When I first started my career I struggled. A lot. My first job was in the School for Legal Studies which when I joined it was a relatively small high school by New York standards. I had three classes each day, two of which were double period classes. If you’ve ever watched Michelle Fiefer’s "Dangerous Minds" you’ll understand what my classes were like. It took me 3 months before I actually got one of my class’ attention.
I had one lesson which worked really well during my first semester. It was suggested to me by an Assistant Principal for Math. Basically, I started a class singing the quadratic formula song. Instantly the class went quiet. One student asked me to sing it again, so I did. By the third time I was singing it, some students were joining in. By the fifth time, only the quietest and shyest of kids weren’t singing with me. After the singing I managed to hold their attention for 20 minutes of examples of how to actually use the quadratic formula to solve equations.
For three weeks every time my students came to class, they sang the quadratic formula song when they entered. I’m still in touch with some of the students from this class and all of them remember that we sang a quadratic song although most of them don’t remember all of the words.
Over the next three years, I learned a bunch of tricks to help students memorize the bits and broken pieces that represented the NY State Math curriculum. Together my students and I sang songs to remember formulas, used hand signals to remember the relationship between an implication and its inverse, converse, and contrapositive, and deciphered calculations of algebraic groups to look for transposes and inverses. None of it made any sense to the students, it didn’t have to, they could memorize it.
I didn’t use flash cards or other tricks to help my students memorize these math facts. I used every other trick I could think of. I became a master of memorization. My students did reasonably well on their exams each year compared to their peers in other classes but I never felt like I achieved more than mediocre success because my pass rates really never exceeded 60% overall.
I regret that I did this. I wish I had more guts back then and had been willing to slow down and instead of trying to race through a bunch of disconnected concepts that I pulled out the ones which were most relevant in these students’ lives. I also wish that I had discovered my constructivist methods of teaching earlier in my career.
This actually isn’t the whole story; this is what I regret most from those early years. I also remember another side to this story which was that of an educator who endlessly experimented with different techniques to help his kids understand math.
I remember staying after school with students building model water slides so we could experiment with time-distance graphs. I remember bringing in pictures of buildings in my students’ neighbourhood so my classes could figure out the equation of the lines in the pictures. I remember buying a class set of long tape measures and protractors so we could go outside and calculate the height of the gigantic block which passed for a school in NYC. I remember being a good educator.
I do regret the endless drills and worksheets I passed out to my students. I am also eternally grateful that I found another way, a better way, and no longer rely on cheap parlor tricks in my teaching.