On worst-case scenarios

I met my Afghan student today. For the purpose of posting about her I’m going to call her Fatima, which is the second-most-common Afghan girls’ name, but isn’t hers.

I suspect I’m going to be talking about her quite a lot for the next little while.

Unfortunately, pretty much everything I was worried about with Fatima appears to have come to pass. She speaks virtually no English at all; she knew “hello” but I don’t think I heard her say even one other word of English while she was in class. She can read in neither English nor Pashto, although I was able to confirm after struggling with it for a few minutes that she does speak Pashto specifically basically by trying different names for languages until she lit up. As it happens, I have students in that classroom who can speak Urdu and Arabic; she understood neither language.

I gave her this when she came into the room:

The top language is Pashto; underneath that is Urdu, as Google Translate doesn’t have Dari available. I thought about adding Arabic but ran out of room, and it looks like Urdu is more common in Afghanistan anyway. It was immediately clear that she couldn’t read either. Later in class, I had her write her name (I wrote mine, then an arrow pointing to me, and handed her the pencil) and she was able to mostly write her first name, in shaky, second-grader’s handwriting, but it wasn’t quite spelled like it is in the computer and didn’t quite line up with how she pronounced it, so … yeah. Later I wrote 3+4 on the page; she did not recognize them as numbers, as far as I could tell.

Effectively, I am unable to communicate with this kid via anything other than gestures until I discover some sort of resource– an app, a website, something— that is able to speak Pashto. I’ve found several that can translate it (with who knows what level of quality, since I’m not able to evaluate it) but she’s effectively illiterate as far as being able to communicate grade-level content or anything close to it. So we need to work on nothing but getting her up to speed in English and basic literacy. I literally can’t teach her any math right now.

You can imagine how easy it is to find something that translates written English text into the spoken version of a language that is only spoken by maybe fifty million people worldwide and only about sixteen thousand (as of 2010; the number has certainly jumped recently) in America. I can find dictionaries and auto translators; they’re useless to me if they don’t speak, unless I learn to read Pashto.

On top of that, I had to bite some heads off in the morning, from kids who should have fucking well known better, for enthusiastic and obnoxious use of the word “Ay-rab” and jokes about the kids blowing up the building. I made it clear in all of my classes today that I’m landing on anyone bullying these kids like the wrath of God. We’re putting a stop to that shit with a quickness.

So, if anyone can make some suggestions for some “learn the alphabet” types of activities that work well for ESL kids, I’d love to hear it. Because our ESL teacher? Is out with Covid right now.

2022’s awesome so far.

What I use in the battle for the mind

Our math team had a really interesting meeting with the person in charge of math and science instruction for the corporation today. By “really interesting,” what I mean is that we knew what the meeting was going to be about before we had it, we had a meeting about the meeting yesterday, and we went in prepared to shut down some bad ideas. And … well, on our end it went pretty well, meaning that I think this poor lady walked into a buzzsaw that she didn’t even know was there before the meeting started.

The great thing was where I got to explicitly argue that the best thing we could do for math instruction in our building and in the corporation in general would be to shut down the honors academy, directly to one of the lord high muckety-mucks of the corporation. I’ve talked about this before so I won’t repeat the argument, but the really interesting thing is the way the person we were talking with didn’t appear to have considered the argument before I presented it to her. (To be fair, “the honors academy is destroying the ability of the other schools to do their jobs” is not the most obvious argument in the world.). I don’t think for a second that this is going to change anything, but it was nice to be able to say it.

… damn. I just found out Michael Nesmith died and now I need to listen to the Monkees for the rest of the night. One way or another, it was nice to just get up and go to work and do my job today without fear of some sort of digestive disaster happening. I’ve got big plans for a giant pot of chicken and dumplings this Sunday, so I need everything working right before that happens.

In which I’m still alive

I managed to make it back to work today for the first time since, well, last Thursday, and the first two adults to lay eyes on me both told me to take my ass back home again. I failed to take that advice; one of the most confounding things about this recent bout of being sick is that it’s consistently over by noon each day, only to resurge again the next morning, and I figured that since I made it to work without throwing up I could probably make it through the day.

Correct, as it turns out, and I know you all finished that last paragraph thinking “of course he didn’t,” because that’s how these posts almost always go. But no! I not only made it through the day, it was a pretty decent day, all told. I will likely do a Math Teacher Statistics Nerd post about my NWEA scores as soon as the last couple show up for me tomorrow; I have tested all but four of my students, and as none of the four have been to school at any point in the last two weeks I strongly suspect they’re not going to be in tomorrow, which is the last Friday of the semester and the end of the testing window. I want to wait until I have all the numbers I’m going to get before I start geeking out about them, but the early version is this: the good numbers appear to have held or in some cases actually gotten better, with my first and second hour doing particularly well.

… and I’ve spent twenty minutes staring at the screen and idly websurfing, so I guess I’ve said what I have to say for tonight? We’ll see if I make it through tomorrow. I’d like yesterday to have been my last sick day of 2021 but who the hell knows.

In which it really isn’t

Every 8th grader in the corporation takes the PSAT right around this time each year, mostly as an indicator of high-school readiness; if a kid enrolls in a high school out of district one of the things they pull as they evaluate the kid is the PSAT score. Now, we let them know early and often that this isn’t precisely the best measuring tool for this purpose (and I don’t know who made the decision to start using this test, but I’d like to have a word with them) and that, particularly on the math portion of the test, there’s gonna be some stuff they don’t know.

