Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Who Can't?

There was an interesting letter published recently from members of the Palo Alto High School math department about why they disagree with the proposed change to their graduation requirements that all students pass algebra 2. While I am disturbed by the tone of their letter and some of its implications, I will say that I sympathize with what they're dealing with because lately I have been questioning what some of my students are capable of.

Let me start out with a fundamental belief that I hold: all kids can learn and all kids want to learn. I don't believe that each person possesses a limited quantity of intelligence or potential. In fact, I don't even want to consider the possibility because of how that could impact my interactions with my students. I HAVE to believe that all of my students can learn because if I don't, what's the point? I also do not believe that the students are ambivalent toward learning; all of my students want to learn both because they want to be successful and because they value knowledge. Not every student translates their desire to learn into action that leads to success, but I do believe that they all want it.

The Palo Alto teachers state that for "objective reasons" some kids "can't" pass algebra 2. Coming from the belief that all kids can learn, that's a pretty tough statement to swallow. But I have also been wondering lately about some of my own students and, objectively, whether they can pass my class. I am shocked by the math that I'm seeing this year. I am used to kids coming in with weak math backgrounds, huge misconceptions, and severe lack of exposure to concepts one should know by 9th grade, but there are some really tough cases this year. For example, this weekend's homework asked students to measure the circumference, radius, and diameter of five circular objects at home. Then in class we used the data to explore the relationships between those measurements, blah, blah, oh look it's pi, etc. I knew that kids would measure imprecisely, but I was not prepared for glaring errors in the objects they actuall chose to measure. Below, two students' work:

Yes, I had students who think that a knife and an oven and a cell phone are circular. Honestly, what am I supposed to do with these kids? I have to expect that my students come in with certain prior knowledge, and it seems fair that 14-year olds should be able to identify circles. Like the Palo Alto teachers, I have to wonder, can these kids learn high school geometry, let alone algebra 2?

My answer has less to do with can or can't and more to do with WHO is incapable. What I feel is not that these kids can't learn high school geometry, but rather that I am the one who can't. In the context of their past math experiences, and our current school and its resources, as their teacher I cannot give them what they need for them to learn even basic high school geometry by this June. Call it a failure of their previous schools, a failure of the system, and absolutely a failure of my teaching skills, but I can't call it a failure of these students' predestined potential.

Even then, we're still left with failure. I feel like a failure every day when kids aren't learning the things I intended. I look at the systems that have failed my students over and over again by letting them get to ninth grade not knowing what a circle is, or, more importantly letting them go hungry or without a place to live. I don't know whether the failure of all these people and all these systems means that kids should or should not be required to pass algebra 2 in order to graduate, and I don't want to suggest that failures beyond a teacher or a school's control alleviates anyone's responsibility to educate and care for a child. But I get nervous when words like "can't" get thrown around and assigned to parties with little exploration of what is actually impossible.

This is not all meant to sound hopeless, but instead hopeful. Maybe I "can't" teach some students geometry or maybe some of them "can't" learn it, but only when limited by the time and resources we're all working with. But what if there were more time and resources? What if we as a system poured our energy into the belief that all kids can learn? Just as I believe that all kids are capable of learning, I believe that we are capable of educating them. And it's our responsibility to figure out how to make that happen.