 30 years before California’s 1985 adoption of “teaching for understanding” also referred to as “new math”, Larry was learning from the movement’s fathers. (1)

Referring to the 1985 adoption of “teaching for understanding” Elizabeth Green tells us in her book Building A+ Better Teacher, “… the California teachers were struggling to understand students’ ideas, figure out what the students needed to know, and then use that information to respond.” (2) Larry and I agreed that this was the essential weakness with “teaching for understand” – the elementary school teachers did not have the training to do it.

On day one of his first math class at Columbia (Advance Algebra), the teacher gave an instruction for an assignment that stumped Larry. He went throughout the dorm asking everyone he could find to explain to him what “one to one correspondence” meant. No one knew! In 1958, few people apprehended the fundamental principles of mathematics.

Larry also brought along a prompt from his professor. I have shared the setup here:

Arithmetic by mail: Stan Brown had a pen pal, Al Moore, who lived in Alaska. Stan and Al corresponded quite frequently. Stan liked to receive letters from Al because he wrote about interesting things like hunting and fishing and prospecting for gold. Al enjoyed hearing about the things Stan did, especially about school, for Al had had very little opportunity to attend school. One day, Al wrote to ask if Stan would mind teaching him some arithmetic. Stan agreed but decided he needed to know how much Al already knew. So, in his next letter to Al he included a simple test, and asked Al to write in the answers and to return the test to him. Al sent the test back immediately; he said it was very easy and asked Stan to send some harder questions next time.

Take 2 away from 21.                                                  1

What is half of 3?                                                        ͻ

Add 5 to 7.                                                                  57

Does 2 x 4 ½ equal 9?                                                No

Which is larger, .000065 or .25?                                .000065

How many times does 3 go into 8?                             Twice

How many times does 9 go into 99?                           Twice

Which is larger, 3 or 23?                                              23

What is a number smaller than 4?                               4 (written smaller)

What is a number larger than 4?                                 4 (written larger)

Some of Al’s reasoning follows.

Anyone can see that 3 goes into 8 twice, and pretty neatly too, without any 2 left over. You put 3 into 8 the regular way and then you turn another 3 around and put it in on the other side of the 8.

In question 4, you don’t even need a ruler to tell that 2 x 4 ½ is different from 9.

In question 8, 23 is larger than 3 because 23 already has a 3 in it and a 2 added on in front.

Larry was an early adopter of “new math” when in 1959 he returned to Morningside High School to teach mathematics. Since taking that decision, he has dedicated his life to improving education in California. In the early 1960’s, Larry may have been the first California teacher to teach calculus in high school.

His career includes a stint at UCLA working in the lab school then known as Seeds. In 1975, he received his doctorate from UCLA and went on to work as director of curriculum for the Turlock School District. He also served as the principal of an elementary school in Upland California. In 1982, he returned to UCLA to again work in the lab school training elementary school teachers how to teach mathematics.

Larry’s story is also the story of education reform gone wrong. There are many Larry Lawrence’s out there who have dedicated their lives to understanding teaching and learning. They are a treasure. They have both theoretical knowledge and practical experience, but as Elizabeth Green reports (and then praises) people like Doug Lemov and Stacy Boyd purposefully shunned people like Larry when they formulated their “no excuses” charter school movement and embraced pedagogy spiced with “disruption.”

Larry told me that in 1993 he got involved with developing a charter school. The lab school at UCLA was having a difficult time surviving and they decided to become a charter. In retrospect, Larry says that was a mistake because on the whole, charters are damaging the public education system. Whether they are good or bad, “charters harm public education.”

It was a wonderful lunch at a second floor corner table overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The drive from La Jolla along old highway 101 to the Ki restaurant in Cardiff by the Sea is among the most breathtakingly beautiful drives in America. The restaurant Larry chose had a wide variety of; wraps, smoothies, tofu dishes and teas. The staff knew Larry by name. I had the cheeseburger.

  1. Green, Elizabeth. Building A+ Better Teacher, W.W. Norton & Company New York and London, ©2014 by Elizabeth Green – page 102
  2. Ibid. page 105

California Seal Bearers Breakfast

1 Jun

Saturday (5/30/2015) witnessed a wonderful and happy event. The thirty-one seal bearers from Mar Vista High School (MVH) were honored at a breakfast along with their parents and the teacher they chose to honor. I was selected for recognition by our school’s valedictorian, Mariaester and two other participants from my AP physics course, Kevin and Samantha.

In 1916, Charles F. Seymour an educator from San Diego, proposed a society to honor outstanding scholastic achievement in high school. Since 1921, this society has been honoring the most accomplished students from across California. On Saturday, we met to recognize the seal bearers for 2015.

Mariaester and Kevin are doomed to be enemies. She is going to Stanford and he is going to Berkeley. Samantha will stay in San Diego at UCSD. My kids are going to three of the top five universities on the best coast. How proud I feel.

Mariaester comes from a wonderful working class Mexican family. She is the third sister from her family to be in one of my classes. As valedictorian, her diploma will have an honors designation plus a bilingual designation. Mariaester was also a key member and starter on our banner winning water polo team. In her spare time, she was an active member of the Associated Student Body (ASB) earning a lifetime membership.

Kevin was a member of my VEX robotics team and a determined student. This year Kevin challenged AP courses in: physics, chemistry, government, English literature and composition and self-studied for AP calculus B. Kevin was also involved in the ASB and several other activities on campus.

