Why do We Forget Everything that We do in Class?

My fourth year of teaching I really began to reflect upon the purpose of my educational experiences. Specifically, the purpose of taking so many college courses to become a teacher. (How does having Abstract Algebra help me teach Algebra I?) It was after I admitted that I really didn’t know the math I was teaching I began to question the whole purpose of school as we know it.

As educators, we like to toss around rhetorical statements about mastery of material, but the reality is that the vast majority of the students we see will quickly forget the material we taught them. I don’t mean kind of forgetting and becoming rusty with the material, but completely forgetting it, so that if they were to encounter the material in several years it will be as if it never happened. I had this happen at my in-laws over Christmas break a few years ago. I had given my Algebra I class a worksheet where they were asked to find solutions to systems of linear equations by graphing. I was in the basement correcting, and as a joke I decided to give it my brother-in-law who had never passed College Algebra. (He is a college grad because he ended up using a Statistics class for the math requirement, which prevented him from becoming a history teacher, which make any sense to me.) He couldn’t do anything on the worksheet. As the rest of the family made fun of him he offered to let them try. My in-laws have six members in the immediate family, five of the six are college grads of typical four year universities. Only one of the six could come even close so correctly solving a systems of equations, and it was the one member who only graduated high school.

Combined, my in-laws have at least 18 credits of college level math completed, yet were clueless when it came to something that was standard fare for 9th grade students at the time. That experience, combined with my own struggles with teaching mathematics, made me question the whole purpose of education as we know it. I often hear math being defended as a subject worthy of study because it teaches critical thinking and problem solving skills. But critical thinking skills cannot be taught outside of a context, and if the context is impermanent has anything really been learned? No content retained, no thinking retained, nothing learned. I started to view my college diploma not as an accomplishment, but as a receipt for time spent avoiding the realities of life.

I am enough a pragmatist to admit that not every student can be reached. I know that there will inevitably some students who slip through the cracks no matter what opportunities are presented to them. I also know that there are some students that will achieve tremendous things in spite of everything obstacle placed in their way. I know that there is a group of students who have their destiny already determined and are just surviving the hoops placed in front of them. But there is a group of students who need school to be something more. This group needs school to be a place where knowledge is gained and retained, and it will be used to push their limits. There is this group that needs to be broken out of the complacency of unquestioned honor rolls and 4.0s.

That group of students will never be served until we can unequivocally answer the question, “Why do we forget everything we learn in school?”

My epiphany occurred when I was teaching Algebra I in 2010. There was one problem the class wanted me to go over from the homework assignment. I asked for volunteers, which there were none. Probably yet another assignment that was either incomplete, copied, or just mindlessly filled in hopes of a completion grade, I thought to myself. The question came from this book, and was found on page 422. It’s number #47

In your chemistry class you have a bottle of 5% boric acid and a bottle of 2% boric acid solution. You need 60 milliliters of 3% boric acid solution for an experiment. How much of each solution do you need to mix together?

I couldn’t do it, couldn’t figure out the answer. I gave the answer that was in the teacher’s edition, but I didn’t have the worked out solutions manual and I had no clue how to get the answer. I have a BA in mathematics, taken courses such as Calculus I, II, and III, Ordinary Differential Equations, Elementary Statistics, Linear Algebra, Abstract Algebra, Physics I and II. I took three rounds of Chemistry classes for my science requirements. I graduated Cum Laude. I ….couldn’t do 9th grade math. That’s kind of humiliating, especially in front of freshmen.

At first I took the rust route of blame, “It’s been years since I’ve seen a problem like this.” That was my scapegoat for my struggles in Calculus I also. It kind of falls in line with that old cliche, “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” As I thought about that more and more, it just didn’t resonate very well with me. Instead of wondering why we forget everything we learned in school, I started a little thought experiment with myself.

What if that’s the point. What if we are supposed to forget everything we learn in school, unless we are explicitly using it. If we are supposed to forget, then what is the purpose of any class in the first place? The only logical conclusion I could reach was as some sort of gate keeping mechanism. Basically, as a society, we are finding out how much a person can temporarily withstand in pursuit of obtaining a long term goal. Once the goal has been achieved, the path to get there can be forgotten.

