Reporter's Notebook

Columbus, Mississippi
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Seniors at the Mississippi School of Mathematics and Science are shown on "senior reveal day" this month. They wore white lab coats, and then pulled them off to reveal shirts of the colleges they will be attending.
Seniors at the Mississippi School of Mathematics and Science are shown on "senior reveal day" this month. They wore white lab coats, and then pulled them off to reveal shirts of the colleges they will be attending. Courtesy of the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science

Last week I wrote about what Jim and I had seen on another visit to the (exceptional) Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science (MSMS), a public, residential two-year school for juniors and seniors. We’ve been reporting on the school over the past five years. In the latest dispatch, I described the way a committed English teacher at MSMS, Thomas Easterling, was “teaching students to think” through a rigorous analysis of the novel Dirty Work, by the renowned Mississippi writer Larry Brown.

In response, Paul J. Camp, a physics professor at Georgia Gwinnett College, writes to challenge the idea that a school like MSMS—a public high school, but one that chooses its students from around the state—can meaningfully claim to be “teaching them to think.” (And, to be clear, this was my claim—not MSMS’s.)

Here are selections from Paul Camp’s long letter, followed by Thomas Easterling’s shorter response.

Paul Camp writes:

I thought you and your observations of this school were interesting, but it is a bit of a stretch to say that it demonstrates “how to teach students to think.”

I’ve contended for years that a large part of the success of private schools and magnet schools lies in the ability to cherry pick their students. [DF note: As you’ll see below, Thomas Easterling challenges the “cherry pick” characterization.] They arrive already able to think, and the function of the school is less to teach a new skill than it is to refine a preexisting skill.

When I was a research scientist at Georgia Tech, I worked in a cognitive science program that was involved in middle school science education. We were in both affluent suburban schools and poor urban ones. The suburban students were ready to go and had teachers knowledgeable enough in physics to be able to help them focus on the right phenomena.

The urban schools had teachers teaching out of subject area—a biologist and a reading teacher in a physical science class. Their content understanding was little beyond that of their students.

Nevertheless, the project based curriculum we developed was able to engage those children as well, and to at least improve their ability to design and conduct controlled variable experiments. We had kids fresh out of juvenile detention who were engaged in the projects. I’ll never forget one little girl who, in an interview, remarked: “It’s the first thing I ever made that worked.” That tells me a few things about her. She’s tried to make things to solve problems in her life in the past, which means she has the interests of an engineer. And what she finds valuable about the experience we provided is the design process that enables creating a thing that actually solves a problem.


My wife is retiring this month from teaching in Title 1 schools for over a decade. These are schools that have a >70% mobility rate. Their families move from one apartment move-in special to another. They have no stability in their lives, no permanent circle of friends, no community resources for enrichment activities. They have a disturbingly high incidence of developmental and behavioral disorders. One kid on the autism spectrum insists on talking to his friends all through class. Another sits with his head in the closet. A kindergartner didn’t even know her own name ….

And yet, you still find exceptional kids here. I do career day there every year, and I’ve also done some things with their talented and gifted classes. I remember doing an optics activity with them that was supposed to begin with them doing some informal observations using various types of lenses. Everyone except her just spent the time goofing off. She actually had a good observation of an image changing from upside down to right side up as she moved the lens closer to an object. When she tried to explain it to the rest of the class, they ignored her. That child has a nascent “ability to think” but I question if it is going to be able to develop in that environment.

At Georgia Tech, we found that loose and open ended activities only work with high SES students who have teachers that understand the target content… For lower SES schools, we found the need for a highly structured, predictable cycle of activities that reflected the actual professional practices of scientists and engineers.

The first group kind of knows how things are supposed to proceed, similar to the MSMS students. The second needs a more explicit road map to help them understand how what they are currently doing fits into an overall strategy and what should come next….


I once interviewed at the Maine School for Math and Science which I venture to guess is similar to, if not above, the Mississippi school. Those kids were the equivalent of upper division college students. Calculus well beyond the introductory level was in their rear view mirror. They were writing Python programs to simulate problems in quantum theory.

