How to build community part II
(I still don't know, but am learning anyway)
I have a lot of opinions about education, most of them developed over a twenty-plus-year career as a freelance copy editor for K-12 textbook publishers.
That career has taken place over the period of time when the No Child Left Behind Act was signed by former U.S. president George Bush, later replaced by the not-very-different Every Student Succeeds Act by former president Barack Obama; and during the time that the Common Core standards were developed and implemented in an effort to develop some kind of consistency in education across state lines. (In the U.S., each state controls its public education; however, the federal government has some sway in its ability to provide funding for schools tied to states’ adoption of standards, methods, curricula, etc. Highway funding works similarly.)
Being in the weeds on textbook publishing gave me a granular relationship with every one of these developments and their effects on lessons, teachers, and students, especially when Common Core became widely adopted.
Overall, I don’t have much of a problem with the Common Core standards (though I think a lot of them aimed at younger grades are flat-out age-inappropriate—not due to content but due to much simpler things like how early the human mind-body is ready to sit down and read text with the required level of comprehension) but take enormous issue with their attendant standardized testing requirements. I’ve had too many tiresome arguments about standardized tests to want to go into them at length here, but for me the important point is that I’ve copy edited more K-12 tests and standardized tests than I can possibly count, for every major textbook publisher, and the majority of them are poorly written and frequently contain mistakes. Catching mistakes is my job, so it wouldn’t be such a big deal if each of those tests hadn’t already been read by several people—writers, editors, SMEs (subject-matter experts)—who are also meant to catch mistakes, and yet children are meant to get every answer right on their first pass, without help and with consequences if they don’t. Since most people assume that textbooks and tests are full of only correct information and mostly free of mistakes, this double-standard escapes almost everybody.
This is especially true of math. I stopped working on math textbooks years ago because it was frankly just too depressing. My very last project (or second-to-last, I forget, they were both so bad) was a kindergarten math workbook where the tests themselves had several mistakes in the math. The workbook had already been through six supposedly expert readers before it got to me, yet the kindergartners—who most likely couldn’t even read the problems yet—would get penalized for failing to get the answers right the first time.
Anyway. This isn’t supposed to be a rant about standardized testing and the increasing problem teachers face of having to teach to the test. It’s really about the education-related things I’ve done locally—part of this “how to build community (I have no idea)” series—because changing the grip of certain special interests on the entirety of public education is not something I’ve figured out how to do, though not for lack of trying.
As described in the previous essay, when I moved back to my hometown in Montana, I decided I would give any volunteer time I could spare to two areas: walking/walkability and education.
In a way, education was easier because the elementary school teachers needed parent volunteers for a variety of activities. Spending one hour a week reading individually with first-graders was something I could manage with my schedule, and it also meant I got to know my kids’ classmates. Volunteering with the Writing Coaches program at the high school only took two or three hours a month at most, and I got the benefit of getting to know the incredible talent and grounded intelligence of a generation about to enter adulthood. (Seriously, it strikes me so strongly that these teens seem to know themselves and take ownership of their thinking and ideas in ways that I can’t imagine doing when I was that age.)
These programs were already in place when I moved back here; all I had to do was show up.
Showing up also gave me the chance to get to know other needs in the school, and other opportunities. I used to try to have lunch with my elementary school kids about once a month, and there is nothing like sitting in a room full of first- and second-graders with their hands up in the air waiting for the too-few adults to help open their tricky lunch packages so they can scarf down food in 7-12 minutes to teach you: a) make sure to pack lunches in things a kid can actually open; and b) kids in school do not have enough time to eat.
Whenever I mentioned to administrators that most kids couldn’t finish their lunches because they only had 7-12 minutes, I was told that in the first place they had 45 minutes (which included their recess time, so even if they weren’t strongly encouraged to pack up their lunches at the end of the 7-12 minutes, these were little kids and they obviously wanted to get as much recess time as they could), and in the second they often didn’t finish eating because they were busy talking.
(At this point you can just insert another rant about the insanity of insisting that kids should eat and not talk with their friends at lunchtime when humans are social creatures and a huge part of school participation is the development of their social selves. They shouldn’t have to choose between eating and developing relationships with their age-mates.)
In my second year back home, the district superintendent created a K-12 Connect committee open to teachers, administrators, and parents, so I volunteered. We only met three or four times a year, but it was a wonderful way to get involved with the school district because it was an open format—no formal meeting with agendas and “all in favor, say, ‘aye’”—that involved discussion and our own education. We got presentations on a high school math teacher’s peer-to-peer mentorship program, and a second-grade teacher’s demonstration of the school’s newly adopted social-emotional learning curriculum.