Want to be a doctor? Well, you’ll need to pass at least Calculus I. Why? Because I want to find out how bad you want to be a doctor. Once you’ve become a doctor, you can forget all that calc crap anyway. (I would venture that this a rather common sentiment, though I am basing it on my personal anecdotal evidence.) The only reason academics would exist then is to torture students, as a way of weeding out the weak.  Ghoulish images of evil old men devising ways to make students confused. “Quadratic Formula…Muwahahaha…”

Solely because of my principles, I refuse to believe that all of math was created as a means of inflicting pain on students. That might be the very real world outcome, but that can’t be the reason for the existence of academic subjects. This was a turning point for me, I either had to accept that the whole premise of school was to make students suffer through some kind of sorting mechanism, or I need to find a purpose behind the math I am teaching. Not only did there need to be a purpose for the math, I needed to find out why do we seemed doomed to forget everything we learn in school. Over the course of the past six years, here is what I believe causes us to seemingly forget so much of what we learn in school.

There are two large elephants that hang over public education that I don’t believe gets the level of discussion they deserve. One is determined largely upon genetics, and the other would require a massive change in society. This means that we should acknowledge them, but realize that they probably won’t change.

Cognitive Ability

The longer I have taught the more I believe that people get equal opportunity and equal outcomes confused. (If you’re not sure what I mean, the movie Ratatouille is a good example). There is such a stigma surrounding cognitive ability that I don’t know if we could ever design an education system that actually meets the needs of everyone involved. If I want to actually bring up cognitive ability in designing a curriculum or class schedule, I am at best written off as being an elitist or worse, thought of as being an inhumanely, cruel, dream crusher. Why? Because I don’t believe I can change someone’s cognitive ability any more than a basketball coach can change someone’s height. So when I am told another story about everyone achieving amazing results, it makes me think of every basket ball player dunking on a 7 foot hoop. Unfortunately, I believe that we have sacrificed so much of our students’ potential at the alter of equality. When we think and act like everyone is the same we decide we know what’s best, which leads me to…

Compulsion

We force students into school to take subjects they may or may not want to. We take this very heterogeneous group, force them into the meat grinder that is academia, and expect uniform results. There are countless analogies written about how school is like a prison, which to some extent are accurate. The problem with compulsion is that it forces people to do an activity, and when an activity is forced it will ultimately be of poor quality, whether or not that activity was enjoyed at one point. And if it wasn’t enough that we force students to go to school, we force them to take subjects that many in society view as largely useless. Then when we find students’ math skills lacking, we force them to take more, so they will be better prepared. It really is a vicious cycle.

I don’t think anything can be done to solve the problems posed by cognitive ability and compulsion, but at least acknowledging them would allow us to try and design an appropriate curriculum and structure, rather than the insanity we have now. But forcing students to do something they don’t want to is really going to impact…

Motivation

Yes, they are forced to go to school, but what do they get out of class? Are they just trying to graduate? Do they need an ‘A’? Maybe they want to graduate with honors. It doesn’t matter, all of these are extrinsic motivators and are doomed to fail. Maybe the student will be fine in the long run, for example, the doctor who can’t remember linear relationships are modeled by y=mx+b, but nothing will remain in long term memory if extrinsic motivation was the reason. That’s because extrinsic motivation doesn’t produce results, just the opposite, they hinder results. Intrinsic motivation is the way to go. If students want to understand that tangent lines are perpendicular to radii of circles, they simply want to have to know WHY. The questions and problems have to be motivating enough, they need to be an end to themselves, not a means to an end. I might be able to convince a student that mathematics might provide a pathway to becoming an engineer, but I cannot make a student value mathematics for itself. I might be able to force compliance, but I just can’t make a student want to learn anything. And when students aren’t motivated to learn, they fall victim to…

Distraction

If you are motivated, you are hard to distract. No motivation, easily distracted. The problem in a classroom is that distraction is not just limited to cell phones. If students are thinking about an upcoming Physics test, they are distracted, even though they might appear compliant. Overcoming distraction takes difficult, self-aware, personal work, and the ability to admit that multi-tasking doesn’t work. I will freely admit, that as a teacher that I do not try an eliminate all distractions for a couple of reasons. First, I firmly believe that limiting distractions is a personal endeavor and is best achieved through intrinsic means, not extrinsic. When students think, rather than rely on memory, distraction is difficult. Ironically, if students are thinking, distracting noises can actually be beneficial, as long as it’s not above typical human conversation, like sitting in a restaurant. When students are trying to memorize information for recall any sort of background noise can be distracting and detrimental. Which leads perfectly to…

Learned Helplessness

“I need help.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Is this right?”

