Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Conversations on the Rifle Range 25: Undoing a Conspiracy, and Heading to the End of the School Year

Barry Garelick, who wrote various letters published here under the name Huck Finn, 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 25 which will be the penultimate episode.

I was in a mild state of panic after seeing the results of the quiz on quadratic equations. The mean of the classes was 74—it’s usually in the high 70’s or low 80’s. (I did allow students scoring below 70% to turn in corrections, to raise the score to a maximum of 70, which was Mrs. Halloran’s policy.) I was pleased to see that eight students successfully derived the quadratic formula for extra credit. But I could see that for problems like x2 – 5x = 0 some students forgot that it can be solved by simple factoring. And though some knew how to complete the square, there were not as many as I would have liked. They knew the quadratic formula by heart and how to apply it. But some were missing some key concepts.

During my first period prep on the day I was to return the quizzes to my algebra classes, I went through the giant binder for algebra that Mrs. Halloran had left me. The binder was filled with the tests, quizzes and other materials for both pre-algebra and algebra. While she often planned for practice quizzes for the pre-algebra classes—a dress rehearsal of the real quiz—she didn’t do that for the algebra class. Or so I thought. I found that for the chapter on quadratic equations, she had planned for a practice test for the entire chapter. The quiz had covered the first half of the chapter. This might come in handy, I thought.

As I expected, students were not pleased with the results of the quiz. Pamela, one of the students who I suspected of complaining about my teaching to the counselor, had received a score in the 70’s. She took the lead in the discussion of the quiz results, and ended with a definitive bottom line. “Don’t you think that with so many students failing the quiz that you should reteach and give a re-test?”

There were twelve A’s on the test, then mostly B’s and C’s, a few D’s, and three F’s for both classes, but exaggeration is a key tool in winning arguments. So effective, in fact, that Bryan (who I suspected was the other student lodging a complaint about my teaching) turned around and raised his arm in a victory salute to Pamela and mouthed “Right on!”

Given that Bryan had received a 90 percent on the quiz, I could see he was goading Pamela. So I said what no teacher is supposed to say to a student. “As I recall, you got a pretty high grade on the quiz, so shut up Bryan.” The class became quiet. There are other terms to use that are acceptable like “zip it” or “cool it” or “knock it off”. But I was too busy thinking to apologize.

I suddenly remembered the practice test I had seen earlier and said “How about this? I’ll give a practice test before the chapter test. Whattya think?”

This was met with an enthusiastic response, including “We love you, Mr. G!” so I knew I was on the right track. Over the next week, as we went into the last part of the chapter on quadratics, I noticed that Bryan—despite my breach of teacher conduct, or maybe because of it—was much less disruptive, more respectful, and even asked me for help, which he had been unwilling to do previously. I also worked more with Pamela—also more respectful—to make sure she could do the problems. I can’t say for sure what had been going on between Bryan and Pamela. Some things forever remain mysteries.

Around that time, I saw that my school had advertised for two math teaching positions. I knew the principal had his sights set on a teacher in another school. Also a sub filling in for a teacher who had taken off in May for health reasons also appeared to have the inside track. Nevertheless, I applied.

The application contained the following question: “Describe your knowledge of the shifts occurring in Common Core State Standards.” The “shifts” referred to are also known as “instructional shifts,” which seems at odds with statements made from up on high that Common Core does not dictate pedagogy. Most likely, the term embodies the apocryphal claim that prior to Common Core, math was taught as a series of disconnected rote procedures without context or “understanding”. Thus, the reasoning goes, Common Core requires shifts in instruction.

I knew the question required some adroitness. The crux of my answer was: “The biggest shift is towards conceptual understanding and problem solving. Math classes will be increasingly problem- and project-based, student centered, and inquiry-based. Math problems will be engaging and rich, motivating students to learn the procedures needed to solve such problems.” I could have put in more buzzwords but I felt that any more would have destroyed credibility.

The end of the school year was becoming a distinct reality now, and many of my seventh grade students were asking me if I would be back in the fall. I didn’t realize it but I had become somewhat of a hero. This became clear on open house night the second week in May. My room was packed with parents thanking me for stepping in mid-year and telling me how much their son or daughter enjoyed my class. A seventh grade boy named Jamie who was in one of the algebra classes introduced me to his parents and asked if I would be back in the fall. “Don’t know,” I said “but I did apply for a math teaching position.”

“ALL RIGHT!” he yelled. “I get to have you for geometry!”

“Yeah, well, let’s wait to see if I get an interview,” I said. “Then we’ll make plans.” We both laughed.

After a certain point, my room became suddenly empty and I was the only one there. The principal came in to my classroom exuding a warmth I had come to know and distrust. “If you’re wondering where everyone went, they’re at the presentation in the gym,” he said.

I listened politely as the principal, standing in my empty classroom talked about how great the open house night had turned out, and then left as quickly as he had come in. I wished he had dropped by when the room was packed. But I doubt that anything would change in the long run. An e-mail reply from the school district would reach me in July saying: “Thank you for submitting an application for the math position at Lawrence Middle School. Unfortunately, this is to let you know that you were not selected for an interview.”

While I loved teaching my students, I had sometimes wondered if I would really want a job at a school heading in the direction of student-centered, group-work-oriented, and textbook-free teaching. I would be lying if I said I wasn't willing to risk it."


Anonymous said...

Common Core doesn't, officially, require an instructional shift, but administrators who _want_ a shift toward group-work, project-based classrooms will of course use Common Core to get it. It doesn't matter what works. It doesn't matter what students or parents want. What matters is what the administration wants, and by hook or by crook, they are determined to get it.

Wayne Bishop said...

My Cal State LA math department just had a meeting and some of the faculty were bemoaning the lack ofcompetence - even at the algebra level - of many of our upper division students (somehow sneaked through Calculus, etc.). I am more aware of the precollegiate math ed scene than most of my colleagues. I sort of spoiled their day (week? career?) by announcing, "If you think that it can't get any worse, you are wrong. It can and it will."