“Math is an Emotional Subject” John Emerson on Teaching the Subject He Once Avoided

“Math is an Emotional Subject” John Emerson on Teaching the Subject He Once Avoided

“I took as little math as possible in high school and college,” says Mr. John Emerson, Algebra Instructor, and Learning Specialist. “While I didn’t struggle with arithmetic, I really struggled with math.”

Emerson has been teaching high school algebra for twelve years now— “and [he] still get[s] frustrated with precalculus problems!” he adds. 

Wondering and Wandering: The Adventures of Ibn Battuta

Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan scholar who lived from 1304-1368 or 1369, may not be an historical figure that most high school students encounter. Battuta, however, has many stories worth exploring and studying; he—over a period of thirty years—visited most of the Islamic world and many non-Muslim lands, as well, during the medieval period. His travels reached North Africa, West Africa, the Middle East, India, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, China, and more. He dictated an account of his journeys, A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling, which many historians consult today.

When Mr. Lindsay Brown, History Department Chair at Dublin School, first learned about Ibn Battuta, he was captivated by the stories that Battuta told and the many details his rich historical account provides.

Shadowing Hope

On Tuesday, April 12, I spent the day shadowing Hope Fowler ’16 in her classes, sports practice, and supper. Articles about shadowing students had piqued my interest in investigating the demands of a Dublin education from the student’s point of view, and Hope seemed a natural choice, for she is known for pushing herself and seeking out rigor.   A strong and centered senior, Hope also seemed like a student who would not be intimidated or cramped by the presence of a school administrator by her side all day. What I found delighted me and left me with some new questions

Hope’s Tuesday began with school meeting, where she made an announcement about girls who had stood out in the most recent girls’ lacrosse game. As a captain, this is part of her duties. The first block was a meeting with Jan Haman about writing an article about her March break trip to India for the next edition of the Dubliners.. Next was AP Literature, in which students read passage of junior level college literary criticism and pursued its meaning in a Harkness-style discussion of The Hours by Michael Cunningham. AP Government discussed different types of interest groups and launched a mini-research project.  At lunch, Hope had a proctor meeting and I absented myself so as not to affect the peer discussion. In AP Calculus, there was a theorem to prove, test corrections and a free-response question (word problem) interpreting a graph of the velocity of a biker.  Directly thereafter was AP Physics, in which students completed a practice problem from the exam and evaluated each other’s work using the official test-scoring rubric. The last period was Spanish IV/V. Thankfully this class was conductedmostly standing and moving around the classroom, key to sustaining attention after sitting through most of the day.  Dividing up in groups of different sizes, the class discussed questions like, “Is it ever justified to kill civilians?” These questions created context for a poem by Pablo Neruda. The entire class was conducted in Spanish, though it concluded with a debrief in English in which each student commented on the question or topic from the day’s lesson which had had the most impact on them.

Points of note:

1. Each class gave the students rich and significant tasks to complete. I was proud to see Dublin’s student-centered philosophy borne out so entirely. The students were involved in intense learning experiences in which they had choices and voice.

2. I found myself wishing for a 10 minute processing or reflection period after each class to think, write, sift through everything I encountered in each class. Paying attention to the teachers and students was rewarding but I did not have enough time to process all the thoughts that were sparked in me. I wanted the day to slow down!

3. The rapport and sense of joy in the classes was inspiring. Serious inquiry and exercises did not mean a forbidding or cold tone; on the contrary, it was clear that these classes trusted the teachers and each other. The atmosphere was open and welcoming.

4. Hope and other students commented on how complementary Calculus and Physics are and how much more benefit is reaped by students in both courses. This is promising for the evolution of our PRISM program.

5. Hope also shared that the two courses which push her thinking most are her hardest but most rewarding.  Both courses deal with systems of symbolic and higher thinking.

6. Hope’s teachers are consummate professionals, creative teachers, and kind people. In each classroom, Hope was noticed, questioned, pushed and helped.

I wanted to ask Hope more about her daily life but there was no time to talk because we had to go get changed for lacrosse practice. The sun had come out of the rain clouds and a cool wind was whipping around the lower field. Hope gathered her team-mates, led drills, and in between taught me to catch a ball with a lacrosse stick (beaning me only once in the process.) She encouraged me to join in the drills, which I did, awkwardly. The whole team was patient with my mistakes and so kind. Watching the girls practice team drills, taking turns calling the plays, working to enact strategy advice from the coaches gave a vision of leadership and team-workthat is clearly empowering. I headed home when I felt I was more in the way than anything else, looking forward to meeting up with Hope again at supper.

“My day is so much more than the academics,” said Hope at the supper table. She does homework after sports, after supper, and through study hall so that she can be ready and available to her younger dorm-mates as their proctor after study hall. Then she finishes her homework. Her academics are a central focus but the life of the community is the medium which nurtures her growth.

It was a busy, varied, intense, and thought-provoking day. My admiration for and pride in Dublin’s academics is aglow within me as I sit in the library tonight. I can’t wait for Hope to shadow me for a day, and now I want to shadow a student in each grade.  I look forward to reading the books Hope was assigned. I am going back to her classes again soon.