A "Difficult" Student

I have a student in my low-level math remediation course this year who is attempting to make things difficult on me. Little does he know, all of his difficult-ness will be turned right back on him.

We all know students like this. They haven't done well in a math course for any number of reasons in the past, and now they are stuck in the "Can't-Do-Math" Rut. I wish I could go back to the point in time in each and every one of these students' pasts and find the moment that made them think they couldn't do math and fix it for them. Instead, I have to do it after years of having them tell themselves that they can't do math.

Of course, this student started out the year with the number 1 question all math teachers face: "When will I ever use this?"

Aha! I get to use my answer. I love answering this question, as it gets the kids thinking, as they never have a response to my answer.

"I don't know. What are you doing for every second for the rest of your life?" I ask. I get dead silence. Now I'm all set up and ready to go. "Truthfully, I doubt you'll use many of the specific skills you will learn in this math class."

"Then why am I in here?" he retorts? "This is a waste of my time!"

"Well, let's start with what you want to do after high school." He responds by stating that he plans on entering the fire academy. Now I'm ready to unload. "Are all fires put out the same way? No. When the firefighters arrive at a fire, they have a variety of conditions to consider as to how to attack the fire. They have a huge problem to solve."

There it is. Solving problems. That's what math is. It's not all x's and y's and equations. Numbers are just part of the overall view. Math is problem solving. Math is about taking a situation, analyzing what is being presented, sorting through the stuff you need and the stuff you don't, and figuring out what you can do with it.

I get stunned silence. Every kid in the class is listening (which is a feat in a class like this). I can see the gears churning in each of their heads. They start seeing connections between math and the real world all of a sudden, just from getting this "new" viewpoint. The next week is spent with my class working hard, working together, solving problems.

Then today, the same student tries to be difficult again. Again, it's with a concept that is tough for students to grasp until they're willing and able to deal with the abstract. It's all fine and well for us mathematicians to use x and y as our most-used variables, because we are able to work with them in an abstract way quite easily. But our students see "x." Well, when they see that, they are used to having it equal one specific value when they solve an algebraic sentence for that variable. So when they get to the problems where x is actually just a variable and not a specific value, these students really do struggle.

So, I start by asking, "What is x?" Blank stare. "Ok, I'll take that as you don't know. That's good."

"How's that good? How else am I supposed to get an answer?" (The problem was if x + y = y, what is xy?)

"It's not about the answer. It's about working with what you have. It's about being able to take some information and make something of it." Then I get to my favorite example. "How do you get to Harrisburg?"

"Well, there are many different ways."

"Right. You could take 422 to 322 and I could take 81. Either way, we both get to Harrisburg. But it's not about being there, it's about getting there, and in order to get there, you have to start somewhere. You have to start with whatever information is givn to you."

It's always a mind-blowing idea for kids to begin thinking in a more abstract way. And I love getting these difficult students because they make my job easier. They walk into my trap. They begin to realize that they can learn math.

And some of them even realize that they like it.


3rd Year and 2 Months Behind

Who would have thought that going into the third year of CFF would require so much work? We have no new teachers to introduce to the program, as all of our core classes have access to the equipment (which is also why we did not get any funding for equipment this year...it would have been nice to equip some other classes, though). With that in mind, you would think that our staff was getting more comfortable with working with the equipment and would not need to call on me as much as they used to.


Since they are getting more comfortable using the equipment, they are working on new ways to integrate it, meaning they need me even more! I have already worked with two middle school math teachers, a Spanish teacher, our librarian, two English teachers, a math teacher, our electives teacher (yearbook, journalism, etc.), two social studies teachers, and our administration. I have a meeting with another English teacher later today, as well.

This makes me happy. It means that CFF is really having an impact. I have noticed that, overall, the students are more active in their learning. Many teachers have that extra bounce in their step from being reinvigorated. I am seeing teachers taking risks where they would not have before. I get emails that show teachers are reflecting on their instruction, learning from what works and what doesn't.

How could I be more satisfied with my colleagues? I wish they they would allow their students even more access to technology. I wish they would share theri wikispaces with their students to allow them to contribute to the learning. I wish they would see the possible benefits of cell phones in the classroom (our student news team interviewed me about that today, as they learned I used Poll Everywhere in class the other week). I wish we had our server set up so that we could access the blogging, wiki, and podcasting features of it.

I can see when many of these wishes will come true in the future. Some might be this year. Others might not be until years down the road, but I can see the shift happening. The toughest part of it all is the time constraint. My number one issue is how do I accomplish that which I have set out to do when I am still only a half-time integrator? How can I help those teachers in my school where I don't have a common time to meet with them? How can I help my colleagues learn how to balance their use of technology with traditional teaching methods, all while determining which will work best?

And of course, I'm working on all of this while I still have to go through information from NECC, sort through email and voicemail, as well as hit all sorts of other things on my to-do list (resource gathering/organizing, anyone?).

Ah, the challenges of CFF. You always keep my on my toes!