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written Friday, 2/3/2006

Baby steps

As I’ve been getting settled at West Jefferson High School during the past month, I hope a shift towards a more positive, hopeful tone has been evident in my journal entries. I truly don’t want them to become just an outlet for my gripes.

I do get the feeling, though, that every three steps forward in my budding teaching career are swiftly followed by two steps back. I should stress that at least the net progress is a single footstep in the right direction, even though some of my students would instinctively reach for a calculator if that metaphor were presented as a math problem (You think I’m joking?)

This week typified the difficulty in sustaining a sense of progress. I felt like I connected with numerous students during my pep talk last week, in which I encouraged them to “suck it up and get better, or quit.” Through the week, I also pulled aside some of the most listless students before class, and urged them to stop wasting their time. I’ve seen increased participation and attentiveness overall, and anticipated that this could be a breakthrough week. In Algebra 2 especially, I thought the material was considerably easier to grasp than some of the content we’ve covered recently, and students appeared to be following along quite well in class. Could this be the week in which most of them earn a passing grade on the weekly Thursday quiz?


I haven’t graded the quizzes yet, but I saw their confused and defeated faces as they struggled with questions that I thought were almost insultingly easy. Half of the questions required nothing more than typing expressions into a calculator. As they handed in the quizzes, I saw many answers left blank. I saw many more grossly incorrect answers. Even if they didn’t truly comprehend the material, they had seemed to be following along on some minimal level during the week. Is their memory retention really that bad?

I delivered another preachy message today, building on last week’s advice that they focus on the participation portion of their grade. Recognize the purpose of doing homework and classwork, not just the point values of the assignments. I realized that too many of them just watch me do examples on the board, and fool themselves into thinking they can repeat the processes during tests. They don’t take advantage of homework and classwork as an opportunity to demonstrate whether they know the material as well as they believe.

“You can watch basketball all day long, and think you’ve learned all the strategies and techniques. However, until you get on the court and practice, you’ll never be a good basketball player. Don’t think for a second that math is any different.”

I don’t have time to collect and check everyone’s homework every day for correctness. The students know, and I even acknowledged today, that they can copy down the problems and scrawl a few phony calculations to simulate a sincere effort. They know how many half-hearted scribbles it takes to receive full credit when I walk around for “homework checks” during the early minutes of class. As cliché as it sounds, today I tried to convince them that they only cheat themselves with their shortcuts.

Like last week, they appeared to listen to my message. I hope to see even more increases in effort next week. I hope to convince them not to be overly-discouraged by their lousy quiz scores. I feel like I’m becoming a pretty good cheerleader, but I still don’t think I’m addressing the real problem…

Who cares?

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I believe I can make Geometry accessible and real to the students in those two periods. I can honestly tell them that the subject is useful to everyday life, no matter what career path they choose. My utter inability to do the same for my three Algebra 2 periods, though, is really weighing me down. Several times this week I found myself at the chalkboard, trying to illuminate the finer points of rational exponents while asking myself “Why do they need to know this?” It’s the same question addressed to teachers in every math class from elementary school through college, yet I don’t have a satisfying answer in this situation. Colleagues tell me that only 10-25% of West Jefferson students will continue on to higher education, and I can only speculate that a very small percentage of those ones will ever need to know how to evaluate x raised to the 17/6 power.

In my schooling, I found Algebra 2 to be fun and challenging, but not because I thought it would ever be useful. To me, the subject presented mind puzzles that I found entertaining for some reason. Useful, though? Even my nine-year engineering career yields very few examples of why I needed to know this stuff. Sure, there are plenty of people in the world who interact daily with logarithms and hyperbolas, but most of those people weren’t terrified by the mere sighting of a fraction in high school.

I’ll stop well short of any suggestion that my students don’t deserve the same opportunities as any other kids. They absolutely do. That alone may be an adequate justification for the school offering 10 sections of this course, aside from any legal requirements. On the other hand, I can’t help but feel that class time would be better spent addressing the elementary math skills that they will need in their daily lives, yet have never adequately acquired.

I wish there was another option for the half of my students who get absolutely nothing out of my class. Nothing. Sure, a big part of the problem is lack of student motivation, but how can I expect them to be motivated for this subject when they clearly don’t possess the prerequisite skills? Too many of my students really belong in a remediation class, yet I’m sure no high school wants to have two or three remediation courses for every “real” secondary math course offered. I’m sure many parents aren’t willing to admit that their children’s math skills are that poor. So instead, dozens of kids sit through my classes every day with zero chance of receiving a passing grade. Something’s wrong.

Next year’s options

If I were forced to make a decision today, I have no clue whether I’d be happier teaching Geometry and Algebra 2 again at West Jefferson next year, or returning to Bonnabel to teach Algebra 1. Both scenarios have definite pluses and minuses. There is one factor that could make this an easy decision (assuming I even decide to stick around here through another hurricane season).

I ran into Bonnabel’s principal at a basketball game several weeks ago. He mentioned that he was trying to set up a computer animation course for next year, with me in mind as the teacher. An excuse to spend countless more hours playing with Flash, in the name of education? What a sweet deal that could be! I also heard that he made similar comments at a recent meeting with parents of Bonnabel freshmen. If I get the opportunity to share my graphic design hobby with kids, that will cinch my decision.

The latest campus buzz?

The Bonnabel science teacher who was also transferred to West Jefferson overheard a perplexing comment today. Allegedly one of our common students was pondering whether I’m “a geek or just gay.”

Are those my only two options? More amused than anything, I had to wonder what prompted such a remark. Is this a common perception amongst the students, or just one kid’s odd speculation? Of course, I don’t make any attempt to keep my geeky interests in the closet, so I’d be surprised if that particular label is really up for debate.

Gay, though? Is it because I’m unmarried and have no children? Or, do I unconsciously emit an irrepressible rainbow-colored aura of fabulousness through the cloudy layer of chalk dust that perpetually coats my rumpled Goodwill-purchased wardrobe? Apparently I need to become more attuned to the campus grapevine.