Break Every Yoke

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Dec 20 2012

Skate shops and revelation

Today was the last school day of 2012. I do plan to reflect critically on the first semester sometime over the break, but for now I just want to record two stories from yesterday.

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MS transferred to my school this year as a sophomore—though he’s supposed to be a junior—and I have him in my sixth period Algebra 1 class (colloquially known within the math department as “the repeaters”). In some ways, MS is the most challenging student I’ve ever taught. Although he’s generally not defiant, he has an extremely short attention span (his notebook literally contains more doodles than notes); his math fundamentals are terrifyingly weak (he often doesn’t know where to start with one-step equations); and he seems to struggle with some sort of emotional disability, judging from his interactions with classmates and the not infrequent meltdowns that he has in class (when he’s there, which has been less than half the semester so far). Not surprisingly, MS failed my class last quarter and is on track to fail again this quarter.

Yesterday, however, I witnessed a side of MS that gave me hope for the rest of the year. The lesson was about exponential growth, so I had students create a business pitch that incorporated different revenue scenarios and loans with various interest rates. I gave them free reign with what product they could sell, as long as it was school-appropriate. MS, being a skater (and a rather good one at that, based on pictures he’s shown me after school), excitedly declared that he was going to open a skate shop. He proceeded to meticulously create an itemized list of costs, from employees to rent to grip tape, and “decided” to take out a loan from Sovereign Bank (“because Bank of America steals your money”). He got stuck on calculating the size of the loan after ten years but responded well to coaching—for the first time all semester. Finally, when he discovered at the end that his projected revenue would not be enough to cover his loan and costs, he didn’t give up (as I had expected, to my shame), but rather tinkered with his budget until he broke even. It was a beautiful moment.

TFA tries to drill into our heads that content must be made relevant to student interests and aspirations, but I often need reminders like yesterday’s experience with MS to make this point relevant to me. Tailoring lessons to student interests is definitely not easy, given the number of students I have and the pace of the curriculum, but I’m learning that it’s critical if I want to truly transform my students’ academic trajectories.

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In light of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, my school decided to dedicate yesterday’s advisory to creating a patchwork quilt to send to the Newtown community. Each student was asked to sign a piece of quilt, and many opted to write a short message as well.

These messages surprised me and displayed a depth of empathy and maturity that often doesn’t show in the classroom. There were references to the students who were killed as “little angels”; statements of solidarity from having personally witnessed death and tragedy; even righteous fury on behalf of the parents who lost their children. But what struck me most was MM’s reference to Revelation 4:1, in which the angel says to John, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” MM is probably my biggest behavioral issue in advisory, and I’ve had to discipline him outside the room more times than I care to count; yet here he was, in a time of tragedy, encouraging me to fix my eyes not on the brokenness of this world but on the perfection of the next. It was a reminder that I certainly needed.

No doubt, my kids sometimes act like they’re still in elementary school. They drive me up the wall on a near-daily basis. But over and over again, they’ve demonstrated that they have as much to teach me as I have to teach them, if not more. That is what has made the past year and a half such a humbling experience.

3 Responses

  1. Kierra

    I truly enjoyed reading your posts. Again, it gives me hope, and I too, hope that I can experience that in the classroom. Enjoy your holiday. Recharge. Refresh. Looking forward to the next post!

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