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UnGreat Expectations

written Sunday, 1/15/2006

The classroom

Each week, I’m getting more settled at West Jefferson. The students are becoming more aware of what I expect in my classes. This is progress, at least, even though they still don’t necessarily grant me desirable classroom behavior. Reminder to self: They’re just kids, and most of them are pretty cool.

When I got switched to teaching Geometry and Algebra 2 classes several weeks ago, I had high expectations for the higher-level students. Even though I found myself assigned to the supposedly-inferior Westbank of the Mississippi river, I thought that my 11th and 12th graders would perhaps no longer be afraid of fractions. Well, while my students are getting used to me, I’m also becoming more aware of their academic challenges.

Many of the children work long hours at jobs to help support their families. They sleep through class and claim to have no time for homework. How can I argue against paying the bills, but to remind them that they don’t want such a low-level job for the rest of their lives?

Another major challenge is social promotion. Many students really shouldn’t have been allowed to advance to their current grade level, or to their current math class. I understand that much is forgotten from year to year, but far too many students don’t even possess the most fundamental knowledge required for Geometry and Algebra 2. I can’t imagine that they truly earned passing grades in their previous math classes.
Charts summarizing the types of quadrilaterals we’ve studied in my geometry class. My message has been: Don’t try to memorize all this. Instead, think, and figure it out yourself.

In both of my class subjects, I try to encourage thinking rather than memorization or uninformed use of formulas. I keep telling my Geometry classes that there’s too much information to simply memorize. If they’d just remember a few basic rules, though, they could quickly figure out most of the remaining rules that we study. I’m also trying to get them accustomed to reading word problems and drawing pictures to represent them. Even if they’ve forgotten some of the basic rules, they could solve many problems by drawing accurate pictures and observing the resulting figures. For example, when asked which type of parallelogram has perpendicular diagonals, I suggest they use a ruler and protractor to draw such a figure and notice that the result is a rhombus (any polygon with four sides, all of equal length). A lot of students still lag behind, but I think the drawing exercises and real-world examples keep the students in my two Geometry classes marginally engaged.

My three Algebra 2 classes are another story. The struggle to engage the kids is much tougher. There are plenty of ways that Algebra 1 and Geometry apply to “everyday life.” The topics of Algebra 2, though, tend to be applicable only to specific fields in science, engineering, economics, etc. Realistically, most of them will never see a logarithmic function or imaginary number outside of a math class. This subject is proving to be extremely frustrating for most of the students, and for me as their teacher. I don’t know how to make this stuff interesting or relevant to students who are only taking this class because colleges require it.

My students in both subjects are more accustomed to mindlessly using basic formulas and procedures, without understanding why they work. I want them to understand what they’re learning, but it feels like a losing battle most of the time. In their defense, I remember many instances in my own education of teachers/professors explaining some confusing derivation of a formula that, I’m sure, was conceptually simple in their minds. Just give me the stupid formula, I would think. I guess my students must be thinking the same thing.

Maybe I’ll just start giving them the stupid formulas.

With Geometry, I find interesting examples all around me, such as the parallelograms seen when viewing this pop-up card from the side. I recently showed my Geometry classes how to make a very simple pop-up card. With Algebra 2, I find this stuff interesting, but how do I motivate kids who find fractions scary?

Some good times

Concert at Tipitina’s (lousy camera phone photo)

Friday night, a bunch of us including friends Allison, Sunday, Leslie, Michelle, and Robert went to Tipitina’s to see the ReBirth Brass Band. Saturday night, some of us enjoyed a solo concert by Kelcy at a small uptown bar. I don’t know how many more opportunities I’ll get to see all of my TGNO friends. Although Leslie just returned last week, she’s already planning to return to Florida to be with her husband and daughter. Sunday and Allison, lacking job offers, are inclined not to pursue teaching careers anymore. For now, at least, these get-togethers give me some good times to enjoy while I’m out here.