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.

I think Sophie and I learned all we needed to this afternoon. A hug is better than a box lid any day. You might be able to do 101 things with a box lid, but with a hug???

Sophie learned just one thing - lean into it.


BANJO52 said...

Two good stories. I have tons of respect for you and the work you did with those kids in math (and language). Why is it that bureaucracies (and citizens?) just don't seem to get it about supplying such programs? What else are bureaucracies and citizens going to spend those dollars on? McDonalds? Golf?

By the way, my first dog in adulthood was Sophie, an English Bulldog. Your Sophie is little leaner.

altadenahiker said...

All kinds of lessons here, though don't know if I'm smart enough to learn them.

but reminds me of a certain day on the trail. Phoebe the boxer and I went on a hike with kids from the "Sunshine Group Home." A home for orphaned or abandoned kids. Most of them liked to hike with one hand on Phoebe, so she had maybe ten little hands on her back. At one point, a little boy started to kick at Phoebe, at the hip, maybe three time. Phoebe stopped, turned, and licked his face. He stopped kicking and hugged her, just hung on her neck as we walked up the trail.

Tash said...

Oh my gosh, Brenda, you have me in tears. What wonderful stories and beautiful tie in. What a wonderful teacher you were to those kids. I remember the Math Blaster or any computer games - they do make learning a game=fun. Now Sophie is the lucky one.
I started Jr. High in Northeast LA when I came here from Yugoslavia. We had a wonderful ESL program, where the focus was to get us to learn English ASAP. A lot of us did so very quickly out of necessity and moved into 'regular' school. The Spanish speaking kids were at a disadvantage because the COULD communicate with each other. But a lot of kids from Mexico and Central/South America also learned quickly - it seems at around 12 the mind is still agile enough to absorb new languages.

Virginia said...

Awww, Tash sent me here. I love this story. Thank you.

Christy Pinheiro, EA ABA said...

Aw, Brenda, you can't just post stories like that! How can you spring so much emotion on us without a warning?

Seriously-- let me know if you ever want to publish your stories as a book -- I would jump on that in a minute.

I'm going to blog about this post on my blog, too.

Al said...

I hate to say it but working in the community sector with homeless people I see nonsense like this all the time.
You can help people achieve so much just by reaching out them.
But things can be torn apart by such thoughtlessness in an instant.

J. Evan Kreider said...

I am thankful that I read through a number of your blogs today (Memorial Day). Your way of relating events keeps me reading. Thank you.

Joanne Casey said...

Brenda, your stories have me hooked! I'd like to read your books :-)

That wasn't meant to rhyme.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Thank you all for your comments. I cherish them.
I am trying to picture an English bulldog named Sophie. Kinda makes one smile...
Karin, Phoebe had it right! I wish I could think to do exactly that when someone is annoying me. Well, maybe not lick them in the face, but something humanly acceptable...

It is interesting how children learn languages differently than adults do. And it is funny how when the school district had pressure from the state to improve math scores, bilingual math was allowed. When the state outlawed bilingual education, the math scores dropped... and the state once again put pressure on the school district to increase them. Statistics can be interpreted in creative ways - the district decided to only count math scores of those students with the most 'seat time'. Migrant kids were no longer counted... and math scores rose again. But did anyone learn anything???

Thanks again for reading.