But their classes were essentially self directed. There was little to no overt instruction unless they ran into a problem. They knew what they were doing and where it should go next. They already knew how to think.

I ended up, for family reasons, taking a position at Georgia Gwinnett College. This is a very different population. The mission of the college is to expand the pool of students capable of succeeding in college.

My physics courses are usually majority minority, first generation college students, many first generation Americans, juggling jobs and family responsibilities with academic needs. They are, by and large, disciplined and intent on succeeding, but the open approach of the Maine school just would not work for them. I know. I tried it.

A building of the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science
Courtesy of the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science

The only thing traditional about Thomas Easterling’s 11th-grade English class at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science (MSMS) was his short quiz at the start of the class. It was the last of the year, he told his students, and I guessed that this was his way to keep the kids focused on their final assignment. It may also have been a nudge toward the good habit of reading, for a generation of students with Netflix always at their fingertips. They scrambled beyond their laptops for bits of paper to write their answers on and handed them to Easterling, who assembled a messy little stack.

MSMS is a school I first visited more than five years ago, and whose students, teachers, programs, and possibilities I’ve written about many times.

Jim and I have been back again this month, and I wanted to be sure to pay another visit to see Thomas Easterling’s class.

From the looks and names of the 25 students, I guessed they were a composite of East and South Asians, African Americans, whites, and Hispanics. Students at MSMS, a two-year public residential school on the campus of the Mississippi University for Women (fondly called The W), arrived there from all over the state. They came from the Delta or towns on the Gulf, from shacks and double-wides or fancy homes around bigger cities like Oxford and Hattiesburg. Two years later, they left their dorms in Columbus, once a Civil War hospital town with housing stock still rich with gracious, pillared antebellum homes, an architecturally beautiful downtown, and large stretches of run-down, low-income areas. (Median household income in the city is around $35,000, versus around $63,000 for the country as a whole.) MSMS students, from their wide variety of backgrounds, are headed for the Ivies, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Harvey Mudd, name your school. Easterling already referred to his class as seniors, and they seemed to comfortably assume that role.

Sitting with the students, I found it hard to make a connection between the human and intellectual energy in their classroom and the “conversations” about education served up in public life. Life in this Mississippi classroom was happening far, far away from policy statements from the Department of Education, or editorials on charter schools, or debates about the burdens of required testing, or calculations of where American students place in international rankings.

In Easterling’s class, I was witnessing the realization of a mission statement to teach children how to think. How? With deft, nimble teaching.

On this day, the class had been reading Larry Brown’s Dirty Work, a book Easterling chose in part because he favored books not covered by SparkNotes and partly because they had worked together when Easterling was an editor at the Oxford American. (Brown was a renowned firefighter turned novelist who first earned acclaim with Dirty Work, which came out in 1989, and wrote a number of other successful books before his death of a heart attack, in 2004, at age 53.) Plus, I thought, what teacher in Mississippi could resist introducing his students to Mississippi writers? Dirty Work is a novel about Vietnam veterans; it is heavily layered, full of imponderables of the meaning of life, unresolvable questions, and gray areas, with mature themes and unfiltered language.

Easterling moved on from the factual questions on the quiz (What does Braden ask Walter to do? What does Jesus say he wants, in a dream?) and plunged into issues that were complex, to say the least. The students started off a bit slowly, but soon wound up into a crescendo of comments, arguments, small-group debates, and references.

One girl described a main character: “He was a drinker, a smoker, and he uses foul language. He’s not ‘Thou art.’” Others made informed references to the civil-rights movement, the Civil War, the Old Testament. They debated the terms of justice, the boundaries of violence, the value of diplomacy. The South Asian girl started a riff on Gandhi, to which the whole class murmured in a tone reminiscent of the burbling British Parliament. They had clearly heard her message before.

