Not Working Bell to Bell

I’m also working this year with students who are in high school–ESL nonspeakers who are behind in math. I’m working with them in their math class on subjects like order of operations and finding a variable. It’s not easy. It’s especially not easy because they are not native English speakers and haven’t had the opportunity to pick up a lot of their second language yet. People say that math doesn’t have a lot of language, but it really does. As evidence, I’ve been working through Khan Academy in Spanish. I’m only on about a fourth grade level, and there are a lot of problems that I do which would be easy if only I knew what the instructions are asking me. Do I need to add? subtract? are you asking what’s the same? Different? Do I need to find the sum or difference or a missing addend? If only I knew all these words, I would know how to solve it. My students are experiencing the same problems… except that the math is also new to them. Whew!

As a result, my students can get burned out fairly quickly. There’s also the problem that… well, it’s math. And math can get kind of redundant. I need to do more looking around for hands-on type activities they can do to perhaps make it more interesting, but even when you find things like that, it pretty much boils down to: you need to solve a bunch of math problems, just like the ones we did yesterday… and the day before… and the day before… And we’re learning about negative numbers (hard!) and adding and subtracting fractions (hard!) and converting fractions into decimals (actually, that’s not so hard, but still… it’s a lot to keep track of!) So usually, 5-15 minutes before the bell rings, my students push the work away and they say “No, Miss Molly, no. Tomorrow. Tomorrow, please!” And what can I do?

Well, I can say “no, in this school, we work bell to bell, and so you must keep working. Keep working! Keep! Working! And sometimes I do, only I understand the burn-out and the frustration, and quite honestly, I read through my high school math classes, so even when I encourage them to keep working, I can usually only do it half-heartedly. As you can guess, this is not entirely effective. And I know that if the wrong person walked in the door and found the students not working, they would be very upset with me. But I don’t want to kill them mentally, or discourage them. In general, hard things are best dealt in small amounts. That way, you can get through it in pieces, rather than looking at it like a wall that is impossible to scale. Which leads me to my second option… which is what I usually do.

I say “Okay.” And the students put away the math and we agree to work on it the next day. But here’s the trick: we still have five to fifteen minutes of class left, and I don’t want them just spending that time on their phones. But as I said, these are ESL students. Part of the reason they struggle in math is because they have such a small English vocabulary. So I give them the option: work on math. Or talk to me. In English. Speaking in English is hard for them, though harder for some than others. But they usually pick the second option. I try to talk to them about what they did over the weekend (or what they are going to do). I’ve asked them about books they read, movies they watch, foods they eat… I’m running out of ideas, actually :/ But it works miracles. First of all, I usually can get the students to talk to me. Sometimes we actually all end up having a conversation together, and we’re laughing and telling stories, and learning to communicate, even though they aren’t fluent in my first language and I’m not fluent in theirs. In addition, I get to know them better, and to them, I become a person, not just a cold and blank teacher. They get a break from the math that’s burning them out, but they’re still learning. Honestly, I think it’s part of what keeps them coming back. I mean, yes, they would be in class even if we didn’t do that, but I think it makes the class more enjoyable for them. Because they know they’re going to have to work at something hard, but they also know I’m on their side.

In conclusion, this isn’t really about not working bell to bell or why we shouldn’t. It’s about finding something else to do with the last few minutes of class to give your students a break. We all know that younger students get antsy from doing the same thing for too long a period of time. We forget that older students can have the same experience. So if your students are getting frustrated or burned out, I encourage you to find something else to do–have a conversation with them. This can useful even for students who are not ESL. Or talk to them about what you’ve done in class and what they liked about it or didn’t like about it. Maybe you can break out an easy to play game. (I’ll soon be putting up a lot of stuff about games useful in the classroom. I’m a big gamer, so I’ve got a lot of those.) We can’t just command our students, we’ve got to work with them. And if that person who will be upset with me ever walks in, maybe I’ll just have to tell them that… and hope for the best.


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