Let me tell you about Justin. He’s pretty quiet. He was in my Honors Algebra 2 class last fall, didn’t keep up with the material, actively resisted my efforts to engage him, refused to come for help or to attempt homework. He predictably (and sadly) failed the term. I wasn’t happy about it, but I knew that I had tried to meet him more than halfway.
Fast forward to Fall 2013. Justin is in my Discrete Math class, a sign that he needs to make up a math credit for graduation. He is still quiet, keeps to himself, but does most of his work well. He participates in my favorite way – by both asking and answering questions thoughtfully. I am pleased (as I hope he is) that if he has a memory of my math class, it will be based on this positive experience rather than last year’s.
But not all students in Discrete Math take advantage of this ‘second chance’ math class. Because it is not tied to a Regents exam, we can dig in to topics in greater depth, and spend a lot of time in groups, working on projects, exploring ideas. Half of the grade is based on group/project work, a lot of which is done in class. My expectations are high, and I do not give grades away, but a conscientious student who is focused in class and works cooperatively with others (or alone if the situation warrants) will do just fine.
First marking period report cards were distributed today, so my classes had a mix of happy, disappointed, and disgruntled students. In particular, 2 young men in Justin’s class were not pleased with their grades. I spent several minutes speaking to one of them before class, encouraging him to use the online grading system to monitor his average and which assignments he was missing (he has not yet logged on this year, and not for lack of internet access). At first he seemed to be pleading with me for sympathy, and when he saw that this was not going to change his grade, he became angry and literally slunk off to his seat.
The students were in the middle of a structured linear programming assignment, the next to last in a series which will lead to an independent project. Feeling like I have been doing too much hand-holding, I circulated quietly and directed all questions back to the groups; in most cases, students hadn’t asked their group mates before seeking my help. [I actually kept a little distance, trying to avoid those proximity questions.] Unfortunately, both disgruntled students were in Justin’s group. I sensed the negative vibe every time I came by, and decided to give them the personal space to be annoyed; I wasn’t going to engage in a public discussion about someone’s grade, and I was hoping that a little cool-off time would help them both come around to acknowledging their own role in their disappointing grades, and their responsibility in changing them. They are seniors, and they need to learn how to do this, and quickly. And of course, I invited anyone who had a concern about their grade to speak with me during my prep periods.
At the end of the period, some of the groups were nearly finished with the assignment, which is not due until the end of class tomorrow. Other groups, like Justin’s, had a way to go, in most cases because of lack of focus. I announced that groups that were finished early would have the opportunity to work on something for extra credit. And the bell rang.
Justin’s Spanish class happens to take place in the same classroom during the next period. He came over to me and exploded: “I am so frustrated!” (I had never seen such an emotional display – no – any emotional display – from this child.) He went on to rant, “Those guys did NO WORK today. All they did was complain how YOU WEREN’T DOING ANY WORK because we were in groups. THEY JUST DON’T GET IT!” I am using all caps because this is exactly how Justin was speaking – he was pacing, waving his hands, morally outraged in defense of my class. He told me that he was afraid to actually do his work because he knew they would copy it. I assured him that I would take steps during class tomorrow to insure that this was not the case. And to ice this very lovely cake, he finished with, “They think they will just do the extra credit to make up for this – but they don’t get that you can’t do extra credit until you do the regular work! I AM SO FRUSTRATED!!”
Now, I don’t take pleasure at a student’s unhappiness. But it was very gratifying to see how mature Justin has become, and to witness his growth as a student. And remembering some of the glowers I got last year in Algebra 2, his indignance on my behalf really made me proud of him. So there was AT LEAST one very, very good thing today.