The students were seated at tables arranged in a square, and Easterling roamed within its inner courtyard. He would read some passages like a storyteller, and if you closed your eyes you could hear Garrison Keillor, with a southern accent. He framed his class with permission and trust. An occasional student got up and left the room, presumably to go to the restroom, and returned. They were all working on their laptops. He told me later that he assumed that a number of them were clicking away on sites completely irrelevant to the class—but he called on them and engaged them frequently enough that they couldn’t let their attention drift for long. He asked the kids to return their books when they were finished, to lighten his end-of-year processing load, but assured them it was okay if they needed to keep them until the bitter end. He assumed his students knew his references, but made cultural checks from time to time. “What’s a candy striper?” he inquired. “Just checking—you never know … ” when they virtually rolled their eyes. He talked about certain movies from way before their time—including one even before my time (or his), The Young Lions, with Marlon Brando—and then suggested they might want to use some of their summertime to watch them.

He never said their interpretations were wrong per se, but demurred to let them down gently: “I dunno; maybe or maybe not that.” Or if no one could come up with a comment, he would encourage, “Read closely. You’ll see. You’ll see.” A bit later, I heard a few soon comment, “Oh, I got it!” And it was easy to tell that Easterling knew which students could take a little ribbing and which needed to be drawn out.

The walls of the classroom were surprisingly spare; just four posters with themes of Respect, Truth, Reading, and Trust. And a fifth of Joan Miró.

Many of the people we met at community colleges around the country, from California to Oregon to Mississippi, would talk to us about their students getting a second chance at their lives. In Mississippi, these young students were getting a first chance.

More from this series

Birney Imes III, who stepped down last year as publisher of The Commercial Dispatch in Columbus, Mississippi, with his son, Peter, the current publisher
Birney Imes III, who stepped down last year as publisher of The Commercial Dispatch in Columbus, Mississippi, with his son, Peter, the current publisher Luisa Porter / The Commercial Dispatch

As mentioned in the kickoff post in this new “Our Towns” series, anyone who cares about America’s civic, cultural, and economic future should care about the fate of the local press.

Journalism everywhere is coping with a variety of well-known stresses. The pressure to adapt, while there could still be time to survive, is especially intense on smaller, local outlets that may be the only source of community-wide information and accountability in their locale.

  • For a sobering account of how severe this pressure has been for smaller publications, see this infographic from The Wall Street Journal.
  • For a useful Q&A about a “solutions journalism” approach to making newspapers more compelling and relevant, see this NationSwell discussion with David Bornstein of the Solutions Journalism Network.
  • For a look at future leaders of journalism, see the young women and men who make up this year’s Report for America corps of young reporters, who will work at local and regional papers. The 61 members in the 2019 corps represent a severalfold increase from the previous year.
  • For a discussion of philanthropic guidelines in supporting local journalism, see this from the American Press Institute.
  • For an ongoing account of how newspapers from California to Kansas have tried to use transparency and civic engagement to strengthen their role in the community (and their business base), see reports on the News Co/Lab site, including this from Dan Gillmor.

And for a report on how and why one small daily newspaper in the South has been bucking the national trend, read on about The Commercial Dispatch of Columbus, Mississippi.


Columbus is a town of about 24,000 in eastern Mississippi, which Deb Fallows and I have visited and written about frequently over the past five years. Its small downtown has architecturally beautiful “good bones,” of pre–World War II buildings now becoming popular for second- and third-story rentals and apartments.

Downtown Columbus, Mississippi, on a visit not long ago (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

In 2014, the Voices in Harmony chorus from the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science performed at Sandfield Cemetery to commemorate Emancipation Day.
In 2014, the Voices in Harmony chorus from the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science performed at Sandfield Cemetery to commemorate Emancipation Day. James Fallows / The Atlantic

Five years ago today, Deb Fallows and I were in Columbus, Mississippi, to observe the commemoration of Emancipation Day held in the cemetery there. My dispatch about it at the time is here; in the years that followed, Deb and I made repeated visits to Columbus and its neighbors in the “Golden Triangle” of northeastern Mississippi to write about the area’s industries, one of its exceptional schools, its also exceptional community college, and other aspects of its successes and challenges.