As a teacher I have to acknowledge that I am somewhat an accomplice in this behavior. Students can only be told they are wrong so many times before they just start to assume anything they do will be wrong.  At that point math, or any subject, becomes some arbitrary set of rules to memorize, so students no longer have the capability of understanding their own work, which makes them reliant on the teacher for validation. When students encounter a problem many will start to try and recall previous examples. If they cannot find one similar enough to duplicate in their memory, they quit. They are helpless. They are helpless because students don’t actually like to think.

I don’t want to give the impression that all the responsibility is placed upon the students. Teachers have their role in memory retention also, which I feed into by…

Pseudoteaching

This isn’t a scientifically researched topic as far as I know, but this post about pseudoteaching is one of the most influential I have ever read. I used to be a much more traditional teacher in format. I would spend several minutes going over previous homework, then I would spend several minutes going over new material, and finally give students several minutes to start their own assignment. The problem was that for the majority of the class it was only me doing any thinking, and then it wasn’t much. Even when I would present new material, I made sure to provide examples of everything that might appear on the homework, explicitly saying, “on this section you will see….” Pseudoteaching isn’t about methods, style or entertainment. It occurs when the teacher is the only one doing any thinking and the students nod along in agreement. They nod along because everything the teacher does makes sense. Then they try the homework or take a test and go, “What?!” So my goal is to try to create some controlled confusion, hopefully to make students uncomfortable. If students can embrace being uncomfortable, and differentiate their discomfort from being loss, then they are in the right environment for learning to occur. One thing I can do to try and cause some discomfort is to use…

The Worked Example Effect

The worked example effect is one part of cognitive load theory. Worked examples are one of the most efficient ways to learn a new task, however they pose a slippery slope. The best way to master a new concept or task is through goal free, open ended questions. But those types of questions pose a problem, one of efficiency. To increase efficiency, worked examples are used to guide students. If too many are used, if the tasks to be mastered are too similar though, worked examples actually have the effect of killing thought and creativity, which is why students end up relying on memorizing rather than thinking. My goal in class then is to use some worked examples. I might only use a couple and then make sure the tasks to be completed differ from the examples, or I might start, but not finish the example, forcing the students to complete it. The tough part for me as a teacher is trying to find the delicate balance between efficiency and mastery. Provide too many worked examples and I am contributing to learned helplessness, don’t provide enough and there is no semblance of efficiency. Worked examples are the primary medium in which I invest, but I also need to know…

Other Cognitive Theories

I need to know about the spacing effect and how to use it. I need to know about the expertise reversal effect and how to avoid it. I need to know about ways to reduce cognitive load. I need to know that learning styles, though they sound nice, basically have no evidence for their existence. I need to find a way to convince my students to overlearn. All these things will help students move what is learned into long-term memory. The goal is to force new information into a schema, which are large, framework like memories that allow us to interpret and analyze new information. If I can accomplish all this, and I find students willing to embrace it, maybe, just maybe, some sort of knowledge might last beyond the semester exam.

 

Please notice that nowhere did I talk about making learning interesting or relevant. Those are nice if they are available, but the purpose of this post is to discuss why we seem to forget everything we learn in school. Maybe that’s our destiny as a society, and until we stop using education certificates as economic gate keeping mechanisms, we will be stuck with an ever forgetting society. It kind of makes me sick that our education system is that, but it is what it is.

