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“Simple, but not easy” (2)

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

I’ve been reflecting for a while why we need to be told that things are easy. I stumbled across Rafe Esquith’s discussion of the same conundrum in his book There Are No Shortcuts. I recommend the whole passage in its entirety (it’s in Chapter 2), but I wanted to share some of the highlights here:

…We have books entitled Algebra Made Easy. Well, algebra isn’t easy. Success at algebra takes hundreds of hours of hard work and disciplined study. I began to identify the problem the first year I decided to teach my sixth-graders algebra. They had mastered all of their arithmetic skills. They had a terrible time conquering algebra.

… then one night we went to a concert to hear Lynn Harrell play Dvorak’s magnificent cello concerto at the Hollywood Bowl. After the concert, forty-five of my students were invited backstage to meet the world-renowned cellist. […] One of them, a beginning cellist, timidly asked Harrell the question that would come to define part of my class mission. Peter looked up and said shyly, “Mr. Harrell, how can you make music that sounds that beautiful?”

Lynn had the answer I had been looking for. “Well,” he said as he squatted down to look Peter right in the eye, “There are no shortcuts.

… When class began fifty-odd hours later, I laid out a better plan. There was a banner stretched across the front of the room proclaiming THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS. …from that day on, the dream [of life beyond the disadvantaged neighborhoods of Los Angeles] became closer, because that motto changed the way my students attacked their work. It brought a new approach to learning. …We decided to lengthen our school day. … [The students] spoke of sacrifice. … They not only rejected the culture [of everything being easy], they created one of their own.

I haven’t yet seen anyone else write so honestly about how challenging it can be to motivate students to persist when faced with difficult material. And I’m inspired by how Esquith succeeded in challening his students to do something that really isn’t easy. (I also think that this is the only stories I’ve ever read that connects the two things I do almost every day—teaching algebra and playing the cello!)

Thank you, Rafe Esquith, for all the work you do to inspire students to master what is not easy, and for sharing your experience with others.

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“Simple, but not easy” (1)
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