Sunday, February 12, 2012

Letter from Huck Finn: Drifting Down the Great Divide, and the Sunrise in the South

Out in Left Field proudly presents the second in a series of letters by an aspiring math teacher formerly known as "John Dewey."

For those who don’t know me, I am on a second career, having retired last summer. I completed my student teaching in December. My real name is not Huck Finn. I’m the same person who wrote a series of letters under the name of John Dewey some years ago, chronicling some of my experiences in ed school.

After my last missive, some readers were downright angry so I’ll just say that with respect to the professor who bore a resemblance to Meg Ryan, I got a lot out of her class, and have nothing against someone lying on a bed of nails while someone smashes a rock on her stomach with a sledge hammer on back to school night or any other night. It’s a lot better than most of the back to school nights I’ve attended. My daughter’s 7th grade speech/drama teacher’s greeting was that she just got back from Bahrain and would rather still be living there than teaching here. I don’t know what was more remarkable: the fact that she said that, or the fact that the parents in the audience nodded their heads in appreciation.

I have chosen the name Huck Finn since it seemed to fit better than John Dewey for someone drifting along the pedagogical, political and cultural river that crosses the battles over how best to teach math. The battles over math teaching remind me of something that happened years ago. I am a creature of habit, and throughout high school I walked to school every day, which meant walking eastward every morning. When I started at college, I consequently assumed without thinking about it that my walk to my first class was eastward. I was surprised therefore one day to see the sun rising in the south. For a moment I considered what could have caused this, before I realized that I was walking northward. My experiences in education are similar. I meet people who see a sun rising in the south, are able to explain it, and will not entertain any suggestion of where true north is.

I will reveal that I live in California, but had completed my ed school course work at a school back east that allowed me to do my student teaching in California. My effort was coordinated with a local university here who said they would place me in a school to do my student teaching. By mid-August, I still hadn’t heard about where my placement as a student teacher would be. I told them that the school back east requires me to put in 15 weeks of student teaching and the schools where they wanted to place me would start next week. There was a flurry of activity suddenly—I was told to write a bio which they would circulate. I wrote a bio in which I mentioned that I had majored in math and had been in the Michigan Marching Band—not that these two things are related but I wanted to show that I was a team player.

The next week, I was told to report for an interview at a junior high school about an hour's drive from my house. The school’s website listed the textbooks they used. I was disconcerted to see that for algebra, they were using College Preparatory Math (CPM): Algebra Connections. It is a discovery-based program and one that caused a significant uproar when it was used in Palo Alto in the early 90’s.

I met with Tina who would be my supervising teacher and had taught for 10 years. She mentioned she had a son in high school who was in the marching band and she herself played in the band at the community college. I thought perhaps my mention of the Michigan Marching Band had caused her to select me. “I guess you know from my bio that I was in the Michigan Marching Band,” I said.

“What bio?” she asked. The world of education is seldom as organized as one might believe.

In the course of our conversation she revealed that she liked the standards of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM and was also happy that California had just adopted the Common Core standards for math. “Do you know those?” she asked. My feeling about Common Core is very similar to that of NCTM’s but I left it at: “I am familiar with both.”

“So they placed you in a middle school,” my teacher said as if confirming that I had a disease that had no cure and was both fatal and painful. “Are you OK with that?”

“Actually, I requested middle school,” I said.


“I’m out of my mind,” I replied. She thought this was pretty funny and I was tempted to leave things at that, but I added that middle school was often the last chance students had to get proficient with fractions, decimals, percents and other concepts that they may be weak on before the onslaught of algebra.

“Exactly!” Tina said. “I taught high school for a year and was so heartbroken when I saw seniors who were still taking algebra 1 and not passing because they didn’t know their basic math. I decided that middle school was where I should be.”

This was beginning to show some promise. She said I would eventually be teaching three periods. Two periods were pre-algebra which used a standard, traditional-style textbook. The other period was algebra which used the text known as College Preparatory Math (CPM): Algebra Connections. “It’s discovery-based,” she said with some excitement and perhaps an expectation that I would rejoice in this. I looked around the room at the desks pushed together in groups of four, and tried to believe that somehow we would all know and agree where true north is, and that the sun rises in the east.


Lynne Diligent said...

This is a very interesting story, and I'm looking forward to reading the next installment.

I'd be interested in knowing if you learned anything or had a professional meeting of the minds during your student teaching there. Also, do you now think middle school is still the place to get the kids proficient in fractions after having some experience teaching at that level?

How did the discovery-based learning text work out? How closely were you required to use it? Or could you put it aside and teach whatever you wanted?

--Lynne Diligent

Jes said...

I like not knowing where this is going. I like that you have the inquisitive nature of a teenager, but you are on your second career. I really like that you have a big brain, and chose to work with teens instead of running from them. A good teacher changes lives. A good teacher can change the future. You go HUCK!

Michael Rice said...

I taught for a couple of years using CPM Connections. I hated it. What I did was take the topic of the day, find a book that had practice problems, teach the topic to the students using clear examples and explanations and then give the students the practice problems I had found elsewhere. I wrote all my own tests and quizzes. It was long hard work, but worth it.

Niki Hayes said...

You are an enigma. You like writing and literature AND mathematics? Impossible!

You remind me of Richard Feynman, the great physicist, and his ability to write with humor and self-deprecation.

I, too, am eager to follow some more of your "adventuring" in the world of public education. What a great book you can pull together!