No Such Thing

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Rear-facing back seat. A 70’s classic. If your parents didn’t drive one of these, your childhood sucked. Image via The Atlantic.

There used to be a family board game called The Game Of Life. Each player had a little plastic station wagon you’d move around a serpentine path, as dictated by the results of a spinner. Graduation, job, marriage, kids (in that order!), retirement. Get to the end with cash = Millionaire Acres. Broke at the end? Poor Farm.

And maybe life is like that. And maybe it isn’t. There’s more than a few think pieces out there on the Meaning Of Life. The game, I mean. I’m a second-career teacher, and a math teacher, and I can state without fear of contradiction: life is not linear. I think sometimes we get way too caught up in making life too much like Life. There’s a baseline, obviously. As a young teacher I once had an expat New York kid tell me proudly that he was going to Yale after he graduated. I told him I thought that was awesome, although I also thought he should pass my Algebra 1 class first.

On the flipside, right now, even on the cusp of a world dominated by the Gig Economy, I think it’s a really bad idea to be walking around without a high school diploma. For a lot of my students, the connection between what happens inside my classroom walls and what might happen for them or to them ten years down the road is about as clear as mud.

I hope John Mayer is right. It’s just, for some of my kids, I worry that they are counting on a miracle that is unlikely to happen.

So we just finished up Finals Week. On Wednesday, first day of testing, kids rolled into my afternoon class to take a test in Introduction To Engineering Design, the first course in the suite of Project Lead The Way classes offered by my school.  One of my guys (who I also have for algebra 1) said, “my friends told me your final is hard”. I said, “Which friends?” He told me the names, and I immediately responded, gently, “They didn’t study. They didn’t do the work we did all year. Of course they thought it was hard.”

As a BAM guy, I try to make sure my assessments line up with the material I taught. No gotcha. I want to know: Do you understand what we did the last 18 weeks? Can you prove it?

Throughout my teaching career, at two different schools in two urban districts separated by 1800 miles, the process of preparing students for an assessment (chapter or final) has been pretty much the same. Provide students with a study guide, made up of the same problems as the test, substituting different numbers. If problem 1 on the test is solving a one step equation by addition or subtraction, then problem 1 on the study guide is solving a one step equation by addition or subtraction.

In addition, most teachers allow students to hand write a page of notes (don’t call it a Cheat Sheet) which they can use on the test. Many teachers even offer extra credit for making the note page. Within the last week I’ve had the same conversation with two different teachers. They told me how they had designed the review process we just discussed up there, walked the students through exactly what they would see on the final, told them exactly what to study, and students still bombed the final.

One of my former teaching neighbors (now in a different district) said, “We’re like two steps away from just handing them the answer key.” As grown-ups, and professionals, we look at the situation and wonder what is wrong with our students? We pave the path to the outcome they should want on the final, and still they end up driving into a ditch.


It’s easy to blame our students. Call them “lazy”. Blame hip-hop culture and boyfriends and gangs and video games and $8 an hour and persistent unemployment and everything else we can think of. But what if we ask…
What kind of institution have we created?


What have we done, when our students would rather walk into my final unprepared, spend 75 hours of their life doing anything but what I’ve designed for them to do in class, stare at some stupid Youtube video or their Instagram feed when all they have to do is focus for a minute to be able to move on to the next square.

Oh crap. “Do this, move to the next square?”

I mean, if that’s all school was, would you?

My dad worked 40 years in a steel mill. My mom was a school nurse for 30 years, most of them in the same district where I now teach. I remember vividly as a kid, my dad (who died of cancer a few weeks before my 22nd birthday) saying “Look at what the mill has done to my body. You don’t want this.” My mom, as a professional and a school employee, just made it clear that not going to college was not an option.

For a lot of my students, that’s not a benefit they have.

So: just do what the teacher says, ‘cuz you need this credit so you can graduate and go to college and get married and have kids and drive a station wagon and vacation at the Dells and retire.


Buford, keep resisting.”

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