Education Opinion

Rigor and mastery, told to the tune of Sam

By Jessica Shyu — September 07, 2007 3 min read
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August 29, 2005
It took me about 35 minutes to get him to sit down and read the first question on his homework assignment, but after an hour of tutoring my most uncontrollable student in the dormitories tonight, we high-fived when he got his 2’s multiplication tables. Then he broke my heart. “Maybe, you think, if I memorize my multiplication, the girls in class, and the boys, maybe they’ll like me, as a friend?”

So it’s one thing to teach kids. It’s a whole other thing to make sure what we’re teaching is of high quality and that it’s being taught well. This is an issue we are engaging in-depth with our teachers in Teach For America, and no doubt a key issue all teachers grapple with across the country.

As I help facilitate sessions to first- and second-year teachers on rigor and mastery in student learning, I find myself telling stories from my own teaching. These are stories that are inspiring and these are stories that are heartbreaking. When I think about rigor and mastery, I find myself telling stories about “Sam”.

His reputation preceded him. A week before he even arrived at school, the teachers were eagerly sharing all the horror stories they knew about the 12-year-old. It was a mix of rumor and truth. They told me about his alcohol problem. They told me about how he doused his cousin with gasoline and lit her on fire. They told me I would be lucky to get him to sit down and not hurt anyone.

But I was idealistic and I was optimistic and I was eager to make miracles. I was going to work so hard on this student, he was going to love me. But, as with all things, it wasn’t quite so easy. Sam had been through heartbreaking abuse and trauma. He wouldn’t sit down, he wouldn’t stop hurting other students, and he wouldn’t be quiet. Soon, no one in my class was listening, let alone learning. And so, without even realizing it, sitting down and being quiet became my big goal for Sam.

But I persevered. I set up a behavior plan that worked for Sam. I gave him inspiring talks and visited him at the dorm. Some days, he would even sit quietly in the classroom and fill out an entire math worksheet. Sam was working. The other students were working. I felt like a great teacher.

The “nice and quiet” lasted for about a week and a half. Then my conscience kicked in. I had to ask myself one of the hardest questions of being a teacher: To what extent was Sam learning?

The truth is, Sam was filling out a worksheet on addition and subtraction-- skills he had learned 6 years ago. I was so terrified of disrupting the peace, I didn’t dare teach him something more challenging, lest he feel confused and frustrated (and disruptive and violent...) But it didn’t matter that it was a first grader’s worksheet-- he wasn’t even filling in most of the answers correctly. I was so thrilled by the quiet, I avoided confronting him with corrections.

I was failing Sam. (Sam was actually quite intelligent and was clearly capable of doing far more challenging work. He had never been corrected or taught the lower level skills because of his behavior.)

It took a lot more time on my part, but it was my responsibility to figure out how to properly instruct Sam on basic math skills so that he could strengthen his math foundation. I also had to teach him more appropriately rigorous material that he should have learned long before, such as multiplication and word problem solving skills.

This didn’t happen over night, but it did include investing him in a Big Goal designed just for him, explaining and making sure he understood why he needed to really solidify adding and subtracting, and how that was going to help him in the future. It also involved pulling him out to the hallway to show him how to correct and check his answers, and going to the dormitory at night to work with him.

Sam ended up getting expelled from the school. The day he was led out with handcuffs, I was heartbroken. In a mere 3 months, he had made great gains. He could do multi-digit addition and subtraction on his own and he could memorize his 2’s, 3’s, 4’s, 5’s and 10’s multiplication tables. He could read and draw graphs. He could write a five-sentence paragraph. I had done my job. He had learned. And that’s something no one can expel from him.

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