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Looking Back and Ahead
by Shani Jackson

"Bye Genaro. Have a good holiday, and be safe!" I shake Genaro's hand and exhale. "Aaaaaah!" That's me at 1:35 p.m. as I send away the last student from my classroom on the last day of my first semester teaching.

It seems like after making it to this milestone I should celebrate or something. But thinking about how far I still have to go to make the gains I want to make with my students, I'm not sure I'm near a celebration point. That last week of the first semester was simply more evidence that I have a long way to go.

Though we have been converting fractions to decimals and percentages since August, I still cringe when I review a test and see that between 10 and 20 percent of my students convert 1/8 to 18 percent instead of 12.5 percent. And though in my mind I'd already clearly convinced my students of the importance of going to college, this week I found myself debating Julio to convince him that college is indeed necessary.

"But Miss, why you always tellin' us we gotta' go to college! Shaquille O'Neil didn't go to college!"

"Ummmnot only did Shaquille O'Neil go to college at LSU, but he returned to LSU to receive his degree after he turned pro.

"Well Michael Jordan didn't!" chimes in another student, as well-intentioned as he is unaware.

"Michael Jordan went to UNC-Chapel Hill!" I exclaim with incredulity. "And," I throw in a conversation closer, "Lebron James may not have gone to college, but Julio, you and I can have that discussion when someone is offering you millions of dollars to not go to college!"

"Man miss," an impressed student joins the conversation, "how do you know all that stuff?"

Enjoying the rare opportunity for a math teacher to plug the virtues of reading, and admittedly liking the feeling of sometimes giving 12-year olds a taste of their own medicine by smarting back at them, I say simply, "Because I read."

Though it hurts me to know many of my students are still not sold on college, I try not to take it personally. A product of two college-educated parents, college for me was simply a costly extension of high school. It was expected. But at best, my students might know a cousin who attends community college. So I have to market college to them like a new pair of Air Jordans -- that means daily, creatively, and by any means necessary.

And I try to put the fact that I still have students troubled by adding, subtracting, and converting fractions, and doing long division, in perspective. Because I do have little things I can celebrate -- like Gerardo, Jason, and Carlos who failed their state TAKS test last year, but have made such improvements this year that they were able to pass a mock seventh-grade TAKS test the school gave this month -- halfway through the first year! Now I can tell them that our goal isn't to pass this year's TAKS, but to achieve commended status. I also can celebrate that on the last day of school when I put my finger in the air to call for silence in the room, it took only about 15 seconds for the room to come to complete silence, with the more than 50 students quieting each other before I even opened my mouth. I can celebrate the fact that Angelica calls me at 8:14 p.m. on a Thursday night for help solving an algebraic expression on her homework. I can celebrate the fact that students who once were afraid to look me in the eye when they walked in my classroom now volunteer answers in class.

As I prepare for the new semester, there are about 1 million and one problems and things I want to change in my classroom -- my seating chart, my lessons, my differentiation, my tone, my response to misbehavior, and always and perpetually, my organization. But tomorrow is a new day, and next time my students see me it will be a new year. So I will just have to take the advice I give them when they are solving really big, ugly math problems. I just have to take every problem step by step.

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Article by Shani Jackson
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Posted 01/17/2007