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Teaching Math -- And Hope
by Shani Jackson

4:30 p.m. on a beautiful Friday. Its January in Houston. The last student just left my classroom for the day. Brandy Diego. She is 4 feet, 5 inches tall, and has long hair down the middle of her back. She wears her long hair in bows on game days. She's a cheerleader. She wants to be a "lawyer's helper" when she grows up -- its a paralegal, but she is only recently learning the professional name. I think shed make a great lawyer. But she never really considered that, or even really heard about college much until this year. Now that she hears about it, she's a bit obsessed with it. So much so that she has already started talking to her mother about it -- enough for her mother to share that she doesn't think college is such a good idea. Brandy is in seventh grade now so I'm hoping that gives us enough time to either convince her mother otherwise or plant some wise teenage rebellion in Brandy's spirit...just this once. Brandy was in my room on a beautiful Friday afternoon because she wants to make sure she really understands graphing on the coordinate plane and calculating surface area. College is definitely a good idea for Brandy.

5 p.m. on a Friday. I'm about to sign out for the day, loaded down with a bag of papers to grade over the weekend. I speak to a campus police officer who seemed a bit weary. I joke with him about how his day is and he calls me in his office. He shows me a gun. It looks a bit like an old-school gun -- not that I know anything much about guns. But it's the kind where you put one bullet in at a time...the kind whacky folks with more alcohol in their systems than good sense use to play Russian roulette with. He tells me this is a gun that was thrown out of a car they were chasing. "The car was here?" I asked in disbelief. "Yes," he said. "Dropping off one of our students?" "Yeah. You know. Gang stuff. Or something else. Maybe dropping off one of their gang members." Yes. Brandy goes to a school and sits in class with gang members and wanna-be gang members. Turns out one of my students brothers was the gun-throwing culprit. As the officer continued about the gang problems at school, I kind of joke, "Yeah....well, you know, I just teach 'em math."

9:15 a.m. on a Monday. I just teach em math. Juliana slips me a note. Ms. Jackson I went to get tested yesterday and Im nervous. But not for pregnancy but for HIV. And today I get the results." Her note continued and gave me some context as to why she was sharing this note with me. Last week in class we were learning about reading graphs. I like to infuse life lessons with my math lessons so I showed my students a graph about the regional distribution rates of HIV/AIDS for youth between 15 and 21 from across the world. It piqued the students curiosity to see so many cases of HIV/AIDS concentrated in places like Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. Between that graph and ensuing discussion and something Juliana saw in the movie Freedom Writers that weekend, she thought that she should get an HIV/AIDS test, and wanted to share the news with me.

The week before we were studying mean, median, and range (measures of central tendency). We took a class survey on the number of fights students had been in and found the mean, median, and range. Another student asked if a fight with her boyfriend should be counted. Of course, that opened a bit of a discussion about boyfriend-girlfriend violence. We had read a statistic in our introduction to statistics earlier in the week that nationwide, 9 percent of students reported being hit, slapped, or physically hurt on purpose by their boyfriend or girlfriend in the 12 months prior to being surveyed

I teach them math. Increasingly I am realizing the power of having the opportunity to teach my students math. When I teach my students math, I open up opportunities for them to buy homes, understand credit, help their parents in their construction business, and become ready for college so they can become excellent architects or veterinarians. When I teach my students math, I teach them how to read a probability so they can know what it means when they defy probability. When I teach them statistics, I teach them how to read a statistic about the achievement gap so they can be sufficiently outraged to do something about it. By teaching my students math, I am teaching my students how to understand the world around thema complex world at their age...and mine!

My kids make bad decisions -- probably at least one a day, for many probably at least one an hour. We all did when we were 12. I cannot focus on their bad choices though. For now, I have to focus on teaching them math. I have to teach statistics to the cheerleader and the drug teacher, to the, computer geek, and wanna-be gang member. I have to teach all students math as if one day every good and wise decision they ever made in their lives will come together, and they will be living the lives most of us dreamed of for ourselves at 12. I have to teach math to Brandy and to Juliana. I have to teach math to Rolando, even if for now he thinks he hates math and is more concerned with inscribing his gang signals on his skin than with learning fractions. But I have to teach them math because I know every young person has a life with redemption available --- its the joy of youth. And when they choose the right path, I want strong math skills to help push them along their way.

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Article by Shani Jackson
Education World®
Copyright © 2007 Education World

Posted 02/21/2007