Starting Where They Are

Brother Robert Smith used to talk about a very simple first principle, a rule, that he thought teachers should follow: “Start where the students are.” That rule has been the idea most important in shaping the way I work, in Haiti and elsewhere, so I want to write a little bit about it.

The idea sounds simple, even obvious. But I am convinced that it is neither the one nor the other. Most of the time, I think we start where we want students to be, making their acquisition of to-our-mind-important skills or bodies of knowledge our priority. We can be right about the importance of such skills or such knowledge. And starting where students are doesn’t necessarily force us to give up those thoughts. It does, however, require patience and time.

Starting where students are means, first and foremost, doing more listening than speaking. I’ve seen a beautiful example of this over the last couple of days at the Matènwa Community Learning Center, watching a teacher work with her second graders.

It’s the beginning of the school year, so there’s a lot of reviewing going on. Millienne was reminding her kids how to set up addition problems. They all remembered the horizontal method, 1 + 2 = , but she was trying to remind them of the vertical method as well.

She could have simply stood at the board and shown them how, but that’s not what she did. She asked the children to suggest ways of setting up their problems. Each time one of them suggested a way, Millienne and her class looked at the suggestion, trying to figure out whether it was a clear way to write an addition problem down. There were more suggestions than one might imagine, and they were more varied. Kids had numerals and addition and equal signs scattered across the blackboard in various configurations.

As class was coming to a close, it was becoming clear that they would not suggest a really good way to write problems down, much less hit upon the traditional horizontal method. Millienne made it a homework assignment. The children were to go home and write down as many different ways of organizing additions problems as they could think of.

And rather than simply counting on one of them to come back to class the next day with something really useful, she told them a story. She said that when she goes to the spring to get water, she fills her five-gallon bucket. She’s perfectly able to carry the bucket, with its forty pounds of water, back home on her head, but she can’t actually lift the bucket off the ground and place it on her head. That would take strength in her arms that she doesn’t have. What she does, she said, is ask someone to lift the bucket onto her head for her. Facing a task that she is unable to do by herself, she asks for help. She told the children that they should do the same thing: They should ask older siblings or parents or neighbors to show them ways to put addition problems on paper. They were to bring whatever they came up with back to class the next day.

The next day, she started math class by asking the children how many different ways they had been able to come up with. The most popular answer was four, but one student even said eight. She asked one of the ones who had four possibilities to write them on the board and the girl who had eight possibilities to do the same.

It turned out that each had misunderstood the assignment in a different way. The girl who had discovered eight ways, actually only had thought of eight different addition problems, all of which she wrote horizontally, one problem beneath the other. The girl who had four ways copied four vertical problems out of her notebook: an addition, a subtraction, a multiplication, and a division.

Millienne asked the class to look at what each of the girls had written, first one then the other. It didn’t take long for the class to recognize that the one girl’s eight ways were really one and the same. Looking at the other girls four ways was, however, a little more challenging. But Millienne simply asked the children to read what each written problem said. By insisting they explain the details, she was able to get them to see that only one of the vertical problems was a clear example of addition.

And so she got what needed. She quickly asked each child to write down any five addition problems, and to write each of them in two ways. Most of the kids were able to respond easily.

It may be that Millienne’s method was less efficient at delivering information than some might like. The whole thing could probably happened in 30-45 minutes if she had taken a more traditional role.

But the result would not have been the same. Her kids had to come up with their own ideas, and then analyze those ideas. They had to work together. She, her Matènwa colleagues, and I have read enough Piaget together to be convinced that it is in their interactions with one another that children – maybe I should say “that all people” – develop the discipline of thought. Her students were learning how to be learners, how to teach themselves. Mastery of the content of the lesson was important, but it was not the only thing.

I could not help but think of Brother Robert as I watched Millienne work. In some respects, two people could hardly have less in common than he and she. Last year was his 70th year as a teacher, Millienne has been teaching less than ten. He earned a doctorate over fifty years ago; she hasn’t been able to finish high school. She’s almost a head taller than he and more than sixty years younger. She grew up in rural Haiti; he in Berkeley. And then there are the more obvious differences like gender and race.

Brother Robert died a couple of weeks ago, a few hours after I saw him for the last time. But as long as there are teachers like Millienne practicing their craft, I know that something important about him will remain.