Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Letter from Huck: Rules of Engagement and a Fond Farewell

Out in Left Field proudly presents the sixteenth and final letter 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’ve been told that bribery is not a good way to motivate your kids or your students. I’m afraid I break that rule quite a bit. I broke that rule long before I started teaching, when my daughter was in middle school. Her pre-algebra class was learning two step equations and she was doing fairly well. I felt with some more practice she would become fluent. So I brought out my old algebra book and turned to a page with a bunch of the same type of problems and offered her the following deal: “There are ten problems here just like what you’ve been doing. If you do these ten problems I’ll give you a quarter for each one you get right. So you can earn up to $2.50!”

At that time, her allowance was based on completion of certain chores. She did some quick reasoning and rejected my offer, explaining she could make that same amount by cleaning the toilets. Despite the warnings against bribing your kids, I saw the opportunity for a teaching moment and I told her “You’re right. But I’ll let you in on a secret. Solving these equations is a whole lot easier.” She looked at me. “Think about it,” I said. “Tell me what you decide.”

The next day, she came up to me and asked “Is the deal with the equations still on?” I was thus started on a career of carefully controlled bribe-based motivations.

Along with other motivational and engagement techniques, I use bribery carefully—I don’t overdo it. I will sometimes offer a quarter or fifty cents to the first student who can do a certain problem; it depends how much change I have in my pocket. Usually one student will respond, and I award the prize. In more advanced classes, like algebra 2, the prize is generally $1.00 and I require the student to explain their answer.

I find the most motivating prize (at least in the lower math classes) is dismissal two minutes early. As often happens, students begin to put their books away five minutes before class ends, and sometimes line up at the door. Rather than tell the students to get back in their seats, I will put a problem on the board pertinent to the day’s work and tell them: “OK, here’s the deal! Who wants to leave two minutes early?” The noise level of the classroom suddenly drops to that of a concert hall when the conductor raises his baton. “If anyone can do this problem, you all get to leave two minutes early.”

Suddenly there is a flurry of activity. The smartest students are drafted into service by the others and attempt to solve the problem. I try to make it challenging enough that it takes some effort. If the first attempts are wrong, more students get into action—you would think I was offering $100. At last someone gets it and I dismiss them, telling them to please be quiet in the hallways or I will be fired or executed or face some other grisly end.

There has to be a critical mass for these techniques to work, however. I had a class a few weeks ago that the teacher told me to be firm with because “they tend to get squirrely” which roughly translated means “They will cause you to seriously question your decision to go into teaching.”

To check what I was dealing with, I looked at the grade roster for the students in this class. About a quarter of the class had F’s and another quarter had D’s. This was the two-year algebra 1, and most of the students were ninth graders. Ninth graders are hard enough to deal with, but this was late April, so that those with F’s had pretty much given up.

I tried to help one boy, Miguel, but he was far behind. He did one problem with a lot of guidance from me so much so that I realized he clearly was lacking some basic knowledge. With the second problem, he put his head down on the desk and said, "I just can't do it."

In the last few minutes of class, students started lining up at the door. I knew no motivation was going to work with this class so I yelled “Sit back down!” Miguel took that opportunity to bolt out the door. I lost it at that point. “OK, everyone in your seats; you will stay one minute after the bell!” My voice was loud and my hands were shaking. I only made it to 30 seconds after the bell before I told them to leave.

It’s difficult to know what is going on with a student without knowing the background. Some might think that Miguel was of “low cognitive ability”. But I recall two girls in my student teaching days who, after my supervising teacher, Tina, held a conference with their parents, began getting high scores on tests and participating in class—until family life deteriorated again. Another student from those days, Antonio, was very smart but decided to goof off and was in danger of failing. Tina held a conference with Antonio and his father who told him “If you fail this class, you will work with me in the fields this summer.” Given such a choice Antonio probably realized what my daughter had learned: solving equations is a lot easier. He passed.

Then there are some who simply have given up. The reasons are often unclear--whether you’re a teacher or a sub. I do believe that given the right math teaching from first grade on, if students put in the effort, they can get through algebra. Many think I’m a fool for thinking this way. Call me what you will.

School ends soon and I just had an interview for a math teaching position that looks promising. That’s happened before so I’m not going to make any predictions. In any case, I don’t think I have that much more to say, so this will be my last letter to Miss Katharine. I thank her for allowing me to tell what I think needed to be told and thank the rest of you for reading them.

Your Pal,



Lsquared said...

We'll miss your stories Huck!

Widow Douglas said...

Huck, I'd say that was quite a "sivilized" farewell! I think your "bribery" might be better thought of as "motivation." We'll go with that anyway... Thanks for sharing your insights with us. As you travel down that river, just remember to enjoy the ride. We're all in this together!