We’d like you to take over this class, six weeks into second semester….


Six weeks into second semester, I was asked to become the teacher for a group of Algebra II students.

I met the

kids on a Friday. We talked back and forth, about me, about them, about the class (I had to tell them I didn’t know why their previous teacher wouldn’t be back, I really don’t know!), and they all wanted to make her a card, which they did.

The children’s learning has been a challenge because of multiple and prolonged absences of their initial teacher, the ministrations of various substitutes, and the individual issues faced by the students themselves, so for the first few lessons, I observed as we attempted simplifying rational exponents. The items were a mix of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. I needed to watch them and hear them in action. I was looking for learning patterns, listening and watching for misconceptions, for gaps, and waiting to see who my “leader” students were. I wanted to know who would dive right in, who would tune out, who would ask for help, and who wouldn’t. As the first class drew to a close, I asked them to write me a brief letter; to tell me anything about themselves that they thought I needed to know in order to help them become successful in this class.

Here is a fair sampling of their thoughts:

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“I am a visual learner… I… dislike… assigned seats and [teachers who] will not let you go to the bathroom when it’s an emergency.”
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“There are times when I don’t come to school because of my mother. She has diabetes.”
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“My family background is cool because my family are into oldies songs, like the Temptations.”
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“I love the color pink. I’m a girly-girl.”
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“The thing I struggle most is in math.”
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“Hate that teachers use seating charts… rushing us.”

They are banded together, even though they sit in separate corners, Ready to shut down on me if I prove untrustworthy, or if I look like I’m going to abandon them.

When I read their letters, I realized that for the majority of these children, lessons aren’t their first priority. (However, apparently having assigned seats comes pretty close!) And, on top of all of the other things going on in their lives, they continue to grieve the loss of their original teacher. They ask, every so often, if I have talked to her, and whether or not she will be back. I assured them that she got the card they made. I acknowledge that they miss her, and I encourage them to continue learning. We move on. 

One month later, and we’ve negotiated rationals, radicals, exponents and logarithms. We’ve ridden the rapids (literally, as we are a bit behind the calendar!) of graphing these various items.  More of these students now know the varieties of asymptotes, some are beginning (barely) to see domain and range, and most of them are using the tables produced by the calculator with a little more understanding.

I count as gain the young man who was glued to his phone the first week I met him, who now takes the lead, especially in small group. Also, a young woman, who would sit in the back corner, totally non-participatory, and now sits forward, loves to help others, moves easily from one concept to another, and is always ready for the next ‘challenge.’ And the two students that would regularly fall asleep in the class that first week aren’t sleeping any more; they are peer tutoring other students, and encouraging those who are struggling. “If I can do it,” one of them said to another student, “you can do it!”

“If I can do it,” one of them says, “you can do it!”

Not all of the students are making progress, however. I just mailed three Senior Failure Letters. For the majority of these students, however, grades are up. Confidence is up. Learning is taking place.

Let me tell you what I did.

1. I believed they could succeed.

2. I acted on that belief by giving them problems on grade level (many of which they could not solve), and

3. Started scaffolding to what they did know, to help them build new knowledge.

Here is what I continue to do:

I do not pull any punches. If their behavior in class is holding them back, I tell them. I promise to prompt them, so that they can choose to act differently. I notice positive change, but usually just with a simple thank you or a quick look of pleasure.

I celebrate with them after a particularly challenging series of steps – the process of sticking with it – NOT just getting the right answer! I repeatedly tell them that sticking with the process, being willing to back up and start over, trying something ‘else’ will give them the answers. I model this – I’ve worked problems multiple ways and then asked them which way seemed better. I’ve put their solutions – right and wrong – on the board, and let them evaluate, correct, and question.

Here’s what THEY have done:

Throughout this last month these kids have worked alone, in small groups, and as a whole. Some days they seem a little more mature, some days they bring each other back to the task at hand, and some days they are quicker to become involved in a new task. I believe they are choosing to be in charge of their own learning.

Of course, nothing I did or am doing would have worked without these kids buying in and putting in the effort. There are still days, though, as the young student teacher observed below:

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The good news is, these kids will be back in class tomorrow, and so will I. We’ll try again then. They aren’t the only ones who will need to persevere.

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