Now, the thing is, we’ve only been using the PSAT for a couple of years, and last year, I didn’t administer it, since I was working from home at the time. So I haven’t actually seen what the math content on the PSAT looks like since I took the PSAT, sometime in the early fuckin’ nineties. And here’s the thing: advancing your skills in reading and writing doesn’t really work the same way as it does in math. A talented 8th grader can handle a reading or language test pitched at 9th graders, because reading is still the same thing, and there really aren’t any actually novel skills taught after, like, the middle of grade school or so. Math? Math doesn’t work like that. The PSAT is basically an Algebra 1 test, and if you’re not in Algebra 1, the notation alone is going to make the thing entirely incomprehensible. Like, my kids have never seen f(x) in any capacity, and that renders even something like f(x) = X + 6 when X is 10 somewhat incomprehensible. Some of them will figure out (or, probably more accurately, correctly guess) that they can just add 10 and 6 and get 16, but the majority of them are going to look at the function notation and just fall apart, and a whole lot of the questions used function notation some way or another. There were two math tests on the PSAT, one that was meant to be done without calculators and lasted twenty minutes, and another that allowed calculators (which weren’t going to do most of my kids a bit of good) and lasted 40. I glanced through an extra copy of the test booklet (true to expectations, attendance was miserable) and found maybe three questions on the first test I thought my kids might be able to do, and perhaps 50% of the questions on the second test were possible, or at least would be by the end of the year– second- or third-quarter material, for example.

I’m not writing this to complain about the test, mind you; it’s just not going to be as useful to evaluate where an 8th grader is mathematically than it will be to evaluate where they are as readers. I’m writing this because, as a math teacher, I spent the entire test ignoring pointed glares from at least three or four students– not because they were actually mad at me, but because they decided it was funny to blame me for the math on the test being hard and a couple of them just decided they were going to spend an hour staring at me– because it’s not like they actually thought I was responsible for the questions on the Goddamned thing. I just kept telling them not to panic and didn’t worry about it’ it’s nice, for once, to have them taking something that isn’t used to evaluate me or my school in any way. All the pressure to do well was on the people actually taking the test!

Crazy, innit?

On giving up

My kids took the NWEA this week, which ate up my Tuesday and Wednesday, and will knock another couple of kids out of class on Monday while they finish up. I would, in general, prefer not to have to worry about standardized tests, but as such things go the NWEA isn’t bad. It hits most of my checkboxes for what I want for these things: first, it’s a growth test, meaning that it’s keyed to individual students and it’s possible for a very low student to demonstrate a lot of growth and have that treated as a positive thing even though they don’t do objectively as good as a more advanced student who stayed the same. Second, there’s no notion of passing the test. Their score is keyed to grade levels, yes, but there’s no cutscore where a student is arbitrarily determined to have “passed” or “failed” regardless of their grade. And while we administer it three times a year, any given administration doesn’t take very long– I was able to get most of my kids tested in a single block, and two blocks got basically everyone who was present to take the test in the first place done. That’s not that bad. Realistically, we’ll lose more days this year to me being sick or absent for training than we will to the NWEA.

The median percentile score (also: percentile scores are more useful than arbitrary scores, although the NWEA generates both) of my three groups, nationwide, was 19, 16, and 13. Meaning, in case you haven’t studied measures of central tendency recently, that if 100 randomly-chosen kids took the test, 81 of those kids would outscore half of the students in my first block, 84 would outscore half of my kids in 2nd block, and 87 would outscore half of my kids in 3rd block.

Eight of my students are in the 1st or 2nd percentile, meaning that 99 or 98 of those randomly-chosen kids would outscore them.

Let us, for the moment, simply postulate that there are a number of possible reasons for these scores including but not limited to that a large percentage of them effectively took 1/4 of 6th grade and all of 7th grade off and then lay that aside. I’m not especially concerned with why for the purpose of this post.

We are supposed to discuss these results with our kids, which for the record is something I support. If we don’t talk about how they did, the test becomes meaningless to them, and there is absolutely nothing that is more of a waste of time than a standardized test that a student isn’t taking seriously. So it’s useful to let them know how they did, what it means for them, and what they might want to do to improve.

Where I am struggling right now, though, is this, and forgive me for another post whose point gets boiled down to a single sentence after five paragraphs of lead-in:

I do not know how to tell a fourteen-year-old kid “99 out of every 100 people who took this did better than you” in a way that does not sound functionally identical to “You should give up.”

I can couch it as as much of a pep talk as I want, and I already know that at least one of those eight kids is going to work her ass off for me this year because that’s who she is, and if I have her at a third- or fourth-grade understanding of math by the end of the year it will be a triumph. And unlike many years, I think all of these eight kids are at least potentially reachable still. There have definitely been years where I had a kid at 1% who I was privately convinced was going to stay at 1% out of sheer spite for the rest of the year, and these aren’t those kids.

Similarly, it is difficult to communicate those median percentile scores to a classroom of kids without a number of them concluding that they’re just dumb and should give up. When the highest-scoring kids in the room aren’t past the 60th percentile (which is the case) they all need extra help, and I can’t provide “extra” help to 27 kids at once. One of my classes can barely get through a basic lesson right now because of the number of behavior issues I have. And that’s before I have to give them information that demoralizes the hell out of them for what are, unfortunately, entirely reasonable reasons. In most circumstances, if 99 out of 100 people are better than you at something, you are probably going to stop doing that thing! So what the hell am I going to do in a situation where not only are 99 out of 100 people doing better than my kids in math, but many of them don’t even want to be good at it? Remediating this would be a Herculean effort from someone fully invested in improving. And right now I just don’t know how the hell to ask for that kind of effort (and expect to actually get it) from people who, to be charitable about it, don’t have academic success as a high personal priority right now.

Sigh.