FreeCell for Emancipators

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FreecellToday was one of those defining moments for my homeroom. For those of you new to this blog, my homeroom is basically a sixth grade bilingual class for all intents and purposes, though legally, they qualify for 100% English classes due to their passing their qualifying tests. However, one or two glances at their written responses can easily tell you they’re not remotely on grade level academically. Most of them are well-meaning children, and I really do have some of the most adorable children ever, but the system really does an injustice to their educational needs.

Many of these academic deficiencies have led to some of the more hard-working students to become a bit frustrated and the less hard-working students to act out their frustrations with their usual demonstrative attitudes: speaking out of turn, cursing and disregarding rules of the class, and moreover, being disrespectful to both the teachers and the students. And it only takes a few of them to ruin the experience for the majority of them, who, as immature as some of them are, still want to learn something and do their best. If I didn’t have the patience to withstand those storms while still enabling those who do work hard to continue working hard, then I might be in the wrong profession.

Of course, I’ve been assigned to this particular class because of my skills in classroom management, Spanish fluency, and instructional techniques. At least that’s what I’m assuming, anyways, because no other class in our grade has this much “need” academically or behaviorally as a whole. Someone had to notice that I’m not licensed in bilingual education; much of what I do is based on my belief in differentiation (to an extent), improvisation, good questioning techniques, and clasping my hands, hoping what I said even remotely scrapes their temples. My informal assessments and questioning periods often go well, to the point where I feel comfortable with their knowledge retention 80% of the time. However, when it comes to tests, which are designed specifically to reflect the work we’ve done, they oscillate between fantastic to “Were you in my class for the last 2 weeks?”.

More importantly, I’m finding that they’re not gelling very well. Seating them might as well be like playing Freecell: I can shuffle and order cards, and have only a few free spaces in which I can move some of these personalities, but if I don’t get the personalities right, I gotta shuffle the cards all over again. This combined with all the aforementioned ails has made teachers scream, curse (in their own private quarters), and even cry (in my private quarters to me). It’s disheartening, but there are only so many old-school techniques we can apply to at least arouse a sense of effort from my students.

So last week, I just got tired of the madness, and had them give me a homework assignment: 1) list the top ten people you can work with, 2) say one thing you like about the class, and 3) one thing you don’t like about the class. At first, it sounds a little dirty: am I trying to continue derisions and divisions among the class? Will I already fragment the class more than it already is? Yet, there in lies the hook: I get the kids to tell me, indirectly, what makes a great classmate, what they already do well, and what they can improve on. In other words, they do their own self-reflection.

Of course, this morning, after I realized I had no belt on (fortunately my butt held up my pants all day today), maybe it was time to write a letter back in as clear a language as I could explaining those things. After deans and other teachers came to speak to them about their inadequacies, I gave them a math test on squaring, square roots, and interpreting graphs. Most of them worked through it quietly, though one of them acted like he didn’t know what the test procedures were.

I then didn’t see them until homeroom, so I printed my letter out, and gave a personally signed one to each of my students, and said nothing more. I literally said maybe a few sentences: “Take these home and read them.” Something really cool happened just then. They all sat down and read. Quietly. They weren’t concerned to run to their lockers and other minutiae. Like all of a sudden, it was one of the few times an adult addressed them personally and responded to their questions and concerns, and did it in such an intimate way as a letter. I rarely see them that serene (voluntarily anyways).

Tomorrow, when we have the ELA test, I’d like to keep building on this process of maturation for them, and delve deeper than I’ve already tried. But then my question is: when do I get to have these personal interactions with my students without thinking too much about test deadlines and school politics? How can I develop good relationships between the 75% of students who want to behave well while showing the other 25% that their negativity won’t be tolerated any longer? I know I’ve been granted patience and empathy, but that only goes for so long before I have one of those moments again.

That’s the next step. I’ve already suggested, and other teachers concur, that we’d like to have their parents in for a special meeting with their parents as a whole, and how to reinforce what we’re teaching them in the classroom at home. There’s also been suggestions of Saturday school and other methods. As for me, this homeroom is the Freecell game I have yet to solve, but the more I play with these cards, the more cards I start to see fly up in their order. Until then, I’ll be clicking and moving, hoping I don’t have to restart for the umpteenth time.

That’s enough, Mr. V. Please no more today …

jose, who has been tagged to answer the question, “Why Do You Teach?” and will surely give a response in the coming week …

p.s. – I’ve been interviewed. For my burgeoning poets and other artists, read and read away. I drop some gems.

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Jose VilsonFreeCell for Emancipators

Comments 8

  1. Frumteacher

    What a marvelous image: the class as a freecell game. It’s a very powerful image. I find it very hard to know where to seat the ‘difficult’ students in my room. I know there must be a solution, but as you write, unless you keep clicking to find it, you don’t find it.

    Keep us posted on this class. As a teacher that has a LOT to learn on classroom management, I can’t wait to read more. This letter must have made a lasting impression on at least the majority of the class. It’s important for students to feel that their teacher takes them seriously.

  2. Shelly

    So funny that you mentioned forgetting the belt for your trousers! I don’t know why, I just love details like that…

    Great interview in the e-zine as well. Well done Jose!

  3. Tracy Rosen

    I like the image of free cell – much more in control than the one of herding cats I often feel in class…

    The thing with free cell is that it’s a game of solitaire – one person plays by him or herself and you can restart at anytime. What you’re doing is asking the cards to participate in more than just the arbitrary manner they are placed in at the start of a free cell game.

    Participatory free cell maybe?

  4. Mes Deux Cents

    Hi Jose,

    I certainly don’t know all the intricacies of teaching. But I know what it’s like to be a student. The one thing that I think is universal among students, especially younger ones is the need for positive attention.

    I wish that I would have had teachers who thought and pondered as much as you about their students. I remember being totally turned off to school by the time I was a sophomore in high school. I attribute that to teachers’ lack of interest in me and the other students.

    I am so very happy to know that there are teachers like you out there.

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    Jose

    JD, I read in Wikipedia that it’s actually hard. Most of the combinations of cards that are playable are winnable, but it’s still hard nonetheless. Would I teach my kids how to play it? Not this homeroom.

    Frumteacher, I don’t have it down like I’d like, but when I bite, I chomp down hard. In the words of the immortal B Real, it ain’t goin’ out like that.

    Thanks, Shelly. Too cool

    Tracy, the reason why that analogy came up is because, despite what we players think, the cards take a life of their own. The first time you click, the aces fall into place quickly, so you can direct your approach based on that. Then, as you go through the game, you need to find a way to place the cards so not only will they get out of the way but so they can fall in line, too. Yet, there’s always that card that you need that’s all the way in the back part of the row and sometimes you don’t have enough spaces to move the other cards to. And sometimes when you move those cards, and you get the card you need, you get a new set of problems. Hmmm.

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  7. John Holland

    Jose,
    Your passion and artistry comes through in your description of getting your students to (to use an oft detested business term) “buy-in” to the class. So many people don’t understand that to teach in a city to at-risk youth you have to be a really special person. An artist, an athlete, a poet, a sucker, a hero, and a human being. You are awesome keep up the realness. You can’t legislate people like you, so how do we get them(you, us) to want to teach?

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