A way outside of the box

Zach Hurdle is director of math education at Skybridge Academy in Dripping Springs and a PhD candidate in mathematics education at Texas State University. He joins us on the blog to share some of his own journey as a learner and educator, as well as his thoughts on how students really feel about math and learn it best. He also invites Austin-area teens and tweens to a unique summer camp he’s co-leading with Skybridge social studies director Tyler Merwin.

I grew up in a traditional public school system in north Dallas. I was thrown into a competitive blender full of students I sometimes knew, but mostly didn’t, and was one of hundreds in what would end up being a graduating class of 1,167. I didn’t have relationships with most of my teachers. Sometimes I wasn’t even sure if they remembered my first name. But then, that’s just what school is for everyone, correct?

Clearly not.

I didn’t know there were places in education like Skybridge Academy. Sure, alternative education is alive and thriving in Austin, but it wasn’t until I got an opportunity to teach mathematics at this private school that I realized we could make a place for those kids who think outside of the box and want learning to be an experience rather than a chore. That’s part of how I have created my teaching strategy: it’s formed as a direct result of the job. I’ve learned as my students have learned.

We focus on relationships in the classroom. Relationships among students, relationships between myself and the students, relationships with mathematics. Strangely enough, math doesn’t have to be some terrible ordeal, created solely to make kids’ lives harder. Once the pressure to understand everything the teacher is telling them is lifted, students realize that they can achieve goals greater than themselves. At Skybridge, we don’t put the pressure of grades on kids. How can they value the process of learning cohesively if there is an underlying need to outscore each other on tests?

What really makes school hard for thinkers is not just that teachers say so much that doesn't make sense, but that they say it in exactly the way they say things that are sensible, so that the child comes to feel—as he is intended to—that when he doesn't understand it is his fault.
—John Holt

Part of what makes the math experience at Skybridge different from others is that students make their way through the curriculum at their own pace. Of course some ideas may be more difficult than others; this is only natural. That’s how life works, and it’s how mathematics works as well. Why should a student struggling with a problem set have to be pushed forward despite minimal understanding for the sake of moving the class forward? Why should students who are excelling at a topic have to pause their process for others to catch up before continuing? Students will learn, as teachers should highly expect, but they will learn from internalizing, self-actualization, confidence, and practice.

Allied to imagination is the notion of engagement. Exercising imagination is inherently engaging, so a classroom in which students use their imaginations to study content, play with ideas, and imagine new possibilities should be an engaging one.
—Alison James & Stephen Brookfield

With this kind of education comes freedom. I don’t experience this freedom alone in lesson planning; the students feel less pressure, too, and can leap to meet high expectations. While we cover material that students throughout the country are expected to learn, we do it in engaging ways: building polyhedrons, evaluating percentages on field trips to stores or restaurants, evaluating the importance of ratios in actual cooking scenarios, to name a few. But at the same time, students also recognize the value in repetition and exercise. They don’t typically hate math, they just hate the system that comes with math. Students hate not knowing how to do something and being expected to grasp it immediately. Wouldn’t you?

Math, Cooking, Reading, Playing: A Summer Camp

I have teamed up with Tyler Merwin, head of social studies at Skybridge, to offer a summer camp because we’ve found that our students miss school over the break! Further, we feel that students outside of the Skybridge community could benefit from taking a glimpse into the culture we share at this school, to test the waters of a different way of learning, so we have opened this camp up to the public as well. The idea started as a math camp, but gradually morphed. It will include group dialogues about social issues, mathematics exercises and activities, and time set aside for reading, cooking practice, outdoor play, video games, and general socialization.

If you (or a young person you know) would like to join in for academic and social rejuvenation over the summer, here are the details:

Dates: July 11–July 15, 2016 (8:30am–4pm)
Ages: 11–18 (middle and high school)
Location: Skybridge Academy, 26450 Ranch Rd 12, Dripping Springs, TX
Cost: $450 (includes lunches)
What to bring: A laptop, snacks, water bottle, reading book
How to sign up: Contact Tyler Merwin, 608-751-2947, tyler@skybridgeatx.com or Zach Hurdle, 469-556-9617, zach@skybridgeatx.com

Zach Hurdle