Monday, March 4, 2013

Letter from Huck: The Trombonist in the Classroom and a Paper I’ll Probably Never Write

Out in Left Field proudly presents the twelth 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.

In my substitute teaching I often see students who remind me of my former students during my student teaching days. During a recent sub assignment, after I gave the students their assignment, one chubby boy asked me if they could work with partners.“Yes,” I replied.
“Ooh! ‘Partner’ is a dirty word!” he said.
I immediately thought of Angel, a chubby 7th grade boy in my honors pre-algebra. While the purveyors of reform math and trendy methods for teaching math always talk about getting students to use their innate abilities in math to make “connections” between aspects of math, they fail to account for the innate genius that middle schoolers possess in making sexual connections. I saw this while finishing a lesson on negative and zero exponents for the honors class. I had started to say “I realize that these concepts are confusing and it’s hard to wrap your head around them, but…” That was as far as I got. I heard a tittering and suppressed giggles, so I went on to the next subject. Whenever I would turn to write something on the white board the giggling would get louder. The giggling continued, and at one point I saw that Angel had his head down on the desk, convulsing so hard with laughter that I thought he was crying. I stared at him to see what was wrong. He realized I was looking at him, and he stopped.
I didn’t figure it out until later when I was driving home, which is when many things tend to hit me. “Oh, ‘Wrap your head around it!’ I get it!” I said to myself.
I can’t blame them for laughing. I recall something similar happening during a rehearsal when I was in the Michigan Marching Band. We were rehearsing the week’s pre-game and half-time show numbers indoors. The legendary William D. Revelli was conducting; he was a perfectionist and something was not right among the trumpets. He had them play a passage over and over while the rest of the Band sat, not playing.  He suddenly addressed us non-players and said “Boys, when you’re not playing your instruments you can still be practicing by fingering your parts.” I remember the great difficulty we had stifling our laughter.  In fact, to this day, if I need to smile for a photo, I will recall that incident—to good effect, apparently since people generally remark on the nice smile I have in the photo.
Angel, the perpetrator of many antics in the honors pre-algebra class, was in the school’s band.  I found out one day he played the trombone, which delighted me, because my experience with trombone players through the years is that they tend to be troublemakers. I cling to a theory that cannot be proven, that there are personality traits associated with the instruments people choose, and so I have found that trombone players are a loud, jolly, mischievous bunch who mean well.  They tend to contribute humor into the class, as well as a sober grounding in reality. 
I recall one day when I was teaching a unit on exponentials. This was during the two-week absence of my supervising teacher, Tina, after her father had passed away. I was going over common errors that students make when doing problems like 72 * 73—like writing the answer as 495, and representing 76/74 as 12.  “What is 76/74?” I asked.  They answered “7 squared”.  “That’s right,” I said. “So why did so many of you on the last test answer the question as 12?” I asked, writing that on the board. 
A few minutes later, I was going around the class monitoring their in-class assignment. I saw that Angel had made this same mistake. “Angel, why did you do that? Didn’t you hear me explain that the base remains the same when you divide powers?”
I was standing behind him and he tilted his chubby head back and looked up at me. “But that’s what you had written on the board,” he said, and pointed to the example of the mistake that I had neglected to erase. 
I relayed this tale to Tina sometime later after she returned, in one of our moments of catching her up to what had gone on in class. “Not a good idea to show students how to do something wrong,” she said.  “You’ll have kids like Angel who only half listen and they’ll think the wrong way you wrote on the board is the right way.” I’ve half-followed this advice. I do think it’s sometimes valuable to highlight something students are doing wrong, if many of them are doing it.  But if I illustrate the mistake on the board, I erase it as soon as I’m done talking about it.
I don’t know that Angel should have been placed in the honors class, but then again, there were so many factors that affected the students’ performance. While some people I’ve met would be quick to classify him as being of “low cognitive ability,” I find it hard to make such identifications quickly. I recall two girls who were doing poorly in the pre-algebra class—one was in honors, and the other in the non-honors class. The teacher held conferences with the girls’ mothers, both of whom worked in the strawberry fields. There were problems at home that got sorted out and the girls’ performance soared—I couldn’t believe they were the same people. I knew it was a respite—home life issues rarely are permanently solved.
Towards the end of the semester, it was nearing the date of the school’s band concert. A few minutes before class started, Angel approached me for help tying a necktie that he had to wear for the concert. “I’ll give it a try; I’m not used to tying it on someone else.”  I got it to loop correctly and slide up and down, though the narrow part was way too short. “The length doesn’t look right, I’m afraid,” I said.
 “Oh, this’ll be fine,” he said, delighted.  He removed the tie keeping the knot intact so he had a pre-tied tie. 
“Ask your father if he can adjust it for you,” I said.
“My father doesn’t wear ties,” he said.
I know I lack experience and am hopelessly naïve, but I hope I don’t end up hung up on IQ’s and other measures of cognitive ability. Even bright (high IQ) kids have to get help at home to succeed.  Maybe poor prior math instruction and disruptive family life play a role. Maybe cultural factors play a role.  Maybe the cognitive power of making sexual connections is a surrogate for IQ.  Maybe I’ll write a paper about it someday.  Believe me, I’ve read far worse.


FedUpMom said...

If several of the kids consistently give the wrong answer, you need to address the problem. But I see the point about kids half-listening and just copying down whatever you put on the board.

How about, as soon as you put the wrong answer on the board, immediately put an X through it and write WRONG! right over or under it? That way the kid who diligently copies the board will see it labelled as the wrong answer.

Katharine Beals said...

Huck replies: "Good advice! It turns out many students were making the error and it is a common one with students first learning about multiplying and dividing powers. Middle school students tend to be half listening all the time."

Joy said...

I also believe that certain instruments attract similar personalities. Except a universal instrument like piano, which I play (classically trained, but now jazz by ear).