Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Times Tries to do The Math.

I was going to spend time blogging about books today. I’ve been frantically finishing Stephanie Meyer’s trilogy of Twilight, New Moon and Eclipse, and was going to cope with my withdrawal through writing. (Book withdrawal is one of my most favorite feelings—mostly because it means that I have fallen so far into the story that the transition back to the real world is disorienting.) However, I then stumbled across an article in the Times titled: Report Urges Changes in Teaching Match. (Look it up under Education for March 14.) This article concludes that the real issue is that our 15 year olds are struggling with Algebra, and as a result are not going to do as well academically.
Certainly many of us remember sweating through Algebra II and Trigonometry. I remember spending a few too many afternoons in Mr. David’s room, wishing that I just understood what he was talking about. And yet, I got over it. I learned me some math, and have since never used it. I’m thinking about this now because I am about to take College Algebra test myself to fulfill requirements for my degree. It’s been roughly seven years since I’ve used any algebra skills, but I did just look up the quadratic equation, and recall its use in parabolic functions. But, getting back to the article, I think once again, we’re missing the point. Of course our public school students can’t grasp algebra, they’re struggling to grasp fractions.
Again and again we’re trying to “fix” education by first addressing the symptom and NOT the problem. The problem, as cited in the article is “Half of the eighth graders tested could not solve a word problem that required dividing fractions.” Just this past week I watched my class take the 7th grade math test, and I’ll tell you that half of the students could not complete a circle graph, use a protractor, or manipulate fractions.
Despite this lack of basic skills that the article, and my classroom, is drawing attention to, we need to legitimately consider what is happening. Our students are floundering, and as much as they’re struggling with fractions, perhaps the second half of that problem is that they are unable to understand word problems because they struggle as readers. As a result organizations like NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) are receiving more and more data that pigeonholes our teachers into teaching skills that the students are genuinely unprepared for. No teacher can effectively teach the grade level standards when the students are below grade level. Instead they must spend significant amounts of time “differentiating” material to support and catch up students, all the while meeting absurd requirements for bulletin boards, portfolios, student work folders, investigations, exit projects, and so on. Our teachers have such little time to devote to their teaching that the students are suffering—Big Time. Perhaps, if my day was not torn between senseless meetings and circuitous paper work I could actually address the issues that arise in my classroom. However, if I neglect the bureaucratic duties than I am equally punished with more meetings, because it must mean that I am “not effectively on-board”. We math and reading teachers are stuck. We’re stuck because our content areas are all anyone can ever focus on. We’re stuck because we’re given six different curriculum models at a time, and we’re stuck because our administrators refuse to acknowledge that our students come to us not 6 months behind, but 2-3 YEARS behind. I don’t know how to fix it, but I do know that we need to stop letting kids get away with not learning. When we don’t expect them to retain information, they won’t. It doesn’t matter how old they are, children must begin every day with the understanding that every choice they make within a school building affects their future. We don’t have any more time to let them forget that.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Thoughts that Spring Ahead

Sunday afternoons always pose an interesting series of contradictions. I am often torn between wanting to embrace the final weekend moments—lounging, seeing friends, yoga—and preparing for the week ahead. Preparation is, of course, always necessary, but it also seems to cast a long shadow over the course of the week. In the next few days my students will sit for the New York State Math Exam. This test, coupled with their state English exam, will determine whether or not they are promoted to the next grade and whether or not our school will remain open.
As you can see, a test is never just a test.
The toughest challenge is not the test itself; it is instead the hoopla that accompanies such a stressful day. The children come in anxious, the staff is anxious, and we ignore it. In our school it is best to deny the actuality of any given situation and instead paint a picture of control. For example, the preparation for the test has been long, but none of the teachers actually know who will be administering the test, to which students, and for how long this will happen. I can presume that I will spend the entire morning with my homeroom. (When I say entire morning, I literally mean from 8:40 am until 11:15am when they go to lunch.) I shall then see them for our regularly scheduled class time, from 12:00 to 1:30pm. This results in a whopping 5 period day with the same group of students. Anyone who has ever spent 5 periods with a group of seventh graders knows exactly what I am talking about, and while I love them, no one person should ever be subjected to that.
This also means that once again, my abilities to teach will be compromised. Though we are in desperate need to move forward through out fiction writing unit, one of my most favorites to teach, we won’t be able to. Instead our work will be pushed back a few more days simply because the kids will be bouncing off the walls in a mixture of frustration and hyperactivity. Simply put, we can only prepare them so much for the test, and the truth of the matter is they are too far behind. It is not that they can’t do the work; it is that we rob them again and again of opportunities to catch up. When I think back to the amount of time spent learning math, or learning anything, it is interrupted by any number of issues. These range from extreme behavior problems that my school is unequipped to deal with, to ice cream parties, announcements, ballroom dancing, announcements, teacher-meetings, suspensions, schedule mishaps, class changes, teacher changes, and bureaucratic nonsense.
It seems as though we are always about twenty paces behind, no matter what we teachers try to do, and on Sundays you really begin to feel it. The potential for the week lays out before you in a Word doc, and yet you know that to there will be approximately five things that will interrupt it. I have six new students, boys in my now disbanded all-girls class, (because when you go wrong with same sex groupings it goes very wrong) who have ostensibly spent the first part of their year learning how to cause trouble rather than how to be students. They are so far behind I’m not sure how to catch them up. Now they will sit for a math test that will prove to them, yet again, that they are not good enough to try. As I said before, Sundays pose contradictions. This week I have to find another way to lift them up, knowing that I am a part of a school that is more interested in looking like we are supporting our students rather than actually giving them the tools they need for success.