Thursday, January 24, 2013

Quizzes, Cheat Sheets, and Theatrics

Carlton is an Algebra student of mine who I have a hard time imagining as an "at-risk teenager." He's bright, incredibly sweet, and has a good heart. If he wasn't enrolled at an alternative high school like mine, I would've never believed he lived a tough life or made really bad decisions from time to time.

Despite Carlton's past, he seems to have recommitted to school this year, although there are times when he will disappear off the face of the planet. His absence streaks last anywhere between two days to two weeks. When school resumed after winter break, I didn't see him for six consecutive school days. He wasn't traveling, nor was he in jail, he was just "buggin' out."

Carlton takes my class very seriously when he's present, and as a result, usually avoids eye contact with me when he returns from his disappearing acts. "Carlton! Heyyyyyyy mannnnnnnn, how's it... how's it going, buddy?" I ask with a gigantic smile. He knows I'm messing with him.

"Mista, stop playin'. I know, I know. Imma come by during tutoring, can you catch me up? I'm gonna feel mad lost, I know it." Carlton admits.

"Of course man, I'll be right here. And you should know, we have a quiz tomorrow."

"Nah, nah, you wylin' Mista. For real? Can I bring my binder home today to look through?"

I nod. Afterward, Carlton and I spent a good amount of time reviewing missed material. I'm always in awe of his ability to repeat statements I've made during class word-for-word. I knew he wasn't going to ace the quiz, but he was in a good enough position to pass. His memory allows him to fall behind days at a time and still catch up to a decent level. Some skills cater to bad habits.

The next day I reviewed some material just before the quiz. Carlton was quiet, taking notes. After the review, I instructed my students to put everything away except for a pencil and a calculator. I passed the quizzes out and could immediately hear pencils hitting paper and buttons being pushed on calculators. Music to my ears.

As I walked around the room, I noticed Carlton was sitting kind of awkwardly as he took his quiz. He seemed to be working on his quiz, but he was definitely hiding something. I pretended not to notice and made my rounds. Then out of nowhere, I circled back to Carlton. He was cheating.

On a half sheet of notebook paper, he had lightly written definitions of vocabulary words. All of a sudden, I felt very conflicted. Here's this student blatantly cheating (relatively) in my class. He should have to face some kind of consequence. Yet, a part of me didn't want to harm his effort. My students rarely cheat, and the ones that do are completely awful at it. They don't even make an effort to hide their wandering eyes. Carlton on the other hand, cares about his work. He cares about his quiz score. He cares about not getting caught.

I had to show Carlton that he couldn't pull this kind of shit in my class. I also had to do something to shock him, to show him that I got him, but that I also cared and would let him go this one time only. So, I snatched the piece of paper from his desk, crumpled it up, and ate it. Right in front of him.

I wish I had a camera to capture Carlton's face in that moment. He was dumbfounded. The rest of the class lost it.

"Yo, did that n**** just eat paper?"

"Deadass yo, motherfucka just caught Carlton cheatin' and ate his cheat sheet!"

"Mista, you crazy. You on some other shit."

In retrospect, I had no idea why I decided to eat Carlton's cheat sheet. However, what Carlton said next resonated with me, "Yo Mista, you coulda failed me, but you deadass just ate ma paper instead. I don't know how I feel bout that, but I know I ain't gonna cheat that way no more." Mission: accomplished.

When I think back to being a high school student, I don't remember daily lessons. Sure, I remember academic content, but that's also because I'm a dork. What I do remember most about school were the characters: the teachers and students who were a little off-center. Those people made coming to school enjoyable and most importantly, memorable.

It seems that in order to teach effectively at an inner-city alternative high school, one really does need an appreciation for theatrics.


Anonymous said...

It's even worse that you would write an "algebra" test so shallow that it could be answered using information that students could write on a "cheat sheet".

Testing vocabulary in a math class? Pathetic.

You're teaching down to your inner-city alternative high school students. I won't even get started with the class issues involved there.

Math is about problem solving: put problems on tests.

Yo Mista said...

@ Anonymous:
Thanks for your comment.

Sadly, you are assuming way too much about my Algebra content and curriculum from a tiny little blurb on a test. The point of this post wasn't about the material, it was about doing crazy things sometimes in crazy environments to "shock" our dull education system.

Also, math is not just about problem solving.

Thanks for the readership though ;)

nh said...

Mista! Your first negative/troll comment! I think this means you've made it to the big leagues:)

Anonymous said...

You're one of those amazing, crazy, cool teachers people NEVER forget. We need more of you in the public school system. This post was great.

Yo Mista said...

@ Anonymous:
Wow, thanks for your comment. I really appreciate it!

schmidt1090 said...


As someone who has worked with Mista! for several years, I can assure you, your comment couldn't be further off-base/misinformed. Let me count the ways.

1. Having a section that requires knowlege of vocabulary is basically a pre-requisite for any HS math class that is being taught/assessed properly in today's education culture. Literacy has become THE buzzword across content, and it isnt unusual in middle and HS to see literacy skills being taught explicitly (especially with populations of students that have fallen behind in content areas). In HS across the country from Stuyvesant to Faily-McSucksville High, vocabulary is always taught and assessed, intrinsically. An example: "What are the coefficients of 4x^3 + x^2 + 6X" is not an easy question in an algebra class, but it is much easier if I have a handy cheat sheet to help me remember what the heck coefficient is!

2. The "cheat sheet" the student had created wasn't even a good one, and the author pointed that out. It's still an attempt at cheating (a bad one, as the author pointed out) and given it's ineffectiveness, called for an act that called attention to the seriousness of cheating, but also allowed for the students to not feel "disrepected" by a dickwad teacher lecturing him yet again about what a waste of space he is, and stop wasting all of our time, and you need to get your act together, fingerwagging. It was a deft move to curb the cheating, diffuse tension, and let students know the teacher is not just sitting in the back playing sodoku while they cheat on a "quiz."

3. "You're teaching down to your inner-city alternative high school students. I won't even get started with the class issues involved there." Are you Mista's accountant? Or, more appropriately, his parents' accountant? Your assumption that he originates from a higher "class" level than his students show bias on your part, not his.

4. Step inside an alternative H.S., if you have not already, and tell me with a serious face that every student in every classroom is prepared to do work on par with what's going on at a top tier HS. They aren't (yet) and that's why they have ended up dropping out/incarcerated/tuning out and wound up at an alternative school in the first place. It isn't teaching down to them to make accomodations to their assessments and activities that help to catch them's called differentiation.

5. If your larger point is that Mista is a popmpous ass, you are dead-on correct.

6. Do you work in education? In an alternative school? What is your interest in a blog on this topic? Serious questions...

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of almost getting caught cheating on a high school test in physics once :)