Associate Professor of Mathematics Rudd Crawford divides his days between classrooms at Oberlin College and Oberlin High School. His philosophy for the gifted and for the at-risk is the same: "We teach out of our lives."
His example has inspired many Oberlin students. Opuruiché Miller '98 spent two summers in Boston teaching fifth- through seventh-graders under the auspices of the Algebra Project. Crawford, he said, "understands the importance of mathematics not only as a tool for learning but as a tool for living."
The recipient of a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathe-matics Teaching, Crawford directed PIMM (the Project to Increase Mastery in Mathematics), a collaborative project in secondary mathematics on Oberlin's campus, for five years. Through this intense series of courses, seminars, and activities, area teachers bolstered their knowledge and leadership skills, enabling them to help their school mathematics departments meet the challenges of new state-mandated requirements.
Crawford's position on the front lines makes him the logical one to ask about what's good and bad about mathematics education, in American public schools, on the millennium's cusp.
He presented his answers in an unusual frame--by reading William Stafford's poem, "The Little Ways that Encourage Good Fortune." Everything about what Crawford believes follows a plumb line to the poem's beginning: "Wisdom is having things right in your life / and knowing why."
Here's what right about mathematics education: "A supportive environment, with firmly held standards and respect for different learning styles."
Here's what's not right: "An environment of intimidation, with insufficient skill work and a lack of respect for different learning styles. This elicits an 'I can't do math' sense of self on the part of the student--a perception that our culture permits. Compare this with illiteracy--is it okay if someone says 'I can't read'?"
In teaching adolescents, Crawford believes that to ignore "the life questions that come on line--Who am I? Does society have a place for me?"--is to ignore the "essential human transactions that are the very foundation of all teaching." Some of Crawford's ninth graders have failed mathe-matics in junior high. His high school pre-algebra course "is a kind of rehabilitative gateway. We don't track algebra at OHS--there is no 'soft' course. Every student has to take the real thing. The whole point is to get every one of them through it."
Yes, but how?
Crawford's holistic approach combines toughness and sensitivity, team skills and self-reliance. "The course requirements are stringent and clear ... The kids must turn in every assignment or fail the course." He encourages them, giving them "the confidence to ask questions when they don't understand, to feel as if they have a right to ask questions."
Crawford "teaches out of his life" when he recognizes that, sometimes, "we need to take the whole day off and have a discussion about a fight that happened before school. Or about rules, or risky behavior. Those kinds of things are absolutely woven into the fabric of the class, because those are the things that can mess up a kid and keep that kid from getting anyplace. You can't think right if you don't feel right."
Crawford rarely uses books when he teaches--although he has written mathematics textbooks for Harper and Row Publishers, and his doctoral thesis at the Harvard Graduate School of Education was titled "Teacher's Guides for Mathematics Textbooks, Grades 1-9: A Critical Analysis." He prefers concrete aids, things that are colorful and tactile, that encourage the mind to snap from the flat plane of a book or a blackboard into another dimension. He calls it "low-tech, high-touch."
All of this occurs in what Crawford calls "an atmosphere that is more garden than jungle."
Outdoors, the rain falls in rills on Crawford's classroom windows. Indoors, in the "garden," it's bright. Crawford moves with a minimalist's economy, readying the spacious room for the start of school. His pacific manner barely contains his passion for his subject. He is, at every moment, engaged and connected.
Crawford's desk is right in line--parallel--with the first row of student desks. This placement is not accidental. "I like to share power with the students as much as I can."
--by Marci Janas '91
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