Saturday, June 28, 2014

Conversations on the Rifle Range 2: Negative Numbers, Back-to-School Night, a Tattooed Man and a Mysterious Stranger

Barry Garelick, who wrote various letters under the name Huck Finn and which were published here is at work writing what will become "Conversations on the Rifle Range". This will be a documentation of his experiences teaching math as a long-term substitute. OILF proudly presents episode number two:

My back-to-school night was held on a Thursday evening during the first full week of school. Like most back-to-school nights, it was designed to give parents a peek at what goes on in their child’s school-day. And like most back-to-school nights that I’ve been to, parents shuffled from class to class, following their child’s schedule with somnambulistic fervor—each class lasting 10 minutes.

Of course, it wasn’t an exact replica of a school day: the school used block schedules, with hour and fifty minute classes and odd and even-period classes alternating every other day. I had three classes held during second, fourth and sixth periods—which meant that I taught every other day.

This was my first ever back-to-school night as a teacher. Parents from my three classes showed up, though attendance was fairly sparse. I assured all that I was certified to teach math, and that I would follow the teacher’s lessons and grading procedures. I had a list of topics that I would be teaching in my algebra classes and pointed to them. People nodded vaguely. I then said “I teach by providing instruction, worked examples, and lots of problems.” People nodded vaguely again. So far so good.

I was teaching the two-year sequence of Algebra 1. It is designed for students who are having difficulty in math. My high school, being very small, only offered the 2-year sequence. Students, who for whatever reason did not take Algebra 1 in 8th grade, unless they went to summer school, were therefore stuck with the two–year sequence of algebra, regardless of their ability to handle the one-year course in 9th grade. Two of my classes were the first year of the two-year sequence, and one was the second year.

I was most curious about the parents who showed up for my sixth period class “first year” algebra 1 class) since the students in that class were the most difficult. Out of 25 students, perhaps four were actually intent on learning anything. In fact the parents of a girl named Laura—one of the good students—showed up. She had two sets of parents. Her biological father was there; he bore tattoos on his neck including one of a poorly drawn heart with a number inside it. The step-dad and mother were there as well, along with Laura’s little sister—everyone but my student. And then there was a man who arrived late and sat in the back, looking somehow familiar, with a bored look on his face, slouched at a desk.

It had been hot earlier in the day, so that by sixth period the classroom was stifling. Many of the students were sophomores and some juniors who had taken the class before. My lesson that day had been on negative numbers and I was intent on making sure they had the basics down. In both of my first-year classes I asked, “How many of you know how to operate with negative numbers?” A few hands went up. “Let me ask you this then. What is 10 minus negative 5?” Immediately I heard wrong answers: five, negative five.

I then asked a question designed to get the attention of the many junior varsity football players in the class. I would guess that between my three classes, I had half the members of that team. I pointed to a football player. "Let me ask the question in another way. Suppose in a football game your team gets the ball and on the first play you lose 5 yards. The coach says you have to make enough yardage on the next play to get a first down. How many yards do you have to run on that next play?”

The answer came with no hesitation: “15”.

“Excellent; how did you do that?”

The boy explained that you need to make up the 5 yards you lost and then add 10 to that for a total of 15.

"You solved 10 minus negative 5. In two seconds.” I went on to say that they work with negative numbers every day but don't realize it, and then went into the day's business. While I had been successful in my 4th period class, I didn’t advance very far in 6th period. A few minutes into the lesson, a girl named Jeanne suddenly shouted “We learned this last year. Why are we learning it again?”

Suddenly the class which earlier had admitted to being weak with negative numbers was riled up at having to learn about them again. I suppose her question had deeper meaning for those taking the class for the second time—yes, why were they learning this again? But the disruption she set off in a hot room full of irritable students was irreversible and immune to any explanation I could offer. I offered one anyway.

“This is a review,” I said.

“I thought this was supposed to be algebra!” someone shouted.

I then resorted to the time-honored blame-laying approach. “Not everyone knows all this stuff like Jeanne claims to know…” I was drowned out by a chorus of accusations that I was putting words in her mouth. They knew I had lost control.

I walked over to Jeanne and told her to knock off the attitude. “This isn’t attitude—it’s natural” she said. “I’m Italian.” I admit I found this rather funny but I now had to follow through. “Would you like a referral to the office?” I asked. She became quiet and the class began to quiet down. Patrick, a football player who had failed the class last year and provided steady commentary to his neighbors about my teaching skills chimed in: “Are you losing control of the class, Mr. G?”

I walked over to Patrick. “Would you like to try to control this class?” I asked him.

“No,” he said.

“Would you like a referral?”


The class quieted down enough that I could finish my lesson.

Now, several hours later in a considerably cooler and quieter room I projected the same aura of confidence that a trapeze artist displays even after he almost misses grabbing the bar. I asked if there were any questions. There were none, not even any about Common Core.

I suspected that the man who was slouched in his seat in the back was Patrick’s father. But when the dismissal bell rang, he was out the door before I could ask who he was.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The participation of parents/guardians in events of this type is a logical and positive step in caring about and supporting a child's education beyond the brick-and-mortar school building.
It then seems reasonable to conclude that the participating parent/guardian also is providing some measure of support for the education process at home.
A bit of extra help in navigating the ship of becoming a better student, if you will. Barry, as always, I look forward to the next installment. Thank you for sharing your teaching experiences, impressions and frustrations. In part, my take-away is: Do not curse the darkness, light one candle of hope, build on the positive and move forward. CL.