“Donkey Sir” Teaches Math

I can’t believe I’m writing this, but that insult to the children by their teacher we refer to as Donkey Sir,  “Where do you get your teachers at home, from the road?” grates at me, as does his asking them, “‘Do you all eat grass from the fields?”.   He gets his name because he calls all the kids at school donkeys.

Will the school see this blog?  Will they kick us out?  I have to write it though and  I might even bring it to them one day.  Donkey Sir’s words just say so much about how they see us, and what they feel free to say.  Granted the girls are having a hard time.  So are many of the others there.  In fact the Founder noticed that our girls were being singled out as doing badly while others in a similar state were not.  The teacher’s insult to the girls about eating grass in the fields was not taken so seriously by the school, as this kind of language is common.  But the insult to teachers, our teachers, was considered serious.  I understand he was reprimanded but they already knew he calls all the kids donkeys.  But to be honest, teachers are hard to find here, so maybe they feel they have no choice.  And teachers know they can do just about anything without getting fired.

The problem with insults is that they stick, long after you tell yourself to ignore them.  That’s why they are so effective.  That’s why they are spoken.

Today’s NY Times had a Sunday Opinion Piece: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/29/opinion/sunday/is-algebra-necessary.html?ref=opinion, questioning: Is Algebra Necessary?  It is written by Andrew Hacker who has also published with his wife, Claudia Dreifus a book:  ” Higher Education?: How colleges are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — and What We Can Do About It”

Claudia and I have been friends for many years.  Even before I met her, I was inspired by her first book Women’s Fate an early and pioneering work in the emerging area of women’s identity and consciousness.

Andrew Hacker writes:

This debate matters. Making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower. I say this as a writer and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers. My aim is not to spare students from a difficult subject, but to call attention to the real problems we are causing by misdirecting precious resources.

The toll mathematics takes begins early. To our nation’s shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school. In South Carolina, 34 percent fell away in 2008-9, according to national data released last year; for Nevada, it was 45 percent. Most of the educators I’ve talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason.

He concludes:

Yes, young people should learn to read and write and do long division, whether they want to or not. But there is no reason to force them to grasp vectorial angles and discontinuous functions. Think of math as a huge boulder we make everyone pull, without assessing what all this pain achieves. So why require it, without alternatives or exceptions? Thus far I haven’t found a compelling answer.

To me, the most compelling reason to skip algebra (figuratively) is that the time, stress, hours of work, take away from other aspects of life and of study.  Oddly when I think about an educated person I think about their awareness of the world, literature, history, geography, current events, biology, …. having the skills of expression, thoughtfulness…. and enough math to balance the checkbook, though that may actually be stretching it for some.

I have a funny story about math.  My younger daughter and two of her friends were making chocolate chip cookies at our house in New Jersey, all high school seniors, waiting to go to college.  I was hanging out in the kitchen with them when they got stuck on how to cut the recipe in half as they only had enough chips for half the recipe.  “Mom, how do you get half of one and a half cups of sugar?”  I really laughed because these girls were about to go to Barnard, Princeton, and Brown, but couldn’t cut a cookie recipe in half.  And then I just told them, because numbers are easy for me, but obviously not for these very intelligent young women.

One of our girls loves math.  It’s wonderful to watch her mind spin with numbers and she should be going on with it.  And then there is one girl who likes it, can do it, but isn’t excited about it.  That’s fine too.  But we have a couple of girls for whom it is a huge abyss, with fear and failures and insults… and even without Donkey Sir, the struggle over math is consuming in terms of time, and a killer of self confidence and esteem.   What if math never figured in to self esteem?  It’s actually hard to imagine that in our cultures  — US and Indian.

A life time of experience tells me our girls in school are smart.  I have some who really can’t learn in any traditional way, and so we create other paths for them.  They came to us eager, and in some way were beaten down by a harsh system that discouraged curiosity and exploration, and depended on rote memorization in language (including Bengali) they really didn’t understand.  Without complaint they will spend hours and hours re-reading, even if they don’t understand, but too afraid to deal with thoughtful questions, or other ways of learning.

But Donkey Sirs are hard to get out of one’s head.  I can tell them to just ignore him forget what he said, but I haven’t been very good at that.  How dare he?  Why am I still arguing with him in my head?

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July 2012
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