Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Math Olympian Up a Tree by Dr. Michael J. Lenaghan

Maximo was a mathematical whiz kid in Cuba! Maximo had been a child prodigy among math geniuses in Cuba! Maximo had been a member of the Math Olympic champions in Cuba!
And Maximo had asked for a conversation before our Social Environment course would begin one Fall semester at our Hialeah Center. He had communicated through the Hialeah Center Director in a respectful manner, never telling the director exactly what he wanted to discuss. But our center director was very proud to have Maximo at his center and nowhere else in the college. And the staff seemed deferential to Maximo because he was sooo smart in mathematics.
At the outset of a semester, I was generally excited about new and renewed encounters with a broad range of scholars from a variety of disciplines. My area of principal focus was social sciences but I was also very supportive across disciplines, especially mathematics, calculus and physics because so many college students are fearful and I am not fearful about the beautiful and important subject of mathematics.
On the other hand, it occurred to me that perhaps I was being encouraged to in some way be deferential to Maximo’s strengths and not be overly demanding in my specialty area of social sciences. Maybe a genius in math was social science-phobic like others claim to be math-phobic. But my colleagues never were intrusive or imposing in such a matter. Maybe Maximo had language and linguistic problems since he had only recently arrived from Cuba. And losing a math genius did not reflect well on the totalitarian-authoritarian political regime there. Maybe there were security issues. Who knew? I would review my own competencies in the delicious Spanish language so as to be appropriately ready for my conversation with Maximo! (Maximo actually translated to mean MAXIMUM but could be interpreted to be awesome on a good day).
Maximo and I met early on the first day of class. I bought him a cup of “cafecito Cubano” (Cuban Coffee) and he proceeded to pick a large tree at the side of our building under which we would converse. The tree reminded me of one in a park near where I grew up in Chicagoland: many leaves, many branches, easy to climb and cool in the heat of the day when direct sunlight could be very stifling.
Maximo spoke of his love of mathematics and how mathematics when applied properly could help solve many problems of the social environment, natural environment and material environment. He appeared to be demonstrating his readiness for our class. I was impressed and somewhat thrilled that this exemplary human being was going to be in my Social Environment class.
We spoke about how each student has his or her own unique learning style and teaching style, absorbing and mastering content and then applying and demonstrating what was learned and how it impacted the human condition from aesthetics to zoology. As someone who was informed and inspired by Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory, I was fascinated with Maximo’s self -knowledge and how to make his unique learning needs and wants and capacities work for himself. And we both agreed that each scholar should create or contribute to the optimum learning context and dynamics in which he or she and learning peers could advance best.
Maximo truly seemed happy with our discussion. I was absolutely enthralled with his participation in our class. He excused himself and said he would “verle en la clase” (see you in class). Perfecto, I surmised.
I arrived in the third floor class on the North side of the air conditioned building to find the window open, providing a friendly breeze. The thirty plus class members were gathered at the window chatting with someone or something on a tree branch outside. I was amazed to discover that Maximo was situated in the tree outside, with his notebook and pen in hand and a textbook in a book bag. Trying not to be shocked nor surprised nor angry nor fearful of an accident, I walked over and greeted my new scholar: “Thanks for joining us in this novel way. Please come into the classroom so we can begin class.”
Maximo, looking disheartened and disappointed, responded: “I can learn best at this center when I am seated here in this tree. And we both agreed that each student had best ways of learning. Mine is here. You can close the door and save air conditioning during this class. And I will be very attentive when each person speaks, if each can speak a little louder than normal. And I will speak a little louder to accommodate my fellow students.”
This was a new experience for me. Since it was a sunny day, without major winds and no signs of a storm, I decided to proceed with the class, noting that the other scholars appeared curious, probably thinking this could have been a role play or a novel approach to getting focused on the first day. Social Environment. Why not? We had self-introductions, an introduction to course expectations – and no one questioned the non-traditional placement of Maximo in the tree.
After class terminated, I closed the window, Maximo descended and I sought some advice and guidance from the center director. We agreed to change the class to the second floor (reducing the hazard) since there was no classroom on the first floor. The director volunteered to get any background information that explained why Maximo preferred tree sitting to being in a classroom. His parents were not in the USA.
Maximo arrived for the second class with assignments prepared, reading done and very participatory. His peer learners were surprised to find how conscientious he was but still in the tree on the second floor. Upon doing some inquiries, we learned that Maximo’s parents and brothers died in a catastrophic fire in Cuba in a deficiently constructed and unprotected building. His preference to not immediately trust learning inside a building right now was understandable. We completed the semester with him up a tree or sometimes all of us in a garden, as Maximo maximized his new social environment for success and sensitized his new faculty and classmates.
                                    2015 © Michael J. Lenaghan

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