Expect the….Expected…but sometimes don’t

Algebra Scholars: A Pre-Algebra class of 8th graders who failed or did extremely poorly in 7th grade Pre-Algebra.

Algebra Readiness: The title or subtitle of numerous curricula directed at students with similar needs as my Algebra Scholars.  The “Algebra Readiness” subtitle is the only commonality among the three sets of curriculum I have reviewed: Holt’s Algebra Readiness, UCLA’s Introduction to Algebra, and MIND Research Institute’s A Blueprint for the Foundation of Algebra.

Two out of three of these texts do quite noteworthy job of providing opportunities for struggling students to learn the requisite skills for algebra in a variety of new ways.  I would happily follow them more or less by the book.

But why choose something different?  I mean if students are struggling with math using Holt in 6th and 7th grade, wouldn’t it make sense to purchase Holt’s Algebra Readiness program since it looks EXACTLY the same as their 6th, 7th and Algebra texts.  It’s comforting, right, to begin the school year being separated from your peers (all 8th graders take Algebra 1 except my 2 sections of Algebra Scholars), tracked into a class with other low-achieving students, and being handed a textbook which not only looks EXACTLY like your textbook from last year, but has the EXACT SAME CHAPTERS as your textbook from last year.  Bliss…

Someone drank the Kool-Aid and somehow expects that outcomes will change by using the exact same text taught in the exact same way (honestly…it takes a close eye to spot the differences between Holt’s Pre-Algebra and Algebra Readiness texts).  Worse, this flavor of Kool-Aid is being served straight up in far too many schools in this country.

Luckily, my summer drink of choice is Prosecco with lavender honey.  I have created 4 goals for my class and will interweave them into my warm ups, classwork, assessments, and homework each week.  Call me crazy, but I think that students’ poor performance in math class has as much (if not more) to do with their attitudes about school and math as it does with their perceived lack of knowledge and practice on computational algorithms.

In no particular order (and all of equal importance):


* Fostering mathematical curiosity and improving number sense.

* Struggling and ultimately gaining confidence and strategies for mathematical problem solving.

* Identifying your strengths and weaknesses in computational skills and improving on         them.

* Learning, practicing, and being proud of what it takes to be successful in school.

I have made an extensive list of what each of these goals will look like in practice and made a lovely Google-Calendar of the school year, color coded with each goal and general topics/resources I’ll use.  If you were going to be these students’ 9th grade Algebra 1 teacher, what would be on your wish list for what they would know or be able to do when they arrived in your class?  How would you fill  in the content for each of these goals? Would your goals be significantly different?

My Google-Calendar started as a spreadsheet.  Here’s a sketch of September with the H# referring to the chapter of Holt which will be lightly stirred, not shaken into the mix.

I’m still not sure what a typical class period will look like, whether we’ll interweave each goal into a single class period, or over the course of the week.

Will integers only be taught via Holt?  Heck no.  As I always explain to student teachers during the first week of school, a textbook is no more than a list of problems.  It doesn’t tell you HOW to teach..that’s where your craft comes in.  But since each student will have a textbook, I may as well send it home and use it for homework when we need to practice stuff.

Will integers only be taught in September?  Well, if you drank the Kool-Aid, then you’d be led to believe (by the teacher’s guide) that 3 weeks is all you’ll need for integer operation mastery.  You’d also be led to believe that you should wait to teach integers until chapter 14 (i.e. sometime in March). If this is really a course to prepare students for success in algebra, it seems to be that we should start with integers since they are such a stumbling block for students who struggle in algebra.  That way we have the whole year to think about them in a variety of contexts, not 3 weeks of practice which somehow leads to mastery.

Why memorization as a focus and why start with perfect squares? There are some things which deserve automaticity.  Times tables are a big one.  Unfortunately, while teachers expect memorization of times tables beginning around 3rd grade, no grade level seems to be willing to say, “The buck stops here.” So, struggling 8th graders don’t know their times tables and no one in 5th-7th has been willing to take time to ensure that they do.  In Algebra Scholars, the buck stops here.  BUT…if I were to expect students to memorize their times tables in September of 8th grade, they’d refuse.  “This class is for babies,” or “I already KNOW them,” or “I’m switching out of this class,” would be the more polite of the commonly overheard phrases.  So we need to start with something new. Something cool.  Something no one has asked them to memorize before.  But it also has to be relevant to where they’re going in math.  Memorizing perfect squares is just right for September and just right for struggling students.

And we need to reward their progress…And no, I didn’t think of this on my own. 

Got 2 more weeks to ponder…


4 thoughts on “Expect the….Expected…but sometimes don’t

  1. Love this. Please keep sharing your ideas with us! A agree that perfect squares make perfect sense to start their confidence building.

  2. I taught reading intervention for the last two years and I think you’re right about this having a lot to do with students’ attitudes. Something that I think helped me was grading by proficiency to a certain extent, or assessing individual students as many times as necessary to demonstrate mastery, like Dan does: http://blog.mrmeyer.com/?p=346. I think it can change that attitude (if enough damage isn’t already done by tracking them, ’cause that feels awesome).

  3. Love this too. I have an “intervention” class for juniors as well as junior highers. We have no texts, but use the same ideas from this post. Curiosity, confidence, basic skills, these are the things we focus on. Keep posting with excellent ideas!

  4. As a teacher imagining herself as a student, I would want to learn how to study for a math test, how to find my own mistakes and correct them, and what to do to improve on my weaknesses.

    I’d also want to have fun, know that my teacher liked me and cared about my progress, and know that I would not be ridiculed.

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