Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Conversations on the Rifle Range 9: Sad Girl, Angry Boy

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 nine:

My six week assignment was coming to a close and in one of the last classes held before the final one, I was explaining how the distributive property can be used to multiply numbers quickly. For example, multiplying 8 x 32 can be thought of as 8 x (30 + 2) = 8 x 30 + 8 x 16, which becomes 240 + 16 = 256. After I had demonstrated this, Steve, a junior in my sixth period class, asked how you would use this technique to multiply 9 x 62. I was pleased at what I thought was genuine curiosity until I realized he was only asking because it was one of the problems assigned in the homework he was working on. Nevertheless, it was better than the usual attitude he gave me in front of his peers so I addressed his question.

“How would you break up 62 into two numbers based on what I’ve shown so far?” I asked.

He thought a moment and offered 60 + 2. “That’s good,” I said and wrote 9 x (60 + 2). “Now let’s multiply 9 by 60 and 2. First, what is 60 x 9?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know my nines.”

Steve’s lack of knowledge of multiplication facts was not unusual. Nor was his transfer out of the high school a few days later to move back to Bakersfield. Students were transferring in and out of my classroom since I started. From what I've heard, this pattern would continue almost throughout the whole school year.

On my last day, I gave the unit test in all my classes: Chapter 6 for second period, and Chapter 1 for fourth and sixth period. As was her custom, Elisa came in 15 minutes before class and began drawing one of her dog pictures. Also as was her custom lately, she told me some of her observations of the class. “You know that Patrick is the one starting the paper wad fights, don’t you?” she said. I said I did, though I really did not.

“I think he thinks because you’re just a sub, he can do anything he wants,” she said.

“Maybe so.”

“I don’t understand why you don’t give him a referral.”

For that matter, neither did I. I felt I had to catch him in the act, even though he smart-mouthed me regularly, which was grounds for a referral by itself. But I was new to all this and in a school where many of the students had discipline problems. I figured that by limiting referrals, when I did refer a student it would have more weight—not that any referrals were ever questioned.

The class filed in noisily. Some students asked if we would have a party since it was my last day. I told them no, as I had for the past few days whenever they suggested a party, and got the test underway. I expected them to zip through the test not because they would find it easy, but because many were unprepared and simply gave up—putting down any answer they felt was reasonable.

During the test, Patrick called me over. “Is this right?” he asked pointing to the question “1/0 is _______”. He had written “undefined,” which was correct but this was a test—I couldn’t tell him whether it was right or not.

“I just wanted to know whether I spelled ‘undefined’ correctly,” he said in a loud voice, which produced snickers across the room and rapid writing down of answers among some students.

“Why don’t you just say it louder?” I said. “I don’t think all of the class heard you.” He smirked at this. He stood up to hand in his test, and in doing so, let one of the pages dangle in full view of the girl who sat behind him. “Very clever,” I said grabbing his test and putting it in the completed pile.

As I expected, students finished the test quickly. I knew that things would get out of control rapidly since I had nothing else planned for that day. When about 40 minutes remained, I excused students to go to the library if they wanted, to pass the remaining time. All of the class left except for Elisa, who asked me for a piece of computer paper. “I’m doing a special drawing,” she told me. She had told me once that she had two dogs and had learned how to draw dogs and enjoyed drawing in general. She lived on her aunt’s farm, she once told me. It wasn’t much of a farm, she said; just a little land and a bunch of chickens and some pigs. I recalled a sadness about her when she had told me this. I sensed the same sadness as she sat drawing on my last day.

During the remaining time I worked on my notes for my teacher, Mrs. Lassen, when she returned the following week. I thought of Patrick saying “undefined” loudly and his dangling of the test paper. I could have elected to give him a zero on the test for cheating, but decided to put the incident in my notes. Mrs. Lassen had said she wanted to do the grading of the unit tests. I had mixed feelings about doing this. As fate would have it, at just that moment Patrick and three others came back into the room.

“I thought you were in the library,” I said.

“We were,” Patrick said. “We got bored.”

He sat in the back of the room, slouched down in exactly the same way as the man I saw on back-to-school night. On a hunch, I asked him “Was your father here on back-to-school night by any chance?”

“Yeah, my step-dad was,” he said. “One of the few times he actually did something on his own.” He went on complaining bitterly about his step-father and then became silent. After a moment, still slumped in his chair, he said “Looks like things’ll be different in class when Mrs. Lassen comes back next week.” She was known for her strictness. He added “Thank you for not giving me referrals.” I never expected any kind of gratitude from Patrick and though perhaps I would have served him better by giving him referrals, I silently accepted his thanks. I could see he was an angry boy like so many others at that school.

The bell rang, and I wished the remaining students luck. Elisa came by and presented me with her drawing. “I usually do a drawing of a wolf for teachers who help me out,” she said. “Thanks for answering all my millions of questions. Some math teachers tell me I ask too many.”

“You’ll do fine, Elisa; just keep asking questions and working hard.” On the drawing was the message “Farewell Mr. Garelick”

For the next few weeks I felt that my assignment was a large failure. Over time, however, I’ve summed up my accomplishments as follows: I showed up for every class period, taught to the best of my ability, and tried to be consistent.

For some students, my inconsistent consistency was probably more than they had anywhere else.

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