"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Cooperative Learning, Multiple Intelligences, And No Learning At All

“If had nine eggs”, said Teresa Jones, the third grade teacher to Melissa Latent, “and you wanted to divide them equally among three of your best friends, how many eggs would you have to give each friend?”

“I don’t like eggs”, Melissa replied. “My mother makes them all runny and gooey and I can’t eat them”

“Well, then”, Ms. Jones replied as patiently as she could, “what is your favorite food?”

“Pizza”, said Melissa.

“OK, then.  Suppose Papa John’s delivered you a delicious pizza with lots of cheese and tomato sauce on top, and had cut exactly nine slices.  How many would each of your three friends get?”

Melissa scrunched up her face and shut her eyes.  She knew that this was a math problem, maybe long division or multiplication, but for the life of her she didn’t know which. And lots of times only a few pieces were sliced, and her father had to get out his old Army knife and cut through the glop and goo.

Ms. Jones waited quietly while Melissa grappled with the problem. “Let me give you a hint”, she said, “each friend will get more than two slices”.

Melissa had absolutely no idea what the teacher was talking about.  Was this really a problem about friendship and cooperation that the teacher and the principal always talked about?

“Charlie”, Ms. Jones said to one of the best students in her class, “Would you go over there by the easel where it is nice and quiet and work with Melissa?”

“Do I have to, Ms. Jones?”, Charlie begged. “Do I really have to?”.

The Jeffries Elementary School was a Cooperative Learning Environment in which more able and talented students were enlisted to tutor those less well-endowed. Under the philosophy developed and enunciated by The Progressive Teachers Association of America, it was more important for the group to progress together than for any one student to excel or one fall behind.  It was class average that counted, and even if academic progress was stagnant or slow, it was better than having spikes. Such an educational program not only shared valuable intellectual resources, but it was an experiment in democracy, equality, and diversity.

The advocates of this novel approach, however, felt that the upward spikes – the high achievement of the gifted and talented – needed trimming and pruning more than those headed downward.  Smart kids would always be smart, but children from disadvantaged or dysfunctional families would never get ahead without a lot of help. As a result the many mentally quick and agile students suffered.  They, like Charlie Barker, had to waste hours plugging along with the likes of Melissa Latent instead of progressing at their own pace.

Charlie already knew all that the third grade had to offer, and he had already learned the principles of calculus from his father, an adjunct professor at the local university.  Charlie spent every class drawing calculus symbols and solving simple problems and paid no attention whatsoever to what Ms. Jones was teaching.

Charlie was a respectful boy, however, and although unhappy and discouraged, sat with Melissa Latent and worked dutifully with her on arithmetic.  He tried everything he could, and knew that the slower kids learned better if they could feel and touch things; and  rummaged through his backpack for a small packet of Planter’s peanuts and a baggie with some old, hardened dried prunes his mother had packed for his lunch weeks ago. 
Charlie spread nine salted peanuts onto the desk, ate a few, replaced them and said to Melissa, “OK, let’s count the peanuts”

“One…two…three….”, she said, touching each nut with her finger, licking the salt, and going on to the next. “Nine”, she said. “There are nine peanuts on the table, and I wish there were more because I am hungry.”

“Suppose we invited Bobby Miller, Jason Bing, and Janice Coons over to share these nuts equally.  How many would you have to give each friend?”

This was no different than the egg and pizza questions, Melissa thought, so there must be something I’m not getting.  “Maybe it has to do with the fact that once you eat them they are gone.  Like zero”, she said to herself, unwittingly and unknowingly grasping a sophisticated mathematical concept. 

After a half-hour sitting by the easel, smelling watercolors and wet paper, Charlie raised his hand and said, “Miss Jones. She still doesn’t get it.  Can I come back now?”.

Jeffries Elementary also subscribed to the theory of ‘Multiple Intelligences’, one which postulates that there is no such thing as intelligence per se but many different kinds. Some children are traditional cognitive thinkers and the three R’s come to them easily; while other express their native intelligence best through art, dance, music, or sports.

Ms. Jones encouraged pupils of her class to sing songs, draw pictures, and dance for the rest of the class; and it was here that she wanted Melissa to excel.  In the spirit of Multiple Intelligences, Melissa might be as dumb as a stone when it came to arithmetic, but she was very creative in her art work.  “Look, class”, Ms. Jones said, “and see what a beautiful picture Melissa has drawn”.  While Teresa Jones was right and Melissa Latent could draw, her pictures were grotesque.  She drew decapitated adults with spikes driven into their chests and blood dripping down to the floor.  She drew dead animals – dogs lying on their backs with all four legs up and X’s for eyes, cats floating dead in rain barrels, and birds with one wing. 

