In which I give up

My nephew is here, having arrived into the world at around 5:15 yesterday evening; he is of normal size and proportion and in possession of all of the various bits he is supposed to be in possession of. Mom and Dad are also fine, if perhaps slightly dazed. They live much closer to her family than to ours; it’s going to be a couple of weeks before we’re able to go up there and meet him, and I spent a good chunk of last night fighting off a wave of surprisingly intense jealousy that her people were getting to see the new arrival so much earlier than us until I talked to my brother on the phone and he pointed out that, because of Covid, they weren’t allowed any visitors at the hospital, and so nobody other than my brother and sister-in-law are going to get to interact with him until they go home, which should be tomorrow.

My first thought when I saw him was that he got his nose from our side of the family, and then I looked more carefully at my brother’s nose and decided that I didn’t have any idea what the hell I was talking about. I’ve always halfway suspected people just pick a facial feature and a relative when they say things like that, and it entertained me how fast the reaction was on my part and how utterly nonsensical it was when I thought about it. He has the same baby nose as every baby.


Today was exhausting. It’s the first really warm day of the year around here, topping off at around 82 degrees, and my building does not do ventilation all that well; the windows open but it does a lot less good than you might think, and I spent basically the whole damn day sweating. On top of that, the math portion of the ILEARN started today, and my group was quite clearly Over It by the end of the test, despite the fact that every time I walked around and read questions over people’s shoulders it was stuff we had covered recently. Like, this quarter, if not actually in the three weeks I’ve been back.

Insert every rant I’ve ever ranted about how the fuck do you not remember this and what are you people doing that you can know how to do something on Tuesday and act like you’ve never seen it before on Wednesday. By the time we got to eighth hour I was so sweaty and crabby and hot that I actually gave them the period off, because however I was explaining my shit to them today it wasn’t sinking in; my kids were, no shit, having trouble with questions like is this line going up or down all day, and I just cannot right now, at all.

Then in between the bell ringing at the end of the day and getting out of the building I had to deal with two entirely different situations in which a student was bawling and inconsolable and figure out what the hell was wrong and what I could do to fix it, one of which involved a quick parent phone call because the kid was convinced his parents wouldn’t believe him about what had just happened.

I’m in my sleep shorts and a tank top right now, and I don’t wear tank tops. That’s how Goddamned tired I am. Thank God I don’t have any kids tomorrow; I need to get my equilibrium back.

In which I give up

Wednesday remains Trainings and Meetings day around here, and as such I did not have any interaction with my students beyond responding to emails. What I did have was a very depressing Math team meeting where we looked at some data, reflected on the fact that the mid-year test had been (rightfully, mind you) cancelled and so we therefore weren’t going to get any updates on that data anytime soon, reflected further upon the fact that this particular assessment tool demonstrates that our students, by and large, appear to know nothing at all, and had a brief discussion wherein we were all forced to admit that none of us had the slightest idea what we might be able to do under the current circumstances to fix the problem.

(Nor can we be sure that the data captures the issue accurately, since the test was administered while the students were home, and we have no way of ensuring that it was taken seriously.)

One of the more entertaining fights in comments that I have had over the life of this blog was a post where I was complaining about my students performing poorly on a test about slope. Well, it is now several years later and I can confidently report that despite attempting to teach slope in a variety of different ways and with a variety of different strategies since then, my 8th graders still do not really appear to understand slope, and attempting to teach it virtually during a pandemic is … suboptimal.

Allow me, if I may, to further elucidate.

I have not yet actually introduced the formula for slope, which is complicated enough that I can’t reproduce it in WordPress’ text editor and would have to copy and paste an image. Instead, I’ve started beginning the unit with simply counting. Count the rise, or the vertical distance between points A and B, remembering (hopefully) that if you go down from A to B your “rise” is negative (this is confusing, because no one naturally thinks of something called “rise” as negative, and I wish the word was different) and then count the “run,” which is the horizontal distance between A and B and is always positive.

You will note on the above image that the slope of that line is -4, because you count down 4 squares to go from A to B and one square for the run, and -4/1 is equal to -4. I’m breaking this down in such a granular fashion that today was the first day we actually talked about negative slopes. Also, the reason there are no numbers anywhere on that image is that I discovered that some of my kids were simply writing down the number nearest to one of the points as (chosen randomly) the rise or the run, with no actual counting taking place. So I removed them on today’s assignment.

I have discovered that many of my students genuinely believe that there are five squares between A and B, because rather than starting from 0 they are counting the line A is actually on as 1 and going from there.

I have discovered– this is not surprising, but remains depressing– that a number of them do not include “left” and “right” among the concepts that are salient to them, and thus I must frequently remember to say “from A to B” rather than “from left to right.”

