Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The end of another year - Algebra 1 edition

As the school year has ended and vacation has been underway, it is important to reflect on the year that past and look forward to next year. By nature, I spend a lot of time dwelling on both the past and the future while not considering the present too often so this should be a breeze for me!

In truth, I have had an extremely difficult school year. This, without doubt, the most challenging group of students I have dealt with in 17 years of teaching mathematics. There have been ups and downs and while it is easy to focus on the bad stuff without acknowledging the good stuff I want to try to give equal treatment to both.

My 9th grade Algebra 1 students were tough... tough to manage, tough to motivate, tough to encourage, tough to engage, tough to have them think... Many of them came from special education classes where the teacher never taught a full year's worth of math. They had low expectations from the adults in their lives and they had low perceptions of themselves. Despite the deck being stacked against them in pretty much every way possible, we managed to work our way through the entire Algebra 1 curriculum with two weeks to spare before the state test. I am incredibly impressed with what they accomplished this year. Maybe we went a little too fast but I am reasonably confident that most of the students can solve an equation, graph a line, calculate/identify/interpret slope, add/subtract/multiply/factor polynomials, and perform some data analysis. What more can I ask? Well, I suppose I could ask for my students to comply with requests the first time I ask. In fact that is probably the single biggest reason why this year has been so challenging in Algebra 1. I ask nicely for a student to do something and he/she refuses because he/she simply does not want to do it. These are just a few samples of the exchanges I've had:

Vignette 1
M: Please put your phone away. 
S: No, man. Why? 
M: Because I asked you to and because we are going to take notes and you won't need it right now. 
S: I pay attention better when I'm listening to music.
M: You probably don't. Please put your phone away.
S: I'm not even using it.
M: That doesn't matter. Please put your phone away.
S: Fuck you, man. I don't have to listen to you.
M: I've asked you nicely several times. I'm going to ask you one more time. Please put your phone away.
S: No.
M: OK, please go to the office.

Vignette 2
M: Please get away from the window.
S1: (ignoring me, speaking to another student) Yo man, you won't drop your phone out of the window.
M: Please do not drop your phone out of the window. Please get away from the window.
S2: How much will you pay me?
M: Please get away from the window. Please do not drop your phone out of the window.
(S2's phone gets dropped out of the window and students cheer. S2 runs out of the room to retrieve his phone)
M: S1, please get away from the window. (no response) 
M: S1, please get away from the window. (no response)
M: S1, please get away from the window.
S1: Chill, bro. You don't have to yell.
M: I was trying to get your attention. I asked you several times to get away from the window.
S1: You don't have to be a fucking dick about it.

Vignette 3
M: S3, please stop talking and write down what's on the board.
S3: Why should I stop talking, S4 is talking too.
S4: You never shut up. Just do what he asks.
M: Both of you please stop talking. I will worry about who is working and who is not working.
S4: Yeah. You should do your work. You're so annoying.
S3: Shut up. You're annoying.
M: Both of you! Stop talking and copy down the notes. 

An exchange like one of these happened at least once per period. It has been demoralizing and depressing and debilitating. Every two steps forward was met with one step backwards. I know that's a bit of a cliche, but it feels so true. Setbacks are a necessary component of learning and a natural part of school but to be in a near constant state of rehabilitation and recovery has been mentally and physically exhausting. If I had to measure the good and the bad and weight them against each other I think Algebra 1 would be pretty balanced. The significant academic growth my students made was systematically offset by considerable behavioral issues.

I know that I am teaching Algebra 1 again next year. I am not sure how I feel about it. I recognize that I get this class because very few teachers in my department would be willing to teach this class (or "these students") and I think that the administration believes that I can handle it. I know there are things that I have to do better this year, starting with a new classroom management plan. Luckily, I get to spend the summer contemplating what I need to do to make this coming school year run more smoothly.  

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