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Jerry Brodkey has been a public secondary school teacher since 1975, and has taught most of the subjects in Social Studies and Mathematics. He has also taught for years in private schools. He now teaches remedial algebra and Advanced Placement Calculus. His undergraduate degree was from Rice University (BA 1974), and has graduate degrees from Stanford (MA 1976, Ph.D. 1987).
A few days ago I was sitting watching my 8th grade math students graduate from middle school. I like to sit off to the side at each graduation, listening as each student’s name is called, thinking of each as an individual, seeing each for perhaps the last time.
These students, and all students, have been through too much these last three years – three years of disrupted life and education. The pandemic, covid tests, masks, fear, social isolation, anxiety, over a full year of zoom learning, social media, hurtful texts, economic disruption for their families, inflation, college admission worries (yes, even for middle school students), George Floyd, January 6th, the Ukraine, Buffalo, now Uvalde.
It is amazing they are graduating and moving forward.
I’ve been teaching for a long time. I started in 1975 and taught in public high schools until 2015. I retired for one year, missed teaching, and then found a wonderful nearby middle school where I’ve now been for six years. Even after almost fifty years, teaching continues to be challenging, exciting, and intense.
There is so much discussion and debate over math education. What really matters, what makes a difference? After all of my years teaching it continues to get clearer and clearer to me.
Achievement matters. Each student needs a basic understanding of mathematical ideas. Each student needs a strong foundation, not only for artificial reasons like college applications and success in schools, but more importantly for understanding an important part of the world. How can complex problems be broken down and solved? What does information and statistics tell us? What does it mean to prove a theory or hypothesis? What ideas and insights from the past help us solve today’s challenges?
Parents and students worry about math grades and acceleration. I repeatedly tell them learning math is not a race. The key is to build a strong foundation and create a desire to keep learning.
I tell students and parents there is no magic in learning math. I’m pretty traditional. I tell parents and students: To achieve real success – Have excellent attendance. Do all your homework. Ask questions. Get help fast.
What doesn't matter? The choice of textbooks doesn’t matter much to me. Most are good enough, none perfect. If I don’t like a problem set or how a topic is presented, I’ll choose another approach. I’ll ask colleagues what they do. I’ll create my own problem sets. Debates over textbooks are noise.
Common Core? Back to Basics? Group learning? Individualized instruction? Programmed Learning? More or less technology in the classroom? Standardized tests? Block schedules or daily classes? Take calculus in 11th grade or 12th grade? Accelerate in 4th or 5th grade? Heterogeneous classrooms or group by ability? Inservice programs? District speeches? . All these debates? Most of these don’t matter much. Perhaps they are useful but mostly they are noise, noise, noise. A balanced approach probably works best.
So what matters most? –