You can read some of the two dozen Atlantic dispatches we wrote from the Golden Triangle here or here, or check out this Atlantic video. We also did a long chapter about the area in our subsequent book, Our Towns, which as it happens was published a year ago today.

This week we are back in Columbus again, to report once more on those same aspects: schools, industry, history, inclusion and exclusion, progress and struggle. Later this evening we will be at the cemetery again, for this year’s observation of Emancipation Day.

Over the next few days we’ll have several dispatches from Mississippi, in the model of the preceding series on cities in Indiana. Next in the queue is a report on the only family-owned daily newspaper still operating in Mississippi, The Commercial Dispatch, whose headquarters on Main Street you see below, and what it is doing to buck the trends that have been so dire for local journalism across the country.

James Fallows / The Atlantic

Update Here was a scene from this evening’s presentation:

Students from the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science during the Emancipation Day celebration in Columbus on May 8, 2019. MSMS senior Dairian Bowles is in the foreground, in the role of Reconstruction-era Mississippi state Senator Robert Gleed.

More from this series

One warm and misty May morning in Columbus, Mississippi, the lobby of the classroom building at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science (MSMS) was full of teen-agers milling about, waiting for morning classes to begin.

In one corner of the glassy space was a grandfather clock, probably about 8 feet tall, constructed by one of the students out of brightly colored plastic pieces. (Right.) On the hour, a little white ball would roll down a chute, tripping levers to ring a small chime. Upstairs in one of the science rooms was a 3-D printer, a rough-and-ready contraption that, with a little more luck,  is approaching the final stages of actually printing something. Another of the students, a senior, had made it himself. I recognized several other students whom I had seen performing in an after-school stage production, one dressed as Eco-Man in blue and green tights, cape, and mask.

MSMS is a public boarding school in Columbus, occupying a few of the more modest buildings on the grounds of the elegant Mississippi University for Women, is called “The W”. The men who have enrolled at The W since it became co-ed, say they always have a time explaining themselves to those not in the know.

Columbus is a small town of about 25,000 people midway down the state, near the border with Alabama. Many of the buildings on the main streets are under renovation, and some of the antebellum homes are still occupied by the families who built them. The 228 students at MSMS this year, all juniors and seniors, come from all over the state to spend their last two years of high school studying accelerated sciences, math, and computer courses, as well as a rich selection of arts and humanities.

When I visited MSMS recently, I asked some of the students what they liked about their school and how it was different from the schools they came from.

A black girl from a nearby town, even smaller than Columbus, said that her high school was all black, and she appreciated being in a diverse environment. A white girl from a larger town in the south of the state said that her school, a private school, had been all white, and she appreciated being in a diverse environment. “My roommate is from India,” she said, “I had never met someone from India before.”  A black boy from Columbus said his high school had been somewhat mixed, but it was really all about football. He said he appreciated being in a place where football didn’t dominate everything.  And they all talked about opportunity, opportunity, opportunity.

At MSMS, 27 percent of the students are black; 18 percent are Asian; 11 percent are mixed; 44 percent are white. Students find their way here from all over Mississippi, from big towns like Hattiesburg and small ones you can barely find on a map. The admissions recruiters fan out all over the state, working particularly hard in the impoverished delta region. While I heard that sometimes their reception is enthusiastic, other times—when there can be dismay at draining some of the best and brightest from a school or when there is a perception that their own school isn’t good enough—the reception is less welcoming.

Selling the school to Mississippi parents—even a school that regularly sends state champion teams to national science fairs and scoops up half the writing awards in the state—can sometimes be hard. Several students told me that their moms were scared, or nervous, or didn’t want them to go away. And the students themselves said they had to abandon extracurriculars that were important to them at home, but weren’t available at MSMS. But those were always a warm-up to their feelings now: “I am so happy to be here. I have so many opportunities. I am so fortunate.”

