Teaching Math in a One Room Schoolhouse

Things are so different nowadays. Take a typical seventh-grade math class for comparison. In a usual middle mystical teachings of jesus, the math teacher is likely to have only three classes to prepare for: sixth-grade math, seventh-grade math, and eighth-grade math. Without all those other subjects to prep, the seventh-grade math teacher can be clearly focused one thing and one thing only: seventh-grade math standards and content. The teacher’s job-it is supposed-is to lead the class through all the chapters in the book, expose all the children to all the concepts and skills, and prepare them to do well on the inevitable standardized test.

If only it were that simple. Unfortunately, not all seventh grade students are actually ready to learn seventh grade math. Some of them were taught by another math teacher during the previous year, who didn’t succeed in having them master sixth grade concepts and skills. Some of the sixth graders were taught by the teacher who also teaches seventh grade, but they were so poorly prepared by the fifth grade classroom teachers that they didn’t have full access to the sixth grade curriculum, and spent a major part of the sixth grade year struggling with remedial topics. And some students moved into the school district during their seventh grade year, coming from other districts where their education was inadequate. And many struggle with English, which is not their native language, so they have trouble understanding directions, doing homework, and taking tests.

So the typical seventh grade math instructor has to struggle with teaching a mixture of students who are at grade level, above grade level, below grade level, and far below grade level-all in the same classroom. In other words, the math teacher is still working in a one-room schoolhouse! There are, of course, some differences. In my dad’s classroom, there were students of many ages working at a variety of different math levels. In the modern classroom, there are many students of the same age operating at a variety of different math levels. In the historic classroom, the teacher had actually taught all the students year by year at the lower levels of instruction. In the modern class, the seventh grade teacher knows what the students should have learned previously, but often has little direct experience in exactly how to develop those underlying lower level concepts and skills when the need arises with older pupils.

In the old-time schoolroom, it was not that hard to differentiate challenge levels to accommodate individual levels of readiness. Older students could temporarily join in with younger students to address a lower level math topic that was still challenging. Likewise, younger students could join in with older students to study topics for which they were ready. And even though the students might be working on math above or below the level thought suitable for their age, they could still be held accountable for doing the classwork, the homework, and the tests-and receive credit for doing that work. In the modern math class, students are sometimes offered remedial instruction by the math teacher within the whole-class setting, but are not always offered credit for the hard work they must do to catch up. They may be encouraged to seek help, but are not generally required to do so.

In reality, students have very little chance of mastering seventh grade content if they have not already mastered the prerequisite concepts and skills presented in the previous grades. But in the egalitarian world of American education, students are typically given a choice in an issue that is actually a matter of necessity. Heaven help the teacher if she should have the common sense to vary the demands for different students in the same class, and actually require individual students to master crucial remedial work. “No fair! Why should I have to do what he doesn’t have to do?!” Imagine the outrage of children and parents at such unfair treatment-especially if a majority of the students needing remediation are of the same racial/ethnic background. Addressing the individual needs and learning styles of low-achievers, and optimizing individual opportunity through individual accountability then becomes twisted into perceived racism.

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