Teaching math, learning art

ONE September when enrollment was down, I was given a class to teach that no one else wanted. This was a group of left-back eighth-graders, miles behind in their reading skills. They were a conglomeration of late-arrivers, sleepers, look-at-the-clockers, and note-passers who never knew what was going on in the front of the room. Their overall self-image was poor. I was to teach them language arts and math 23 periods each week and could enrich the curriculum by incorporating anything else. The whole thing seemed all right in the beginning, but for the math. Math had always been my worst subject - so much so that when I completed geometry in high school I felt as though the worst part of my life was behind me, since that subject certainly was. But here it was again, backing me into a corner.

Still, it was fine in the beginning. Just the mere placement of numbers in multiplication seemed to throw so many of them. All too good an excuse for me not to get into anything more complicated for a while.

But I was prodded along by soon-to-be-given state tests and a few students who operated in math on and above grade level. Other teachers had assured me that it wasn't going to be a big deal ... all I had to do was stay a lesson ahead.

But when we moved into algebra and the few good math students moved their seats to the front of the room - suddenly interested - I began to panic. An air of expectancy arose among them.

A one-time sleeper began wearing a pencil above his ear, snapping his fingers, demanding to give the answer, and smiling condescendingly when he wasn't called upon. Five or six more moved to the front, and seemed to say ``Hey, I must be good at this.'' Suddenly, this elite group began to do their homework daily, and ask for extra credit assignments which required painstaking correction. The pencil-wearer finally got it into his head that extra credit was in order when he found my mistakes.

What was going on behind the scenes was pathetic. To stay up with the best, let alone ahead, meant staying up nights. And it meant finding the way to ride above the feelings of torture until each new concept was ``gotten.'' The explanations given in the textbook didn't make sense ``back then'' and still didn't. The Teacher's Manual sometimes made it worse. Sometimes I got up the nerve to ask another math teacher for help, but I stopped doing that soon. I never knew what they were talking about - they always assumed too much.

Even so, it was most surprising to me that when I had finally figured something out and explained it in the only way that made sense to me, my six or seven other math illiterates knew immediately what I was talking about. The long explanations were always too tedious for the elite.

``You're doing it the long way,'' they said. ``You don't have to do it that way. It's really simple.'' Hah, a lot you know, I would think. But I was always glad they offered their simple solutions, as there were others in the class who knew just what they were talking about. Besides, a year from now when they had made their way into the classroom of a ``real'' math teacher, this was the way they would undoubtedly hear it.

WHEN we moved into geometry, I relaxed. Some of my child-associates with Math Dilemma did too. It somehow seemed more concrete, although holding a compass and making a circle were not easy. The first day in geometry was very exciting. With the aid of crayons and markers many beautiful designs appeared.

I decided to incorporate a few lessons on art history. They could find out the differences in art forms, and appreciate their own work a little more. I held up samples of modern art: Mir'o, Picasso, Kandinsky, Duchamp, next to the pieces they had made. It seemed as if all of them were sitting in the front row that day.

We looked at the similarities. ``I can't believe it,'' one of them said. ``Mine's almost the same. And he was a famous artist.'' Why don't you name yours too, I asked. The most exotic set of names was furnished and the designs, with the tape backing, were pounded up on the wall. Friday afternoon - which before had been pandemonium - turned into quiet hour.

When it came time for a class trip, an art museum was voted on unanimously, the first museum most of them had ever been to. Our hour there was a tremendous success, even though we were nearly asked to leave. None of them would have lasted five minutes in the pre-compass days.

Each picture they passed was picked apart and analyzed: ``What is it? What did he/she call it [and] I could do that one ... but that's the good one....'' The ego and/or the simplicity of the child teen-ager is phenomenal. Guards hovered around them as they drew close to each masterpiece and talked a little too loudly. Who could quiet success?

Ultimately, I did the teacherly and merciful thing and took them out. Before that, I noticed an amused but comprehending stare on the part of one of the boys at a guard who had seemed to have followed us from start to finish.

``He thinks because we're teen-agers,'' he said, ``we're going to take something or mess something up. He doesn't know that we're artists ourselves.''

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