Math-Haters Love Crunching Numbers for Business Plans

Published by — For far too long, project-based or “constructivist” learning has been at war with the “drill-and-kill” focus on building skills first.  A balance is best.

Five high-school seniors cluster behind a pillar in a lecture hall at Rhode Island College.  Behind them is a movie-sized screen, and in front looms a modest but intimidating stadium of seats.  With the giggling and “Oh my God!s,” they’re reviewing the game plan for making their upcoming presentation.

To my eye, these students, urban and suburban, don’t seem academically challenged.  But none of them passed the math section of last fall’s state test, which is now a graduation requirement.  Fully 38 percent of RI’s seniors are at risk of not receiving a diploma.  The field refers to them as the “Level 1s,” the lowest test level, “substantially-below proficient.”

While some people vigorously oppose the requirement itself, others organized “cram camps” to give these students urgent-needed help.  The Northern Rhode Island Collaborative, an education-support organization, hired Christine Bonas to assemble educators to develop and deliver this two-week summer intensive.  An ex-math teacher herself, and now guidance counselor, Bonas gets both the academic demands and the kids’ lack of motivation.

Because whatever kept the kids from learning math before, they’re into it here.  The program is brilliantly designed.  Teachers spent the first day asking students what they don’t like about their community.  Answer:  plenty.

Okay.  So get into teams and pick one problem — like, no place for teens to hang out, bad public parks, a need for animal rescue shelters.  (Yes, many shelters exist, but so what?)  Then, build a business model with a plan that will solve the problem.  Don’t whine; take an entrepreneurial approach.  With your idea in hand, research the costs of rent, labor, utilities, equipment.  Prepare multiple spreadsheets that explain income and outflow, start-up costs and maintenance.  Develop “what if” scenarios for unanticipated expenses.  Talk to local business leaders, provided by the program, about your calculations.

Lastly, learn how to pitch your idea.  To add a competitive game element, local businesses pooled $1,000 seed money for the winning plan.  I’m at their pitch rehearsal, but superintendents and business leaders will evaluate the final presentations tomorrow.

The giggly group emerges and makes a thoughtful presentation.  Their business eliminates the hated condition of teens depending on family and friends for rides.  They show us an example of eco-friendly electric mini-buses that will take kids to the mall, their friends’ house, wherever.  The team wanted a cost-free service, but crunching the numbers ruled that out.  (A snootful of Reality is such a good lesson.)  Taking turns, students walk us through slides of spreadsheets that show us they’ve been steeped in manipulating numbers effectively.

Apparently, the these students’ final presentations were so good, the kids surprised even themselves.  Business planning gave them a real-world feel for what they could actually DO with math skills.  Bonas says “The light dawned on them that this is what math is for.”  Bingo.  This should have happened long ago.

Why can’t school be like this all the time?

Bonas was blunt.  “As a former math teacher, I can tell you that you’re handed a textbook and told how to do it.  We’re not able to think outside the box.”  Partly that’s a result of the way teachers are trained, and partly because districts have gotten more and more prescriptive for their teachers.  She says, “It’s a manufacturing process.  You’ve got too much to do and you’ve got to get it done.  You don’t have time to be a dynamic teacher.”  She explains that “project-based learning,” where students actively pursue a project of interest to themselves, takes more work to plan.

“To teach them a slope, we (math teachers) put a formula on the board, give them graph paper and show them the rise over run.  There’s always one kid who says, When am I going to use this?  The teacher says, uh, well, see that roller coaster?  Parabolas are how to keep them from crashing.  That’s no answer.  They don’t care.  But if you ask a kid to show me how your business is going to make a profit, they can show you time on the “x” axis and increase in cost on “y”, suddenly we’re looking at a negative slope.  Oh!, they say.  Because we’re teaching in context.  Parabolas have to have something to do with their lives.  Making a profit is something they can care about.”

For far too long, project-based or “constructivist” learning has been at war with the “drill-and-kill” focus on building skills first.  Skills are critical, but as Bonas notes, the kids don’t learn if they don’t care.  Learning can’t be either/or.  Get kids hooked on solving problems that matter to them, but stop them here and there to teach and reinforce the skills they need.  Both/and.  Bonas’ kids talked to bankers, attorneys, accountants.  As one girl said about these interviews, “They, like, so opened my eyes to how much detail you need to have.”  Of course details matter.  Dream all you want, but the math has to work.  Skills and projects need a healthy balance.

We’d have fewer “Level 1s” of all kinds if school were more engaging, creative, meaningful.  Bonas says, “I’m amazed by the growth I’ve seen in just two weeks.”  Now imagine the growth after a whole year of that.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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Teachers’ Angry Comments Can Stop Education In Its Tracks

Published by — Dr. Martin Haberman, pioneer of the ‘Star Teacher Interview,’ analyzes teacher attitudes — and hurtful words — toward students.