 

A Summary of Why We Forget What We Learned

Students come are forced to come to school and teachers are forced to teach certain topics. We both need to get over it. If we can’t let coercion component go, our motivation will always suffer. When we rely on punishment and rewards to motivate us, we never really do any action to the benefit of knowledge. All we ever do is try to avoid detentions and get stickers on our diplomas, the knowledge is actually pretty irrelevant. If we don’t care about the knowledge, we will turn our attention to something we actually care about, like Snapchat stories. Between our distracted attention and our willful ignorance of cognitive differences, we condition ourselves to dislike thinking, or at least thinking about academics. When we avoid thinking, we rely on memory because it is so much easier. Teachers provide step by step examples and students memorize them, meaning their knowledge is only, at best, an encyclopedia of examples, devoid of all meaning and context. It allows all students to succeed as defined by grades, but leaves us in the unfortunate position of creating a definition of book smart, which apparently doesn’t have anything to do with actual intelligence. When school is about book smarts, we are acknowledging the irrelevance of academic knowledge. We only perform tasks to get the grade, the test score, the scholarship, the degree, the paycheck, or the promotion. Once we get what we want, we don’t care. The memory is gone, poof, vanished.

This won’t change until we learn how to make ourselves care. It’s not about technology, movies, rewards, grades, tickets, 3 acts, projects, discovery, or anything else. It is about you. You control your care, and when you figure out how to care, you will see that you won’t forget.

Feeling Nostalgic Tonight

Two interesting things happened a few days ago. In one class, as I was trying to push some students with “why” type questions, a student pointed out that I seem to have disagreements with the American education system. In the next class, a student mentioned that she wasn’t sure where she was going to college. Well, I felt like a failure right then and there, but why? I am just a math teacher, my responsibility is to teach math, everything else is the responsibility of the student, right?

After the class of 2013 graduated, I decided the answer was no. The class of 2013 was the first group of freshman I had at my current job. I had many of them for three years of classes, and several for four. In a way I kind of grew up in my teaching along with them. Growing up with them meant that I formed countless inside jokes and built a level of comfort so that I could try and push their boundaries. In return, they pushed my boundaries as a teacher as well. This was the group that got to watch me experiment with different formats and styles. It was towards the end of their time with me that I began to regret that I didn’t demand more.

When I say demand more, I am not talking about academics. I have mentioned previously about how grad school affected my concept of knowledge, but it also made me realize that many more students are capable of achieving goals they never believed if put in the right environment. There was a segment of that graduating class that reminded me of myself. It was a group of students whose cognitive ability would allow them to pursue nearly anything they wanted, but they seemed to be going through the motions.

There was no subject or activity that invoked some sort of passion. If something did create a spark of interest, they were overwhelmed with worries about future career prospects. The cost of college frightened several to the point of not even trying.

They reminded me of myself because I was that student that was doing what I supposed to do. I had the good grades and test scores that got me the scholarships, but I didn’t have any real sort of passion. When I went to college I chose a major not based upon some sort of calling or desire, but on future career prospects. I chose my college largely based upon how much it would cost.

When I graduated I found myself wondering, now what? Six years into my career I found myself wondering, is this it? I felt like I had done everything society ever had told me to do, I got good grades, I was respectful, I stayed out of trouble, I participated in voluntary activities, I held down a part time job in school, got married, bought a house, had kids, and at 27 I felt like it was a big let down. Where’s my stability? Why don’t I have the enjoyable career? All that work for just a paycheck. Then I started to worry that I would take it out on my kids, literally and figuratively.

I don’t know what the future holds for the class of 2013, but there is a handful of students that come to mind that I wish I would have pushed more. I think I did an adequate job getting most ready for college math, or at least no worse than any other teacher, but I have this nagging feeling that I should be responsible for more than just an ACT score. My job should be to guide students down a path towards a rewarding livelihood, whether that be changing their current path or encouraging them on the one they are on. If that isn’t my job I should be replaced with an automated math program, like Khan Academy.

The next year I decided to make some changes. In a conversation with a coworker I mentioned that I decided to do what I thought was right. In earlier years I had learned that I cannot impact a student’s cognitive abilities any more than I can impact a student’s height. But I had learned that I can impact a student’s EQ. I had the most efficient, productive, fun, off-task Algebra I class I ever had to that point. I was fortunate to have a small group of dedicated seniors that let me push their limits (I cannot emphasize how much it was pushed), and I don’t solely mean academic. I proof read essays and talked about college with them. I got them to question assignments instead of just complying with the assignment. Seriously, coloring as as a senior? Not everyday was about math, but everyday felt productive.

