A calling ...

"We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims."

"Make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone."

- Buckminster Fuller

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Middle School Math

Here's a real irony: me teaching middle school. Middle school was a total disaster for me -- I went from supreme confidence of being a Concert Master, soloist, star on a soccer team which had lost 1 game over the past 4 years, the only kid in the neighborhood to defeat the local chess master, the late Carolyn Mano, to juvenile delinquency, virtually overnight. My parents were caught totally off guard by how quickly I spiraled out of control after my 15th birthday.

When I stood before the judge at the age of 15, in 1978, the judge informed me that my juvenile record would be expunged if I stayed out of trouble until I reached the age of 18. Unlike many others, having previously had a clean record, I was given a chance to redeem myself. I'll never forget the words with which Mr. Gilbert, the Prosecutor, sent me on my way: "I hope I never see you again."

When my mom told me about how, several years previously, she had seen an article in the Washington Post about Georgetown University's generous policy of offering the children of employees free tuition, I was given a specific destination, a definite purpose. My mission became simply to get accepted to Georgetown University. That simple goal led me to take advanced placement classes across the board, and led me to struggle with ideas and general problem solving.

Recently, when I gathered a group of students who had failed the 3rd quarter, my message to my neediest students was tempered by my humility. My message to them was simple: "What can I do to help and what can you do to help yourselves?" Most of these students have been behavior problems, which is largely why they struggle, but I also realize that students generally act out when they do not understand and become frustrated. I told them about my past. I told one student who has not been turning in assignments, "you are my responsibility now." Having been at the center of trouble, having developed wisdom because of struggle, I am able to express my concerns with students using a compassionate tone, but without accepting any excuses.

We recently administered a district test in math. Students had difficulty with practical applications. Certain problems gave students fits: one asked, given a recipe for pie crusts, how many pie crusts could they make with a certain amount of ingredients; another asked, given a 15-1/2 pound bag of candy, how many 3/4 pound bags could they make? Also, number patterns that involved a pattern of changing rates, essentially volume discounting, was difficult for students, who almost invariably assumed that the rate remained constant. I would love to model the recipe problem with real ingredients, as well as the problem of dividing up a bag of candy. As I help students prepare for their state tests, I see my role as that of a coach. I am not a yelling coach, but I am direct and make it a point to know when students have zeroes in the grade book. Maybe this is how it was meant to be.