20 November 2008

"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." William Butler Yeats

I've been hired to get a girl into college.

She's already done all the legwork, she's put in her application, she's been to the campus. She's got the tuition money. She's even been accepted. Accepted on the condition she passes her GED, and what stands in her way is two points on the math portion. Before she took that test, she'd never seen an algebra problem.

A twenty-year-old isn't exactly free to sit in on an algebra class in a public school. Nor are they really welcome in the college setting before they've been accepted. This is where I get the call. I'm not being asked to instruct a comprehensive Algebra class, but I am expected to divulge the content of such a course. And quickly-- because an individual doesn't attempt to get the GED until they're ready to commit going to school again--until they have a plan. Then they fail, and they start to panic. "I want to start school in the spring!"

The first time I saw an algebra problem, I was amazed to find that the little "x" did not just function as a place holder: "2x" was not "twenty something." I got to see the bewilderment in the eyes of a student realizing this. Not a "Eureka!" moment, more of a "WTF?!" I had eight weeks before she took the GED again. I squinted into the future. I had to come up with something that would be both comprehensive and just enough to get her to pass the test--her college algebra class would give her the proper education.

The experience isn't mundane, by any means. In one hour a day, two days a week, I have to swoop a mind from fractions and percents into the abstract of representational math. After hours of preparation--counting on the characteristic of algebra where everything builds on the previous--the projection looks something like this:
  • the language of algebra (listing of all the properties, like commutative, distributitive, associative, negative, identity...)
  • "things you can do to a number"
  • order of operations
  • one-step solve for x
  • combining like terms
  • distribution
  • linear equations
  • systems of equations
  • plotting points and slope intercept form
  • FOIL
  • quadratic equations
  • solving rational equations
  • radicals and radical equations
  • inequalities, scientific notation
  • word problems
At each concept for one hour, it would take a dedicated student to pull this off. And an extremely time-conservative teacher. I do one example. I watch and guide while she plugs through for the rest of the hour. Then I leave extra problems. That's all I got. In sixteen blazing hours, she gets a pretty comprehensive Algebra 1 course.

It's totally worth the two points.

For more on William Butler Yeats

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