I hope that when they left that something stuck, and I’m not necessarily talking about math rules. I hope that they developed a perseverance they didn’t have before. I hope that they developed an understanding of what it means to know something. I hope that when they left me, they learned not to be content with complacency. I know that sounds kind of hippieish, but I do consider myself an idealist at times. To me though, that’s what school should be about, not power-reduction rules.

So when that student said she didn’t know where she was going to college, my heart sank. I have known this student for four years. I have had a few opportunities to push her in the past, but this should have been the year that I had her, and a couple of other potential filled students, in a small group that would have allowed me to shift the focus of education away from math. It pains me because it is reminiscent of the class of 2013 all over again. They told me their plans, or lack of them, and kept my mouth shut. I’m back at that regret all over again. Things change and the good times can’t last forever, but there has to be some way for me to get at least closer to what I had. When I reminisce about those years I don’t know if I made a difference in those student’s lives, but I know I’m not making a difference now.

I Wanted to Write a Math Post…I Really Did

Here’s a scenario for you MTBoS, can I rotate a point on the coordinate plane 53 degrees without the aid of a protractor or some sort of technology beyond a scientific calculator? I had been wondering since the day I told my classes that they wouldn’t have to worry about knowing anything beyond a multiple of 90 degrees. On my drive home I started to visualize ways that trig functions could do the rotation of any angle and have been wanting to try it out during class.

I found an opportunity after school today to attempt my rotation frustration with a student. She took a different approach then I would have. She established where a 90 degree rotation would have been and then did proportions to figure out the new point. For example, we used (3,4) rotating to (-4,3) and since 53/90 became about 58%, she used 58% of 7 (the distance between 3 and -4), and found the rotated x value to be about -1.1.  As we took time to accurately graph what she was doing, we noticed that what she had created was a right triangle with legs of 7 and 1 and she was finding a specific position along the hypotenuse of the right triangle. This was different than what I had found using trig functions to rotate the original triangle formed by (3,4). In contrast to her, I had formed an arc, not a line. This led us to contemplate what is actually meant by rotation, of which we didn’t draw any firm conclusion. It has also lead me wondering if there is a way to make our answers match, can I extend her hypotenuse point out to meet my arc?

It’s discussions like the one above that I live for as a teacher. I think it is the goal of many math teachers to make their students think like that. I think it is the desire for OCTM, NCTM, and even CCS to get students to that point. The problem is that it is really hard to grade that dialogue. It was a dialogue without a designated answer, in which no firm conclusion was drawn, yet so much learning occurred. But it was so wonderful that I dream of the day that I can get a class where that is the norm for 179 days. I have that dream because I have had that class in the past and I know that is how school can have some sort of lasting impact. Those wonderful dialogues are part of a mechanism that can help change and challenge a student’s emotional intelligence.

A couple of years ago I had fortune to have a math textbook with a misprint in the answer key. We dubbed it the impossible problem from the blizzard bag. It was a problem that required the use of logarithms. I gave it to a couple of students to attempt throughout the day, and two of them perfectly illustrate my understanding of emotional intelligence. One student was in his fourth class with me. He had bore the brunt of the harassment I call teaching in at least two of his four classes. When he was presented with the impossible problem, he solved it correctly, saw the answer in the book, and then explained why the book answer was impossible. The other student also solved the problem correctly, but when she didn’t get the answer the book had, she redid the problem two more times. At that point she gave up, frustrated that she couldn’t figure out what she was doing wrong.

The first student, I don’t think he ever held the stereotype of being a genius (sorry if you read this and figure out who you are, I really do think highly of you), but he had embraced the challenges that I had thrown at him about justifying everything, about making sure stuff made sense, and when the time came to claim his authority, he did. The second student, who probably has a higher IQ, never learned to explain and justify her answers. She never learned to claim authority over knowledge always relying on some external force to reaffirm truth. Students like this are ultimately subservient to the textbook or the teacher. I realize that maybe it’s just math for some of these students, but it is frequent enough it does make me worry.

It’s hard to imagine students who come into class and demand to be complacent and feeble minded. Why would anyone want that? It’s not that students want to lack authority, but they are making an economic decision. They are smart enough to know that their worth is measured by two numbers, their GPA and their ACT (or SAT) scores. They want to go to college, and they know that colleges just plug those numbers into a matrix that will then tie a dollar value to the student. The numbers themselves have more value than the knowledge that those numbers represent.  That is why students will ask me, “Is this going to be on the test?” Or my personal favorite, “Do I need to know this,” implying that much of what I teach is actually worthless.

