Dear M, (Student Letter #3)

To help me be more critical and mindful of the bonds I’m forging with individual students, I’ve decided to write letters to some of my current and former students. This is the 3rd post in the series.

Dear M,

I’ve had you as a student for two years now. I’ve gotten to know you well. It pains me think about your struggles because your feelings towards math have soured while in my class.

Last year was good for us, productive. It was the first half of the two-year track for algebra 2 that you were involuntarily placed in by our school. You worked hard all year. Asked lots of questions. I found you very capable. Little did I know what was bubbling underneath the surface.

This year I assigned the Mathography in September. In yours, you opened up about your strong dislike for math through the years and how being placed in a two-year course against your wishes affected your self-worth. It made you feel inadequate as a learner of mathematics. Given our experiences last year, I found both of these things surprising. I should’ve known. That’s on me.

I made a focused effort to listen to you more this year. During our talks — all during class time mind you — you’ve helped me feel the negative emotions that can come with learning math. From jump, you shared your frustrations about the class, about our school. Being a small crop of seniors in a sea of sophomores and juniors taking the class, you looked inward and wondered why you were so bad at math. M, you are not bad at math. We made you believe that.

Hearing your story firsthand and seeing your tears hit home. I told you that for the last two years I lobbied for our school to reform how we track students in math classes. No one has listened to me. While we do a lot of things right here, tracking has created a social hierarchy within our school that is hurtful and unjust. It shames students and reinforces stereotypes about math that you know well. You are a product of this system. I’m sorry for being part of the problem.

But my weak apology and efforts to advocate for systemic change on behalf of students like you don’t matter. Not at this moment. Not now, in late April, when you’ve all but given up. I had my chance to do something different, to help you engage, to help you find a purpose to our class, and I didn’t. We had a few small wins, but nothing consistent. No lie, I get frustrated with you — like I did today with the quiz. I can’t escape my own flaws, M. I wish I could. I’m being pulled in so many directions during class, the needs so great and so diverse, that instead of being creative and resourceful, I indirectly place blame on you. Again, this is on me.

Now you’ve lost interest in achieving anything meaningful through math. Respectfully, you come back each day to spend another 45 minutes in a haze of confusion. While never rude, you’re in so much pain that you laugh and make a self-deprecating joke anytime I approach you about grades or hand back assessments. I want you to know that this eats away at me.

I can only hope that somebody down the road can help you reconnect with math. I know it won’t be me and I’m ok with that. I hope that when you discover success through math, you relish it in all its glory. Stay in touch.

Sincerely,

Mr. P

 

Dear E, (Student Letter #2)

To help me be more critical and mindful of the bonds I’m forging with individual students, I’ve decided to write letters to some of my current and former students. This is the 2nd post in the series.

Dear E,

I noticed early on what your passion was: art.

Boy-oh-boy, you were always drawing in class. While we were discussing geometric sequences, you were doodling another character. At first, I wanted to tap your desk immediately — and most times I did. I had to. You were struggling to grasp concepts and I was worried about you. I didn’t want you to fall too far behind.

But as the months passed, and the more frequently I observed you drawing, the more appreciative of you I became. After learning from another teacher of the pretty rad animated short film that you made, I realized that what I thought was doodling, was in fact so much more. It was — and still is — a definitive part of your identity.

Fascinated, I started picking your brain. I wondered how all this works for you. I tried to imitate your (famous) cat drawing. I thought it was pretty good. I even asked you to teach me how to draw.

Then, after winter break, you shared with me — and the entire class — that your New Year’s resolution was to improve at math. I was proud of that goal and how you made it public, but I’m prouder of the progress you’ve made in reaching it ever since. E, I see a change. I’m glad the notebook that I gave you is helping. You have deeper thoughts now, more to give. More to share. You’re more engaged now than you ever have — you were even giddy over an exponential modeling problem the other day. I’m impressed to see this side of you that I always knew was there.

It’s hard to admit that when I see you drawing in class nowadays, I don’t rush in to bring you back to math. I pause. You’re in your own world, doing what you do. Your appetite for a good drawing is hard to interrupt. I know, I know, there’s a place and time for that — and it’s not in math class. I guess I’m not a teacher’s teacher because there’s something about you being immersed in what you acutely love during class that doesn’t bother me as much as it probably should. I wait as long as possible before I tap your desk, bringing you back, stopping you from finishing a nose or eye or mouth.

When that happens, my bad. But can you show me the finished product after class?

Sincerely,

Mr. P

P.S. By the way, I’m still waiting for my first lesson.

Dear K, (Student Letter #1)

To help me be more critical and mindful of the bonds I’m forging with individual students, I’ve decided to write letters to some of my current and former students. This is the 1st post in the series.

Dear K,

“They have never done anything productive in my class.”

That’s what I overheard another teacher say about you recently. Knowing the teacher, he meant no harm. He really didn’t. He was in the moment and, like most teachers, stressed out about something. But intentions are beside the point. His comment struck me as bold and unbelievable. It was around this time when I realized just how misunderstood you are.

I’ll admit, I was hard on you when we first met. You knew what you wanted and you let everyone know what it was. You were intense and playful. I didn’t like this. I found your energy disruptive. I found it troubling that I didn’t know what to expect from you each day. Would you be cooperative and work hard? Would you put your head down the period? These are the questions that came to mind when you walked in.

Over time, for whatever the reason, maybe I was tired, I slowed down. I talked to you. I learned you. I stopped judging you. Our chats, which have happened right smack in the middle of class, have helped me discover our mutual love of reading, of books. I’ve told you about my writing. We came up with the idea of sharing our favorite books with one another. Because I read and write so much and talk about my reading and writing so much, one day you jokingly asked me, “Mister, why don’t you teach English?” I laughed.

So I have to thank you, K. By letting me into your world, you’ve reminded me to seek out my students’ passions. Whatever they are, I need to find them. There’s so much that teachers can learn from students if they just ask. Meaningful teaching and learning don’t always have to be connected to an Aim and Do Now. You’re proof of this.

I think you’ll remain unpredictable to me. I like that. In fact, I’ve told you that I think you’re unpredictable, and you’ve said, “I need to change,” as if you being unpredictable is a bad thing. If no one else tells you, at least I will: don’t change! The world needs your freshness. People don’t see the world like you do; you refuse to conform and speak out when something’s on your mind. Don’t let others, even your teachers, make you feel that you need to leave your true self at the classroom door, either. Bring it every day. Yes, I hope more teachers learn to appreciate your joyful, yet fiery, presence. They’re really missing out.

I look forward to reading your favorite book. Do you think we can talk about it after class instead of when we should be learning how to factor polynomials? Just a thought.

Sincerely,

Mr. P

P.S. By the way, I don’t teach English because I don’t want to. I don’t want to read Shakespeare or Chaucer. I want to teach math. I love math. I also love to think about teaching math. And as William Zinsser said, “Writing is not a special language owned by the English teacher. Writing is thinking on paper.” Reading and writing help my passion for math, learning math, and teaching math come alive. Also, reading takes me to far away places — sometimes through math, sometimes not. And I like being in faraway places.

 

bp