Adding the Ineffable to an Algebra Class

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"In teaching as in few other fields," writes Rosetta Marantz Cohen in her introduction to A Lifetime of Teaching: Portraits of Five Veteran High School Teachers, "the life makes itself manifest in every aspect of the work." To understand the careers of devoted and successful teachers, Ms. Cohen followed five exemplary yet quite different high-school teachers, profiling each in intimate, day-in-the-classroom detail. One of the teachers, Carl Brenner, is a 28-year veteran of Alamos Heights High School in San Antonio and the author of four popular mathematics texts. In his personal and low-key, yet academically demanding style, Mr. Brenner helps prove a central thesis of the book: that it is ultimately the teacher, not the method, that forms the cornerstone of a student's educational experience.

The following excerpt gives glimpses of how Mr. Brenner, whose favorite expression is "convince me," builds rapport with his students:

The world of [Carl] Brenner's classroom is an uncomplicated world, where only friendly competition exists and all errors can be remedied. "Tests are called 'games' in my class," he says, "and ungraded homework is called 'tests.' That way no one gets too nervous." If a student fails a test, he can copy the correct answers off the blackboard during the post-test review, and the old score will automatically be averaged in with an 80 percent. "That way, it is rare for someone who works with honest effort and is interested in understanding his mistakes to fail," Carl says.

One senses how difficult it is for Brenner to disappoint or punish a student, no matter how much punishment may be deserved. When an apologetic 9th grader shows up after skipping out on one of Carl's retests, the following conversation takes place.

Carl: "You had an appointment, and you skipped out."
Boy: "Yeah. Yeah, I did."
Carl: "What's my policy for skipping?"
Boy: "You get a zero?"
Carl:"That's right."
Boy (crestfallen): "That's bad. A zero is bad."
Carl: "Well, if you take the test home and do it well, I'll take that into consideration ."
Boy: "But can I get an A on it?"
Carl: "I reserve the right to change your grade, for better or worse, but probably for better."

When I ask Carl if he has a theory about discipline he says, "I do have a theory. You just wouldn't know it because it doesn't work. My theory is that students should be quiet while I teach." It's doubtful, though, that he means this. The success of Carl's teaching style seems contingent on a certain amount of steady noise, on questions called from the back of the room, on bad jokes eliciting groans. Every class, from first-period algebra to last-period calculus, has its own noise games, contrived by Carl and woven into the fabric of the curriculum.

One class collects quarters from Carl for errors found in the textbook. Loose change lines the upper blackboard, and students are often exclaiming over mistaken errors. In another class, Carl collects a nickel from every student, having won a bet that at least one of them would repeat "the same, dumb mistake" on a particular test question. The money, in both cases, will go for an ice-cream party at the end of the year. In general, any extended period of seriousness is punctuated by a moment of raucousness or foolishness, which Carl himself seems to enjoy as much, if not more than, the students he is entertaining.

There have been classes, Brenner admits, that have not responded to his style; classes that haven't been able to sense the subtle cues that signal: Now we are serious, now we are playful. Though he claims to be indifferent to the age and abilities of his students, Carl's greatest difficulties have tended to arise with the weakest classes. An education student at a nearby university, who spent a semester observing Carl's teaching, witnessed one such group. "These were freshmen repeaters, kids who had flunked at least once," he recalled. "They just wouldn't respond to him, or to anything." Finally Brenner said, "'Obviously, this isn't working. I'm not getting through to you. What I'd like you to do is to write down for me what you think I'm doing wrong. Tell me how I can make this class better." And they were very candid. They said, 'Yell at us more. Don't tell corny jokes. Teach like other teachers.' He read all their suggestions, and he earnestly tried. He tried to be stem and conventional, but he just couldn't do it. He's too much the way he is.

When I ask Carl about this class, he looks vacant. "Was that a bad group?" he asks. For a moment, I think it is simply a case of faulty memory. Then I realize how little seems to perturb him for any length of time. Never, he claims, has he had any real problems with an administrator, a parent, a colleague, or a student.

Reprinted by permission of the publisher from A Lifetime of Teaching: Portraits of Five Veteran High School Teachers, by Rosetta Marantz Cohen. Teachers College Press, 1234 Amsterdam Ave., New York, N.Y. 10027. Copyright (C) 1991 by Teachers College, Columbia University. All rights reserved.

Vol. 11, Issue 04, Page 25

Published in Print: September 25, 1991, as Adding the Ineffable to an Algebra Class
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