Back to the Future: Finding Traces of the Common Core in an 1893 Textbook

I was taken aback when I saw that a theater was showing the Michael J. Fox movie, Back to the Future, in celebration of its 25th anniversary.

My first thought was, “Darn, am I that old?” After taking my Gingko Biloba, my memory was successfully jogged and I recalled where I had placed my VHS copy of the movie (anyone else still have a VHS machine?). I then got to re-enjoy learning about the science of the flux capacitor, how time travel can impact one’s future existence, and how rock and roll really got its start.

My second thought was that this is still a great movie, suitable for all ages. My kids enjoyed the movie for different reasons: Marty McFly inventing the skateboard, the DeLorean racing down the town square, and the principal’s mantra on what happens to slackers (basically, they get stuck in phone booths).

While rummaging through all my storage boxes looking for the VHS tape, I stumbled across yet another classic.

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The image at right is from a math textbook I obtained from the basement of my last school (I withhold the name of the school lest they email me with a demand to return said textbook). The textbook is entitled Mathematics for Common Schools, and the copyright reads “1893.” Truly a classic. As I was thumbing through the text, I was stunned to see construction problems similar to those found in Discovering Geometry. Moreover, the book includes some paper-folding activities, much like the “patty paper” activities in Discovering Geometry.

I found a lot of rich problems from the Elementary Geometry section—including those seen below, taken from the book’s section on similar triangles.

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There are pages and pages of problems like these where students are asked to apply what they have learned. There are also some very good problems involving compound interest, tax rates, area, and volume. This book has its share of drill problems, which are called “Slate Exercises.” (I had to Google the word “slate” to understand its context in the education world. “Slates” were hand-held chalkboards; apparently, the term has nothing to do with

Overall, this was a pleasant find and an example of how, just like Marty McFly, we can go “back to the future” to find a great teaching resource. The problems in the text are timeless and can still provide enrichment to students in 2010. Although not every single problem is rich and real-world in nature, students can still see the connection between what they study and situations that they may confront in everyday life.

By leafing through this classic textbook, I realized that the Common Core State Standards are not asking for educators to “reinvent the wheel” (or the skateboard) by teaching a whole new geometry course. Rather, the standards are asking educators to present our students with the best of our geometry experience. If some aspects of geometry called for in the Common Core State Standards—for instance, modeling with mathematics in the form of folding paper—can be found in a text from 1893, educators are surely able to take on the Common Core in 2010.

In related news, Back to the Future has been granted a second life in the form of a Blu-ray release—though I’ll happily save myself $25 by sticking with my VHS copy.

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