The student with whom I was working on rotations was not there for that purpose. She had come into work on ACT math, of which three problems stand out.

  1. Sequences – She caught on quick, it was the notation holding her up. That is entirely my fault for not showing the notation in her previous classes.
  2. Matrix Multiplication – I haven’t done matrix multiplication since college and wasn’t introduced to it until my junior year in college, in a Linear Algebra class. Why is this on the ACT?
  3. Graphing on the Complex Plane – I have never done this, ever, at any level.

All three of those topics are very specific and can be memorized with very little understanding. Memorizing enough of those has thousands of dollars worth of value. What she did with the rotations, while fascinating and enlightening for me to watch how her mind works, has no immediate impact. Why do we seem shocked by students who like plug and chug math?

So MTBoS, we preach mathematical thinking, growth mindsets, grit, and any number of ideological approaches that hopefully will create enlightened problem solvers, but our students live in a world where they are valued upon correct answers, not original thought. Math as I know it, is essentially useless to many of my students, but the right answers have thousands of dollars worth of value. How do we show them empathy for their plight, but get them to embrace our ideals? I ask you MTBoS because I am losing my students.

What’s My Role?

Why am I here?

Yes, I need a job so that I can pay the bills. But why am I specifically sitting in a high school math classroom when I could be in so many other possible career locations?

I think society has set up three very incompatible goals for me to accomplish as a teacher and part of the confusion is simply how I define myself as a teacher.

Teacher as a Babysitter

School is compulsory. It is law that a child must be in some form of schooling under the age 18 (in Ohio). Essentially society is telling teenagers that we cannot handle them between 8:00 AM and 3:00 PM. While not many adults, let alone teachers, would admit it, I think many students would acknowledge that there is a daycare aspect to school. More negatively they might compare schools to prison. The sentiment is the same though, schools function as a warehouse facility to store students.

I honestly don’t have any problem with this image though. I genuinely like the vast majority of students. Maybe not as academics, but on a more interpersonal level. Recently at my school we had a reward day at the conclusion of testing. We were asked to devise activities to do with our students, not necessarily academic activities because the students could then sign up to work with any teacher. Basically, we were asked to hangout with our students. I absolutely relished the opportunity to drop the premise and rhetoric of instructional time and just do stuff. We made sushi and played games.

Teacher as Knowledge Disseminator

We send students to school to learn. In my case, I am there to teach the subject of mathematics. Whether the mathematics learned in school is of any real relevance to students is debatable at best. I really don’t think this is why I am here. I actually have trouble justifying my purpose in terms of knowledge dissemination. If a student really wants to learn math there are many more economical ways to be taught the subject, websites, books, software. Learning math in a public school setting is probably one of the least efficient uses resources imaginable.

Teacher as a Mentor

Frequently extracurricular activities seem to take precedence over academic activities in a school. The community at large sometimes seems more concerned with basketball scores and musical productions than they are with differential equation capabilities of their students. As a teacher I fit into this model by trying to help build a well rounded student who can work well with others, prioritize obligations, and manage emotions. My purpose under this model isn’t so much about teaching math, but teaching all of the little habits that lead to an effective math education.

Personally, I really like this view of education. It is the reason why I want to read essays for scholarships and other classes. It is why I go to softball games and track meets. It is why I want to discuss stories with students when they come to me from literature class. I am trying to foster an inclusive, supporting environment for learning, regardless of the particular subject. Success in math cannot come at the expense of other classes or activities in this model.

 

 

Is it really reasonable to expect us to do this all at the same time?

 

Bell Curving My Students

There have been several questions on my mind lately, but a general theme has occurred on four separate occasions during the past two weeks.

  1. A student just blatantly asked if I actually like my students, as if his interactions with his teachers has lead him to believe that we teachers hate students.
  2. A student admitted that she feels like all of her teachers don’t respect her.
  3. In a conversation with a student I admitted that I will miss her after graduation.
  4. While planning reward activities at my school I get the distinct impression that some teachers do not want to interact with students outside of their academic comfort zone.