Samantha like Kevin and Mariaester will receive an honors designation on her diploma. Samantha earned a 4.25 weighted grade point during high school. She also was very involved with the ASB and was awarded a lifetime membership.

At the breakfast, more than half of the students had been in either my AP physics or regular high school physics class. It was wonderful seeing these budding young adults accept their accolades and honor their teachers. The students, their family and the teacher they were honoring were called one group at a time to the podium to have their laurels recited. I got to go up three times and hear how goofy El Guapo (my alter ego) is. It was really fun.

Every year for the past eight, Mar Vista High School has been required by the federal government to send a letter to all of our parents informing them that we are a failing school. No! It’s bogus! These students are proof we are a great school opening bright futures for wonderful young Americans.

The documentary “Defies Measurement” masterfully exposes how the benighted education policies promulgated at the behest of know nothing billionaires are wreaking havoc. Great schools are destroyed and bad pedagogy is promoted. I wrote about the unjust “turnaround” of Mar Vista Middle School (MVM) two years ago. I worked there for a year. MVM is a feeder school for Mar Vista High School. Schools like Chipman Middle School and MVM were never failing but were either destroyed or harmed by greed and ignorance. In fact they were doing exemplary work opening the path of success in life for thousands of youths.

As much as I enjoyed myself on Saturday morning, I could not help being frustrated by the fact that wonderful American institutions like Mar Vista High School are being targeted by profiteers or harmed by sycophants. Future Americans are at risk of never having the opportunity to attend school in these bastions of Democracy that should receive the lion’s share of credit for America and all it has achieved.

LA Elementary

26 May

The push for STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) education is based on a fraud, a corollary of the H1B visa program fraud. There is no shortage of STEM educated graduates in the US nor is there likely to be in the foreseeable future. On the other hand, when presented an opportunity to participate in STEM day activities at Lincoln Acres Elementary School, I jumped at the chance.

As a member of the San Diego County CAL Pass Science Council (council was destroyed in 2013 when a corporate data mining company purchased CAL Pass), I had participated in a learning enhancement program at LA Elementary two years earlier and fell in love with the place especially the children. Primary grade kids are really fun. They are thrilled at the idea that a high school teacher is coming to teach them. My regular students are not thrilled, maybe engaged but not thrilled!

Lincoln Acres Elementary School was established in 1927 and sits in the middle of an economically challenged neighborhood in National City, California. Ninety-four percent of the school’s students qualify for free and reduced lunch and 65% are language learners so of course the federal government labels this a failing school!

Anyone who visits the campus and meets the staff and students sees a wonderful institution. It’s professionally run and organized, the students are in uniforms, the school has a wonderful mix of veteran and youthful educators. The rooms are equipped with Promethean electronic white boards and class sizes are reasonable.  The students are engaged. Learning is happening and some of these students will go on to achieve academic excellence at elite Universities throughout the US. A friend of mine traveled the LA Elementary school path to Yale and then to a Doctorate in Economics from UC Berkley.

For STEM day, I arrived early and met a campus assistant in the staff parking lot who showed me where to park and let me into the campus. Soon, I saw that assistant supervising breakfast for all of the school’s students. An assistant principal took me to my room where I would be doing an hour long hands on lesson about simple DC circuits. She told me they feed breakfast and lunch to 100% of the students because it was more cost effective than trying to separate out the 6% who did not actually qualify. Breakfast looked great. I like eggs, muffins and bananas.

I noticed that as students arrived they were putting their backpacks in numbered circles on a large paved area then walking in an extensive circle. I joined them for a morning constitutional all the time wondering how this large school wide event was organized and how efficiently the students would arrive in my designated room. Soon teachers appeared near the circle of walking students, the bell rang and the students immediately joined their teachers in their class’s designate area. Announcements were broadcast and the students recited the pledge of allegiance to the US flag.

Students and teachers all disappeared in different directions. Within three minutes an announcement was broadcast for everyone to go to the day’s first event. In less than five minutes 16 sixth graders showed up at my room with a packet of tickets, the first of which was for admission to my circuits’ lesson.

The real joy began. I gave the students in groups of two a light bulb, a battery, a piece of wire and a written prompt. I told them to turn on the light bulb. Very quickly one young guy got his light bulb on just after telling me it was impossible. Of course, then everyone else saw his success and pretty soon I had eight functioning lights. We used science vocabulary and drew pictures of complete circuits. The children were engaged and on task. It was wonderful. Some of them just might have had their love of science further stoked.

Near the end of our session, I started discussing what it would be like at Granger Middle School next year and Sweetwater High School in following years. That is when corporate education reform raised its ugly destructive head. One of the girls said, “Granger and Sweetwater are bad. They have bad test scores. I am going to Bonita.”

Bonita Middle School and Bonita High School are in the same school district but in a much wealthier community. When I taught at Bonita High, most of the cars in the student parking lot were far better and more expensive looking than the cars in the faculty parking lot. I know from personal experience that Granger and Sweetwater are equal to the Bonita schools as far as quality of programs, teachers and institution, but they get lower test scores. So, the parents of every student at Lincoln Acers Elementary School is sent a letter telling them that Granger and Sweetwater are failing schools therefore under NCLB, parents have the right to send their child out of the community to a school with good test results.

These benighted federal policies are harming great schools and undermining community development. Top down standards based education and accountability are perfidy harming democracy. Excellent schools are falsely labeled failures based on test scores that do accurately reflect the cultural capital of the community, however these scores are obtained by instruments that are not designed for judging quality of education or capable of providing cogent information for those judgments.