And I had a genuinely bewildering conversation with one of my kids, a kid who generally does well in class and has one of the highest scores in his grade on the test we were discussing earlier, absolutely cannot wrap his head around the words “uphill” and “downhill,” a set of terms I was using to distinguish positive slope (uphill, from left to right) and negative slope (downhill, from left to right) while I was talking. He consistently reported that any line was both going uphill and downhill at the same time, even when I made it clear which direction I was moving in. I eventually ended up creating this diagram:

He is color-blind, by the way, a disability that I have somehow never had to worry about in 17 years of teaching, so I have to make sure that color is never salient information in any diagram I do for an assignment, which is why one of the lines here is dotted. This can occasionally be trickier than it ought to be.

Anyway, I pulled this diagram together, still trying to work on this uphill/downhill thing, and asked him, gesturing with my mouse while talking, which of the two lines was going uphill when I moved from left to right. I even said “We’re moving from A to B on the dotted line, and C to D on the solid line. Which is going uphill?”

“Both,” he replied. And I swear to you, he wasn’t fucking with me. I tried a stairs metaphor. Which of these lines looks like you’re standing at the bottom of a flight of stairs, looking up to the top? Both. You’re sure you understand the “left to right” thing we’re doing here? You’re telling me C to D and A to B both look like walking upstairs?

Yes. Yes, he was.

This kid’s not stupid. Not at all. And he wasn’t fucking with me; I could hear the frustration in his voice. He was trying to get this, as opposed to the dozens of my students for whom no set of directions can be short or clear enough that they can be expected to read or follow them. But I don’t have the slightest Goddamned idea where the hell the disconnect was happening.

Today was not a good day.

In which I am successful and I don’t like it

Objectively speaking, today was a good day. Unfortunately, I apparently have no idea how to react to good news, so my brain is melting and I’m looking around for ways to mistrust what I should be treating as evidence that I have some idea how to do my job.

My first two classes of the day are seventh graders, and they are working on volume this week. We started with cubes and rectangular solids, moved on to triangular solids, and then started working on cylinders today. Now, in some ways, all of these are fairly simple– there is a reason that “follow the formula” is literally one of my classroom rules, and I allow calculator use any time that the calculation is not the point, and in this case I don’t want an inability to multiply fluently interfering with understanding what three pieces of information you need to calculate the volume of a prism.

Cubes and rectangles and triangles went fine, but in sixteen years I’ve never had a class of math kids that didn’t struggle with cylinders. Once pi comes into the mix, and especially once not only pi is in the mix but radius squared becomes a thing, they start having trouble. They get over it, but kids always need to be monitored carefully while they’re doing cylinder volume for the first time. They screw it up. I’m used to it. It’s okay.

Nope. Both classes sailed through the assignment I gave them, and from watching the class I could tell that damn near all of them understood what they were doing. Just like they’ve sailed through basically every assignment I’ve given them this week. They just aren’t having trouble with this, in a way that I haven’t seen with my previous math classes. And how did I react, to evidence that my students have learned what I have tried to teach them, a fact that in a sane world would make a math teacher happy?

Tomorrow’s assignment is going to include a mix of shapes, because I’m paranoid that what I actually have is an age cohort that has learned to push buttons in the right order but can’t actually figure out which formula they should use if I don’t hand it directly to them. I’m still going to make sure they have access to the formulas they need; I don’t need them to have anything memorized yet– but it’s not going to be a situation where they can use the same formula every time. And we will see if they crater or if they finish this assignment with the same ease that they’ve completed everything else I’ve thrown at them this week.

“But Luther,” you may be thinking, “you used an image related to graphing equations up there! That doesn’t have anything to do with volume! Why would you choose such a misleading graphic?”

Because my 8th graders pulled the exact same shit with working on slope and graphing linear equations this week. Now, I’ve talked about teaching slope on here before— be sure to read the comments, which feature the single most entertaining fight I ever got into in my comments section in the entire history of the blog, including the utterly priceless “you’re lucky you’re Canadian” final comment– and it is something that middle school kids tend to struggle with. The whole thing is weird, really; they’re just getting used to one letter being in their math, and now there are two, and somehow there’s not one right answer but a whole bunch of right answers, and you’re telling me that this equation and this line are the same thing, somehow? Okay, boomer. Sure.

Thing is, my kids have got this this year. In a way that previous groups never have. And part of the reason is definitely that because of the way that the scope and sequence was set up this year I was able to take my time and go piece by piece with it in a way that I haven’t in previous years, but it’s still stunning how well they seem to have absorbed this particular material.

So, again, I don’t trust it a bit, and I expect to go into work tomorrow and discover that they now think you use your feet to add numbers. We shall see. One way or another, Winter Break is six teaching days away, and that means they will forget everything I’ve ever told them in six teaching days plus one minute. But for now? It’s nice to feel like I know what I’m doing.