cheesemonkey wonders

cheesemonkey wonders

Friday, October 26, 2012

And this is why I teach...

It was another crappy Friday in an arithmetic series of crappy Fridays that were running together and threatening to define the limit of my patience for fall trimester as x approaches a mid-sized number that is nowhere near infinity. So I have no idea what possessed me to wake up even earlier than usual to pull together an extra day's practice activity for my right-after-lunch class of rumpled and discouraged algebra students — the ones who believe to their core that California's Algebra 1 requirement is God's own punishment for unremembered karmic crimes they must have committed in previous lifetimes.

But I did it.

The topic was solving and graphing compound inequalities — a skill set that must be mastered in order to have any hope of making sense of and mastering the next topic traditional algebra curricula force-feed to our students: the dreaded topic of absolute value inequalities.

There's really nothing I can say to convince a roomful of skeptical eighth graders that compound inequalities will prove not only useful in business planning (which, after all, is simply algebra writ large across the canvas of the economy) but also amusing and possibly even interesting little puzzles to delight the mind.

To this group of students, they're simply another hoop to be jumped through.

So something in me understood that I needed to reframe the task for them, and to do so using Dan Pink's ideas about intrinsic motivation from his book Drive.

Nothing unlocks the eighth grade mind like an authentic offer of autonomy. As I explained recently to a room of educators at a mindfulness meditation training, middle school students suffer emotionally as much as adults, but they have comparatively little autonomy. A little well-targeted compassion about this can carry you for miles with them, though I usually forget this in the heat of working with them.

For this reason, I like to save practice structures such as Kate Nowak's Solve—Crumple—Toss for a moment when they are desperately needed. I have learned to withhold my Tiny Tykes basketball hoop for moments like this, when students need a little burst of wonder in the math classroom. And so even though I was tired and very crabby about the ever-increasing darkness over these mornings, I pushed myself to pull together a graduated, differentiated set of "solve and graph" practice problems to get this group of students over the hump of their own resistance and into the flow experience of practicing computation and analysis.

And oh, was it worth it, in the end.

The boys who are my most discouraged and resistant learners came alive when they understood that a little athletic silliness was to be their reward for persevering through something they considered too boring to give in to. They suddenly came alive with cries of, "Dr. X— watch this shot!" from halfway across the room. One boy who can rarely be convinced to do the minimum amount of classwork completed every problem I provided, then started tutoring other students in how to graph the solution sets and perform a proper crumpled-paper jump shot.

The girls in the class got into it too, but they seemed more excited about the possibility of using my self-inking date stamp to stamp their score sheets. So I gladly handed over the date stamp to whoever wanted to stamp their own successfully solved and graphed inequalities.

I was far more interested in reviewing their mathematics with them. One of the things I love best about practice structures like this one is that they give me an excuse to engage one on one with discouraged students under a time crunch pressure that adds a different dimension to their motivation. Suddenly they not only want to understand what they have done, but they want to understand it quickly, dammit, so they can move on to another problem, another solution, another graph, another bonus point.

Ultimately, Solve—Crumple—Toss becomes an occasion for conceptual breakthroughs in understanding.

I can't tell you why this happens. I can only tell you that it does happen — often. It makes me feel lighter, more buoyant about teaching them algebra. And it makes them feel happier too.

I wanted to write this down so I could capture it and remember this for a few weeks from now, when it stays darker even longer in the mornings and when I feel crappier and crabbier and more forgetful.


  1. I for one, appreciate these insights tremendously. Amy

  2. Nicely done. As an English and Latin teacher who has recently returned to Algebra I in order to get over my math anxiety, I particularly enjoyed the context of your lesson. If you care to check it out, I write about it here:

    Keep up the lovely writing. I'm glad Nancy Flanagan tweeted about your blog today!

  3. Thanks to you all for your thoughtful comments. It is nice to know I am not alone on this bus!

    - Elizabeth (aka @cheesemonkeysf on Twitter)