09/16/2013 01:28 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2013

A Math Teacher Walks Out

It was the first week of school and I saw my math teacher colleague walking away. She was pushing a cart of materials down the hall, leaving her classroom behind, leaving the school.

In the end, she didn't go far -- just to the adjacent building, site of the Technical and Career Center, which serves students from our high school and six others here in central Vermont.

At first I couldn't remember why she was leaving, and then I recalled the plan made last spring. Typically the companion courses for students of the Tech Center are taught on our side, at the high school. But this year we will be teaching math where the relevance to the students is more palpable, where their program instructors can more easily walk-in and where connections to the programs -- like graphic design and environmental resource management -- can more easily be made.

I was reminded of this recently when I read a piece in my local paper about 19-century schools and textbooks. The author discusses a "completely utilitarian" 1841 arithmetic textbook for Vermont's youth, with lessons on farming, brickwork and other daily occupations.

If the 19-century math textbook was "utilitarian," how should we describe today's texts? How directly connected are they to life outside the school? Is the instruction in our math classrooms -- in every classroom -- useful and meaningful to students? Is our school curriculum relevant?

And by relevant, I don't mean just of interest to the individual learner. I mean relevant to society. Students need practice now, doing what we want them to do later, which is to make our world a better place. Does our curriculum give students actual practice at being problem-solving citizens in a democracy -- or does our teaching tend to lean away from the real-world application of skills and knowledge?

John Dewey, a Vermonter born not long after that 19-century textbook, once said that, "The notion that 'applied' knowledge is somehow less worthy than 'pure' knowledge, was natural to a society in which all useful work was performed by slaves and serfs." Dewey thus places the topic of applied learning directly into questions of power and class. School's in session. What classes are we teaching? What class-consciousness is being taught?

While I'm asking these questions and endorsing a "utilitarian" curriculum, I'm not saying we should do away with art, abstraction, literature or philosophy. I'm just saying that an essential part of schooling -- an essential part, not a mini-school or alternative program -- should be that students are engaged in solving real world problems.

Math, as much as any subject area, can be part of the equation. It's a language. So, yes, it has abstract grammar and logic -- every language does. But more importantly it is a tool for communication and construction. Students should feel powerful using math to describe and shape their world.

All of which leads me to a book recommendation for School Year '13-'14: Rethinking Mathematics, by Rethinking Schools.

Teachers, tutors, homeschooling families: it's not too late to integrate a chapter into this year's curriculum. And if you go online to research it, I also recommend visiting a website called, "Radical Math," with resources for connecting math to social issues. I especially recommend these resources to English and social studies teachers, for the topics are inherently interdisciplinary. (We often talk of teaching, "writing across the curriculum," -- why not math, too?)

Both Rethinking Mathematics and lean to the political left, but any good teacher can balance one political perspective with opposing viewpoints, and let the students draw evidence-based conclusions.

Some educators may hesitate, understandably, because when we pursue this kind of teaching, controversy can surface. But teachers and administrators should welcome the chance to defend a quality curriculum that couples provocative social content with critical thinking and problem solving.

I told a group of teacher colleagues last summer that I would be glad to get calls of concern from families about an ethical issue or identity question raised in class. First, it's a sign kids are talking about their studies at home, and second, it's a sign that we're challenging students to think about serious issues. And third, it's what a healthy democracy needs. In his "Talk to Teachers," James Baldwin puts it this way:

The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself... To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity. But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish.

When we don't encourage kids to take a critical look at themselves and their society, we are reinforcing -- implicitly, and therefore powerfully -- the political and economic status quo. That may be what society wants, but it's not what society needs.

May we all, like my math teacher colleague, take a walk down the hall and out the door this year, bringing our work and our educator-selves, a few steps closer to relevance.

(An earlier version of this post appeared in Vermont's Times Argus, September 5, 2013.)