The Achievement Gap and Middle School Math

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Dec 29 2011

‘Twas the day before Christmas (break)

On the last day before winter break, I printed out little cards for all of my students with a note that said something along the lines of: “Dear so-and-so, I hope you and your family have a joyful and restful winter break!” and I attached a candy cane to each card. All of my students have an individual file folder in the back of the room. I call these the students’ “mailboxes”–this is where I put each person’s graded papers and other things to give back to them, so they can just come pick up their papers as they enter class. I put all of the cards in the mailboxes.

This worked very well for most of the morning. The kids found their cards and candy canes in their mailboxes. Many of them actually seemed pleased (yes!!) and a few even said “thank you!” However, as the day went on, several students came up to me saying they had gotten a card without a candy cane. Looking in the mailboxes of students who had not yet picked up their candy canes, there were indeed a few cards that were missing their candy canes. Apparently, some of my students had decided to steal the candy canes from other people’s cards.

Since I obviously did not want these students to be missing their candy canes, I gave them another one. Several more people came up to me later to tell me they had not gotten candy canes with their cards. Some of these people did legitimately have their stolen, but I think there were also several people who just realized that if they told me that they were missing their candy cane then they would get another (even if they actually still had the first one). The problem was, I had no way of knowing which was which.

This put me in the unfortunate situation of giving extra candy canes to people who have just lied to me and wasted my time, and who were additionally being rewarded for this behavior with an extra candy cane! It also reinforced the idea that they (and whoever stole the candy canes in the first place) can get away with whatever they want in my class.

I had no way of knowing who was actually missing a candy cane and who was just lying about missing a candy cane. For the students whose candy canes really had been stolen, I didn’t want to deny them a candy cane (and I certainly didn’t want them to think that I had originally given a candy cane to everyone else except them).

It is very frustrating to me how often I get myself into situations where I end up digging myself into a hole no matter what I do: either I am cruel and unfair by not replacing missing candy canes, or I am a total pushover by giving EXTRA candy to students who are lying.  This is particularly frustrating when I am trying to do something NICE for my kids. AHHHHHH!!!!!!

In other candy-cane news, in 4th period that day, a student had sucked on his candy cane in a way that made the end very pointy and actually pretty sharp. He somehow ended up stabbing his tongue with the candy cane and walked up to me in the middle of class with half of his mouth covered in blood and asked me for a band-aid. We agreed that a band-aid was probably not going to be very helpful for a tongue injury. He rinsed his mouth out with some water, but declined an offer to go to the clinic.

That day, were doing several fun activities to review things since it was the last day before the break (quote from student: “you know I don’t actually think this is fun, right?”). One of the fun activities (or, not-fun, depending on who you ask) involved some dominoes. At one point, a student decided to through a domino across the room. It hit another student in the eye. This student (who is actually a really nice guy) started sobbing, the rest of the class started laughing at him, and then he went to the clinic and got sent home.

My gift-giving to other people also, unfortunately, led to more despair than joy. I gave cards with some chocolate to the other teachers I work with every day. This made one of those people very upset, since she had not gotten a gift for me. It had never occurred to me that gift-giving could actually ruin the recipient’s day, but I guess I’ll just be thankful for the learning experience….

I have gotten to the know the custodian who cleans my room pretty well (since, unfortunately, I am often still there in the evenings when he comes to clean). I also gave him a card and some chocolate. Apparently, this was the nicest thing that had ever happened to him.

So, basically, I gave the exact same thing (chocolate + friendly note) to several different people and in at least one case it made the recipient very sad and in another case it made the recipient very happy.

I wish social interactions were as predictable as math!  : )



4 Responses

  1. Judy Simon

    Don’t take it personally! You made at least one person very happy (the custodian), and that makes the whole thing worthwhile. If others are unhappy with what you did, that is their problem. You can’t please everyone.

    It is a sad lesson for the teacher to learn how commonplace it is for kids to steal. I remember that lesson too- observing a group of jr high school kids bragging about how many record albums (yes, this was a loooong time ago) they stole and got away with it.

    I agree with you, I wish social interactions were as predictable as math. I’ve spent the last seventeen years as a social worker trying to learn about social interaction, and I think that what I’ve learned is only a drop in the bucket.

    But, a teacher is still an enormously important person in a child’s life. You can’t fix everything, but if you make a difference for just a few kids, you have done a great job!

  2. You could have given them different colored candy canes. That way it would show on their tongues whether they ate it! But keep on doing special little things for your kids. It makes a huge difference. You can’t please everyone, but little by little, everyone can eventually be pleased. Happy holidays!

  3. Dan Mirus

    Happy Hannuka (sp?) . It is probably over by now, but the sentiments are still there. So, what have we learned….Kids lie and steal. Nothing you can do about it on a large level, but yoy can affect some. That is really all we can hope to do. However, next time pass out treats individually, it may take longer, but it does solve the problem of making sure everyone gets only one. Sharing is not natural but a learned trait. Remember how some of the kids took gobs of the really good treats in MathCounts. Unfortunately not everyone is as nice a person as you are and it is very disappointing to find that out. Do not stop being a very nice person. It makes you the very special person you are. You are also a very good role model to your students. You cannot change the world or even everyone in your classroom, but like a ripple in the water, you can and will change some and they in turn will change others.
    Good luck with the beginning of a new year 2012 and your second semester.

  4. Lisa

    What I notice at my middle school campus is that kids aren’t the only ones who steal. I have to bring my own paper to make copies, and if I don’t bring a lot the machine doesn’t recognize there’s paper at all. So I must bring way more than I need. A couple weeks ago I was busy and distracted and I left the copy room without all the paper I had brought to weigh the machine down. I realized my mistake about 30 minutes later but by then, it had been stolen. By a teacher. (The copy room is locked).

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Closing the achievement gap with middle school math

Metro Atlanta
Middle School

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