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Little Things

written Saturday, 4/29/2006

Ups and downs

I still can’t figure out why some weeks in teaching are so demoralizing, while other weeks go by relatively smoothly. The mood is never traceable to a single event, either good or bad. At best, I can typically identify only a few factors that contribute to the overall success or frustration of any given week.

Oddly, the vibe shift has become somewhat predictable. Good and bad spells seem to alternate weekly. Just as a couple incidents of disrespectful student behavior set a negative tone in my last writing, a few little things turned this week into a fairly positive one.

Finishing strong

CD (boy) & EJ (girl), two of my favorite “unspectacular” kids who I mentioned in my 4/14 entry, have been doing quite well recently in my Geometry class. CD had been a steady B or C student, yet last week he got the class’s only perfect score when I tested the students on right-triangle trigonometry. This week, he once again got an A. While hanging out in my classroom before school and during lunch, he’s been asking for practice problems. Now that I know he’s capable of top scores, I told CD that I expect him to remain amongst my top tier of students. He claimed laziness as the reason for not doing better earlier in the year. It’s always refreshing to hear a student take responsibility. EJ eclipsed CD in the latest quiz by getting a perfect score herself (including an extra credit problem). At a time when many students lethargically limp toward the end of the school year, a handful of students help keep my spirits up by finishing strong.

A real student

A month ago I wrote about a boy in one of my Algebra 2 classes who had been absent for two months after being hurt in a boxing match (which he claims to have won, by the way). EW is a nice kid, but he was also an F math student from the start. His attendance was always spotty, and he once told me that his family wants him to drop out of school and start earning money. When he returned from his long absence, I wasn’t exactly thrilled to see him. Nice kid or not, it’s depressing for me to see any student flounder in my class. His basic arithmetic and algebra skills are extremely weak. I would never tell a student that he or she is incapable of succeeding in math, yet nothing short of a miracle would help him pass my class this year.

Nonetheless, EW started taking advantage of my availability for lunchtime tutoring. I confess resenting him a bit at first. I worried that he had conjured up delusions that he could receive a passing grade by spending a few lunchtime sessions with me. I finally decided to talk to him about his grade. I told him that I’d be glad to keep helping him at lunch, but he should know that it’s nearly impossible for him to pass the course this year. It was a bit of a lie – I wasn’t honestly glad to keep helping him at that time. We were spending the sessions covering material that I had already taught to my classes back in January, and I secretly hoped he’d stop showing up for tutoring.

EW didn’t seem surprised one bit by what I had to tell him. He also didn’t stop coming for help. I had originally questioned his motives. Now though, it was clear he was showing up for an education, not for a grade. I thought again about his decision to attend school in spite of family pressure to quit. I can’t imagine that he likes math, yet he gives up his lunchtime to voluntarily study Algebra 2. In a strange way, this is my real dream student. Although his attendance is still a bit spotty, he tries his best to follow along in class. He humbly requests and accepts help, and he appears to appreciate the value of education more than most of his classmates. Hopefully, whatever he learns from me can help him earn a passing grade in math next year.

This week I asked EW about his plans beyond high school. Understandably he doesn’t have a detailed future mapped out, but he does hope to go to college. I told him that I admire him greatly for his perseverance, and I’d be glad to continue tutoring him during lunch. This time, I wasn’t lying at all.

I’m going to be a millionaire

My ingenious A/C flap, in closed and open position (No air flows out of the lower vent).

My room has no climate controls. Central heat and air conditioning for all classrooms are controlled somewhere in the main office. This is actually a good thing, as arguments over the A/C switch in my former Bonnabel classroom were a nuisance. However, that doesn’t prevent student complaints. Since the onset of warmer spring weather, cold air now blasts through a vent above the chalkboard all day long. My afternoon class generally welcomes it, but my earlier periods whimper and moan.

Before school Monday morning, I rigged a makeshift flap to cover the A/C vent. Now I can pull a rope in the corner, which loops through a wire ring hung from the ceiling. The rope raises the cardboard flap, allowing the cool air to flow. A scrap piece of PVC pipe adds weight to the flap, and causes it to lower when I release the rope.

The flap is purely functional. There’s nothing pretty about it, yet some of my students think it’s the coolest thing. Throughout the day I received comments such as “I would have never thought of that,” and “You could make a million dollars, Mr. White.” I didn’t anticipate that my five-minute contraption would intrigue my students far more than any of my lessons on trigonometric ratios.

Maybe this is a good reminder for me. The goal to make my lessons relevant and interesting is easier said than done, yet my million-dollar invention certainly exhibits some geometric properties. If I can think up some imaginative activities or projects that tickle students’ brains in the same way that my flap mechanism did, then maybe I actually could make a million dollars publishing my great ideas for the education community.

It may take some time to develop this concept into a well-executed lesson, but the educational payoff in my classroom could be invaluable.

Visit to Middle School

I spent all day Friday showing my students how to fold pieces for another “geometric origami” model. During such diversions, I enjoy seeing some of my weakest students achieve a rare sense of accomplishment and involvement in my class. Most students enjoyed the activity.

On this relaxed day, I drove over to Marrero Middle School during my lunch and planning hours. TGNO friend Michelle teaches math to sixth graders there, and I sat in on one of her classes. As is to be expected from rambunctious pre-teens, gossip immediately started flowing as the students entered her classroom for 6th period.

“Oooooh, is that your boyfriend Ms. Ferber?” they squealed upon seeing me seated along the edge of the room. Kids started spilling in from the hallway to catch a peek at the strange man in Ms. Ferber’s classroom. Michelle had to spend several minutes shouting at many students to go back to their own classrooms, and then coercing her own students to settle down.

It was an interesting experience. There’s an undeniable energy amongst the middle schoolers, and I could certainly see why Michelle is so distraught during some of our cohort meetings. She seemed to spend about a quarter of the time scolding and disciplining off-task students. I was exhausted just watching. I tried to deflect attention away from myself by adopting the appearance of an official observer. I scribbled in a notebook between stern glances at the students. No matter how serious I tried to look, though, Michelle was right: It’s hard not to laugh at some of their antics. After one boy admired his teacher’s “nice boots,” a second astonished boy apparently mistook the compliment for a brash remark about “nice boobs.” Other inappropriate and unexpected behavior inevitably brought guilty smirks to my face. Silly middle schoolers.

I returned to West Jefferson and greeted my 7th period Geometry class. I told them about my visit to middle school. “Man, those kids are crazy,” I noted, having gained a slightly greater appreciation for my high schoolers. A few of my students who had attended Marrero Middle School wondered if they might know my friend who teaches there.

“What’s his name?” one asked. I explained that her name is Ms. Ferber.

“Oooooh, is that your girlfriend Mr. White?” they asked. Silly high schoolers.


The coming week starts on May 1. June 1 marks the last day of school for high school students (June 2 is the last day for teachers). Based on the emerging pattern of good and bad weeks at West Jefferson, I’m bracing for a rough week. However, with only one month left, even I am starting to breath a sigh of relief upon seeing the finish line ahead. I’m still not sure what all will be included in my summer plans, but plenty of rest and reflection will undoubtedly be a top priority.

The assembled “open frame” origami models that my classes helped me make.