“Very nice, Melissa”, said Miss Jones. “Very nice indeed”. The teacher was a bit worried that if the Principal got a look at these tortured, demented drawings, Melissa might be pulled out of school as a potential threat; but she was really a sweet girl, and was so stupid that she surely didn’t think about what she was drawing, but probably saw too much violent TV.  “Melissa is a very smart girl”, Miss Jones told the class. 

Little Jennifer Blunt borrowed her older sister’s ballet tutu and tiptoed and pranced around Miss Jones’ fake lemon tree that she had brought up with her from North Carolina.  Jennifer sang a little ditty and tapped her toes on the wastebasket and the teacher’s chair.  She gracefully toed a dust ball out of the corner and tapped it down the aisle.

Jason Klimt rasped out unintelligible songs.  He had gotten some kind of throat infection when he was a baby, and the scarring gave him this weird croaky and strangely adult voice. “Beautiful”, said Miss Jones. “You sing like a nightingale”.

“I hate it”, Charlie Barker said to his father one night over dinner.  “I hate it. I hate it.”  His father knew that his son was bored silly with all the school’s pageantry, silly songs, and especially the long hours spent by the easel with the dumb kids.  “I hate it”, he said again.

Mr. and Mrs. Barker had gone to see the Principal on many occasions, but she said that there was absolutely nothing she could do.  Rules were rules, and the School Board had voted unanimously for Cooperative Learning. “Yes”, agreed Mr. Barker, “but isn’t there some way that you could compensate Charlie for his cooperative time? Perhaps let him do some independent study.  I have been teaching him calculus, you know.”

At this the Principal bridled.  He had hit a nerve.  She was not only a full supporter of Cooperative Learning, but she had been on the Working Group which charted out its application in the school system.   She was an educator committed to student equality and resented white privilege.  She felt that uppity rich families were just thinly-veiled racists who only thought of their own children and not the well-being of the formerly oppressed.

The Barkers ratcheted up their complaints and went ‘downtown’ –  to the offices of the Superintendent of Schools.  They had an appointment with the Deputy Assistant Superintendent who was in charge of ‘Consumer Affairs’ – i.e. dealing with white parents who wanted to suck the public school system dry to the advantage of their over-pampered, over-privileged children.

“Welcome, Mr. and Mrs. Barker”, she said. “I am so glad to meet you.” Of course she was anything but, and after five years in the job, she was ready to move back to Central Alabama where at least cooperative learning worked.  She did not admit it was because whole classes and whole schools were so badly performing that test scores were always universally low. There were no pesky spikes in performance.  No ups and downs.  All bottom rung and hopelessly static. And parents rarely if ever bitched and moaned about their kids.

The Barkers left the meeting unsatisfied and discouraged.  They had played their last card, made their last move within the public school system and were completely stymied. Yet their income was far below that which would support a private school education.  The Quaker school was one of the top educational institutions in the country, but were only giving scholarships to inner city students on their Accelerated Diversity Program (ADP).  The old-line St. Peter’s school had wealthy families with talented children lined up to pay the $30,000 annual tuition, so the Barkers had no chance.
Home schooling was an option, but not a good one.  Maggie Barker was a Registered Nurse at the local hospital and worked long hours.  Her husband could only manage an adjunct professor position, one which offered a comfortable academic home but no salary to speak of.  He had no time for homeschooling.

Everything worked out in the end because Charlie didn’t require much homeschooling to pass the equivalency tests of Junior High School – he was a self-starter and ambitious learner, and he only needed occasional guidance from his parents. As he was about to graduate to high school, his mother applied for and got a well-paying position at Montefiore Hospital in New York City, his father got an appointment at Hunter College, and Charlie, thanks to his near perfect score on the Stuyvesant High School competitive test was admitted with no questions asked. 

He went on to MIT and Cal Tech and got an appointment at the Fermilab (Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory) in Illinois where he worked on theoretical physics.

Little had been known of Melissa Latent, and without a doubt her trajectory – if you can call it that – was nothing like that of Charlie’s.  The last he heard via a social media chat room was that she was a beautician/cosmetologist and had linked her fortune to a business-smart lesbian lover who had built a chain of dykey fashionista salons in San Francisco.  Melissa understood the lesbian zeitgeist of Bernal Heights and apparently did marvelous things with hair.

All’s well that ends well, and both Melissa and Charlie are successes in their chosen fields.  Needless to say Charlie has become an arch-critic of public education, has been a supporter of vouchers, privatization, and even dismantling the whole kit-and-caboodle.  His intellectual ‘intelligence’ only blossomed after he escaped from the progressive public school gulag.  Melissa had few expectations and fewer ambitions.  Like everyone else she had a talent, although a minor one, and was lucky to hitch her wagon to woman with business savvy who loved her.  A lot more than most of us.

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