kitchen table math, the sequel: Ricky update

Friday, January 19, 2007

Ricky update

Okay, blogger folks. I finished this and published it, but it appeared on the original date. I found no way to change the date of the post. Is this possible? It should print on the date is was published, not the date it was created.

Anyway, here goes.

Wednesday (a couple of weeks ago now), I had a tutoring session with Ricky, the 8th grader. The topic was limits.

I've learned to look at all of his worksheets first, to see what they're really covering, since their idea of covering a topic is very different from mine. He had three worksheets, all of them with odd little exercises on them that went something like this: "Get a bowl of Hershey's Kisses and take half the Kisses out of the bowl. Keep taking half of the Kisses out of the bowl. When you get down to only one Kiss, cut it in half and take out half. Will you ever empty the bowl? Why or why not?"

Uhm, okay. I see where this is supposed to go, but couldn't they at least give a definition? Even if they wanted to use induction, how about a definition at the end of the third worksheet?

Keep in mind that they haven't done Cartesian geometry yet. No y = mx + b. It's kind of hard to talk about limits in terms of math -- particularly to an 8th grader -- without being able to use a graph as an exemplar. Try it.

This is the first time he has questioned the curriculum. Not directly, but he's been remarkably willing to led the course lead him down the garden path, without questioning where the class is headed, until Wednesday. He appropriately asked me what limits were for.

"Trigonometry. Calculus. Engineering."

"What are we doing to do with them?"

"You'll have to ask your teacher."

And indeed, the boy had a point: What is an 8th grade class going to do with limits?

"You don't know?"

"I have no idea."

"Then why are we doing this?"

Well, one may well wonder. And I understand his mystification. Limits, as they were covering them, don't generate numbers, or seem to an 8th grader to have much to do with mathematics.

It was the following week that Ricky told me what had happened in class -- and I had to laugh a little (silently, of course). To demonstrate limits, the teacher had had all of the students stand on one side of the room. She had then had half of them move to the other side of the room, over and over again.

There is a problem with using discrete objects to demonstrate limits (the same problem was in the Hershey Kiss exercise): You eventually get down to one. So when they got down to one student, Ricky said the teacher told them, "Never mind, let's do this example instead."

When you're teaching, you really need to think things out before you run them in the classroom. Been there, done that.

Next up that week was quadratic equations. To review, let's look at the preceding list of topics: Division, graphs (pie, bar, column, and area, not Cartesian), fractions, limits, quadratic equations. By the time I started this gig, they had already "done" linear equations -- except that they hadn't really, and we covered it.

For the first time, Ricky had an amnesia attack. I'm used to this. Teaching in a two-semester course sequence, you see lots of students the second semester you had the first who seem to have forgotten nearly everything you did the previous semester. But Ricky had a complete blackout. He couldn't solve 50 = 25 + x.

So I gently nudged him by doing it for him, step by step, then writing down another for him to do. Again, blackout.

I have a son, and I also have three younger brothers (well, had: my youngest brother died a couple of years ago). I know what a frustrated adolescent looks like, and he was getting frustrated. I backed off, and suggested I come back the next evening, and in the meantime, told him I'd email him some stuff he could do before I came back to refresh his memory of linear equations.

That worked pretty well, but he's still frustrated, and I can't blame him. Again, I got, "Why can't my teacher explain it like this?" and I have no (ethical) answer to that question, which doesn't help his frustration. He wants me to validate it, and it really wouldn't be appropriate for me to do so, though he's right. The problem is that he's turning his frustration not on the class or his teacher, but on math in general, and that's not good because he's very sharp, and he picks it up very quickly.

So who knows. Maybe I'll be turning into a therapist next. Sigh.


Catherine Johnson said...

But Ricky had a complete blackout. He couldn't solve 50 = 25 + x.

We see this over and over and over again.

I am coming to believe, until I learn otherwise from the relevant cognitive research, that it is possible to degrade knowledge.

Apparently this does happen to kids in special ed. Knowledge they once "possessed" fairly well can go away or can become jumbled.

If this can happen to kids with disabilities (we're talking severe diabilities here), it can happen to people with normal brains.

At least, in my own experience, I've seen repeatedly that the problems people with developmental disabilities face also happen to the rest of us. They just happen far, far less frequently; we recognize that they're happening and compensate, etc.

I feel that I am watching Ms. Kahl - and yes, I am using her name, so sue me, is degrading Christopher's knowledge of math.

(We're pretty close to throwing in the towel, but that's another story.)

Catherine Johnson said...