I set out to visit some of the classes.  A dozen or so students in the robotics class were testing the robots they built for an upcoming national competition.  There were 3 robot missions: search-and-rescue; a mock sumo-wrestling match; and a bell lift, where the robot scooped up a bell and delivered it to a destination.

There were 8 boys and one girl in the robotics class. This was surprising to me, especially considering the (also surprising) fact that the MSMS enrollment is 57 percent girls and 43 percent boys. I heard various interpretations of these two gender discrepancies. Two that made sense to me were first, that robotics class is primarily about programming, and boys prefer programming while girls prefer making apps. And second, the culture of football in Mississippi is so strong that it is difficult to draw boys away in the middle of their high school years to even a school as good as MSMS, which  does not have a football program.

The humanities classes at MSMS were described as the school’s “secret weapon,” by Wade Leonard, the school’s public relations coordinator and an MSMS graduate himself.  I would agree. In Thomas Easterling’s English class, they were reading a Bharati Mukherjee short story. The class, busy being teenagers, was in high spirits. “Curb your enthusiasm!” Easterling had to call out at one point. There were about 7 girls and twice as many boys in the class. Most of the students were taking notes on laptops; one was multitasking his laptop with his phone. An Indian girl in the class was quietly correcting pronunciation of Indian names. They were rapt at the life story of Mukherjee, and—adolescents that they are—were comfortable and attentive in a discussion of self discovery.  Easterling drew them in to talking about whether immigrant status accelerated self discovery. “Abso-stinking-lutely!” was one hearty response that pretty much revealed the energy and engagement of the class.

History teacher Chuck Yarborough was having a busy week. He was teaching his African-American history class, which he choreographed like a stage production—a short bit of a video, a discussion of not only  the civil rights history of the times, but making it real and relevant to these Mississippi kids, whose own lives and those of their parents and grandparents were wholly involved.  Then he had the students up and moving, debating sides of the question of blacks fighting in the WWII military. He organized a community-wide performance in the town’s black cemetery commemorating the May 8 Mississippi Emancipation Day. There is no way his students could wind up his class, I believe, without a deep sense of the history of race in their own lives and communities.

MSMS was founded in 1987, shortly after the administration of the educationally progressive Governor William Winter, who introduced sweeping reforms in 1982, including among other things, mandating kindergarten for all students and compulsory attendance until age 16. It was the fourth such specialized secondary school for math and science to be established in the US. Despite its veteran status, MSMS remains modestly funded, primarily by state funds, with some additional foundation and private support. It is not nearly as fancy or well-endowed as, for example,  the impressive Governor’s School for Arts and Humanities in Greenville SC, which I wrote about here. So far, it seems to make up in heart what it lacks in funding. The administration fights for more and is bittersweetly aware that there  “nothing wrong that money can’t fix” about the school.

So where is it headed? How big can the dreams of the teachers, the staff, and the students of MSMS be?

From what I saw, they can all be big, very big. The faculty must have something close to their dream jobs already. They report better than average teacher salaries, advanced degrees (all have at least a masters degree), long tenures, professional development opportunities, and students selected for their work ethic. The administration and staff use words like mission and passion and a vision for improving not only the lives of each and every student, but reaching far into the state of Mississippi. The state of Mississippi seems to outline the frame of most conversations  I had at MSMS; it is heavy with its history and ongoing struggles, yet it is beloved as Home.

And the students’ big dreams? Here is one, from the same young man who is building his own 3-D printer (and who, incidentally, won a scholarship from the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, which will give him a ride through Harvey Mudd).  He said he would like to get cheap 3-D printers to resource-deprived third world countries, which could help them make what they need to realize the products they imagine. And then he wants to return to this part of Mississippi to build his own engineering company, which would also help address the education problems in Mississippi. “I am very blessed. I’ll never forget where I am from. I see the struggle,” he says, also adding that it is about more than football.

No one is discouraging students like this from their big dreams. In that Mississippi is doing something very right.