And we got to hear from the school lunch coordinator and chef about what he does to provide healthy food and meal plans every month, along with his work sourcing food from local farms and planting the school garden. Which also meant I got a chance to talk about how good the food is and yet how little time the kids have to appreciate it.
Several meetings over two years of bringing that problem up in the committee and the elementary school eventually added five minutes to lunchtime for first-graders and kindergartners.
What I learned from that advocacy was something more valuable to me (though not to the kids who now get a little more time to eat): lunchtime is so limited not because the school is too restrictive or controlling, but because daily instructional minutes are mandated by the state, so the school schedule works within a tight timeframe to meet more needs than they’re given time or funding for. Every minute of lunchtime and recess were minutes that didn’t count for the state instructional requirements.
Which led into several years of learning that a lot of things people complain about to their local school board and administrations about come down to state funding, state mandates, state control, and living in a state whose legislature is often unfriendly to both public schools and teachers. (This was even more true in New York, a supposedly more liberal state with a deeply divisive relationship between the legislature and the teacher’s union.)
Changing that culture is a massive undertaking, and with a twice-elected state superintendent in Montana who is openly hostile to public schools and a legislature itself that would overall probably like to see charter and private schools crush our public school system, it would require a statewide movement dedicated to public schools and teachers with the kind of passion and energy that Backcountry Hunters & Anglers brings to public lands.
I am, as I’ve mentioned, not a community organizer or activist. Whoever starts that movement in Montana (and I hope they do), it won’t be me, though they’ll have my support.
So what can one do? Try to get some lunchtime added, read with elementary school kids, ask teachers what kind of help they need from parents with interest and a little spare time.
And show up to school board meetings. This is something I haven’t done much of the past two years, mostly because I was homeschooling my own kids, but did for a few years and hope to get back to it.
I don’t mean a person has to show up every month to every board meeting and work session. But I do think that a lot can change in a community if people aim for, say, two city council and/or school board meetings per year. When I started getting interested in meetings, my spouse was traveling a lot, and like other parents I just didn’t have much time in the evenings. There were several times where I teamed up with other parents so one person could go to the meeting and update others. It’s not perfect but at least it helps people stay in the loop.
Local school boards are a uniquely American institution, dating back to 1647, and while there’s been a lot of focus on them recently due to conspiracy theories and extremist politics, they remain a microcosm of American democracy. Or at least the never-yet-reached ideals of that democracy. School trustees are elected by the local community and are technically non-partisan. They’re meant to represent a community’s values and act in the interests of students.
And yet community interest in school board elections—much less in what the boards actually do—is dismally low. The first year I looked up voting statistics for school boards, the rates ran from 8-12%.
That year, my community had a feisty school board election over hyper-local issues that I don’t need to go into here. Tempers and rumors consumed anyone interested in the school or education—which in my town is probably slightly more than average. I can’t remember why I looked up voting rates for school boards, but when I saw those numbers (I think our previous election had maybe reached 16%) it was really disheartening.
It’s not just that public schools themselves are a cornerstone of democracy and should be supported and funded like we take the ideals and future and children of this country seriously. It’s also that my father grew up in the Soviet Union and being able to vote—being able to elect people to represent you—is something that matters to me. It’s one of those things you might not appreciate until it’s gone.
So that year, I organized a school board candidate forum and have continued to do it every year since except for 2020, when the pandemic shut things down fast and there was no way I was going to learn Zoom in time. (2020 also had people running unopposed, but promoting competition or any particular candidate isn’t the point of the forum—it’s about civic engagement.) An experienced moderator and I work to shape four pre-set questions for the candidates, and then she asks them questions submitted by the public. That first year, voter turnout was 23%, due to the heightened attention on that particular election and surrounding issues, and I decided a decent life goal would be to help get that up to 50% before I died.
That goal on its own is pretty depressing, but as I’ve said before, one of my mantras is to meet people where they are, and where most Americans are right now with engaging with local issues is still at a very low point, even with several national news stories about right-wing efforts to take over local school boards and community health departments. Organizing candidate forums isn’t something I’m particularly thrilled about spending my time on—being alone in the woods with books, notebooks, tea, bear spray, and hiking boots is my utopia—but it’s something I can do and if it helps civic engagement I’ll keep doing it.