I don’t think I want to address each of the last four statements individually, but I would like to address the concept that is at play here, which would be, “how I think about the student-teacher relationship.”

Before I go too far into the details, let me say that I have always considered myself a generalist (though I have been failing at that lately). What that means for me is that the well-being and flourishing of the student should always come first, with math being the tool that I have been given to use. With maybe that being said, maybe this next part will be a little more comprehensible.

Since I am a math teacher let me bell curve my interpretation of the student teacher relationship.

Standard_deviation_diagram.svg The students that sit out beyond -3σ, that 0.1%, those students are the ones that I find truly detestable. These students are so few and far between that in ten years of teaching I can count them on one hand.

The students that lie between -3σ and -1σ, or 15.7%, I am a tolerable polite with those students.

One standard deviation in either direction, or -1σ to 1σ, or the vast majority of my students I am genuinely interested in their lives. I want to know how other classes are going. Are they looking for work? I want to know how the basketball game went because of this middle 68.2%, but my relationship with these students is strictly defined around school activities. The only thing that separates them is the mean of zero, which to me defines whether I initiate contact with the student or just participate with them after they initiate.

The 1σ to 2σ group, the 13.6% of my students, are the reason that I go to basketball games, musicals, concerts, etc. They are the reason that my date nights with my wife so often involve other people’s kids. Though I view my relationship with these students is still defined by a school environment, I view my compassion and caring through the lens of being a fellow human being more than that of a teacher and student.

Those students in the last two groups, the 2σ and beyond, the 2.1% and the 0.1%, those students are the ones that I want to become involved in their lives. I want to know where they want to go to college and how I can help them succeed. I want to know where they are five years after they have graduated. These are the students that I feel that I can wash away the line that demarcates the teacher-student relationship, to the point that I don’t have to worry about censoring myself. Being so connected to these is what allows me to be precisely the most effective teacher I can be.  These are the students that I will genuinely miss seeing them on a daily basis. These are the students that actually make me look forward to class. These are the students that I look back on with regret, thinking that I could have done more to push them to reach and surpass their potential.

But that last group the 3σ, once again a group that I could count on one hand over ten years of teaching, that represents the students that I miss or will miss the most. Those are the group that make me question the teacher-student relationship because that small group represents the group that I wish I could call friends, if not for the societal stigma of a teacher and student being friends.

So, after all that, back to the original list.

  1. Yes, I do like the vast majority of my students. It’s also the reason why I wish they would take more classes with me.
  2. I feel so empathetic to this student. It is precisely this empathy that usually starts to bridge a connectedness that makes the student teacher relationship so much more effective. I just don’t know how to address it in the middle of class.
  3. Well, I guess this student could figure out where she ranks in my hierarchy of students.
  4. This is why I like planning reward activities. It gives me a chance to hopefully interact with my students on a personal level, especially depending on which ones sign up.

Well, that’s how I think about my students. I just wish I was allowed the freedom to interact with them in a more humane manner instead of treating school like a gigantic information transfer.

 

Why I Hate College…in High School

The push for college has grown to epic proportions, even since the 15 years it has been since I have been in high school. We inundate our students with message after message about going to college. We show statistic after statistic about how much college degree holders earn. At the same time we hear more and more stories about unemployed and underemployed college graduates. When a student will take the step to be forthcoming and tell us what path through college they want to take we often will respond with, “what are you going to do with that?”

We tell our students anecdotal stories about how pointless general education courses are in college. Why should I have to take X if I am going to do Y? We also hear how some of the general education courses can cause students who are capable of becoming productive members of a profession to drop out of college altogether. The only logical reason for general education courses for many students is to rationalize them as a sort of categorizer. We rationalize that the purpose of general education courses is to weed out the weak minded.

Some communities apply pressure to their children to get into the right school. They are worried about the brand that is attached to a degree.

Students in my community are under a different kind of pressure, cost.

Students chasing brand schools sacrifice happiness, and even health, in an effort to obtain that label. They want to be able to say, ” I am a Harvard graduate.” They want that elite label without having to be concerned without embracing the qualities that made that institution elite in the first place. Money isn’t the object here, it’s status.

