Wednesday, June 11, 2008

How Can It Happen?

A few years back I had the blessed privilege of teaching one boy in particular. Now, I have to say that I could say that about every student I teach, but this is a particularly sweet story for me to remember. If you knew his family history, you'd understand why I say this. I was told ahead of time what his limitations would be and what troubles to expect. (And indeed those were descriptions of what his 4th grade year had been like after he arrived.) I will tell you now, before I relate some of his story, that he was one of the smartest students I've ever taught.

As the first few days went by, I noticed that none of the anticipated problems were presenting themselves. None, at all! His grandmother/guardian asked me how he was doing, and I remember my answer to her. "He is knocking himself out to please me. He is working so hard, not complaining one bit. Nothing is difficult for him, he's really smart!" And it was true. I'm still convinced he was brilliant. His young life may have had a hard beginning, but as his confidence grew, his self-image grew and he just blossomed that year.

About 3 weeks into the year, we had our first Math Test. The next day, as I returned the tests for the students to look at, his response was one I'll never forget. As I gave him his paper, upon seeing the grade (95), he said out loud, "I've never made an A on a Math Test before!" That was the first of many "A's". In fact he made an A on his report card every reporting period throughout the year. Math wasn't hard for him, he didn't struggle to "get" a single concept, and he wavered only once, when he had been sick (and even then a little intensive input from me was all it took). He was so confident as he worked, and his family and I watched him grow and bloom even more. He left my classroom a different child, with his head held high. He knew he was smart. (I told him I thought he was brilliant!)

So, fastforward one year. Imagine my shock and surprise when I discovered that he was failing Math the following year. He was the same student, with the same brain, same brilliant reasoning abilities. So what happened?? I only have some ideas because I wasn't there with him each day, but I knew enough to believe that something was wrong. Terribly wrong. And I wished I had known earlier. I wished I could have done something to help.

As I enter this post, I am thinking that perhaps this might be happening in your family, to one or more of your children. I read the stories on other Math blogs of students who suddenly seem to fall apart in Math. I read the words of college math professors who bemoan the fact that students are ill prepared for college. (I do want to write more about this in later blogs.) I believe that if there is a predictor of which students will struggle with higher maths, it would be how well they transition into the abstracts and unknowns of pre- pre-algebra in 5th and 6th grade. (Yes, I mean pre- pre-algebra.)

On another matter, and in closing this post, I want to state that all students need to see their tests and have an opportunity to discuss the tests, within a day or two. And I believe that parents should be able to see the tests. I'm always baffled when I hear that a teacher won't let a test out of the room. How can a school say, "we want you, the parent, to help us, to support us with your child" but then not allow the parent to see a test!!?? This makes no sense to me. I'm a teacher, but I'm a parent also. I'm the one who might/will/can be helping him/her prepare for the next Math test. Do I want him to still be "unclear" on why he missed a problem? (I tutored a student this past spring semester, one who was failing math, one who had not passed a single Math test the entire year. I asked the parent if they had any tests I could look at, and they had never seen a test because students were not allowed to bring them home. The dad was trying to help him and reviewed with him each evening. But they were at a loss because they didn't know where they or he had failed.)

So what do you do when tests aren't coming home and you, the parent, are not seeing them. Here are a couple of suggestions. First go to the teacher, respectfully, and ask if the tests are being returned. (Students are notorious for "losing" papers.) If you discover that the teacher doesn't allow them to be taken home, ask about how much time a student has to study over the mistakes on that test. And then ask if the teacher would consider changing the policy of keeping tests. (Anticipate that you will probably be told something about needing to use the test the next year and that siblings coming up could have an advantage. If you get this excuse, respectfully tell them that you understand and that you don't want to compromise the test at all.) Sometimes a teacher will reluctantly, quietly, give you or your student the test. If they do, know you are blessed. But what if you try and still get no response? . . .

There is one last step that I used once when my son was in middle school. After having a very pleasant phone conversation with the teacher during which he explained why he didn't return tests, I felt that I still needed to see the test, if only for a brief while. So I calmly called the principal, and asked about the school policy. He explained that some teachers had that policy and others didn't, but it wasn't a school policy. I explained to him that I wanted to respect the teacher's desire to keep the test confidential, and so I requested that he, the principal, get the test and allow me to come up into his (the principal's) office to look over it in his presence. Guess what! It worked. I got to look over the test, I saw how my son had studied improperly, and got a glimpse at what the test looked like. And better than that -- I didn't make the teacher or the principal angry. I hope this works for other families.

Look, it's all about trying to help a student.

There are many reasons why a student's grades can drop, but if the parent can eliminate one of them, a parent should be and usually is willing to do it. The test will be used by the teacher to determine a grade. Hopefully, it is also used to help determine teaching strategies which can improve students' understanding of concepts. In other words, the test can be a tool to help the teacher learn better methods for teaching concepts. And if teachers can learn anything from the test, why not allow the student to learn from the test? Or the parent? Wow, that would be a new approach -- teachers and parents and students all benefiting from the test!

As I said, it's all about trying to help a kid!