Issue 98 / March - April 2014
A School of Dreams with Renewed Teachers
Walk with me please, dear reader. I will take you to a school that will take your breath away. You must be tired of reading all those kinds of deep academic studies with various, yet very valid perspectives; tired of listening to politicians who present their interests and concerns about education. You and I stand in the front yard of a school. Let's take a quick rest here on this bench and I will explain something before I walk you through the rooms in this school.
You know education is always a hot topic. Everybody has a share and interest in education: Parents, educators, government officials, elected public representatives, nonprofit organizations, religious groups, and so on. Besides, there are many aspects of education, such as finance, law, administration, etc. However, do you also think that teachers have long been overlooked regarding their authority in their own classes? Haven't they been overlooked regarding their professional development, even though they are the backbone of the education system and they need some assistance in their efforts more than ever? It is good if you also think like me. It is even better if you don't. Thus, you can share your recommendations with me once you see this school where things are done differently than many other contemporary schools. These teachers at this school see themselves as a learning society. They criticized the status quo they were in some time ago, and renewed themselves collectively. I want you to see the product. Let's start our journey, shall we?
We enter through the big doors of the school. Physically, it is not the best school you would ever see, but it can definitely be said that vitality and cleanliness of the halls stand out. The atmosphere is very welcoming; something is different, but it is hard to tell what it is. I point to the very first door on the right hand side. With pride, I ask if you would like to see this classroom. The sound coming from room 114 is not different from the sound that bees make when they work. As we approach the door, I understand that this is Ms. Williams and her eighth-grade students studying math. She welcomes us and tells us, "please come on in; there are some empty chairs over there," pointing to two empty chairs, and we make our way towards to the back of the class and have our seats. This is a math class, but I don't see any numbers on the board or equations being discussed. Soon, we understand that they finished the chapter on expressing roots of cubic equations last week, and today they are discussing a person named Omar Khayyam (1044 - 1123 C.E.). Ms. Williams knew that Omar Khayyam was a philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, and poet. She had formed her students into four groups, and assigned each of his professions to a group, so that they could do some research and present their findings to the whole class. I understand what you mean from the way you look at me: you're sure this is a math class? you seem to be saying. You're right to ask. Don't they need to finish a chapter and pass to the next one immediately, and stay focused on the possible topics that are asked at the end-of-year tests?
Let's hold on to that question; we can ask this after the class is dismissed. The first three groups already talked about his contributions to philosophy, astronomy, and poetry. We feel very fortunate not to miss at least the last group, who talk about him as a mathematician. I can see brightness in students' eyes, and their excitement to share everything they have learned with their classmates. The first student, Omar who coincidentally happens to share a name with Omar Khayyam, begins. Omar Khayyam was a scholar among many others of his time. He is best known today for his poetry, but his contribution to mathematics was great. He showed how to express roots of cubic equations by line segments obtained by intersecting conic sections... Another student, Margaret continues: his work on algebra was known throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, and he also contributed to calendar reform. The algebra (from Arabic al-jabr) of Khayyam is geometrical, solving linear and quadratic equations by methods appearing in Euclid's Elements... April inserts that Khayyam also gave important results on ratios giving a new definition and extending Euclid's work to include the multiplication of ratios.
They continue their discussion, asking how these scholars tried to seek knowledge and an answer to who they were; and the great contributions they made towards peace and understanding among people of different origins. However, I am currently very much impressed and I lose myself in the beauty of these students' discussion that I have found myself holding my breath and forgot about your presence next to me. It was no different than waking up from a dream when the bell was ringing. Sure, I will introduce you to Ms. Williams. I understand that you want to learn more about the uncommon method she adopted for this class: Ms. Williams, do you have a minute, please?
Of course, she says: "I have some time. It's break time now." You ask her about the topic and the way she formed her teaching method: Why would you choose a person from old history to discuss? Why do you want your students to talk about poetry or astronomy or philosophy in a math class? Do you think they know enough math to solve the questions on the end-of-year test? Why did you choose a Muslim scholar? Is this an Islamic or a secular school? Would you... and you realize you have bombarded her with your questions. You halt and smile.
She smiles back and says: "Yes, this is a secular state school. We try to practice secularism in a true sense that we can talk about religion, and bring religious materials to school to study, but we never try to impose these ideas into our students' minds. They actually study very different kinds of perspectives, and they enjoy it very much. We take each student as a whole. Since our topic was roots of cubic equations, and Omer Khayyam was the father of the idea, you happened to see this example."
"But why would you touch on different areas of study in a math class?" You say without taking a second breath.
Ms. Williams smiles again. "This is very common in our school. I am sure Mr. Wraga next door will also get into some math in his literature class since he knows my course syllabus. We try to keep our teachings interdisciplinary as much as possible. I receive feedback that kids enjoy it greatly. I understand your concern about the tests. However, testing is the very last thing we think of. Most of our students do well at those tests anyway, and those who cannot do so well are seen to be still successful mostly as artists or musicians..."
There is a long pause and silence now, but hurricanes are happening in our minds. How is it possible? What kind of philosophy is this school following? Is it the principal who leads these teachers like a conductor leading an orchestra? As Ms. Williams answered our questions, more questions kept popping up in our minds. The bell rings again, and the break is over. We thank her for letting us sit in the class. We make our way back to the hall again, and I am already elated with the intelligence of these students. You look at my eyes without saying a word, and smile: Room 115?