While I'm inviting lawsuits, why don't I use the math chair's name, too?

Karen Palmer, Chair of Irvington Math Department

The woman who told us that "if" students need distributed practice "parents can find worksheets online."

The woman who told us, "Ms. Kahl is an excellent teacher and has always been an excellent teacher. She has not changed her teaching in any way, and will not change her teaching in any way."

The woman who maligned another parent by name in our presence.

The woman who told me "You're the only parent complaining."

The woman who told me, about the parent uprising in 2005, "That was a different set of parents and a different year."

The woman who has expressed not the slightest concern for whether my child is or is not learning math.

I invite the union to add Ms. Palmer to their list of teachers needing legal protection from inflammatory parents.

LynnG said...

Rightwingprof, what class is Ricky in? Is this a standard 8th grade algebra class or something else?

We are struggling with High School Geometry at home. His school uses Prentice Hall, Tools of Geometry. It got a pretty poor review on MathematicallyCorrect.

I hear all the time, why are we doing this? Something is dreadfully wrong, because the book is full of "real world" applications and tons of glossy pictures and graphs, and interesting anecdotes from the worlds of engineering and aerospace. "Why are we doing this" is exactly what this book is supposed to address.

Catherine Johnson said...

I think you actually have some kind of moral obligation to tell Ricky that his problems come from the school not from him.

I'm not sure why you have no ethical answer - is it that you feel you shouldn't criticize the teacher?

The way around that issue, and I agree that it's an issue for a tutor (though not for a parent), is to criticize the curiculum and pedagogy.

You should simply tell him he is being taught "constructivist math"; you can tell him that constructivist math has been publicly rejected by 2 Nobel prizewinning physicists, 1 recipient of the Fields medal, and 200 of their colleagues.

That's really all you need to say.

You don't need to get into the teacher - and to some degree you shouldn't get into the teacher. From your vantage point, there's no way to tell whether the teacher is a problem in and of herself (though I think you have some evidence).

I constantly say to people, "Math isn't taught well in the U.S.; it never has been. If math were taught well you could do it."

That observation has worked for every adult I've shared it with thus far.

Catherine Johnson said...

You don't need to be a therapist.

Just tell him the truth!

KDeRosa said...

at the bottom of blogger's new post page go under post options and change post time and date to the current time and date (minus three hours if you're on the east coast)

Anonymous said...

Yes, the shutdown is so frustrating. Special ed kids shut down daily or hourly sometimes. Teachers sometimes feel bad for them or just start to give up, which I hate. It is tough to deal with, but you just pick up right there and start again.

This is why I find it hard to patch up what the teacher is doing in class. I did that for years.

When I started parallel teaching with a separate curriculum (Saxon) I started seeing better results because we finally developed a foundation. It took a while, though. I imagine it would be much easier to do with your own kid than with a tutee.

He is very lucky to have you, that's for sure.


rightwingprof said...

"I'm not sure why you have no ethical answer - is it that you feel you shouldn't criticize the teacher?"

Yes. However much of a fool I may think she is, I have ethical problems with criticizing her in front of her student.

Good suggestions, by the way. I'll keep them in mind (since this looks like it's going to get worse).

Catherine Johnson said...

ok, right

yes, I think you're correct that you shouldn't criticize the teacher under these circumstances

but you can certainly discuss the curriculum with him, which may also increase his motivation

I explained working memory to a 6th grader I know recently; I said working memory can only hold 7 things + or - two, and that's why he needed to write down the steps of solving an equation.

He got it immediately!

He linked it to the Memory game, where you can only remember so many items at the same time.

Like all (I presume all) 6th graders he was hugely resistant to writing down steps; he started getting with the program shortly after that.

He also instantly got the idea that he should know things fast, because he's clearing out his teeny-tiny working memory.

When you tell Ricky what you've told us about the incoherence and insane speed of his curriculum not allowing for distributed practice and mastery, the scales are going to fall from his eyes.

Or start falling, anyway.

Catherine Johnson said...

I should probably state for the record the fact that we spend very little time criticizing teachers around here.

When we get back a test like the one that came home last night we have household fury, but the rest of the time, no.

Christopher has a crew of terrific crew of teachers this year, along with two we consider weak.

We do say that the "other" weak teacher is weak since we both subsccribe to Engelmann's "If the student hasn't learned, the teacher hasn't taught."

But we don't dwell on it.

Anne Dwyer said...

I know this doesn't exactly fit here, but I wanted to thank Catherine for changing the comments. Now I don't have to have a google account to comment.