* Teaching: tyranny of the urgent

Alarm-Clock-Simple--4926-largeTutoring students in a one-to-one setting without typical classroom constraints has its advantages.  I enjoy being able to select appropriate materials, tailor activities to student interests, and address skills without the pressure of teaching the core curriculum.  On the other hand, I am frequently in the same battle as resource teachers and other specialists.  Homework and projects routinely impact my valuable time with students.  You know that I am not keen on homework, if you’ve been following this blog.  After an hour or more of tutoring, I don’t want my students to face a stack of homework, so I typically assist them to complete it as quickly as possible during our session.  But the disconnect between students’ skills and their homework drives me NUTS!

Here’s what happened today:  I was teaching a fourth grader who is struggling with math.  I wanted to continue our work on place value and rounding numbers.  Instead, I checked his homework and took a deep breath.  It was algebra (or “algebraic,” as he told me).  Knowing that he works much better on frustrating tasks with me than his parents (it was that way with my own kiddos), I decided to bite the bullet.  Here is a sample problem:  Sue had 5 times more pencils than Nate.  Together they had 18 pencils.  How many pencils does Sue have?  How many more pencils does she have than Nate?  My student was required to model the problem using symbols and write three or four equations to demonstrate how he solved it.

I imagine some kids in his class are totally ready for that problem.  But my student was not.  He had no idea where to start, was dealing with abstract procedures that made no sense to him, and didn’t have sufficient opportunities to work with manipulatives (and perhaps understand) what “5 times more” actually means.  This is a student who does not know when to add or subtract.  Not only did we lose valuable instructional time on the skills which match his current math understandings, but he needed two brain breaks in order to survive that portion of our session.  And what does he know after our “guided practice?”  Not a lot.

I was facing the dilemma described in an interesting article called “The Hard Part” (thank you, Tony’s mom!).  In his column in the Huffington Post, Peter Greene writes about teaching: “The hard part of teaching is coming to grips with this:  There is never enough.  There is never enough time. There are never enough resources. There is never enough you.”  Indeed!

I do understand that the classroom teacher has her own constraints.  She is required to teach “algebraic” for a short period of time and then assess, assess, and reassess.  How can she “individualize” the above assignment for my student when it is totally inappropriate for his current level of functioning?  He needs more opportunities to model multiplication, much less solving problems with variables.  His dilemma reminds me of my post from yesterday on “How The Brain Learns Mathematics” by David Sousa.  Sousa describes prerequisite skills for learning mathematics successfully, including the ability to visualize and manipulate mental pictures and the ability to reason deductively and inductively.  My 4th grader is particularly weak in those skills.  When will he have time to catch up?  Isn’t that what summers are for?