Every teacher has his or her own method of getting across the information, of teaching the kids in class. I recent years administrators, who get their orders from above (administrators and politicians think the chain of command ought to be vertical), have attempted to come up with various strategies to improve how teachers teach (rather than asking teachers what they thought - and then listen to what they have to say).
No Child Left Behind was a political edict that those who forced it on schools finally had to admit didn’t work (except for a number of hard-headed fools who still maintain it would have worked if it had been implemented correctly). Since I was knee deep in NCLB, I can tell you there was no way what the higher ups wanted done was going to get done. They were so far removed from the reality of the classroom they didn’t realize, as a colleague of mine said, “We don’t leave any child behind; some of them just choose to stay.”
After NCLB was discarded for the latest panacea, Common Core, the leaders of education explained that teachers were now going to teach the young people how to reason, actually how to process information and come up with an answer - as opposed to memorizing formulas by rote. When I heard it, I was intrigued (most likely because I was retiring). However, it was what I thought should have been done, what I tried to do (in my own way which, naturally, differed greatly from what “they” expected). I was skeptical of what they wanted to do because I’d seen so many times these people using their “seagull” form of leadership. For those who haven’t heard of this management style, it’s modeled after a seagull, i.e. swoop down, make a lot of squawking noises, dump a load of shit and fly away. What I’ve heard from my teaching friends, as well as what I’ve read, Common Core isn’t the answer, either.
What none of these people who, either 1) have never been in the classroom or 2) were in it, couldn’t handle it, so they decided to move “up” into administration understand is, in order to teach a child, that child must 1) want to learn, 2) have support from home and 3) work at it. Sure, the administrators paraded out there in front of TV cameras people like the late Jaime Escalante, a math teacher from Oakland, CA best known for the movie, Stand and Deliver, which documents his career or Ron Clark, a North Carolinian who moved into Harlem and accomplished absolutely wondrous things there and is currently teaching in Atlanta. The 1988 movie made Jaime Escalante “famous” in the world of teaching (since I taught 12 years of high school math, I was a big fan ) and Ron Clark spoke to our school district - and wowed each and every one of us) in the early 2000s. But thinking that studying Escalante or listening to Clark could make me (or any other teacher) as good as them is like thinking that a baseball player could study Sandy Koufax or listen to Derek Jeter and become as good as either of those guys. It takes more and, just like baseball, there’s no one solution for education.
In my class one year was a sophomore cheerleader who had taken algebra 1 her freshman year and failed it. She passed the first semester with a D. Obviously, the material during the second semester was more difficult and, although she had after school remedial help and re-tests following each exam, with four weeks to go in the semester, she was failing.
A little background on how I’d run class. After explaining how to do problems, I would give the class time to work in groups of three (I placed the best math student in the middle of three desks and have the kids on the sides ask the one in the center for help - if there were no questions, I’d make sure the student in the center ask questions to those on either side, in cases of shyness or lack of interest). I’d check the groups to make sure they all were engaged. Then, I would ask someone to explain how to do one of the problems, on the board or from his or her seat.
I would give kids problems I thought they could handle. If, say, #22 was easier, I’d call on kids who struggled and, usually, we could work our way through the problem, with me asking pointed questions if they got stuck. For harder problems, I would choose students whom I felt either knew it, or should have known it. For this girl, though, in order to avoid embarrassment, I wouldn’t ask her to do a problem. Rather, I would say, “OK, who knows the first step to do this problem?” This pattern would continue until we got to a point in which the problem was simple enough that she’d at least know how to do the next step. After a few steps a problem was down to “x + 3x = 200.” I looked at her and said (not her name), “Emily, what is the next step?”
I saw confusion wash across her face until she resignedly said, “Subtract x from both sides.” (For those of you whose algebra is shaky, the answer was to combine x + 3x and get 4x = 200. I’ll let you figure out the answer).
At our school, the semesters were 18 weeks long. Every six weeks each student would receive a progress report which told the parents what their child’s grades were in each class. In May (with about four weeks to go in the school year), I got an email from her mother, stating she was concerned about her daughter’s failing grade. This was the first time the mother had corresponded with me, although she had received two progress reports, one after six weeks, and another after 12 weeks, which said her daughter’s algebra 1 grade was an F. The counselor had told me when she had spoken to the mom that she blamed her poor grade on cheerleading practice, claiming it lasted four hours and her daughter was too tired to finish (or was it, start?) her homework.
At a meeting the following week that the cheerleading coach and I had attended, she asked me how “Emily” was doing. I looked at her and said (also not her name), “Sarah, if I asked Emily what comes next in the sequence, “2, 4, 6, 8, . . . ” she would say:
“Who do we appreciate?”