# ZeroSum Ruler (home)

## Blogging on math education and other related things

### Negative Numbers. OH NO!October 6, 2010

In our BPS high school, there’s a big focus on the “broken window theory”, made famous recently in The Tipping Point.  One broken window we’ve identified in the school as far as discipline goes is hats and ipods.  So, there’s been a big push to get rid of them.

I’d like to mention to you a “broken window” that has somehow gotten lost in the mess of school closings, going charter, union fighting, pension plans, longer days, MCAS scores.  As a high school math teacher, the biggest broken window I face – in fact, it’s a gaping hole not even bothered to be temporarily covered with plastic- is… negative numbers.

What do I mean by negative numbers?  I’ve done my research as they’re the topic of my Harvard thesis.  Students using the TERC Investigations curriculum in Boston elementary schools do not do problems like “-22 + 5″.  One TERC representative told me they “leave that topic to middle school”.  So, I looked at the middle school Connected mathematics Project 2 (CMP2) curriculum, and negative integer problems, like “-22 + 7″ are taught for 20 days total in the 7th grade.  20 days.  From then on, students are assumed to know how positives and negatives interact and to be able to evaluate “-22 + 5″.

Then students get to me, their 11th grade Algebra 2 teacher, and they can’t solve for y in “y + 22x = 5x – 7″ because they don’t know what “5 – 22″ is.  The kids think -22 + 5 = -27.  Why?  Maybe the rules of multiplication get mixed in.  I don’t know.  Or maybe it’s because these problems were taught to them for a total of 20 days four years earlier and were never touched n again except in the context of other problems.  Understanding why and how kids think is beyond the scope of my thesis and my means for data collection.  What I can tell you is that because my students don’t know what “5 – 22″ is, they can’t solve y + 22x = 5x – 7 for y.  Because they can’t solve the equation for y, they can’t graph the equation.  I assume you know where I’m going with this.

Please, as someone on the front lines of math education in Boston, I’m telling you that the biggest difficulty our students have in math is adding and subtracting positive and negative integers.  It seems ridiculous and that there are bigger fish to fry, some of which I have listed, but if you want more competency in math, please, heighten the focus on negative numbers.  It will lead to better test scores, more understanding, but most of all, to students who feel good about themselves when they’re not still making silly 7th grade mistakes in high school.

### Small Schools, SUPERSIZED Classrooms: Thanks a bunch, Bill GatesSeptember 3, 2010

School for Boston Public School teachers starts on Tuesday.  The kids come back Wednesday.  Three chairs at a table, eight tables, I have 24 seats in my classroom.  The class size limit in Boston is 31 per class.  -

37 students + 24 seats = success.  Solve for HOW.

-

So that I could get an idea of who I’ll be seeing on a daily basis and when, since I had many of the students I’ll have this year two years ago when they were 9th graders, I went onto mybps.com to download my class lists.  This will be the first year that all students get electives after four years of none (Thanks again, Bill Gates.  My students thank you too for the opportunity to go to a small school where they get to know each other so well that they fight like siblings and miss out on things like art, music, and… computer classes.  But to have computer classes would mean we’d need computers, so thanks for dropping the ball on that one, too.  “Good looks” as my kids would say, only I say it to you sarcastically, you mad scientist, you!)

side: What’s the difference between a real scientist and a computer scientist?  Real scientists can admit when they’re wrong and try, try, try again until they get it right.   You can’t Ctrl/Alt/Delete this one, Bill.

Anyway, so I downloaded my class lists and I see the following:

Math elective, period 3:            37 students

Algebra 2, period 4:                33 students

Algebra 2, period 5:                25 students

Algebra 2, period 6:                24 students

By my schedule, you can see I’m a math teacher.  As hard as calculus was, I got through it.  I even got through a java programming class that sucked 15 pounds out of my body.  But I just can’t seem to do the following problem:

37 students + 24 seats = success.  Solve for HOW.

I appreciate any and all suggestions on how to pull this one off.  These are the kinds of things people forget about us teachers.  We “get summers off”, we “only work 6 hours a day”, we “have tons of vacations”, we are “failing our kids”.  But no one ever comments on how we’re sometimes set up to fail before we even begin.

I’m scared for Wednesday, not because I don’t think I can teach 37 kids at a time but because I don’t know how to choose who gets a seat and who sits on the floor.

### 3,000 denied diplomas because of MCAS – The Boston GlobeJune 20, 2010

Filed under: high school — ZeroSum Ruler @ 6:56 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

Thank you, Mom and Dad, for popping me out in 1977 so I could take art and law my senior year, get class ranked, take the SATs, go to college, graduate college, go to grad school, and become a productive member of society.  Thank you for having me when there was still money for electives in high school and the SATs were the big exam.  Thank you for bringing me into the World when a 12th grade semi-diverse education- not a 10th grade one measured by four MCAS exams- was the goal of high school.  For all of this, I am forever in your debt.  I love you SO MUCH!!!

3,000 denied diplomas because of MCAS – The Boston Globe<– Boston Globe article for anyone with a tough stomach.

### Office Space PoetryJune 12, 2010

Back when I was working as an environmental scientist/hydrogeologist (yes, I know that’s not a word but it was my job title for 3 years), and had time to sip my iced coffee while browsing the net until I woke up around 11AM, I wrote a poem:

Am I doomed to Live my Life

As Everyday Joe

Excited for daily lunch break?

Or am I to find my

True Calling-

To which so few awake?

I remember thinking that monitoring contaminated soil and groundwater extracted from underneath gas stations across Massachusetts was not what I had dreamed of doing when I was a kid.  But what had I dreamed of doing as a kid?  My Mom had told me that “I’d better think of something else” when I told her I wanted to be a singer and my high school biology teacher had told me “they don’t make any money” when I told him I wanted to be a marine biologist.  Turns out, I can’t sing and deep water terrifies me.  So what had I wanted to do when I was a kid and there was a world of possibilities I could work towards?  How did I end up with so much oily soil under my broken fingernails?

Turns out, I had no dreams as a kid, or at least none that I can remember.  There was one reoccurring dream or walking and jumping off a pier into darkness, but that doesn’t count.  Nor do I know what it meant.  But I digress.

When I got asked to go part-time or get laid off from my environmental job and I gleefully chose to be laid off, and the quickest job to find was substitute teacher in the Boston Public Schools, I didn’t think anything of it.  But somewhere along the way, probably after getting a full-time position a year later, I remembered all the times I forced my brother to sit in front of my small chalkboard so that I could play teacher.  It would always end in him crying to Mom that he didn’t want to play school anymore and me rationalizing that I was really just helping him, but it was something that could be considered a Life dream being played out.

Back when my job title wasn’t a word and I had time to slack off at work, my poem hung on my blue padded cubicle wall for me to stare at everyday.  I’m no poet, so where had it come from?  It’s funny how Life works.

I still wait for lunch break because it comes after teaching 160 straight minutes, but I no longer have time to sit back with an iced coffee and ponder what I should be doing with my Life.  There is no time to think.  There’s only time to Do.

I like it that way.