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First Days of School

August 8, 2014

As noted in earlier posts, my niece, who is a follower of this blog, is about to begin her second go-round as a high school math teacher. Since I will be unable to maintain my blog for a couple of weeks, I thought I would share some stories from my first go-around as a junior high math teacher in Philadelphia. Here’s a description of my first days as a teacher at Shaw Junior High in September 1970

Just before lunch on orientation day we got our schedules for the coming year. I was assigned to teach four sections of mathematics, one section of reading (all teachers were assigned to a reading class), and had one period for lunch and one prep/team meeting period where I would convene with my team-mates who taught science, social studies, and English. The students were grouped homogeneously into 36 sections of 32 to 38 students each The highest academic section was 8-1, the lowest one was 8-36. The four sections I was assigned? 8-24, 8-30, 8-34, and 8-36. Oh… and as a math teacher I was expected to “float” into other teachers’ classrooms… 23 different classrooms over the course of a week… and the classes I floated into included the adaptive PE classroom (that featured rings and a ladder up the wall) and the cafeteria which was located below grade and on the opposite side of the building from the prior classroom I was assigned to. I asked Ms. Hawkins if she would consider changing at least those two classrooms, and she indicated it was out of her hands… I’d need to see the building’s roster chairman, Mr. McGuigan.

I went to Mr. McGuigan’s office and waited in line with other teachers seeking changes to their schedules.  A balding, heavyset man with thick black glasses, Mr. John McGuigan carried a huge set of keys on his belt and gave off an air of frustration. I listened as he breathed heavily and impatiently explained to each teacher why he was unable to make ANY changes to their roster and why their roster was reasonable. By comparison, their rosters WERE reasonable. Some of them, for example, complained that their classroom faced 54th street instead of Warrington Avenue. By the time I got to Mr. McQuigan his limited patience was far gone. He looked at my schedule and huffed: “The teacher we were going to give this to could have handled it… so can you!”

After a couple of weeks I WAS able to handle it, and do so navigating the halls with an overhead projector. But finding instructional materials for my four sections of 32+ students was a challenge. From the outset it was clear that only a few of the students in 8-24, my “high section” could add, subtract, multiply and divide and that even fewer of the students in 8-36 could add two digit numbers. This was a problem given that the 8th grade textbooks were designed for pre-algebra and there were no supplemental materials available anywhere in the school to help my students master the basics.

My father’s best friend, Doc Jennings, came to the rescue. Doc sold textbooks for DC Heath and when he heard my story of woe one weekend when I was visiting my parents he stopped by my apartment in Philadelphia and gave me several sets of ditto master books for elementary students that had no indication anywhere that they were designed for 3rd and 4th grade students. Some would later call this kind of practice “the soft bigotry of low expectations”…. but I saw it as teaching the students where they were and progressing as far as I could as fast as I could…. and it made me realize that age-level and academic readiness are separate and distinct.

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  1. September 18, 2014 at 12:34 pm
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