What I do enjoy spending time on is something completely different: a math games program that two other women and I developed. I’d love to change the way math is taught across the entire country, maybe the world, but I’ve been following Jo Boaler’s work on that front since before I had kids and she’s made little headway and garnered mountains of abuse since publishing What’s Math Got to Do With It? in 2008. (California has recently adopted a new framework for mathematics teaching informed by Boaler’s focus on group work, number sense, and confidence, which is a big step. But the backlash has also been bitter.) And unlike Boaler, I’m not a mathematics professor at an Ivy League university, and don’t even have a higher degree in mathematics, just a BA. In other words, there is little reason for anyone to trust my opinion on this subject.
But seeing kids, including my own, start to describe themselves as “not a math person” or “not good at math” or “I hate math,” at ages as young as seven or eight just breaks me. I love math with an inexplicable passion, and seeing kids forced into a success framework based on speed drills and poorly written word problems* frankly just makes me angry. We’re losing untold numbers of kids from math and science every year because they’re being taught to value the wrong things, and as a result they assume they aren’t good at the subject.
Everyone alive is good at math. Your brain makes an estimated billion calculations a second with every step you take. Every living thing has to be good at math to navigate and exist in a living, breathing, spinning world. Math education simply teaches us the vocabulary that’s been created to describe patterns and relationships in that world. It’s not like everyone has to learn combinatorics or even calculus, but there’s no reason to make the vocabulary of math basics inaccessible by forcing children into useless speed drills, and even less to wrap a bunch of confusing, poorly written and wordy scenarios around a math problem and pretend it’s going to help them relate math to their real world. It didn’t work when I was a kid and it doesn’t now.
At one point a few years ago I was having a lot of conversations with a friend locally around standardized test scores, our school’s math curriculum, and the short presentations I’d given to the school board basically begging them to change it. Which they did eventually, after a committee of thoughtful, insightful people spent a year researching new ones. (I still don’t like it, to be honest—still too many poorly written word problems—but it’s better.)
This friend and I wanted to do more, and eventually scheduled a meeting with the school’s curriculum director to talk about our ideas, and in that meeting he told us of another woman in town, not a parent but someone who cared about kids, who’d approached him about something similar.
What happened was that the four of us spent a year meeting once a month to talk about why we wanted to help kids with math, and what to do about it and how. We all had different reasons. The curriculum director was a big advocate for deep learning. I was almost desperate to help elementary school kids get their confidence back and to, as my father puts it, “become friends with numbers.” My friend wanted to get more girls in STEM and our research showed that kids start to perceive themselves as “not a math person” as early as first or second grade. And the fourth person wanted a way to help socioeconomically disadvantaged kids with math, kids who might not have someone at home to help them with homework or explain difficult concepts to them.
What we came up with is a weekly program of math games that we play with third-graders.** We started our pilot program in the fall of 2019 and it was more successful than we could have imagined until the pandemic shut everything down the next spring. We’ve only just started up again recently, and even though I’m rusty going into the classroom it’s reminded me what a difference a few caring adults can make in kids’ lives.
The point of all of this isn’t to make the case for volunteering in schools, or even for public education and better math curricula. These are just the things I do, along with serving on the board of a local non-profit devoted to public schools.
The point is probably most about time. If communities have a hope of resiliency, whether social or physical, they need people who “stay put,” as Jane Jacobs put it, and they need people to show up.
But not everyone can show up for everything, and the reality of our lives is that most people can’t show up for anything. City council and school board meetings where I live usually start at seven in the evening and run late. Single parents, people working late shifts, and people with young kids simply aren’t going to be able to attend most of the time. I am a morning person and pretty useless in the evenings, so every time I go to one of those it’s a struggle, even if I don’t have to arrange for child care.
On the flip side, volunteering within a school takes place when most people are at work. Volunteering, broadly, is an opportunity of privilege. It’s for people who have the time to show up, which is why collaborating with friends or acquaintances can be so important. I don’t do the school board candidate forum alone; the moderator does a tremendous amount of work with me ahead of time, and other friends do things like distribute social media flyers or put up posters or help me test out the Zoom format. The math games program never would have happened without the two other women I work with—they in fact have done most of the thinking about and creation of it; I’m mostly a research person who badgers people to volunteer when I run into them while walking around town—and we’d have had a hard time getting into classrooms without the commitment of the former curriculum director.
