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My Last Math Class

§ August 8th, 2011 § 7 Comments- Add yours§ Filed under Teaching Math § Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

The last year of teaching middle school math was over 25 years ago. Years away were NCLB, high-stakes testing, RTI Tiers I-III, and teacher accountability. By law, kids were allowed to drop out of school once they reached the age of 16, and kids who had not passed all subjects in the 8th grade were not allowed to advance into high school. As a result the middle school teachers had a pool of kids just biding their time.

In my last year with that district I had classes of 8th graders who were 14 – 16 years old, mostly boys who had no interest in learning much of anything. These were the tough classes.  The classes no one else wanted. The kids who were already 16 willingly shared that they were at school to hang out with friends, eat free breakfast and lunch, and to sleep.  Easy to conclude, these kids had not been and were not successful in math.Instructional tools?   If I remember correctly, I had a chalkboard, chalk, a couple of erasers, and an overhead projector I shared with another teacher.   Oh yeah, and I had the adopted textbook for 8th grade that had not too useful at least once, if not twice, so why would I try to use that again?  But that is all I had—I thought.

I asked my classes what they wanted out of math class.  They set me straight real fast.  They did not want anything because once they got out of that stupid school they were going to get a real job making real money.

“Really?”  I asked.   “What kind of job are you going to get?”

Most of them told me that they were going to get jobs in the factories around town, drive a fancy car with boom boxes, eat out most of the time, and have a really cool apartment.

“Do you know how much those factory jobs pay?”


“Do you know how much it costs to rent an apartment?”

Blank stares.

“Do you know how to make a budget?”

Their expressions made me laugh out loud.

The math curriculum for the year became obvious.  I had to make the class real for them. I had to pass on some life skills to get them ready for the real world.  How was I going to do that?   I went to the students for answers.

“Who knows what minimum wage is?”

No response.

“Have any of you have made out a grocery list, cut coupons, looked for sales, compared prices, and/or bought groceries?”

No response.

“Do you know how to open a checking and/or savings account, how to write a check, compute interest and sales tax, know when someone is trying to pull one over on, short change you?”

You should have seen the looks on their faces.  Well, that is until I said the part about short changing.  Half the class started announcing what they would do if someone did that to them.

“Ok, then.  Here’s what I can do other than me watching you sleep.  I can help get you ready for that job, to rent that apartment, to buy that car. I can help you create a budget for your expenses and teach you to write a check.  Like I said though.  I can help.  You are going to have to work, too.

Sighs….. feet shuffling.

“But wait a minute… would you like not to have a t e x t b o o k?”  Finally, I saw some eyes light up and smiles.

“How ya goin’ to do that, Doc? If we don’t got a textbook, what we gonna use?”

“We are going to use the newspaper.”

“Oh, yeah…” There was some hand slappin’ going on then.  They thought this was going to be a breeze.

photography by Liz (

I didn’t have a classroom budget for purchasing supplies, so I personally paid to have copies of the Memphis newspaper delivered to my classroom every Wednesday.  Why Wednesday?  Because that was the day the grocery ads ran. The newspaper became my text, but before we could actually use it, they had a few things to learn, such as how to fill out an application for a job and (sadly ) how to read a newspaper.   I went to a couple of the factories, explained what I was doing, and asked for an application to use in the classroom.  My kids did not have much info to share, but they learned how to put in the important information. None of them had a social security number, so we started the process for getting those, too, even though that task for too large for me to handle alone.   I gave each student a hypothetical job in one of the factories earning minimum wage working 40 hours a week. They learned to compute their gross pay, calculate withholdings, and figure out net pay.  They learned to use a calculator to check their work and how to open a checking and savings account.  A minimum of 10% of their wages was put into savings accounts each week to save for their transportation costs.  I took one of my personal checks, whited out the address and account numbers, and created personal checkbooks for each student.

Now they were on a payroll, money coming in each week – all hypothetically, of course.  So what was the next step?  They had to find a place to live and find transportation.  The students used the classified ads from the local paper to find places to possibly rent and, instead of a fancy cars, clunkers that could get them to work.  Saving for that piece of junk was another task, so they had to find transportation to work until they had their own “ride” was another thing on the list.  No buses, subways, or rails in a rural area.   Another face-to-face with the reality was when they discovered they couldn’t pay the rent by themselves. Most decided to share a mobile home or an apartment as well as a car with another person.  One group of four decided to split living arrangements, transportation, and expenses.  Eat out 4 -5 times a week?  Don’t think so.  Deposits for water, gas, telephone, and electricity?  Uh-oh.  Had to beg someone to allow them to “stay” somewhere for a few weeks, long enough to save for those deposits. Problem solving became very important.   Sharing the deposits and rent freed up cash for other things—like food! Meals were planned, grocery ads were used to make grocery lists, coupons became important.  Groceries were purchased, and the checkbook was balanced. Those were all important skills.

You are getting the picture, aren’t you?  We learned life skills and in the process, my students learned math skills— how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide whole numbers, integers, decimals, and fractions.   They learned about ratio, percent, proportion, how to figure out sales taxes, interest rates (simple and compound), how to balance a budget, write a check, and balance a checkbook. Math became necessary.

I saw learning occur like I had never seen before.  I saw hope.  Hope for a better future, hope for a better life.  I saw kids set goals for themselves: personal goals, educational goals, and work goals. Several students even made the decision to stay in school. Maybe they could acquire that fancy car if they finished high school.  That last year was quite a year.   A lot of hard work, but it was one of the most rewarding of my classroom teaching career.

So much has changed since then; I know that.  We have math standards.  We have the Common Core Initiative. We have NCLB and high-stakes testing. Newspapers now can be read on iPads and other tablets, and textbooks are becoming available on eReaders. However, we can make math curriculum relevant for students of all abilities no matter what resources we use.  Maybe it’s time to allow real-life situations and problems to drive the curriculum.




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