Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Conversations on the Rifle Range 26: Moving On and the Sedimentation of Students

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 the final episode (26) to this series.

I am currently working at a middle school in a neighboring school district. I do not have my own classes; I assist the math teachers there by identifying and working with students who are struggling. Like most schools these days, it has fallen under the spell of Common Core, with a disturbing amount of instruction spent on writing about how they solved a problem, explaining their reasoning and why they think the answer is reasonable. I work there four days a week; I started in August and will continue until school lets out. While I miss having my own classes, I like it for the most part. One key advantage is that it allows me to focus on teaching students the basic skills they are missing rather than on having them explain their reasoning for problems they cannot solve because of procedures they cannot perform.

The district I’m in has recently contracted with SVMI (the Silicon Valley Math Initiative), just like the school district where I was working last year. These are the folks who developed the Problems of the Month to stimulate "algebraic thinking" outside of algebra courses and who also constructed the test that was now being given as an extra barrier to taking algebra 1 in seventh or eighth grade in my old district. There is no word yet on raising the barriers for qualifying for the traditional algebra 1 course in 8th grade. But one never knows.

I have not kept in touch with anyone from my previous school (Lawrence Middle School), though occasionally I look at the website for pictures of the students. I see pictures of some of my seventh graders, now eighth graders. All appear to be doing well. I don’t know how any of my former eighth graders are doing now in high school.

In case you’re curious, my algebra classes managed to do better on the chapter test on quadratics than they had on the quiz. We moved on to algebraic fractions and various word problems had one last test, and that was that.

My prealgebra classes also wrapped things up nicely. I recall with particular fondness my Period 2 class. They were my favorite of all my seventh grade classes; they were generally very sweet, though over the months since I took over they were much more talkative and rambunctious as they proceeded on their relentless path to becoming eighth graders. On the day before the last test, we were reviewing multiplication of binomials and a boy asked “the question”: “Am I ever going to be using polynomials in my life?”

The question of “When will I ever use this stuff” gets a lot of play these days. I don’t recall it being asked that much when I was in school, but maybe I wasn’t aware of it. Fifty years ago, when I was in junior high, the space race had begun in earnest and there seemed to be no doubt in my mind, or in the minds of many of my classmates, of why algebra or math in general would be of any use. Given today’s technological age, one would think the same reasoning prevails, but students keep hearing that with the Internet you can just Google the answer to many questions. Furthermore, I think the press and others plant the idea in peoples' minds that math must be relevant and kids seem to delight in asking "How am I ever going to use this in life?" I get the feeling that they've picked it up from various sitcoms and other venues that use this as a stock phrase and laugh-getter. Kids only ask this question because they are –essentially—told to ask it.

Mario, the boy who asked the question, had ambitions of being a wrestler. “Well, if you go into wrestling, I doubt you will use polynomials much. And those of you who go into law or journalism, or any field that doesn’t typically use a lot of math—well you probably won’t use polynomials all that much.”

The class listened quietly—they were the only pre-algebra class that would do that.

"But,” I continued, “If you go into math, the sciences or engineering, you will use polynomials almost on a daily basis. They are a mainstay of mathematics and used in just about every math course you will take from now on. Formulas in physics that plot the trajectories of rockets are polynomials. But aside from polynomials and what you will use in life, I don't have a crystal ball. I don't know what any of you will do. My job—and the job of all teachers—is to prepare you as best I can to give you as many opportunities as possible. Maybe you aren't interested in science now, but suppose you change your mind. The algebra you take will then prepare you to take science classes and other math classes. It would be totally unfair of me to single someone out and say 'Oh that person will never be in science, so let's not waste time teaching him math' because we just don't know what that person will do. If you had told me when I was in seventh grade that I would end up majoring in math, I would have thought you were crazy. I didn't do well in it then. But here I am. Anyway, that's my sermon for the day."

I expected to then move on, and was suddenly surprised when the whole class applauded. "That's the first time I ever got applause for that little speech,” I said. There are other reasons to study algebra that I didn't get into with my students, one of them being the "sheer beauty and importance of the structure of mathematics". But I had the applause so I went with that.

I’ve given variations on that speech where I am now, and on some occasions I have again received applause. It’s mid-February as I write this, and a little past the one-year anniversary of when I started my assignment at Lawrence Middle School. It has taken me a while to let go of the students there and stop missing them. When I started at my present school, I resisted getting to know the new students well, as if it would spare me the pain of saying goodbye later.

But my new students have grown on me. They won’t ever replace my former students; they’ll just add to the collection. The white boards in my classroom on the last day of school come to mind here. Each class wrote their names and greetings on the white board, some erasing what was there before, some writing over it, like sedimentary layers of rock. That’s what my memories of students will be like over time, I think.

I’ve left some pictures of those white boards so you could see. I’d much rather leave you photos of the students themselves but privacy laws prevent me from doing so.

I wish you could meet them all. I know you’d love them.

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