Break Every Yoke

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 06 2013

When salsa is like math

Last September, I joined Brown’s salsa club because I wanted something fun to do outside of teaching, and lessons were cheap and nearby. I improved a lot during the first semester, in large part due to my perfect attendance—lessons moved quickly, and I wouldn’t have been able to keep up otherwise. At the end of December, I made it onto the performance team, which meant I’d have to attend intensive Friday practices in addition to Wednesday lessons.

Fast forward to second semester: thanks to my new prep, I’ve had to skip several practices out of busyness or fatigue. I finally went for the first time in three weeks last Friday—and it was a total disaster. I tried my hardest, but the rest of the team had learned too much of the new routine for me to catch up. To make matters worse, every time I messed up, the instructor would cheerfully fix my form but neglect to show me the correct steps to get there. I could sense my partner growing increasingly frustrated, despite her insistence that she didn’t mind, and she was visibly relieved when I volunteered to sit out and just observe for the rest of the evening.

So what does this have to do with learning math? A lot, surprisingly. For starters, in both salsa and school, attendance matters. (Thank you, captain obvious.) I’ve run a few regression analyses on absenteeism and grade data from my school, and the results are telling: holding all else constant, one can accurately predict a student’s grade in his/her math class over 50% of the time simply by counting the number of days he/she has missed in a quarter. Especially given that math classes at my school are semesterized, they seem to share a lot more in common with intensive salsa lessons than one would think.

My practice debacle also offers some insights, especially for teachers who did well in their content areas as students themselves. I’d like to believe that I was naturally gifted at math and science growing up, but in truth, I probably owe my quantitative aptitude to the strong foundation I gained from good teachers early on, as well as the constant expectation from my parents that I would do something related to science or medicine after college. I imagine that students taking high school math without such a foundation might feel like I did at Friday’s practice: confused, lost, even a little despairing. And just as my salsa instructor corrected my form without attending to my ignorance of the overall routine, well-intentioned math teachers will often fix a students’ computational errors—”remember, a negative times a negative equals a positive” or “five times seven is thirty-five, not thirty”—without putting those calculations in context or demonstrating why math is important in the big picture. This type of coaching is bound to frustrate, not comfort.

But worst of all for students without a strong foundation in math, students who have only been in school a fraction of the semester for reasons beyond their control, must be the resentment of their peers. I have some students who try incredibly hard—I can see it in their furrowed brows, in the multiple scratch-outs and erasures on their worksheets. Yet because they are so behind and therefore need additional assistance from me or their classmates (which often takes away from whole-class instructional time), they are often on the receiving end of mean-spirited comments and thinly veiled frustration. Differentiation is wonderful in concept—but I can only do so much. I fear that these students will eventually feel they have nothing to contribute to the class and retreat to watch from a distance, as I did last Friday.

There’s hope, though. After my disastrous practice, I went home and replayed videos of the routine that I had recorded on my phone until I had it committed to memory. Some of my teammates have offered to provide extra coaching before and after practices. And even though I sucked last week, I know that this week is an opportunity to redeem myself. The analogy probably breaks down somewhere, so suffice it to say that even my most struggling kids can and will succeed if given the right supports and mindsets. I just need to figure out how to do that.

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