Sunday, March 25, 2012

Letter from Huck Finn: I Learn the Ropes and Give Things Some Serious Thought

Out in Left Field proudly presents the fifth in a series of letters by an aspiring math teacher formerly known as "John Dewey." All personal and place names have been changed to protect privacy.

I Learn the Ropes and Give Things Some Serious Thought

During my student teaching, I tended to stay away from discussions of educational issues. Judging by the reaction to my last letter, discussion of educational issues can result in disagreements expressed at great volume. I stayed away from politics and religion as well. I did venture a bit into football, though, which is not without its risks. The principal was a Notre Dame and Michigan State fan, and I went to University of Michigan. She didn’t like Ohio State, though, so we got along just fine.

While I don’t consider student teaching similar to football, I was often reminded of my experience in the Michigan Marching Band. I was in the Band when it was directed by the legendary perfectionist William D. Revelli. The Band’s high step marching was physically demanding. I had enough wind to enable me to march but I couldn’t play a note on my clarinet all season. I kept that my dirty little secret, but when I rejoined the band the next year, I was delighted to find that I had the physical endurance to march and play at the same time, and incorporate all the nuances and instruction hollered at us during rehearsals.

I hoped that what happened in the band would happen in teaching: that I would be able to simultaneously teach and automatically do with ease what I now had to be told to do. My supervising teacher, Tina, often interrupted my teaching. She would whisper things like: “Circulate; see what they’re writing—you’re chained to the desk.” “You take too long to answer the question; go for the big idea.” And in the discovery-based algebra class: “You’re telling them too much. You have to ask them questions; if you do it all for them, they’ll never learn.” This last one was perplexing: was it an issue of proper questioning—an important skill to learn—or was it an application of the ed school adage that if students aren’t struggling, they aren’t learning?

I began teaching first and third period pre-algebra classes my fourth week. Third period was an honors class. Though I liked teaching both, I found the honors class more motivated and responsive than the first period class. I admit to feeling guilty in saying that the honors class was more fun to teach, though I suspect I'm not alone. Some teachers, given a choice, might not want to teach struggling students, but then fall prey to being called elitist. Neither teachers nor schools want to be accused of that. So now in the name of equity for all, schools have mixed ability/performance classes. I’m happy to say my school grouped students by ability/performance. I don't believe honors and gifted classes are elitist. I think all students need attention.

That said, first period was a bear to teach. I was always nervous before it began; fifteen minutes before the bell I would have to run for the bathroom. Once the bell rang, and I swung the door open, I would relax. As students entered the classroom, the following exchange would continually take place:

Student: “Will we need our books today?”

Me: “Yes, get your books and warm-up folders, please.”

After answering this same question about five times, I would eventually tell them to ask their neighbor, thus attempting to make good use of the groups of four desks clustered together.

Because of the non-responsiveness of the first period class, Tina and I decided to have them take out a sheet of paper first thing, to write down specific items (vocabulary, formulas), and then have them do a problem. “With this class you’ve got to get them doing something,” Tina told me. “Otherwise they’ll fall asleep on you. And you’ve got an evaluation coming up.”

She was referring to the evaluation by the local university person who ultimately would give me my grade. He was a kind man who had taught high school math for over 30 years. I did well the first time, but that was the honors class. He now wanted to see me with the first period class.

The day he came I taught a lesson on inequalities. I had the class write down the symbols for less than, less than or equal to, greater than, greater than or equal to, which they already knew. I then added the terms: “Not as much as”, “No more than/at most”, “More than”, “No less than/at least”. I gave examples and then showed them a picture of a sign that you see at amusement parks that read “To go on this ride you must be at least 48 inches tall.” I asked “If H is the height of a child, how would we write in symbols that the height, H, meets the requirements?”

Dead silence.

“For example,” I said, as if nothing was wrong, “Would we write it like this?” I wrote H < 48. The class said “No-o-o-o.”

A boy in front named Francisco said softly “H is greater than or equal to 48.”

“Could you say that louder?” I asked. Francisco shook his head. Someone else gave the right answer.

“Yes,” I said and turned to Francisco. “You see, you were right! You have to have the courage of your convictions. In math, people often disagree. And sometimes they express these disagreements at great volume.” I stopped my pep talk there, thankfully. I didn’t need anyone falling asleep during my evaluation.

I continued the lesson, students stayed awake, and I received a good evaluation which made Tina happy. Later during 4th period which was her “prep” she talked about things to come. “I think pretty soon we’ll have you start teaching some algebra classes. Eventually, you’ll be in charge of all three classes—doing the planning, quizzes, and tests. And the discipline—it can’t just be me.”

I excused myself and ran for the bathroom. The idea of being fully in charge was overwhelming. If I found two classes to be demanding how would I handle three? Relax, I told myself. I would never get that far. Tina would be watching every move. Sooner or later I'd get into a discussion with her about math education and say things at great volume. I'd be politely booted out and advised to do something normal for my age, like be a Walmart greeter.


KimS said...

My volume control button is stuck at annoyed. I'm not sure what that means.....

Niki Hayes said...

I had to smile at your experience. It's good to be afraid, especially in the beginning, because now you know how so many students feel when they encounter a "new" learning experience that makes them feel overwhelmed--whether they are in "first period" or even gifted classes.

Here's what I used to tell my teachers: At the end of their first year, they will think, "Wow, I made it!" At the end of their second year, they will say, "So THAT is what I was supposed to be doing last year!" At the end of their third year, they say, "Okay, now I FINALLY understand what I'm supposed to be doing."

All we can do is hope our students survive in spite of us for those first three years!