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'Take Away One' Adds Up to a Unique Education Documentary

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When I saw that William Lorton's film "Take Away One," about an innovative 1970s mathematics educator who happened to be his aunt, was one hour and 45 minutes long, I felt like I was in for punishment for not mastering math in my school days.

But the director's story of Mary Baratta-Lorton, a California classroom teacher who developed and wrote books about hands-on methods of teaching primary-grade math, turns out to be a good yarn about educational philosophies, curriculum, and textbook publishing, not to mention marital infidelity and murder.

That's a combination I haven't run across in an education documentary before. It's not a spoiler to mention that Baratta-Lorton was found slain in a San Francisco apartment in 1978, at age 34, when she was a popular educational consultant preparing for one of her many teacher workshops.

That suspenseful part of the story takes up only about the last 40 minutes or so of the film. The first hour is devoted to the story of Baratta-Lorton and her husband, Bob Lorton, and their roles as math educators and innovators. 

"Take Away One," which debuted last fall at the Austin Film Festival, is having a screening in New York City on Thursday.

In narrating the film, William Lorton notes that if "you didn't take math in the 20th Century, you missed a real sock hop." He traces the traditional methods of rote memorization and multiplication tables and how newer educational theories, the launch of Sputnik, and other factors combined to promote more innovative approaches collectively known as "the New Math."

Mary Baratta-Lorton met Bob Lorton at the University of California-Berkeley in the late 1960s, where both were studying education and serving as student teachers to disadvantaged students in a nearby school system.

Baratta-Lorton drew on theories advanced by John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and Jean Piaget (as well as some of her Berkeley instructors) to perfect the use of manipulatives and other methods to teach math in elementary grades.

In 1969, while working in the Richmond, Calif., school district, Baratta-Lorton rebeled against a pre-packaged, old-fashioned math curriculum called KELP, for Kindergarten Evaluation of Learning Potential. I wouldn't even believe the name if the filmmaker didn't have a visual of it.

This lead Baratta-Lorton and her husband on a philosophical and physical journey that brought them into contact with fellow innovators in Britain and the eastern United States. By the early 1970s, she had published her first book, "WorkJobs." The title, not loved by the publisher but insisted upon by Barrata-Lorton, came from a student of her who had combined the "work" and "jobs" involving manipulatives and other classroom math activities.

The book quickly became popular, but Baratta-Lorton didn't pursue a Ph.D. onto the path of an education professor. She remained a classroom teacher for several years before she and Bob Lorton established the Center for Innovation in Education, which sold classroom manipulatives long before educational publishers caught on to packaging such items with their textbooks. (The center in Saratoga, Calif., still exists.)

Bob Lorton's interview figures prominently in the film, and he notes an irony that his wife was not particularly good at math herself. She couldn't even balance her checkbook, he says.

While William Lorton has many excellent visuals, we see his aunt mainly in photographs. There are only a few film or video clips of her, including a black-and-white TV clip in which Baratta-Lorton appears on an obscure interview show with Bob Keeshan, also known as CBS's Captain Kangaroo. (He wasn't in uniform.)

By the mid-1970s, Baratta-Lorton and her husband begin to have marital struggles. This begins the part of the documentary that has little to do with math education. But thanks to William Lorton's storytelling, we do care about the main characters by this point. And we know that something bad is about to happen to Baratta-Lorton.

I won't say much about that part of the film, but it only adds to the drama that it has at least minor connections to late 1970s San Francisco history including the Jim Jones cult, the murders of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, and "Tales of the City."

I'd like to see another education documentary that can say that.

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