Languages of Mastery

Languages of Mastery

In my years in the classroom I have heard many math teachers talk about facing math phobia in their students. It starts early and seems to grow worse as the years pass. By the time students reach high school -and often earlier- they are convinced that they cannot do math. A couple of years ago I was buying produce at the Western Fair Farmer’s Market and the vendor gave me incorrect change. I noted the error and she said: “Sorry, I’m a former liberal arts major.” I was struck by this since making change is a simple form of arithmetic, one of the basic building blocks of early math.

I certainly experienced math phobia when I was in school; I always preferred the liberal arts to the hard sciences even though I have abiding interests in biology, architecture, astronomy, geography and meteorology. But this is my point: math became disconnected from the subjects that interested me and the wonder I felt (and feel) at the world.

The reasons for my misperception that I “couldn’t do math” were twofold. First, math was harder for me than other subjects and I assumed that since it was harder, that was an indication that I possessed an intellectual weakness. (Where did this self-deprecation come from?) Second, I attended a high school where several of my math teachers essentially told me that I couldn’t do it. They were impatient with me when I didn’t catch on to a concept “quickly enough.” Needless to say, I became discouraged and when faced with math I frequently shut down.

I mention math because I think it is a source of fear for many adults. But then again, so is writing. How many adults have I known who have said that they never learned how to write or avoided doing so at all costs? In fact, I know many adults who are petrified by writing, especially because it is something that requires peer review and criticism. My father, who is a scientist, once told me that when he first started writing scientific papers it was a terrible struggle for him because throughout his years of medical school and undergraduate work in pre-Med, he seldom had to do any formal writing. It was stinging for him to receive drafts of his articles sent back to him dripping with red ink.

I often encounter students who are just beginning the process of learning how to write. They are young, energetic and imaginative. And yet, when I ask many of them to apply their imagination to writing they freeze up. When I say: “Write about anything! Let your imagination run wild!” They are frightened and don’t want to do it. I admit, it caught me by surprise that a group so young would already have fears about even creative writing.

Responding to this, I have made it my mission to do with writing what I wish had been done for me with math: to connect the act of writing to the wonder of the world around us. Math and writing are languages; they are the most sophisticated tools we have to explore and express our questions, understanding and insights about the world around us. Math and writing are brilliant discoveries, tremendous technologies of personal expression and cognitive power; they are the
essential ingredients of exploration and experimental application. Why shouldn’t every child come out of their formal schooling with a love, appreciation and even formal mastery of both?

Jeremy Nathan Marks

Why I work at The Infinity School

Since January of this year, I have been employed as a full time Guide at The Infinity School here in London, Ontario. ( I work there in addition to running DEMOI.

I wrote this essay explaining to parents and interested parties why I sought employment at Infinity and it is featured on the school website. I would like to share it here:

Why I Want To Work Here At Infinity

My first full time teaching position was at a Charter School in Fort Collins, Colorado. In 2002, I was fresh out of graduate school and looking to teach in an environment that valued creativity and intellectual rigour. For those not familiar with Charter Schools, they are an attempt to reintroduce the concept of the Community School in cities and towns across the United States. The institution that hired me was brand new and founded by a group of concerned parents who wanted to make sure that their daughters and sons were receiving a world class education and who were prepared to take a chance. This new school not only attracted eager families who were excited about becoming educational pioneers, it also drew young and energetic teachers who were zealous about bringing high performance learning to children and young adults. This school, Ridgeview Classical, has gone on to become one of the top performing schools in Colorado.

That first work experience, I believe, spoiled me. I learned right off the block what it means to work in a school characterized by frisson and daring; a school that thought of its educators as co- learners alongside their students. It was a school that also encouraged unconventional methods like Socratic learning and it was there that I discovered that I was a Socratic thinker and learner.

As I continued on, working in public, private and even university classrooms, I found that what I was seeking was, in fact, a return to that energy and sense of adventure I had encountered in Colorado. I knew that what I wanted in a teaching position was the freedom to float away from standardized tests and state/provincial mandated curricula and to encourage children and young adults to design and implement their own learning programs. This has been a journey that has taken me across three U.S. states and into Canada.

In 2013, I founded my own private teaching business here in London. That business, DEMOI Independent Learning, was designed to offer interested families the freedom of pursuing, in depth, a humanities and social sciences curriculum that I would co-design with their children. This proved to be a very rewarding experience, both in terms of the pedagogical challenges I faced and because of what I learned about starting, managing, and marketing my own business (I had never been an entrepreneur before). I literally started from scratch and had to discover how to earn the trust of potential clients and figure out just what it was I was offering to a marketplace already packed full of tutors and tutoring services. I think it is important to mention this because I appreciate, I believe, the challenges and risks of going out on your own and starting something brand new. The advantage of working at an established institution is that you get to trade on its reputation; when you are starting something new that reputation is entirely in your hands.

When I learned last year that Andrea and Vineet Nair were establishing the Infinity School I was excited because I recognized that this was an institution whose pedagogical, philosophical, and personal values were closely aligned with my own. The first clue I received was discovering that Infinity would follow “The Hero’s Journey,” a concept developed by that great scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell whose works I know well and had used with my students for years. I was impressed by the Nair’s dedication to pioneering a new type of school in Canada and it thrilled me to think that London would introduce the first Acton Academy to the country. As someone who helped pioneer a new school way back in 2002, I was delighted to think that I might be able to do so again.

As any educator knows, gaining the trust of parents and their children is essential and not to be taken lightly. And as every parent knows, the process of awarding that trust is delicate and requires that certain, often inchoate, needs are met. I am fortunate to be both a parent and an educator and this has led me to appreciate even more just what is happening here at The Infinity School. I know that I have found a home.