Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Not all games are created equal
I struggle with a dog-training technique we were taught in Sophie's intermediate obedience class. I am used to reward based training where you teach the dog to sit and then reward/praise her when she does it on cue. No biggy. You learn that the dog's name (SOPHIE!) isn't a command, that 'no' isn't a command, and that you need to be consistent with command words for the dog to succeed.
But then in our dog training class, we were taught to allow the dog to think on its own. Sophie is to learn to problem solve. The initial exercise we were taught was called "101 things to do with a box". Just throw a cardboard box lid on the floor. Let the dog look at it - and reward dog for doing so. If the dog steps toward the box, reward the him. If the dog steps IN the box, big reward... All the time, you are tossing the reward treats in the box. But you are never allowed to coax the dog to the box. You are not allowed to direct or to call the dog to the box. The dog has to figure out on its own that the box is something good to touch/sniff/stand in.
This game leads, in some way, to teaching your dog park its butt on its bed. Yeah, right.
When I turned 35, I started teaching high school. I was hired to teach bilingual pre-algebra. My students were all migrant workers' children. They spent 6-7 months each year in Mexico, and then 5-6 months in Arizona. The parents usually worked 'the fields' and the kids were sent public schools. The children always stayed together, as the language barrier was an impermeable wall.
Some of my students were true freshmen, others were older. They could never get through an algebra class because of the language barrier. As soon as they would see an equation like 3+X=10, they would shut down. "Letters don't belong in math!" or "X isn't a number!" were the common arguments I would hear from the students.
So I whipped out my spanish and poured it on them. Once the students got past that an anglo woman could speak spanish but not look spanish, they'd listen. The first month I taught, I did not have a classroom. I would teach the students out in the hallway while the english speaking students sat in desks in real classrooms. Finally a classroom opened up for me and my misfits. In this classroom, my students started to understand that simple algebraic equations could be math. That you could subtract the 3 from the left side, subtract it from the right side, and end up with answer that solved what X was! Some days my only words were "Que haces por la isquierda, tienes que hacer por la derecha" - what you do on the left side, you need to do on the right side. Subtract 3 on the left side? Then subtract 3 on the right side. Some of my students had the worse time remembering to address the right side...
I feared "What would happen when we hit "3+X=2Y?" Or what would happen when we hit negative numbers? Oh my, I just wanted them to see that X could be a number - it was their job to figure it out.
One day, my classroom was awarded a bonus - a computer on EVERY DESK! The computers were old rejected IBMs donated by Honeywell or some such company. Tom, the football coach, and I worked after hours to network the computers to a 'master computer' that acted as a server. We turned the computers on... and saw only the DOS prompt. Eventually we earned a grant to buy some math software. Our first purchase was MathBlaster, at the pre-algebra level. My students were gaining confident in their Xs and Ys, but computers frightened them. I showed them that were allowed to touch the keyboard, that they supposed to log in, that now their equations would appear on the computer screen.
The first day we worked with computers, my students absentee rate soared. Half the class was absent. But the second day... everyone was in attendance. Word got out that the computers were 'facil'. EASY. They remembered your place when you logged out, they kept your score, and they were fun to use! There wasn't a language barrier! And best of all, when you completed a section and passed the little exam, a rocket on your screen 'blasted off'. Oh my, competition was suddenly rampant in my class. My students were flying through chapters of algebra! The students couldn't wait to get to the sections on graphing co-ordinates and on polynomials. These kids were turning into math whizs!
Everyday at lunch my classroom turned into a space center - rockets blasting off from every computer screen! My students couldn't get enough. We applied for a grant for higher level math programs that touched the realm of geometry and maybe even calculus. We had such high high hopes!
But funding for the bilingual math program was cut. Math could only be taught in english - even to students whose parents worked here on seasonal visas. Our school's math scores dropped just as quickly as the students' self-esteem dropped. The computers were boxed up and sent to the computer graveyard...
So I ponder all this as I try to figure out if Sophie needs to learn this silly '101 things to do with a box' game.
Last week I took Sophie to a lunchtime concert held in a nearby park. A van from a 'group home for children' showed up. One young man gravitated towards Sophie. He asked if he could pet her. I asked if I could take his photo while he did so. We all were agreeable - Sophie to the petting, him to the photos snapping.