Math is Worksheets… said only one student ever

He came to class on the first day where I introduced our “interactive notebooks” for math. Half way through my introduction, he interrupted to (loudly) announce that math is worksheets, not “those notebooks”. He walked out, muttering “math is worksheets, worksheets in a folder!”. (Note: Whatever name this student’s mother gave him is irrelevant to the story, in this story and in my heart he shall forever be known as “Sheets”.)

On the second day, I presented Sheets with a folder of worksheets and he sat at the edge of the room, hugging the pages of neatly ordered addition and subtraction. Half way through the class he began to complain (loudly and relentlessly) about the noise. At some point one ought see the irony in yelling about noise, but this student did not. He left the class and, quite literally, has not returned.

My supervisor and colleagues have all had advice and, to the best of my knowledge, I have tried all of the suggestions. Last week was something of a break through, Sheets sat in the hallway at a desk near my classroom and held the blue folder of worksheets. He did exactly 6.5 subtraction problems in five days (all done on day #1), the remainder of every class period spent (loudly) complaining about the noise and my ridiculous (to his mind) notion that he should be learning about fractions with the rest of the class. He does not do fractions, he explained, math is addition and subtraction. I tried to point out the shared pizza dilemma if we avoid fractions, but he was steely in his resolve. He is an adult, after all, and he knows what he does (and doesn’t) need. Maybe so.

Sheets is, after all, right about the noise. Even when he is far down the hallway and his rant not a part of the cacophony, this particular mix of teens has a ridiculously high degree of oppositional energy. This week the class will be doing very abbreviated daily work, spending the bulk of the class time playing cards (Monday, Wednesday), working in Khan Academy (iPads on Tuesday, Thursday) and (our favorite!) Farkle (Friday).  I’m not sure if I’m caving to the pressure of the group that resists instruction or being respectfully responsive.

To be fair, all of my classes have balked at my expectations as the year began and there’s been a process of mutual compromise. I am thrilled that most of my students are actually seeing and (to a degree) interacting with grade level material. In one class one student proudly asked if his notebook was his to keep after the class was over, yes! (Ok, maybe he was trying to curry favor… if so, it worked.) In another class a student giggled with glee as we played a logic game.

I have lots of reasons to feel success in this second first-year of teaching, but 6th hour is not one of them.

This class has yet to become a class. For 45 minutes every day I have a tiny room filled with 7 (not counting Sheets) antagonized and antagonistic teen boys. (Do you have any idea how many times I trip over their feet in 45 minutes?)

As week #7 begins, I raise the flag of surrender.

So Common Core, I bid you adieu. For the next week (and as many weeks as it might take), I am simply going to play games with my 6th hour class. I say “simply” but I have few illusions about the ease of even this task. Still, it is a focused and worthy goal; somewhat in terms of mathematics but more significantly in social value. My goal is to learn to like this group, to make my peace with their quirks, to find enjoyment in the daily interchange.

Ok, that’s clearly too lofty. If I expect a moment of Pollyanna bliss I might as well stick with the impossible Common Core.

Perhaps a more attainable goal will be to make it through one day at a time without thinking felonious thoughts. That would be success. And a subsequent goal might be to make it through one day without complaining about this challenging group. These are goals that belong to me, these are responsible adult goals. And maybe if I start with baby steps, nirvana will meet me on the other side (or not).

Meanwhile Sheets is in the wind. I wonder when, if ever, he will come back. Perhaps the more important question is what kind of community will await him when (and if) he does. While he is gone, we will work on becoming a community worthy of one another. I am suspicious that if we achieve this, we might also bring peace to the warring nations. But we all have to start somewhere with the candle that we have. Tomorrow I will light mine.