Having spent about 4 weeks in the high school math setting, I can say with certainty that reaching those students that are hard to reach is not given enough attention in middle school, or at any level for that matter. The quality of math courses at the high school cannot endure the percentage of students sitting in those courses with monumental deficiencies. A student that has failed 6th grade math, 7th grade math, and 8th grade math lands him or herself in 9th grade math at the high school level a high percentage of time. That statement is not meant to condemn the practice or lack of practice of holding students back when they can’t perform to a minimum acceptable level. The statement simply means the system places a growing percentage of students and teachers in a difficult position, to put it kindly. This post really isn’t meant to spout statements that math teachers have been spouting for years. Instead, I’m reminded of the importance of reaching EVERY student all the time, especially during the critical years where learning foundations are established. More specifically, I’m thinking about what that requires.
To combat this cruel series of events that plays out every year, many schools are turning to extra periods of remediation and intervention, loss of recess, extended class periods for math, and a deluge of other techniques that really only increase the time to “learn” math. Instead, I wish more schools, administrators, teachers, etc. placed more of the focus on improving the experience for those students in their regular math class. I’m not talking about adding time, taking away an elective so the student can be placed in remediation classes, or doing more of the same thing only longer. I wish more teachers considered why that student was failing their class instead of how they can get that student to spend more time doing math. None of that is to say that more traditional means of remediation aren’t or can’t be effective.
It’s time to look at remediation from a comprehensive whole-child perspective. I feel like we’ve completely overlooked reaching that child during class and jumped straight to “what can we do to that kid during remediation?” The following list represents the tip of the iceberg, but I wonder what results these would yield in comparison to traditional remediation techniques.
- The failure that is occurring, by teacher and student, can only be remedied if a relationship is present. In fact, if you’re talking remediation but the conversation doesn’t begin with “How do I get into this student’s bubble? How do I break the shell? What can I do to reach his or her heart?” you’re wasting your time talking strategy, technique, or pedagogy.
- Have you called home? The first call home should be on purpose, it should be early in the year, and it should be positive. Not sure which students need called? Unfortunately if you just listen to the previous grade level teachers, they’ll probably indicate who needs a phone call. The names usually follow “just wait till you have…”
- A handwritten note takes a mere seconds to write. “Never underestimate the value of a well placed compliment. -Todd Whittaker” The students that need the most love, the most reinforcement, and the most pats on the backs, ask for it in the most unloving ways. Don’t let that stop you from writing a 30 second note. This practice seems easy, but when you’re talking about these students, you have to watch for something positive, on purpose. I know, positive behaviors may be like Bigfoot, you hear about him every once in a while, but you never see him. If you watch on purpose, you’ll find something to write about. Think about it, we watch for negative behaviors all day long and often find them. Try watching for positive behaviors a while and see what happens.
- Have you given up a lunch break to eat with a student or group of students?
- Have you visited the home?
- I know what you’re thinking, “Gee Wiz Oldfield, there’s no way a person could do all these things.” The perpetual and consistent failure that these students experience year after year acts like a huge weight on the everyone: teacher and students. The quality of courses is not enduring this weight that is only getting heavier year after year. The level of performance is declining and bars are lowering. What we’ve been doing isn’t working. Nothing great is accomplished by doing something easy.
I’ll be honest, the focus of this post came from my own frustration entering the high school math realm for the first time this year. I was previously an 8th grade math teacher for five years. I often wondered back then how teachers at the high school actually taught their courses at the level required by the standards without failing more students. I thought one of two things were occurring: the teachers were extraordinary teachers of the kind of talent I could only dream about, or the teachers recognized the cavern between the instructional level of the students and the performance required of the standards and spent the year measuring student learning at the current level then stamped a grade on the report card under a course name that did not really represent what was being taught. I believe the cure involves better reaching those students who are hard to reach. Consider the penalty if they get left behind? Prior to high school, the penalty is… they move on.
Now don’t get me wrong, do I believe instruction and pedagogy need to improve? You bet I do! I believe too many students sit in classrooms designed for a style of learning that is irrelevant and disengaging to today’s learners. That’s for another time.