Good Stuff

By Herbert Kohl

Isaac Newton, James Gleick (New York: Pantheon Books, 2003), 288 pp. $22.95.

Simply Einstein: Relativity Demystified, Richard Wolfson (New York: Norton, 2003), 288 pp. $24.95.

A few Sundays ago, I went in search of cheap material for the classes I’ll teach this fall at the University of San Francisco’s Center for Teaching Excellence and Social Justice. I do this every summer. Flea markets and garage sales are cheap, amazing sources of educational materials. As an educator I’ve always felt that I’m a translator; I enjoy incorporating unexpected objects, games, thrown-away art materials, books, and household ornaments into my curriculum.

For $7.10 I bought several puzzles, a tic-tac-toe game with little bears as pieces, five wooden board games that were sports versions of traditional strategy games, an old Milton Bradley “Believe It or Not” game, and an unopened box of the mathematics game “Tribulation.”

My job now is to find a way to use them. For example, little bear tic-tac-toe could be used to introduce students to games that have strategies and to the idea that if they understand the game they can find a way to never lose. The wooden games, by contrast, all use dice and can become an introduction to the idea of randomness. These games (total cost: 75 cents) are ways to help student grasp concepts that have larger implications for the development of sophisticated thought.

In a time of scripted teaching, serendipity is essential. It is crucial to introduce playful, unexpected, teacher-innovated ideas to students who are overwhelmed by high-stakes testing and scripted teaching. Teachers are underpaid, but we still have to invest in creating environments and curriculum that come from our knowledge and experience and not from products that school administrators buy.

I’d also recommend two new books for teachers’ tool kits. One is about Isaac Newton, the other about Albert Einstein. Developing the knowledge to teach about gravity and relativity and tie that teaching to personal stories about scientific invention and discovery can be compelling for students.

James Gleick’s Isaac Newton mixes the personal story of Newton’s life with the development of the theory of gravity. Richard Wolfson’s Simply Einstein: Relativity Demystified is a well-written tale about the development of the theory of relativity.

Taken together, they present a mini-history of scientific change and the power of individuals to develop ideas that change the way people think about the world-not a bad thing for students to know.