Friday, March 4, 2011


It's been a pretty emotional week for me in Precalculus. It's hard for me to explain, but I reached a breaking point this week when I passed back a test where 2/3 of the class had failed. They had failed even though both they and I had been working steadily on the material for a while now. There was A LOT of material; make no mistake. They had a test on everything we had learned from early January to the end of February, and it took them 2 days in class to complete. The test included at least 2 major types of word problems (2-d and 3-d optimizations and piecewise functions), and various not-easy algebra skills, such as finding domains of function equations, completing the square, and function transformations. (I gave them one half of the test the day before a long weekend, and the other half of it the day after.) But we had also spent 3 days reviewing, and I had given them practice problems very similar to those on the test, just to jog their minds along the lines of my expectations. A bunch of the problems they had already seen very similar stuff to, on the previous 3 or so quizzes.

So, I reached a point where I had to have a serious chat with the class. I told them that I thought that their grades were, in short, disappointing. I said that it showed me that they didn't go back to make sure that they understood the old quiz problems, and are just more or less copying quiz corrections without really making sure that they have understood the material. I also said that if they had really tried to understand the material after each quiz, they would have a much easier time than cramming 3 days before the test. I told them that from now on, I wasn't going to accept any test or quiz corrections from them without them verbally walking me through every step. If they couldn't explain something, I would send them away and tell them to wait a few days before coming back to me. One girl spoke up and said that there were a lot of topics on the exam, and it was difficult to study. But this girl in particular had done well on Day 1 (not having known what was going to be on the exam for that day), and very poorly on Day 2, after the weekend. So I didn't hesitate to point out that she wasn't being truthful about why she had failed the exam.

Besides that, there weren't really complaints; kids knew that they weren't doing everything they could to be where they needed to be. I was UPSET. I told the kids that it really bothers me to think that we are at the cusp of going into brand new math topics, and they're struggling so much with things that are more or less review of previous years' material. I also told them that I know that a lot of them think that this is the last year they "have" to take math, but that it would be extremely unwise for them to not take math next year, and to expect to go into college having skipped a year of math. I said, "You guys can barely remember what I taught you two months ago! How are you supposed to remember it two years from now??" The class was pensive, and quiet. I also told them that I know that they need to study more at home, because in class EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM can always do the work with some help, which means that the material is NOT out of reach and my explanations are not too obscure for them. The problem is that they only think about math during the 4 hours a week when I see them. I said, "Math is a lot like playing sports. If you want to get good at something under pressure, you need to practice the same thing more than a couple of times. You wouldn't want to go into a soccer game having only practiced once a few days before; why would you do that for math?? I stay here after school everyday; what are YOU doing to improve your grade?? If you're not willing to stay with me after school everyday -- that's OK -- get a tutor! Some of my freshmen have tutors; there is nothing wrong with that. Only 1 of them is failing out of all 4 of my freshmen classes. Do what you need to do and make positive choices! Get it together!!"

Anyway, as usual, I thought to myself afterwards that I had perhaps been too hard on them. A major reason for their poor understanding can be attributed to their recent ridiculous absence patterns. After all, how can you be expected to do well on a two-day test when you've recently missed an entire week (or more) of school?? Another reason for them doing pretty badly, as one parent pointed out in a conference with me recently, is that they have poor basic skills coming into my class (for reasons I won't discuss). The parent was concerned because she recently started helping her kid with math, and she realized that her 11th-grade daughter can only calculate rise/run correctly sometimes. (And, even though I review these "old" skills whenever applicable in class, we have to be realistic here -- how many slope practice problems could/would I assign to a class of 11th-graders?) But, the result is that they often make silly algebra mistakes in word problems, even though they have the big picture of what they're supposed to do.

I have very complicated feelings about all of this. But, after my chat with the kids, they started miraculously showing up for extra help. Yesterday, 3 of them came after school. Today, 6 of them came after school. --AT 3PM, ON A FRIDAY?!?! I told them, "You guys sure choose some interesting times to be motivated." One of them who had NEVER come to see me before said to his friend, "This stuff is so easy now!" I rolled my eyes at him and said, "That's why YOU should have come to see me BEFORE the test."

I don't know what to think about all of this -- not about their poor state of affairs, nor about this sudden surge of motivation. I can only hope that their motivation is not just some sign of short-lived guilt. Because this class really, really needs that extra umph. None of my 11th-graders has issues processing complex material. They just need a LOT, LOT of work to get fluent at it. (And I hope that they're all planning on taking some type of math next year, so that all of this effort I am putting into them isn't going to waste.)

1 comment:

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