I get the distinct impression that at my school students aren’t chasing the brand so much as the label of being a college graduate. They seek out the path of least resistance, usually in terms of lowest cost. Best case scenarios would be a path that would allow for the lowest cost and lowest effort. Our society has created an economy that has credentialed out many middle income professions to high school graduates. As more students enroll in college to gain access to decent paying jobs a gap in academic skills was noticed, which then led to the ever increasing push to have ever increasing academic standards since good jobs required college.

Those standards increased to the point where we as society felt that wide swath of high school students are adequately prepared for college and that spending extra time in high school doing busy work was unfair, hence the rise of College Credit Plus (CCP). CCP allows students to obtain for college classes which are taught on campus, online, or at the high school by qualified teachers. I see many detriments to CCP. The main selling point behind CCP is that students will save money when they eventually enroll in a four-year university because of all the general education courses they have taken. While I will freely admit there are students who would benefit from this program, I feel that there are far too many variables involved to broadly advertise CCP to the entire 7-12 student population.

As a teacher, since I am not qualified to teach CCP, I feel pressured to become qualified so that students would could take more math classes at the high school rather than taking them online or on campus at the local community college. Right now my schedule includes teaching upper level math, math that would normally be college level in content, but because I can’t offer college credit to students, they might choose to take their advanced math at the community college and get the credit. No one has ever directly stated that I need to go get CCP qualified, but when students are encouraged to take math else where that means that there are fewer math students for me. And if my classes can’t be filled I become unnecessary and can be let go.

In my upper level classes, Common Core provides leeway on what specific topics get covered. Because the upper level maths don’t have a state mandated end of course exam, I have the freedom to widely adapt the pacing to my students abilities. When it comes to the process of teaching I have to worry about local evaluations and OTES, but I have been allotted professional discretion when determining the content of my class. If I were to become CCP qualified I would lose the last vestige of my control, the content. My cooperating college would determine the pacing and assessments. As much as I want to the job security of CCP, I don’t know if I am willing to sacrifice my autonomy for it.

What really bothers me though doesn’t have to do with CCP, it is about the students. Every time students chooses CCP over my class they are essentially telling me that I have nothing left to offer them. Best case scenario, a student that takes CCP over my class is telling me that they are willing to sacrifice my class to potentially save about $600. In other words, students that sacrifice the college credit are telling me that whatever it is that I offer, it is more meaningful than $600.

I know not every student is going to like me or want to take class with me. That should be a given understanding of anyone who takes up the teaching profession. I do not have an issue with a student who wants to take math someplace else simply because of a personality conflict.

Where CCP is concerned, it forces students to make an economic decision regarding my value as an educator.I am worth about $600. My identity as an educator is being prostituted. As the deadline for my CCP application draws near I feel like I am caught in some horrible sting operation.

I feel so dirty.

Hit By a Student

I have a bruise on my arm right now. It is a small bruise, not very deep, barely any coloration. Probably will be gone in a day or two, but it is still there.

Why am I so excited about a bruise?

Because it was given to me by a student.

I am the kind of teacher that is happy that he was hit by a student. This blog started as a place to be reflective, and I think it finally has had that effect. My post from a couple of days ago lamented that I have lost the solidarity that I used to have in class with my students. Losing that solidarity made me a worse teacher. I vowed to try and get it back. Though it has only been a day, I believe I did a good job creating that solidarity today. How do I know?

I treated my students like human beings today. I relented some of my pressure and allowed them to dictate the pace of class to some extent. There was down time. There were moments where they were off task. There were moments where I was off task. There were moments where we were both engaged in learning. But for the first time in a long time, it felt like the engagement was authentic rather than some sort of complacency. I have difficulty describing the intricate details between authentic engagement and complacency, but I can vouch for the difference in feeling between the two.

And there’s that bruise. I received it when I made a disparaging comment about a student. Not a horribly mean, bullying comment, but the kind of good natured joking that can occur between friends, family, and acquaintances. You know, how human beings treat other human beings. I was then met with a human response, a swift slap in the arm. Instead of gasps and stunned silence, the rest of the class laughed. I need to work on cultivating that atmosphere again because that is what I had lost. My interaction today was not as teacher talking to students, but just as a person talking to other people on equal footing.

A student hit me today. It was best day I’ve had in a long time. How was your’s?