Back From Winter Break

This being the first week of school since winter vacation, a majority (about 80%) of the students at my school have mysteriously gotten “sick” and have not been coming to class. From what I’ve heard from my fellow volunteers, this is a typical situation for schools in Liberia.

When I see my students around in the community I ask them, with concern, how they are doing, and if they’re feeling better. I talk about how it’s such an unfortunate thing we’ve had this great sickness among the student population, and try to offer theories about why it’s happening. (“Maybe all the students tasted the same spoiled food!”). Some students were sick in truth, perhaps, so I’m careful to not mock individual behavior… I just draw attention to the ridiculous behavior of the group as a whole.

For me, it hasn’t been such a big deal, since I’ve developed such a clear-cut system for the work that I expect every week from my students (which I will describe in a future post, don’t worry!). Students being gone just means that they’re going to have to do a LOT of work to catch up when they return. Since many of these students were gone a week (some two weeks!) prior to vacation as well, I think that many students will have too much of a backlog of work to make it this period. But hopefully they’ll learn from this experience and change their behavior in the future.

In the meantime, my small class sizes have been wonderful, because I’ve been able to experiment with different ways to try to teach number sense and general “conceptual” mathematics. Yesterday, with my group of five students, I tried to show them how decimals represented actual quantities.  Right now they can add and subtract decimals, but they have no concept of their significance. I haven’t even attempted teaching the concept of decimals to the class as a whole, because the huge spread of levels of ability in my students combined with the number of students I have makes such discussions impossible. You get a few students engaged, the rest passive, and then the disruptive students start to have a field day.

Back to my group of five students: We pretended that we were selling red palm oil in the market (I love red oil), and after asking them to draw integer numbers of bottles filled with red oil, I started challenging them to draw bottles filled with floating point amounts of red oil (to only one decimal point… “I’m your customer! I want 3.2 bottles of red oil!”).

I’m thinking about collecting all the various sizes of containers used at market, having students experimentally determine their conversion ratios, and then start giving unit conversion problems. Since many of them already have an intuition regarding their relative sizes, I’m hoping this will start to build that numerical awareness that is so desperately needed.

The problem I’m facing is that while an activity like this is so desperately needed, I don’t see how to do it with an entire class of 29 students (the size of my eighth grade). To simply manage the amount of equipment I’d need would be a logistical nightmare. There also wouldn’t be enough room in the classroom. I would do fine with a group of 10 or 15 students, but the further you went above that number, the more chaotic and unmanageable it would become. Students would simply start looking at their friends for answers, rather than using their own initiative and critical thinking. The more students in the group, the more it requires a type of self-discipline, self-directedness and capacity to follow instructions that is simply not cultural here. (I’ll talk more about “high context” culture later).

Maybe I could split the class into groups and repeat the lab multiple times, but this would be difficult too. The only way I could do this would be to kick half of the students out of the classroom for that day, and then switch the groups the next day. But I’ll need to find a place to put those students I’ve kicked out, and come up with some way of keeping them occupied. But I don’t trust my students to do anything unless I’m supervising them. And then with attendance so hit and miss, what about the students that miss the lab entirely?

And lastly, simply to do this lab for a day is not enough. On a good day, it would provide a temporary “ah ha” moment for my strong students, but even they need repetition and practice to make these numerical connections and relationships second nature for them.

What I really need is a lab that exercises decimal number sense that can be done individually, asynchronously, repetitively and requires minimal space and materials. And there needs to be an infinite number of “challenges” using the system that can be created on the fly in varying levels of difficulty that can be assigned as homework or used in an exam.

Any ideas?

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