I don’t know why, but I’ve always enjoyed school cafeteria food. When I was an elementary-school age kid, I used to bring lunch in those cool old lunch boxes that are now worth thousands of dollars (I gave ’em all away) until one of my least favorite teachers, who we shall call Mrs. Friedelholz, came by one day and, upon spying my home-made peanut butter and jelly sandwich, said to everyone at my table, “Doesn’t that look delicious?” as she stuck her middle finger in the middle of the bread. I have no idea why she did that, but she also did that to cupcakes I brought from home, diminishing my appetite for them considerably. Anyway, by my middle-school years, mom was sick of making me lunch and I started eating in the school cafeteria. I still enjoy visiting schools at lunch time, and in the public-school sector, $3.50 ain’t bad for a frito pie or a plate of ravioli with a fresh salad and fruit on the side. I get a kick out of talking to the kids in the cafeterias too. At the high school level, they’ll always talk with me on an adult level. At the elementary-school level, they’re generally happy to have a visitor, and when I mention I write for the newspaper, most of them are ready to pose for a picture (today a boy said, “Can you put me on the front page?”). At the middle-school level, it’s more 50/50 – sometimes they want to engage with me, and sometimes they are at that awkward stage where they just don’t want to talk at all. Another thing: I can walk into any cafeteria and join a table of kids who are already sitting down and eating without any trouble, but if I end up being the first one to sit at a table, it’s rare for any kids to join me. I probably look like some official adult or a weirdo to them.

Here’s another thing about school lunch time: I’ll ask kids what their favorite topic is, who their favorite teacher is, what they think of their principal, how they like school, and so on. Maybe they are all putting me on but the vast majority insist they like school, they like most of their teachers, and that their principals are “okay” (at the very least). What’s funny to me is how many kids at the elementary-school level insist that math is their favorite topic. I asked a Carlos Gilbert elementary school boy why last week. “Because I’m good at it,” he said. Today I asked a gal at Chaparral Elementary School the same question. “I get to play with numbers and figures and it’s fun,” she said. You can’t expect pithy commentary from second or third-graders, I guess, but something tells me that kids like math in the early days, and then it becomes something of a grind. I know that’s what happened with me. I’m just now starting Steven Strogatz’ 2012 book “The Joy of X: A guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity,” which emphasizes the need to remind ourselves to be creative and playful when tackling math problems, and to not be afraid of asking questions about math problems. He notes that the best introduction to numbers that he ever witnessed was in an episode of Sesame Street – which links us back to elementary-age kids. Maybe we all need Grover, Kermit, and his pals to remind us how much fun it can be to learn math. I know I can use a reminder.

If It’s Broken, Don’t Fix It

I read – or try to read – a lot of books on education. I won’t kid you – I can’t get through some of them because they are, in my view, dry and/or academic. I just picked one up on the charter-school movement and it lost me in chapter one. So maybe that’s why I prefer imperfect but passionate reads like Sinhue Noriega’s “If It’s Broken, Don’t Fix It: A Candid Look At Our Complacent Education System.” The author has been teaching at various schools in the Southwest and he lets loose with his views on what’s not working in public education (which means just about everything, in his view). He’s opinionated, and makes some broad assertions that may not be entirely true regarding teacher attitudes and teaching to the test and single-minded principals (which doesn’t mean he didn’t encounter these issues as a teacher), but his prose includes some great zingers that really sum up some of the problems in education: of the joys of learning and playing in kindergarten, he writes, “Wonderland can only last one year,” and, in reflecting on No Child Left Behind Mandates, “In the classroom things don’t always go as well as they do on paper.” I love this one: “Years ago, before NCLB, our system was not perfect, but it still produced a mediocre citizen and a pretty good society, along with a few extraordinary individuals as a byproduct.” I’ll probably go more in-depth about the book in a future Learning Curve column for The New Mexican.