On being smart


One of the things that’s really hitting me with my Algebra kids this year is just how unused they are to having to work in class.  These kids are smart, right?  And they’re used to being the smart kids, and with only a couple of exceptions they’re used to thinking of themselves as smart kids; it’s part of their self-identity; something they’re proud of.

Smart kids are supposed to get stuff.  School’s not supposed to be hard for smart kids.

Literally the first thing I said to these kids when they walked into my room on the first day of school was “Welcome to high school.”  I’m walking a fine line here; I’m trying to push them as far and as fast as I can without breaking any of them, and it’s an interesting and delicate dance to be involved in.  I’m thinking about this because I graded a mid-chapter quiz today, and I’m trying to figure out what to do with the kids who didn’t do well– some of them are clearly smart kids (remember, I’ve had everyone in this group before except for about three of them) who are so unused to having to ask questions in class that I think they’re actually ashamed to have to do so.  I gotta work on that.  By and large, considering the volume of stuff I threw at them in the last three weeks, they did well.  It’s just the handful that didn’t that I need to figure out how to handle.

Getting a new student on Monday.  I can pronounce neither of her names, and I only know she’s a she because I looked her up. My wild-ass guess is that she’s Kenyan.  This should be interesting.  (Kenyans speak, what, English and Swahili?  With maybe French as a distant third?  Hopefully there’s not a language issue.)

So, yeah.  Smart kids.  Then there’s whatever is going on in that picture there, which I took in my classroom on Friday after a student volunteered to do that problem on the board.  Now, this is my special ed group– don’t get me wrong, I’m not in any way trying to make fun of this kid, just to give you an idea of the range of abilities I see throughout the day, because after this kid leaves my room I get the Algebra kids, a group that contains a kid who got a perfect score on his math ISTEP last year.  I was trying to demonstrate the various algebraic principles; the problem on the other side of the one on the board is 4x(6×5) and the idea is that they’re supposed to notice that both equal 120 regardless of where the parentheses are.  Note that this does not represent multiple attempts to solve the problem.  He did the green part first, where rather than multiplying four by six (or adding it six times, which would have been fine) he raised four to the fourth power.  Then he switched to a blue marker, getting into an argument over whether it was “his” marker in the process, added six to itself four times and got 24.  What caused him to privilege the 24 over the 32, I’m not sure, although this kid is prone to giving me multiple choice answers on assignments– he’ll literally write “3 or 30 or 4 or 17” next to a problem.  The blue squiggle next to the 2 under the actual problem is supposed to be a 4; there are also huge handwriting issues.

Then he switched to a red marker and tried to multiply 24 by 5.  Note that he’s first tried to add it, but only four times, and that the presence of a tens digit has utterly confounded him– he’s added the two pairs of fours to get two eights, then added those and gotten six instead of sixteen.  This isn’t forgetting to add a digit; I was standing behind him watching this performance and he actually said “four plus four is six” while he was writing.  He then turned around and told me that the answer was six, at which point I took this picture, erased the whole mess, and walked through everything with him.

I do this often, by the way– letting a kid dig himself into a hole can frequently be useful because it gives me insight into how they handle mathematics.  Unfortunately, for the second time this year, I’m looking at this and getting the “holy shit, I can’t fix this” vibe that I get from writing sometimes.  The kid can’t handle basic multiplication on his own, and even with other adults in the room I can’t get around to them often enough to help him with everything he needs help with.  Luckily, he has involved parents; I can’t imagine what he’d be like otherwise, as this is what he is like with help at home.

I’ll figure it out– I’ll figure him out, I always do– but Christ, do I have a headache right now.