Where’s my math class?

Picture this:

You have a very bright student with whom have great difficulty communicating (because he doesn’t know very much English aside from “don’t know”, “don’t have”, ad “oh my god”, and you know zilch of Chinese outside of “teacher, hello, what, and thank you”). You know he has been frustrated since September because he is a math phenom and is well beyond your curriculum. But today he refuses to even try to do the area model enrichment lesson you planned all night for because it is “soooo easy.” Instead he uses the base ten blocks to build houses and then knock them down.

This was my class yesterday. My initial reaction?

I told him to put everything away and sit with his hands folded. I was fuming. This is a student I struggle every day to communicate with and reach, and he is just one of three students in a similar situation.

I am fuming because of what I perceive as his disrespect and because I’m so disappointed in myself because my hard work did not pan out the way I had hoped. Plus, I’m an ESL teacher, not a math teacher! Math enrichment is not my forte.

But working with newcomers supposedly is. So, as I worked with the other students, I thought more calmly about him. I know he is a whiz at math and clearly I had underestimated just how frustrated he’d be with a task that I’d thought would be at least fun for him to do, even if not challenging.

So, I used the one tool I have in class to communicate with my Chinese students — Google Translate. In simple sentences, I told him that even if he was frustrated, his behavior was disrespectful and that’s not acceptable in my class. I wanted him to explain why he had acted that way. His reply was, “I no want do simple math. I no know what to do when I no want simple math.” He wants to learn the fifth grade curriculum of China. I’m all about trying to meet student needs and incorporate their culture and such in class, but this is a bit of a tall order. It’s not like their curriculum is googlable. Plus, their whole approach to math is so different and my training has been purely on-the-job.

So, I’m off this weekend to figure out what I can start to teach him from 6th or 7th grade math. I know he is interested in algebra, so I may go that route. This is a boy who can solve problems with two and three-digit divisors and 9-digit dividends in less than 5 minutes. While other students are struggling with order of operations, he’s solving these problems and more mentally.

I have actually been on the hunt for free professional development math classes for teachers specifically because of this kid!


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