At the end of Dr. Martin Haberman’s most recent monograph on teaching is a collection of ugly comments made to actual students. He introduces them: “One of the questions which the (teacher-preparation) trainees are asked in the course of their training is the following: ‘Looking back on your own K-12 schooling, has any teacher ever said anything to you that hurt your feelings and that you remember till this day?’ We have never had a single educator who could not remember one or more of these hurtful comments.”

Thereafter follow two dense pages of these cringe-worthy quotes, selected from among the thousands of educators trained by the Haberman Educational Foundation.

“You’ll waste your money in college.”

“You’re not as smart as your sisters.”

“You’ll never amount to much.”

The comments are variations of the abuse secretly videotaped by a special-needs child that went viral recently.

The one I most remember was a teacher in a crowded hallway braying to a seriously overweight, misbehaving teen, “With breasts like that, how can you call yourself a boy?”

Under the right circumstances, such statements will kill a kid’s education then and there.

What’s the difference between the teachers who make such comments and those who wouldn’t dream of it?

Dr. Haberman’s answer: teacher beliefs.

For example, do teachers really believe “All children can learn,” as asserted by district and state websites?

Or do some educators believe, as Haberman puts it, “I can help those who want to learn. I can’t do anything to teach kids who don’t want to learn.”

Some teachers believe kids who “don’t want to learn” need a well-deserved “dose of reality.” Other teachers don’t question their right — even obligation — to fight back when they feel attacked. In any case, such beliefs justify making devastating comments.

From the 1960s, the beginning of his long and distinguished career, Dr. Haberman’s good instincts – and research – zeroed his work in on teacher beliefs as the foundation of teacher effectiveness. He invented the “Star Teacher Interview” that probes the beliefs of would-be teachers on several dimensions, including persisting with tough kids. Research has found the Interview highly predictive of effective teachers. Hundreds of school districts and universities use it faithfully.

The recently published 62-page monograph is aptly named “When Teachers Face Themselves.” It looks through the interesting lens of research about teachers’ relationships to themselves, specifically their beliefs, feelings, and tendency toward defensive reactions.

Bear in mind that all defensive people have gettable goats. They ignite into anger easily and feel victimized. Without thinking, they fight back. Kids LOVE to get adults’ goats.

Haberman states, “The school is, in effect, a judgmental pressure cooker in which all who participate are both victims and generators of anxiety. Unfortunately for students, large numbers of teachers remain in teaching who cannot function under constant pressure.”

While some schools have reached a counter-productive level of stress, Haberman notes, “A reasonable amount of anxiety is helpful for teaching and learning anything.”

However, “Teachers who exceed their tolerance for anxiety demonstrate angry behaviors when they cannot achieve the level of control they feel they need. This engenders angry student responses which in turn fuels the teacher’s anger still further.”

And there you have a retributive cycle that will inevitably undermine learning.

Haberman identifies the four goals of disruptive students: “to get attention, to exert power, to inflict revenge, or to not participate by displaying inadequacy,” aka “feigned helplessness.” Obviously, some students have more than one goal.

So the ability to deal with kids’ provoking behavior involves a combination of teachers’ beliefs – “I know I can reach this kid eventually” – and some classroom management techniques. Haberman is big on asking the kid disarming questions.

“Could it be that you want special attention?” “Could it be that you want to hurt others as much as you feel hurt by them?”

Indeed the monograph mainly consists of illustrative dialogues between rude students and teachers who either escalate the tension or don’t. The dialogues show why problematic reactions to students only make the situation worse. Other dialogues show educators how to de-escalate those same insulting or disruptive situations, without adding their own anger’s fuel to the fire.

Clearly, retributive or insensitive habits must be confronted, broken and re-learned.

If educators don’t face their beliefs and reactions, “they no longer benefit from more experience. Such teachers may claim to have ten, twenty or thirty years of experience. What they really have is one year of experience thirty times. Teacher growth, like student growth, is the result of learning and practicing new behaviors. It is only when learning is at hand that growth appears. … As teachers deepen their self understanding they are less and less likely to demonstrate behaviors which are hurtful to themselves, their students and others.”

Educators, like anyone, have a right to their feelings, whatever they are. But indulging in making negative comments can wreck the potential of precisely the students we most want to reach. We all hate facing ourselves and our flaws. Still, this powerfully destructive adult habit must stop.

In Memorium:

As I was drafting this column, Dr. Haberman died. Such a loss. I will continue to learn from him through his work. Still, new expressions of his commonsensical, practical attitude toward teaching will be sorely missed. May he rest in peace.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.




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