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written Saturday, 4/18/2009
What a perfect time of year to dig up Biz Markie’s “ Spring Again,” released way back when I was in high school. Hmmm, an old school rapper best known for whimsical lyrics and a horribly off-key singing voice. Could it be that Mista Whizz-ite has been inspired to head back to the studio sometime soon?
Sign of the season
A couple days ago I woke up to a frenzied clunking sound echoing from the bathtub. I’ve become accustomed to Kong and Estelle raising a ruckus in the mornings, but I trudged over to the bathroom anyway to investigate.
Ah, spring is definitely upon us!
The first roach of 2009 found his way into my apartment, and Kong was celebrating his appearance with a flurry of feline high-fives. Lying on his back in the middle of the tub, Roach kicked spastically. Kong followed up with a swat. Roach ricocheted off the sides of the tub and lied still for about ten seconds. Kong stared intently and then poked him, causing him to start kicking again. The cycle of kitty playfulness (or unbridled violence, depending on the perspective) continued. As I also disclaimed about a year ago, I have no affection for uninvited insects in my apartment, especially those of the large and crunchy variety. Nonetheless I found myself rooting for Roach to upright himself and escape Kong’s abusive play date. A detached leg lay near the drain. I sat on the edge of the tub for a while and contemplated where in God’s infinitely wise and merciful plan does such horrible suffering fit in? Of course He’s decided it’s still not my privilege to know yet, so I returned to bed.
Other than a few limbs left in the tub upon my next visit to the bathroom, Roach’s ultimate fate is unbeknownst to me. Usually Kong leaves corpses in plain sight for me to recover, but she’s not revealing her crimes this time. Godspeed, Roach.
School year winding down
We’ve been on spring break for the past week and on Monday we’ll return for the final month of school. Last year spring break was three weeks earlier, in March, but due to the timing of Easter pushed it back this year. While in some sense a break felt overdue, personally I would have preferred to forego the vacation and just finish off this stinkin’ school year already. Pausing at this moment feels like reaching the 25-mile point in a marathon and stopping for a nap. Nonetheless, lacking any vacation plans, over the first five days I spent an average of 13 hours a day in bed.
By now I’m gearing up for school again. It’s always a challenge to build any sense of continuity during the fourth quarter. Just three weeks ago standardized testing interrupted the flow of things, and in two weeks the AP (Advanced Placement) exams begin. After a couple weeks of AP exams, the seniors stop attending school, a week later the rest of the students finish, and then after a week of professional development the teachers are set free.
There are two more sessions of the UNO class I teach for the Teach Greater New Orleans program. The subject of “Technology in Secondary Math Education” has been well-suited for me and I believe the practitioners have appreciated the usefulness of the content and the low-key tone of the course. I’m sure though that they must be glad that this class, and especially their whole year of TGNO coursework is winding down. I’ve been unofficially offered the opportunity to teach the math education content courses for the entire year next year, but I intend to decline. I’d still be willing to do this second semester course again, but my agreement to co-teach a one-unit course at Tulane again during fall semester will be enough extra-curricular activity for me.
Recalling the struggle
This semester I’ve been taking an online foreign language course over the Internet and today the final live session was held. Pre-recorded video lessons and interactive practice exercises provided much of the instructional content. The live sessions featured streaming audio/video of the instructor while students were expected to get a microphone headset in order to speak back to him. I started out doing pretty well, but about halfway through I began to fall behind. For as much as I’ve shared my history of academic flops with my students at Lusher, it’s actually been quite a long time since I’ve felt like one of the “dumb kids” in a class. Some of the concepts felt like they should have been so easy, yet I just couldn’t seem to get it right sometimes (Many of my math students offer similar complaints). One young couple in particular quickly outshined the rest of us, although I just recently found that they already had a decent familiarity with the language. In the latter half of my life I had largely learned to overcome my procrastination tendencies, but over the course of this class some old bad habits resurfaced. I constantly found myself cramming on the day before the live session. Just like the math content that I teach, I know that practice and repetition are crucial to learning, especially at my age when new languages aren’t so easy to acquire. As the challenge became greater though, I failed to give the class the time and attention it needed.
I had signed up for the class out of personal interest, so on several occasions I contemplated just quitting. After several years now of chastising math students for similar shortcomings in my class and sternly prodding them to “fix it,” a sense of hypocrisy is perhaps the only reason I didn’t drop.
Apparently I wasn’t the only student having trouble committing to the effort. About six or seven started in my course section, but I was the only one who participated through all of the last three live classes. In fact, over the last half of the course no more than three students ever participated in any given live session. Despite sticking around to the end, the instructor politely suggested that my progress was not what it ought to be, and I should consider retaking the course. Bummer.
I don’t know what’s more difficult – being forced to follow a prescribed course of study as a youth or having to will yourself to do it on your own as an adult. Through this course I believe I’ve regained a little more understanding of what my young students are experiencing, but I’m not sure how much (if at all) this insight will change the way I deal with them. No matter how much I relate to the struggle, they still need to perform at least at some minimal level. The key to motivating those who fall short still eludes me.
Unnamed kid #1
My school attempts to create a supportive environment for our students, yet I’m still convinced that many need to be allowed to fall on their faces without a coddling adult waiting to catch them.
One young man has been mindlessly occupying a seat in one of my Algebra 2 classes through most of the year, hardly ever doing classwork or homework without my insistence. The first two quarters he earned D’s, after which I gave up pestering him about his productivity aversion. Third quarter he earned an F. He, like several other poor-performing students, requested some last-minute mercy before report cards were to be issued yet received none.
At the start of the fourth quarter he suddenly started showing some effort and has sustained if for about a month. On the most recent test, he even earned a B.
“What did you do differently this time?” I asked.
I asked him what motivated him to finally start exerting some effort. “Seeing that F on my report card,” he replied. Maybe his actions are no more than a last-ditch attempt to avoid having to retake Algebra 2 over the summer or next year, but I’ve seen many students in his position still fail to learn anything from their F’s. Somehow I detect from this kid a sense of sincerity and a desire to change some old poor habits.
Despite all the time and opportunity that he’d wasted in my class, that kid really made my day.
Unnamed kid #2
Another young man took PreCalculus over the summer so that he could take AP Calculus this year as a junior. When he introduced himself to me late last year, I strongly advised him against this plan on the belief that the PreCalculus content really requires more time to be mastered. Plus, his long scraggly hair and brutish physique give him the likeness of a professional wrestler rather than a mathematical scholar. Despite a thoughtful, soft-spoken demeanor, I’m probably a bit guilty of prejudging him based on appearance. He proceeded against my advice and entered my AP Calculus class with grossly inadequate skills. It was painful to see him sit cluelessly through much of the first semester, and I somewhat resented his refusal to heed my earlier warning. All along though I had to acknowledge that he never stopped trying, and with the aid of a tutor and numerous visits with me during lunch and after school, he’s made one of the most stunning academic surges I’ve ever witnessed from a student. The more he achieves, the more he strives. I still occasionally see gaps in the skill set he should have acquired from years past, yet he’s quick to ask questions and resolve such problems. Lately he’s been making insightful observations that escape most other students. Several days into spring break I was riding my bike past Tulane when I spotted him sitting in front of the university, studying calculus. In fact, I hardly ever see him anywhere around school without his calculus book these days. Two days later when I held a voluntary AP exam study session, all the other ten or so students left within three hours. I finally had to kick this kid out of my classroom after 6.5 straight hours of studying.
I’ve come across some more naturally gifted young math students in my teaching experience, but his gritty determination for calculus is second to none. There are plenty of kids who I wish had even a fraction of his resolve. That kid has made my year.