Drinking the Kool-Aid

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 22 2012

Patience Like Tin Foil

I can’t give you problems basic enough. There is no question leading enough. “Doing Math” to you means you saying “I don’t get this” and me telling you the answers. You see math and everything it entails as a huge changing frictionless landscape with nothing to hang onto, and I can’t destroy enough of that perception to make you feel like something holds true for longer than a single problem.

I am SO TIRED of telling eleventh graders that “a number next to a letter means multiply.” I’m tired of reminding them that “solve for X means get X by itself” and I’m so unbelievably effing tired of having to say “no, finding the area of a triangle isn’t base times height.” I’m sick of teaching the same sixth, seventh, and eighth grade math concepts OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN and STILL getting blank looks.

WHY is this so confusing? It’s not like it can have changed much in the SIX YEARS you’ve done these types of problems. It’s not like I’m weaving some kind of complicated web of slippery math facts that don’t align. We spend fifteen minutes at the beginning of class going over what a “supplementary angle” is and you still can’t start a problem without me over your shoulder, and then you try and tell me they’re equal or that they add up to 360.

Getting confused about similarity or trig functions or asymptotes is one thing. I can accept that if I’ve just taught you something for the first time, it’s going to take a while to stick. But what is so impossible about these basic, basic, absolutely crucial fundamentals? How can I break this up any smaller?

Not one of my better days.
… How many years of teaching do you need to become a school counselor?



… sigh… and how many years before you stop blaming kids in your blog posts for yours and other teachers’ shortcomings?

19 Responses

  1. maureen

    What math curriculum/texts did these kids have in K-8? Did they meet state standards on earlier exams? If not did they get remedial help?

    • Wess

      haha, I’m pretty sure the whole district is using McDougall-LIttel? And the curriculum is C-Scope, though I don’t know whether it has another less generic name as well.
      They did not meet state standards, and did not get the help they needed — though if you ask the schools, they’ve been very careful to do everything to legally comply with the “interventions” required.

  2. Same. I can’t believe I’m still reminding my juniors and seniors that an exponent doesn’t mean multiply the base by the exponent. Or that f(x) doesn’t mean f times x. WHY.

  3. Counseling, is that what you’re aiming for now? Also… I know.

    • Wess

      No, not really aiming for counseling. At least not yet. I just like to think I am when teaching gets me down. :P

  4. Cal

    Could you maybe look up “cognitive ability” and educate yourself, rather than getting angry and calling the kids or their previous teachers stupid? It makes you look like a self-absorbed, ignorant dolt.

    TFA is on a fool’s mission. You can’t teach advanced math concepts to low ability kids. Only a bunch of narcissistic egotists would think that the only thing between these kids and success were bad teachers.

    • Wess

      You’re right. Googling “cognitive ability” would totally help.

      In fact, these kids just have lower “cognitive ability” than normal people–so we should all stop trying to teach them things they just don’t have the capacity to learn.


      • Ah, Wess. Don’t bother with it.

        I think that it is funny that it makes “[someone] look like a self-absorbed, ignorant dolt” whenever they become frustrated with how behind their high-school aged students are, no matter the cause, because everyone knows “you can’t teach advanced math concepts to low ability kids.”

        I am truly curious about one thing if Cal comes back here further bait you: What do you do with these “low ability kids”, then? Stop teaching them? Leaving them to their business?

      • Cal

        Pretty much, yes. We should be realistic about what kids of low cognitive ability can learn. Or are you pretending that someone with an IQ of 90 can manage advanced math?

        That doesn’t mean you aren’t also a less than adequate teacher who thinks repetition rather than better explanations is all that’s needed–again, in large part because you don’t have a clue about what it means to teach kids with lower cognitive ability.

        Low income != low cognitive ability. It does mean a higher distribution of it, though.

    • Ms. Math

      dude. Wess is awesome. You are the one who sounds awful.

  5. If it makes you feel better, I am tired of telling high school students to stop leaving spaces between paragraphs, and stop writing past the margins of the paper. And every spelling mistake you can possibly imagine.

    You speak for a lot of us. Sometimes venting is part of doing a difficult job, so don’t feel bad.

    • Wess

      If I could, I’d put your last sentence on the marquee on the front page of this website.

      Community Manager Kurt? Are you there? :P

  6. Gary Rubinstein

    Have you tried raising your expectations?

    • Wess

      … and THAT’s why I read your blog. :)

    • This is gold.

    • Ms. Math

      decent suggestion actually-remember when your kids did the geometry problem and you realized they weren’t dumb and that something else was the matter?

  7. What makes me batty is kids confusing x the variable with the multiplication sign even in higher level math classes. And not knowing how to make fractions into decimals and vice versa, which just shows a fundamental lack of understanding of what fractions and decimals even are. Every time it happens it makes me wish I had a time machine and/or a weapons suitable for committing seppuku.

  8. Ms. Math

    What i think is frustrating, is that it is so obvious that we live in a completely dysfunctional math education system and kids don’t even know math is supposed to make sense. And then we get new teachers trying to reteach years of nonsense without any real understanding of how to do that because they are new. And then we are all upset when it doesn’t work well.

    I’m still looking for that example of the amazing TFA math teacher to prove to me that getting high schoolers caught up in math and thinking critically is even possible.

    Be frustrated, Wess. It doesn’t bug me. I wish I knew how to help you better, but I’m not sure that my classroom would be better than yours. Currently I’m trying to teach one preservice teacher fractions and finding that really hard. It’s taking hours of conversations to build new understandings. Repeating something over and over just doesn’t work-you have to figure out what the real problem is and that is not easy.

    Hope you feel better now :)

  9. Berklee

    From the perspective of a 6th grade elementary teacher, I understand your frustration. Part of the problem is exactly what’s been communicated in some of the posts. There are many teachers who don’t understand math themselves, so they aren’t able to explain the “why” behind the formula or concept. Far too often we teach memorization, not comprehension.

    When I get a sixth grader that still adds and subtracts on his fingers, I have to praise him for what he does understand and try to build from there. Praising and acknowledging their successes (even little ones) will do wonders for their autonomy in class. If they still need help, make them work for it. Don’t give them the answers, ask them questions that, when answered, will help them find the solution. “Whoever is doing the talking is doing the learning.”

    Lastly, the “I don’t get it” issue. Personally, I have to explicitly teach my students how to ask questions. When they say “I don’t get it,” I dig and ask them what they don’t get. If they can’t articulate their confusion I keep digging, “Where did I get these numbers from?” “Why did I multiply?” (or divide or whatever) Don’t ask whether they understand or yes or no questions. Ask questions that require them to explain everything they do understand. In not too long of time you’ll find students asking, “Where did the negative three come from?” or “Why did you divide 3 by 10?” instead of the ever annoying “I don’t get it.”

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