Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Time My Favorite Teacher Gave Up On Me...

The other day I told a group of students the story of an experience in fifth grade that I vividly recall to this day.

I was showing my class this following "prime time watch" as a review of prime and composite numbers.  As we  quickly scrolled through the factors I asked a student what I believed to be an obvious, simple question, "What is 7x1?" Trying not to put students who struggle on the spot yet still getting them involved in our rare whole-class lessons, I thought this would be a no-brainer.  

12 was her answer.  It's not that I was totally shocked but rather a little disheartened that this connection was still not obvious, as we've spent the majority of the year working with multiplication. 

So, I tried to give the quick "array demonstration" for 7x1 with the chance for redemption on 6x1.  The answer... 8.  

Clearly something's not working out.  

I have a group of 7 students who severely struggle with math.  So much so that they usually end up being pulled out of the group any time we're working with new concepts.  Generally speaking this happens everyday at one point or another.  I try to do my due diligence in planning activities, math games, creative problems, etc. that allow them to interact with peer models. But, when it comes to the curriculum, the appropriate pace for this group would slow everybody else to a tedious crawl and that certainly wouldn't be fair either. 

Yesterday during the pull-out I could tell moral was low so I recounted the following story:

Mr. Crowley (go ahead Black Sabbath fans) was an energetic, first-year teacher whom I adored.  It was about the 5th day of working with algebra and I was lost. Lost, lost. I wasn't the strongest math student but I wasn't quite used to the failure I had been experiencing this week and I remember feeling pretty devastated.  Okay, so he had given me a few days to struggle, I'm sure hoping that I would come around.  Finally, he pulled out the manipulatives, sat down with me and only me, and proceeded to walk me through the basic explanation from the first day yet again.  

The conversation went a little something like this:
Him: "Okay, so take these two white pawns and put them on the left side of the diagram."
Me: "Okay."
Him: "Now, we're going to say that these two white ones are half the weight of the red one (insert real life examples) and place it on the right."
Me: "Okay."
Him: "Now, if we take 2 red pawns and place them on the right, how many white pawns does it equal?"
Me: "Two."
Him: "Let's go back to the original problem, how many white pawns does it take to equal 1 red?"
Me: "One."
Him: "Look at the diagram again.  How are you getting your answer?"
Me: "One white pawn equals one red pawn.  There both pawns, they're just different colors."

And it went on and on from there. Frustration to the point of tears (probably from both of us at that point) until finally, he said to me, "You're not ready for this," and gave me some multiplication work from the previous unit that I was particularly good at.

He gave us both some cooling off time before coming back over.  "Mike, don't worry.  You'll get it at some point.  For now, just do something you're good at, get that confidence back up."

I don't remember when I finally did understand algebra but by the time I hit freshman year, I got straight As in that class.  I worked hard at it, stayed after with my teacher, etc.  By that time my brian was ready for it.  It was still challenging but I was ready and I wanted it.  

If algebra had been a state standard, would I have been proficient in it? Nope.  If NCLB happened during my tenure in middle school, would I have got those questions wrong on the 5th grade test? Probably.  Could examples like the above contributed to our school not making our AYP? Who knows?

The one thing we both came to realize during that experience was that forcing a round peg though a square hole wasn't healthy for either of us.  Reflecting on that experience, I realize my own students shouldn't be made to feel like failures day in and day out.  It may not happen everyday, but it's been happening too often.  My eye has been too focused on our test scores.  

So beginning with this unit, we're pared down our curriculum to hopefully meet their needs.  I pull them out and separate them even though I hate it.  Because, at the end of the day I feel more of an allegiance to their future attitudes more so than I feel to my schools standardized test performance.  I wasn't a healthy math teacher for the majority of this year.  Stressed out and frustrated with having to circle so many wrong answers on assessments.  

Even though my district is the one signing my paycheck, I realized that as hard as I'm trying to do right by my school and its numbers, proceeding along the current path is just failing everybody.  And I feel like I'm in a position where I have to choose, fail my school or fail these kids whose parents have entrusted me to do right by everyone.  

I ran across this article: Why things just don't add up for some students.  (Thank you @briankotts & @thehomeworkdog) which inspired this post.  

I realize, I have to give these students something different.  Their time must be focused, not on cramming in the standards, but in strengthening the connections between concept and symbols in even the most basic mathematical situations.  Something inherently below 4th grade expectations.  

I know it's going to take even more planning to keep the standards in mind while lessening my student's load but I want to be my student's Mr. Crowley.  WWMCD?

And the funniest thing, after telling the story and illustrating the example on the board, every one of those struggling students picked up on that problem.  hmmmm....

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