Monday, June 1, 2009

My Students are Screwed!

My students are screwed. They have been from long before they walked through my classroom doors.

I am sure that you are all wondering what the heck I am talking about. Patience. I will get to it - but first you need some background knowledge.

Lets start with Malcome Gladwell's book Outliers. Read it. It rocks - and it will make you look at amazing people like Wayne Gretzky and Bill Gates a little bit differently. Haven't read it? Not going to get to it soon? Ok - here is the basic information that pertains to what I am talking about.

In Outliers there is a chapter about mathematics - more specifically about how Asian students tend to do better in math. Gladwell says that there are two main factors that explain the test scores. He calls them cultural legacy. The first is that numbers are handled differently in most Asian languages. They make more sense. If I were to have a race a Chinese person in counting to a hundred (in our own languages) they would win almost every time. It is just the structure of the language. The second factor (and more important factor) is the fact that a large percentage of Asians come from a rice farming background. Rice farming is VERY labor intensive. Successful rice farmers work much harder and much longer than other types of farmers. Asian students have grown up in that type of environment. They learned how to work very hard. They grew up with a cultural legacy of hard work. (Every single successful outlier in Gladwell's book worked very hard to get where they were.) Gladwell explained that mathematics is easier when the language makes better sense - and when you work hard towards a solution (No surprise there!).

So how are my students screwed? All of my students are First Nations. (Ok maybe 2 aren't - but the rest definately are.) What cultural legacy has been left to them? Thanks to a wonderful system of government handouts many of them come from an environment where they don't have to work. They will be provided for if they choose to not work at all. (Keep in mind that only a pittance is provided - I realize it is not an easy life or a good life.) If you go back before Europeans were in the picture that was not the case - but wasn't that too many generations ago for it to truly be a huge part of many of their cultural legacy? Also keep in mind that this is a generalization and does not apply to everybody. I have students that I would be willing to hire outside of school because they are hard workers. The point I am trying to make is that my students have to fight a very uphill battle in order to succeed in math (and I never even touched on language issues!). They have to fight that battle because of where they grew up and what they saw around them.

So what do I do about it? No, what am I failing to do about it? - because that is what is happening. My students are failing - which means that I am failing because I have failed to do enough about their new cultural legacy. One more time - (and yes I am begging for help here) - what can I do about it?

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