Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 29 2012

I Want to Move to China.

Today I want to move to China and try something easier for a change. Like curing cancer. While riding a unicycle. And juggling flaming batons.

Math almost made my brain explode. We’re working on subtraction with regrouping, because two thirds of my kids couldn’t do it (yes, they should have learned this 2 years ago. Oops). So I quickly teach the 6 who can do it how to check their answers with an inverse operation. They are amazed and excited by how easily they can check subtraction with addition. This makes sense. Yay!

The other 12 I try to go back to basics with place value blocks. We are actually manipulating and trying to figure out why we can’t take 7 away from 4, how we can regroup a 10 block into 10 ones blocks, and so on. Except that despite preemptive directions, management, consequences, narration, and the best of my abilities, we get half of 1 problem done in 40 minutes. The rest of the time is spent staring blankly, building with blocks while I help other students, or sorting blocks by color while pretending to count them. I wanted to scream. So we put the blocks away and I took the 4 kids who were honestly trying and doing well and taught them the checking method, which was amazing and they got big lightbulbs over their heads because it makes so much sense! Yay!

Then I had A Talk with the other 7. Here’s how it went.

What place did we get in our test scores last year in our state?


Do you like being in last place?


Me neither. And you don’t deserve to be in last place. You can learn this stuff just like any other kid. You are smart. But you CANNOT learn if you don’t listen. You NEED to pay attention. Did you know that another teacher warned her class about us yesterday? She told her kids to watch out, or they might turn into the fourth graders, who don’t know how to listen and are last in the state. You think these things don’t matter, that you’ll just take a minute to sort your blocks instead of working. You think it isn’t a big deal to waste 2 minutes staring or building. It is A BIG DEAL. You are HURTING YOURSELF. We have done one problem in 40 minutes. That is embarrassing. So we are going to work through our recess time and get the rest of these done. Let’s go. Let’s focus. This is where you show how hard you can work.

And we did. One kid really can do it and was just fooling around, so he did fine. Two or three kids are maybe 80% of the way there, and just have the occasional error where they forget to regroup. But it becomes clear that for the other 4, despite their efforts (and they were really trying), the idea of taking away and regrouping is just completely confusing. How many ones do we get for a ten? Four. No, seven. No, a hundred. Can we do 2 minus 5? Yeah, it’s 3. Or, from my lowest one: yeah, it’s 9. Huh????

The catch 22 is that they really need the hands-on visual of seeing the blocks and moving them around and trading them in, but they couldn’t handle that today without losing focus. The idea of adding to check the answer doesn’t make sense to them, because they don’t have the number and operation sense to see the connection even when you explain it to them with pictures and fact families and examples.

In some ways I should see today as a success. After all, this time two weeks ago I had 15 kids unfocused, and today I had only 7. So that’s good, although in my mind it’s always my failure to make it make sense for kids that stands out, not the successes. On the plus side, tomorrow the work for most of them will be pretty independent, so I’ll have the time to work with just my lowest kids. I’m excited to either try blocks with a tiny group, sitting right in front of me, with no opportunity to misbehave with them, or try drawing them instead of physically arranging them. I know they can get this stuff, and I even know from their teachers last year that they used to know this and have just forgotten it, it’s just a matter of making it work for us.

But I hate spending all day having Talks. I hate being harsh and reminding them, yet again, that their numbers were last in the state. I always say they don’t deserve that, that we just need to prove to everyone else how smart they really are, but it’s still a hard conversation to have. They can’t control who their second grade teacher was, or the fact that the school was a mess that year, or that their teachers last year were constrained by a ridiculous system. It’s not their fault. At the same time, they can control their own decision to come into our classroom and work hard today. If they aren’t, that is their fault. And my fault too. Here’s the bottom line I need to get my kids to understand: we need to change something. If we keep doing things the way we have been, unfocused and fooling around and not minding if we don’t do our work, we’ll end up just where we are: dead last, and going nowhere. And they deserve better than that.


3 Responses

  1. Proteach

    I’ve been in your spot and it is hard. I quit teaching- that was my solution. Now have a job in the corporate world where I still work hard, get stressed but can shoe up at 815 and take a couple moments to start the day. Can go to the bathroom when I want.

    I don’t miss teaching. I guess I never wanted to be a savior and now that all the rhetoric is in that direction the whole idea if teaching is being replaced by the savior mentality espoused by Ed deformers

    • eminnm

      I don’t really like the phrase “savior mentality” when applied to education. It seems like a phrase that is designed for people who aren’t trying to help things to use disparagingly towards people who are trying. It’s a way to take people down a notch–you’re just trying to be a savior, it’s not real. It’s also a way to excuse giving up: if you don’t give up, it’s because you want to be a messiah, which is grandiose and arrogant, so giving up is almost a good thing. For the record, I don’t think quitting needs to be excused. It’s really freaking hard, and some good friends of mine have quit, which was the right decision for them. No judgment.

      For me, quitting teaching wouldn’t be a solution. It would eat at me. It’s not that I came into this wanting to save all the poor little children; rather, I know that they are unfairly offered very little in their current situation and I have a skill set and the tenacity to offer them more. It’s not about pity, it’s about what they deserve based on the laws of our country. If that makes me a “deformer” of education, then I would say education as it stands here could use some deforming.

  2. Proteach

    My comments are directed to the savior complex ideal pushed by Rhee Klein Duncan Kipp etc. i think long term net effect of deformers and saviors will set back education in low income areas. The deformer model rewards testing, not critical thinking. If students learn to think critically that’s great but not measured by end of exit tests.

    The deformers undermine professional development by creating school models like kipp or success academies that burnout teachers just at the time they are starting to get their feet underneath them.

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