The Achievement Gap and Middle School Math

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 12 2011

5 weeks into the school year

More ups and downs last week.  A couple of OK days, and a few bad days.

I’m still having some classroom management issues. I went to go visit a veteran math teacher’s class last week during my planning period to remind myself what effective classes are supposed to look like. There were lots of kids talking in that class, but they were ALL talking about math. That seems like light-years away from where my class is.  I feel bad that my kids have me as a teacher instead of her. While I am certainly not nearly as good as she is, I hold out hope that I am at least almost as good as whomever the nameless teacher is who would have my job if I wasn’t there.

Besides my discipline problems, the most frustrating part of my job is that I’ve been noticing recently that when I get super excited that lots of my kids have been getting answers to certain problems right on homework or quizzes, I think a little more about it and I realize that the only questions they are able to do are questions which I have shown them an example of, then they practice the exact same problem a bunch of times (with the numbers changed), and then when they see that exact same problem (with the numbers changed) on quizzes, they are able to do it. I’m pretty sure that in the  five weeks so far, I have not caused any of my students to have a single novel insight about math, beyond what I directly explain to them. I really need to figure out how to fix that. That really makes me sad.

This week, I heard that some of the middle school math students I used to work with while I was in college just won a national Lego robotics competition (well, now they are no longer in middle school…… they are 9th graders, now). In addition to their robot (a model moon-rover), they also created a website that allows users from anywhere in the world to remotely steer the robot via the internet, and they have a wide variety of educational outreach stuff including videos they made of themselves discussing moon-exploration and other topics related to their project. I used their website to drive the robot around its enclosure in one of their houses (500+ miles away) and they really have a seriously cool project on their hands.  For a technologically literate 22-year-old (a.k.a me) to be legitimately impressed by the robotics and web-design work of a group of 9th graders is pretty impressive on their part. But, even if I just found out about the project randomly and didn’t know it had been done by 9th graders, I would still think it was really cool (even if it had been done by adults), which is even more impressive!

Those kids grew up in a small, affluent college town with all of the opportunity that comes with an excellent school and parents who are professors, engineers, etc. In order to close the achievement gap, my current students need to be thinking and creating at those same levels…but, so far, I have only been able to get them to correctly do math problems with exactly the same structure as problems I have already shown them how to solve.  : (

In other news, this week, I also had my first suspected case of cheating on a quiz (some of my students can’t even do these same types of questions on the quizzes). There is a preponderance of circumstantial evidence that there was some cheating going on, although I can’t prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. I am trying to figure out what to do. I am thinking of pretending that I lost these students’ quizzes, and asking them to retake them, but in an honest non-cheating way this time. We’ll see.

Also, today I got my free TFA iPad from the Apple store today. Hooray! It is pretty cool. I downloaded an app that lets me write on the ipad and have my writing show up on my computer (which can then be projected for the class). This and most of the other cool things it can do in the classroom depends on the school letting me connect it to the school WIFI. I hope they will!!

Something I’ve been thinking about all day: the 9-11 hijackers all had school teachers at some point in their lives; the passengers on flight 93 also had school teachers at some point in their lives, so did all of the firefighters and others who ran into burning buildings to save people. What did those teachers do differently?

2 Responses

  1. zacksg1

    Also this week: I discovered that many of my 7th graders have no idea where the fraction 2/3 is on a numberline:
    “between the 2 and the 3 on a numberline, right?” Yikes. On the bright side, at least they have come to at least one conclusion that was not directly fed to them by me. Now I just have to get them to be having CORRECT ideas about new stuff. : )

  2. Dan Mirus

    Patience. This not a TV program or a movie in which everything is solved in a half an hour or two hours. The students need to crawl, then walk and then run. You also need to follow those steps. Pick up on any thought from the students no matter how small, and then work with it. You need to find out where they are and go from that point.
    Your students are lucky to have you because you care. Sometimes it takes awhile for them to figure that out. Remember they don;t know you. That other teacher you went to visit has a reputation already. Bad reputations come quickly and leave slowly. Good reputations are just the opposite. They come slowly. Keep the faith.

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Closing the achievement gap with middle school math


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