A New Beginning

9/11/2005 06:12:00 pm

I usually start my math classes with a brief introduction to me, the course and an overview of what materials students will need. Then we jump right into the curriculum. I didn't do that this time.

I started by telling them a story; the Myth of Sisyphus. Just the story. Then I asked them three questions:

  • »Is Sysiphus a villain?
  • »Is Sysiphus a victim?
  • »Or is Sysiphus a hero?

They seemed to like the story. They were relaxed and interested. Then I told them I'll want their answers to the questions in about 5 or 10 minutes. We'll get back to this soon ....

Then we talked about how much time we're supposed to have and how much time we actually do have to cover the course material. This raised their anxiety level a little bit.

We went over the course outline focusing on what I call the Critical Path to Success.

A student who wants to succeed in this course will:

   »Always be on time for class.

   »Always arrive to class prepared to work with all materials needed.

   »Always attempt ALL their homework assignments.

   »Review their class notes every night before going to bed.

   »Always ask LOTS of questions about anything they don't understand.

   »Always gets extra help from the teacher when they feel they are falling behind.

   »Find one or two people to be their study partners and form a study group.

   »Consistently set a regular time of day to do homework assignments.

   »Regularly participate on the course blog.

I have only one "rule" in my class. It's more of a required attitude really. Be polite. Those first two bulleted items are a direct consequence of this attitude. Treat others they way you would like them to treat you. Students have a right to expect me to be in class on time and prepared to teach. Likewise, I expect students to do the same. It is rude to arrive late and interrupt 30+ people who are hard at work pursuing the business of learning.

Before we discussed the important distinction between attempting all the homework assignments and getting them all correct (If they never made mistakes they wouldn't need to be in class to learn! A mistake is a wonderful thing -- an opportunity to learn something you didn't know.) we got back to Sysiphus and I asked them for their answers. Most kids saw how Sysiphus was a villain; he was a highwayman and had cheated the g-ds time and again. They also saw him as a victim because while his actions may have merited punishment, that the punishment should last for eternity struck them as excessive. Seeing Sysiphus as a hero took a little more thought.

A few students saw him as a hero because while he had Thanatos (Death) locked up no one could die -- he saved the lives of countless innocent people including many children. I explained how I saw him as a hero.

Sysiphus has been set up to fail. As soon as he just about gets that boulder to the top of the hill it falls back down again. Sysiphus knows this is going to happen. Again and again; without end. The way I read this story, when the boulder rolls down the hill, Sysiphus doesn't get upset. He doesn't get angry or cry in frustration. (I would if it were me.) He never gives up. He calmly walks down the hill, turns, puts his check against the boulder and begins again. Step by step he rolls it back up the hill. He is not and will not be defeated. "When you are faced with that almost insurmountable pile of homework. When you've tried that problem six times and you still can't get it right. Remember Sysiphus. Be calm and start again. Go slow and recognize when you need to ask for help. You have each other, you have your study groups, you have me and you have our blog. Unlike Sysiphus, you're being set up to succeed. Take advantage of every opportunity and resource available to you and you will succeed and get your boulder to the top of the hill."

We talked a little about the Forgetting Curve and spent a little time doing the VARK survey for young people to identify each student's preferred learning style. Then class ended.

I was very anxious about this dramatic change from what I've always done in the past. So much time given over to Sysiphus and talking about learning styles. I anticipated many students saying "What's all this nonsense?!? This is supposed to be math class!"

Thankfully, that didn't happen. One of my grade 10 students, new to me and new to the school, lingered a little as the class was leaving.

"You're my favourite teacher." he said, and walked out.

I had two very different feelings about this. He made my week and validated the risk I took in trying something new. I felt relieved. Then again, his favourite teacher? On day one? That's a lot to live up to for the rest of the semester. Now I'm anxious all over again.

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