Guest post by Sam Williams
It’s 6:30 p.m. and the fresh sting of PVC cement on an exposed finger tells me it’s time to slow down and reflect.
As a teacher, I should be modeling proper safety protocol -- gloves, eye protection, maybe even a spill kit for good measure -- but the clock is ticking and our project, a scale replica of the Verrazano Bridge, is at a crucial stage. With less than a hour to build, and some duct tape joints looking suddenly flimsy, I have literally committed us to a strategy that only a hacksaw can take apart.
Searching for update on the hacksaw, I spot a pair of sophomores, total strangers less than 20 minutes ago, attempting to cut twine with it. Apparently, I’m not the only one feeling the time pressure.
“Uh, guys,” I interrupt, sliding a pair of kindergarten scissors across a cafeteria table. “Right idea. Wrong tool.”
It’s Math Night, an annual highlight on the spring calendar here at Curtis High School, Staten Island’s oldest and arguably most colorful high school. As the math department’s resident oddball, I’m making sure my demographic gets proper representation. Last year, the plan involved balloons, duct tape and a challenge to build a structure as tall as yourself. What started well with some students showing near-heroic levels of persistence ended in an orgy of high decibel popping, much to my neighbors’ chagrin.
“No balloons!” shouts a veteran teacher when it comes my turn to propose an activity at our first Math Night meeting. “I still have PTSD from last year.”
No, this year’s plan is simple: Buy a few lengths of Schedule 40 PVC tubing and 90 feet of nylon rope and see if a makeshift collection of teenagers can pull off an honest-to-goodness suspension bridge strong enough to hold a stack of textbooks.
Apart from recruiting Iverson, a kid from my sixth period Algebra class who wears shades, hails from the AVID/SIS “house” and finishes each task two minutes ahead of his peers, I really haven’t done much to stack the deck. No blueprints. No research. Only a modicum of measuring, cutting and location scouting plus a final run to Home Depot for cheap materials.
It’s a gamble, but then that’s what makes Math Night a welcome diversion. Watching Iverson and his team exhaust nearly a third of the bamboo stakes over-reinforcing an initial section of deck, I worry. Will we have enough to traverse the 30-foot distance between the two PVC towers? Tempted to jump in and direct, I hang back instead, arms folded, silently willing them to work faster.
Such are the moments that leave me feeling like an educational pioneer, even in a century-old high school. If the first five years of my teaching career were about gaining control of the classroom, the last six have been about giving it back. What happens here in these 90 minutes tends to be a lot looser than what I can get away with in a room full of desks, so it’s an idea lab of sorts. Also, as I watch a pair of nursing students walk up, shrug their shoulders and move on, I’m reminded that 21st Century students have other options. Always, it seems.
One student who chooses to stay is Rachel, another sixth period standout who turns in all her homework but struggles to score above 50 percent on tests. Building a suspension bridge, it turns out, is a natural calling for her. In less than 15 minutes she goes from taking tips from my son, a fourth grader who already shares his father’s passion for duct tape, to running her own all-female work gang.
“Your son is cute,” she tells me the next day.
Curtis isn’t the only school hosting a yearly Math Night and we certainly aren’t the first. Our debut event in 2012 came after a former principal read an article about schools in the midwest using it as a family engagement strategy. Getting parents to show is a long shot on Staten Island, home of the worst average commute time in nation, but getting kids to come is easy. As a self-designated Community School, our educational strategy is to supply so many overlapping programs and services (an in-school Health Center, tutoring, Freshman Advisory, cooking, etc.) that kids find it hard to leave the building. Math Night simply adds one more magnet to the force field.
What makes Math Night something teachers volunteer for, however, is the morale boost. Track math class attendance over spring term and you’ll get a graphic similar to Charles Joseph Minard’s famous map of Napoleon’s retreat out of Russia. If this year’s activity seems over-the-top, it’s because my first Math Night exhibit, an oversized “Angry Birds” slingshot, drew a line of 20-plus students, including at least two who had cut that day’s class.
Fun and math have tense relationship, I realize. As a teacher, I find myself looking for ways to communicate that a lot of what makes mathematics fun for me is the time-dilating obsession it so often inspires.
That lesson appears to be effective for at least two students at the end of the night. The first is Stokely, a football kid who I know only because I share a room late in the day with the Forward Pass training table program. I can see him checking and rechecking the longest hangers, reapplying binder clips to keep the strings at full tension.
The second is a girl with dyed-green hair. Like me and Stokely, she has an inner need to see the thing done well. Unlike us, sees no reason to make it look like the Verrazano Bridge. Watching her run a series of zig-zagging lines is like watching a spider silently weave her web. Wouldn’t you know, our U-shaped bridge deck slowly inverts, becoming a stiff, rainbow-style arc, albeit with a few kinks.
Time is called. I forgot the textbooks but my backpack, loaded with laptops and student work, makes for convenient 20 pound test load. The bamboo stakes groan, but the overall structure holds. Not bad for a bunch of amateurs, I think. Next year, we’ll have to up the ante.
Hopefully, by then, I’ll know the girl with the green hair’s name.
Sam Williams teaches mathematics (Algebra I) and Theory of Knowledge at Curtis High School. He has written two books, "Arguing A.I.: The Battle for 21st Century Science" (Random House) and "Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Free Software Crusade" (O'Reilly). In addition to working for the New York City School system he holds a master teacher fellowship with Math for America. Follow Sam Williams on Twitter @arjuna1969
The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.