Let me preface my story by saying I’m not trying to make anyone think I am some kind of math wiz or superstar teacher. This is a game I developed that just happened to fit the kids I was teaching, the school I was teaching at, and the location and time we were in. My intention is that I believe this story reinforces what West Point tried to teach all of us. The Mission comes first. You do what you must to complete the mission to the best of your ability. You may have a perfect Plan A, but Murphy’s Law is out there. Make a Plan B, C, and D even if you don’t use them.
My story starts when I was working at Lockheed Martin, and our factories in the Bronx and Yonkers NY were closing in January 2000. I had worked for Lockheed for almost 15 years, and because I was over 50 years old at the time, I was offered early retirement and a severance package. I used these finances to get a teaching degree at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, NY. It was never my intention to enter teaching as a second career. I was (and still am) more comfortable working with machines rather than people. It was my wife, who still teaches at local schools where we live, that encouraged me to do this. The people and professors I went to school with always gave me positive feedback. I never mentioned to my peers at school that I was a graduate of West Point and had served 6 and ½ years active duty and 2 years National Guard. I rationalized this teaching experience as another challenge in my life.
I wanted to teach at a tough school, to have almost the opposite experience as you would have at West Point. Although I never taught at West Point, I had many classmates that did. In my mind, these teachers had the perfect world: the brightest and most accomplished students you could find in America. Well-motivated and eager to learn and thrive. There was no such thing as a discipline problem – I have many hours on the Area to prove that!
I was offered a job in NY city schools well before I graduated with an MS in Teaching from Mercy College. In those days the city schools were desperate for teachers. You didn’t have to be certified, like you had to be in the suburbs where I lived. I accepted a job at MS399 in the Bronx to teach 7th and 8th grade math.
A couple of weeks before the start of school (August 2000), we started having meetings at the school. The school itself was extremely impressive. It was originally named the “Elizabeth Barrett Browning” school after the English poet from the 1800s. The building had hand carved gargoyles on the roof. It looked like it was built to withstand a military attack. I found out WHY shortly after!!
I never really got along well with the principals we had and the administration. I believe they viewed me as an outsider, and my ideas as strange and unorthodox (my A4 classmates might agree)! When I was given the key to my classroom, what struck me was how barren everything was. There were no slogans or banners welcoming the kids to math or the school, nothing on the bulletin boards, almost nothing in the cabinets or lockers, and no books on the shelves. The principal, who was relieved before school started that year, told me “Just teach from the Book”. A fellow teacher told me I would have to find books in the basement.
MS 399 was a SURR school which I believe stands for a School Under Review or Replacement. Kids were tested in 4th and 8th grade in Reading and Math. Scores of 3 or 4 were grade level or better. Scores of 1 and 2 were below grade level. Our entire school, all grades, did not have even one student at 3 or 4.
When I met the kids for the first time, I knew Plan A “Teach from the Book, was not an option. These kids had been socially promoted to get to 7th and 8th grade. Many were 2 or 3 years older than you would find in an average 7th or 8th grade in America. I had a student arrested right in my classroom. The cops came in unannounced, threw the kid against the wall, hand cuffed him, and took him out to a waiting squad car. Not one word from the principal or anyone else in the school, just the kids told me rumors of what they heard on the street. The kid arrested never came back for the entire year.
Well, the situation I faced (teaching math), was going to have its challenges. These kids couldn’t find zero on a ruler and had no idea if ¼ of an inch was bigger or smaller the 4 inches. Most believed all they needed was a calculator. Again, this was the year 2000. No Google, no computers, no White Boards, and even no cell phones. We had a phone in the classroom which nobody used because nobody came!
My strategy from the beginning was to keep these kids busy. Have them build things, measure things, draw things. No quadratic equations or algebra from the textbook. I told my classes that measuring things accurately and having the ability to draw things to scale, could be important tools to learn. Whether furnishing your apartment, or buying materials for a project, this can save time and money. We started doing very simple tasks like having kids measure their classmate’s hands and height with string and markers. Then measure the distance in inches with rulers. From there we could make ratios and proportions: the smaller kid’s hand size over height vs. the larger kid’s hand size over height. These proportions always came out very close to their surprise.
One of the first big projects we did before the Probability Baseball game was the “Party Room” project. They had to draw our classroom to scale on graph paper. Draw in the windows and doors and make room for a DJ and his equipment and a Refreshment Space. I gave them 2 different size tables they could place in the room for the party goers. One table (round) that seats 2 kids, and another, a rectangular table, that seats 4 kids. It was on this project that I saw competition and the desire to win could be used as motivation. Room designs that met all the rules and had room for the most students would be recognized and highlighted on our bulletin boards.