Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Dec 10 2010

Learning… as fast as possible

I’ve been told I need to be more cheery here, which means today we’re going to celebrate that my advanced math class finally rocked at life today.

This class uses the 10th grade curriculum directly from the high school, and if the kids pass the final exam they get high school credit. They took 9th grade algebra last year, and this class starts with a high-speed review of that entire course and then covers all of geometry. Don’t get me started on why this is developmentally inappropriate and not good for children (unless maybe you have the perfect teacher, which isn’t me). I learned last year that in order to cover all of geometry at a reasonable speed (which is important because it’s the entire final exam AND that’s the point of the class, since they already took algebra), the only option is to fly through algebra. Last year the goal was to be done by Thanksgiving, but none of the teachers in the district were done before Christmas. This year I actually finished right at Thanksgiving break, but it was absolutely brutal. My school actually passed along numerous kids who failed the algebra test, and if they didn’t learn it in a year then they really struggle to learn it at hyper-speed. I felt like I spent those three and a half months just destroying self-esteem and crushing dreams. That sounds sad but I’m not kidding. You try learning how to solve polynomials by factoring…in one day.

I did it all while swearing to the kids that we were doing this for a reason, that it would get better during geometry, that we would move more slowly, that they would understand, that they’d remember how good they are at math. I called parents to promise them that their kids had low grades because they were working hard and pushing themselves but the course was absurdly fast, and to beg them to regularly remind their kids how awesome they are. The kids and their families all totally bought into it, but we were all miserable all the time.

Once I knew we were really going to be done by Thanksgiving, I finally got to calendar the rest of the year for geometry. Surprise surprise, there actually isn’t that much time to take a leisurely journey through the subject. I found myself debating where I could cut days off of units and how I could spend less time on the unit tests. I had to explain to the kids that when I said, “We’ll go slower,” I didn’t mean “We’ll go slowly.” Sigh.

That made this first geometry unit ridiculously important. If the kids have put up with hell to get to geometry, then they have to do well in geometry. Failing the first test would be the final blow to their self-esteem in math… possibly forever. All of that hard work has to be for something, and they need to taste success as soon as possible. This means I poured energy into this unit. I wrote endless worksheets of practice problems. I made a vocabulary dictionary. I taught carefully and intentionally. I had kids in before school, after school, and during lunch. I made each of my seventeen students a personalized test review sheet with the problems I knew they were still having trouble with. Then I sat in terror and watched as they took the test yesterday.

Luckily, they rocked that test. There were 100s all over the place. There were shouts of joy when I passed tests back today. Kids who have failed all year long suddenly passed with flying colors. I went around the room offering to help with test corrections or studying for the re-takes, and even my lowest students just smiled and said, “No thanks, I get this.” YES. YESYESYESYES. You do get it. Finally.

2 Responses

  1. Are there any ways to teach algebra that are less level-dependent? i.e. difficult problems that can be solved in easy or hard ways or can change based on skill level? Kind of like yoga?

  2. I remember going from Algebra to Geometry and I felt like I was giving my brain a cookie. It was SO MUCH EASIER.

    Also, your posts make me relive my failing math class days over and over and over again. Yet I continue to read. I hope you appreciate what I do for you :)

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