I have friends in neighboring towns who work on school board elections in entirely different ways, and others who serve as public school trustees themselves, which is more demanding work than anything I do. A lot of my friends are teachers, doing the hardest work of all.
And, as I pointed out with walking and affordable housing, volunteering in education by necessity runs into a lot of other issues. I don’t, for example, volunteer for the food bank or the local Land to Hand non-profit that connects food need and farms because a lot of other excellent people already do that work. One of the things Land to Hand does is a Backpack Program with a big bag of food for food-insecure kids in a neighboring school district to take home on weekends and holidays, and another non-profit does something similar in my district. (Hungry kids don’t learn well.) Public schools are where a tremendous amount of need is both seen and met, from feeding children to just being there for them as an adult who cares.
Every single community is different. Maybe your school doesn’t allow volunteers in the classroom. Maybe there’s an after-school program where you can show up and help kids with homework or play board games with them. Maybe there’s a local farm-to-table program but nobody’s connected it to the school district. Maybe your local school is a charter that serves high-needs kids and could always use help. Maybe your school board trustees are drowning under criticism over something that’s not actually in their control, and they could really use letters of support from a few people who get that. Maybe your trustees are awful and need someone like you to run. Maybe a single parent would love to attend a local meeting and you could offer to watch their kids.
Maybe education isn’t your thing. But judging by the number of non-profits in my community, there are enough things for everybody.
I keep running into some variation on the phrase that people’s ability for community involvement has “atrophied,” that we’ve forgotten how to be involved in community. I’m not sure that’s really true. What I think might be true is that a lot of us, progressive-minded people in particular, are accustomed to larger structures of organization and a focus on national issues and politics. What happens locally can look . . . unfamiliar. Unorganized. Less effective. Too small.
But that is where life happens, where our society is built and shaped, in the adults who show up to read with first-graders, in the mind-numbing planning board meetings, in the school board discussions about the new social studies curriculum and how to make after-school activities more accessible for kids without money (maybe they depend on the bus to get to and from school and just need a ride home), in the decisions a state legislature makes over cutting school budgets or attaching strings to much-needed funds, in the missing crosswalk or the hungry kids trying to make it through their math homework.
Community engagement doesn’t have to be huge; it doesn’t even have to be particularly noticeable. But there’s always a place for each of us to show up.
*I cannot count the number of times one of my kids has been frustrated and upset beyond words by a math problem, only to have me read it several times and explain that it’s not them at all; the math problem itself makes no sense and I had to untangle it to even figure out what it was asking them to do. Seriously, people, can we stop doing this to kids? If we want them to relate math to the real world, let’s take them outside and do math in the real world.
**We would love to do more grades but the school schedule is extremely tight, and a town of 7500 people, give or take, doesn’t have a huge volunteer pool. But it’s a lot of fun. We use a lot of the free games designed by Math for Love, which is one of the few good math curriculum companies around. And I pull activities from Jo Boaler’s Mathematical Mindsets books; the kids get a lot out of the group work and I love things like her “wrong data” activity in which kids compare persuasive bar graphs against data sets to find discrepancies, and then create their own wrong data sets with persuasive graphs.
(The third essay in this series will be about trust, perhaps the most underrated ingredient in community. In that piece I’ll want to give a shout-out to our local newspapers, one daily and one weekly, and two columnists in particular—Maggie Doherty, who owns a (very good!) brewery in the town next to mine; and Mike Jopek, a local organic farmer who served in the state legislature—who always remind me that nobody trying to build a better world, local or larger, is alone.)
What an epic and necessary piece, Nia. I find myself wishing I could move somewhere closer to the Mission Valley or Jocko Valley because I don't feel like my trips up there to teach kids are sustainable from a time standpoint. It's a lot of time juggling, a lot of schedule juggling and it's getting harder and harder to maintain. I'd like to disentangle myself from the MWC bureaucracy and its pressures to make it feel like a j-o-b and figure out a way to keep doing it, maybe on a once-a-month basis or something, voluntarily. I don't know. It's on my mind a lot.
We're going to need more than a day to cover all the discussion points piling up on us. And I didn't even mention how BHA makes me kinda puke in my mouth anymore. But most conservation organizations do, so that's probably more a me problem.
"it strikes me so strongly that these teens seem to know themselves and take ownership of their thinking and ideas in ways that I can’t imagine doing when I was that age." -- I feel the same way; I had zero sense of agency at that age, more a lost feeling. Why was that?