One late afternoon in April, 1967, the guidance counselor at Kearny had called me and my parents in to tell me that the transfer had been approved. I could throw away my homework for that day; I was going to my new school tomorrow. This wasn’t unusual, I would learn later. After months and years on waiting lists, the word that we’d been admitted to Masterman often came suddenly, at odd times during the school year.
The next morning, I was led into Mr. Cragg’s fourth-grade classroom at JR Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School. Mr. Cragg was a tall white man with the build and carriage of a former athlete and the kind of face that magazine writers of that day would call “ruggedly handsome.” He welcomed me, introduced me to the class and pointed to Jo, who was to become my locker mate and guide. At some point, someone teacher or counselor explained to me that learning at Masterman was based on the Discovery method, which meant that we would have opportunities to experiment and learn things for ourselves, instead of rote instruction. Educators of that time were heavily influenced by psychologists such as Jerome Bruner and Jean Piaget who theorized about ways of structuring school and classroom culture in ways that were organic to the way that children learned to do such things as speak and problem-solve through immersive engagement with the surrounding world.
This would lead to a number of formal and informal experiments in everything from the configuration of furniture in the classroom, to new modes of in-class and out of class instruuction. Across the school district, some of these experiments would lead to the creation of all sorts of specialized programs, from a storefront schol annex of Gratz High, led by Marcus Foster, designed to keep teen mothers from dropping out of high school, to the creation of the Parkway program, a high school without walls that allowed students to use the city’s libraries, museums and other community resources as their classroom. As a laboratory and demonstration school, it was explained to us that many of these new ideas in education would be tried first on us, so that others could study the results and perhaps implement them elsewhere. Consequently, people from as as far away as Africa and Europe would occasionally visit our classes and observe what we were doing.
My first recollection of experiencing the method in practice in Mr. Cragg’s class was the class newspaper, “The 210 Express.” It was a mimeographed affair, planned, written, edited and produced by the students. I still have a copy of the issue that includes a brief item on my arrival in the class. What was even more exciting for me, though, was that I wrote a poem that was published in the newsletter. It was a melodramatic depiction of the siege of the Alamo called “Carry on, My Captain.” I cringe now at how bad it was, but I saw my name in print for the first time, and I had peers who thought that was cool.
There was more. The kids at Masterman came from all over the city. They were white, black, Asian, and some were even racially mixed. One boy said he was descended from Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Confederate troops, and he wasn’t too thrilled about it. I met Catholic and Jewish kids for the first time. There was even a Muslim girl and a girl who explained to us that she was a Black Hebrew. I ate my first bagel. Some of them were obvious prodigies, especially at music. This being the 1960s, were socially aware. Vietnam, racial justice, and funding for education figured in our conversations, along with more typical kid fare: the latest music, tv shows, and gossip about which boy asked which girl whether he could “stand a chance.” Had he seen the way we learned from each others’ backgrounds and developed a group ethos, Piaget would have been satisfied that we validated his theory about the potential positive impact of peer relationships on children’s social and moral development. As James Youniss put it:
“While [Piaget] is recognized for stimulating interest in the child as an active cognitive agent, little has been made of his proposal that children can construct a mutually understood principled morality which puts common benefit above individual interest.” (Youniss)
Writing for the 210 Express, along with experiences outside of school, started me on the path of thinking of myself as a writer. But I remember doing other activities that are now associated with teaching computing concepts to children. In sixth grade math class, I recall playing with games and manipulatives, such as cuisenaire rods, which we used to illustrate problems with fractions, among other things.
We also had clear plastic containers that we used to measure the volume of things, illustrating concepts such as the conservation of numbers, weight mass and volume. Piaget maintained the children understand this concept at a very young age, so I think the teacher’s interest was in making our inductions visible.
However, my favorite activities were two strategy games, Towers of Hanoi and Mancala. I now recognize these games as examples of algorithmic thinking. In Towers of Hanoi, the player is presented with three discs stack on the leftmost of three poles. The disks are arranged in size order, from smallest to largest. The challenge is to move the disks from the leftmost pole to the rightmost pole in the fewest moves. At no time can a larger disk be placed on top of a smaller one. It’s a very familiar game in the world of math of computer science. If you haven’t played it, try this virtual version from Dynamic Drive.
Mancala is the name for a collection of games called “Count and Capture” games. Mancala games use a board that is like an egg carton, and objects such as seeds or stones that are distributed in each of the cups in groups of four. Players can only move the pieces on their own side. They take turns picking up all of the stones in one cup on and distributing them, one at a time, in each successive cups in a counter-clockwise fashion. Depending upon the set of rules being used, players “capture” stones based on where they end up after distributing them. The goal is to capture the most stones. Math education researchers note that this game can help players explore subjects as simple as arithmetic and as complex as combinatorics .
So far, all of these experiences constitute creative approaches to learning traditional subjects, with opportunities for me to make serendipitous discoveries on my own. However, it was our music teachers, Gloria Goode and Virginia Hagemann, who took us to a new frontiers of personal growth and exploration. My next post will focus on their work.
Younis, James. Parents and Peers in Social Development: A Sullivan-Piaget Perspective, University of Chicago Press, 1980 pp. xiii-xiv