Conversations on the Rifle Range 2: Negative Numbers, Back-to-School Night, a Tattooed Man and a Mysterious Stranger

Barry Garelick:

Barry Garelick, who wrote various letters under the name Huck Finn and which were published here is at work writing what will become “Conversations on the Rifle Range”. This will be a documentation of his experiences teaching math as a long-term substitute. OILF proudly presents episode number two:

My back-to-school night was held on a Thursday evening during the first full week of school. Like most back-to-school nights, it was designed to give parents a peek at what goes on in their child’s school-day. And like most back-to-school nights that I’ve been to, parents shuffled from class to class, following their child’s schedule with somnambulistic fervor—each class lasting 10 minutes.

Of course, it wasn’t an exact replica of a school day: the school used block schedules, with hour and fifty minute classes and odd and even-period classes alternating every other day. I had three classes held during second, fourth and sixth periods—which meant that I taught every other day.

This was my first ever back-to-school night as a teacher. Parents from my three classes showed up, though attendance was fairly sparse. I assured all that I was certified to teach math, and that I would follow the teacher’s lessons and grading procedures. I had a list of topics that I would be teaching in my algebra classes and pointed to them. People nodded vaguely. I then said “I teach by providing instruction, worked examples, and lots of problems.” People nodded vaguely again. So far so good.

I was teaching the two-year sequence of Algebra 1. It is designed for students who are having difficulty in math. My high school, being very small, only offered the 2-year sequence. Students, who for whatever reason did not take Algebra 1 in 8th grade, unless they went to summer school, were therefore stuck with the two–year sequence of algebra, regardless of their ability to handle the one-year course in 9th grade. Two of my classes were the first year of the two-year sequence, and one was the second year.

I was most curious about the parents who showed up for my sixth period class “first year” algebra 1 class) since the students in that class were the most difficult. Out of 25 students, perhaps four were actually intent on learning anything. In fact the parents of a girl named Laura—one of the good students—showed up. She had two sets of parents. Her biological father was there; he bore tattoos on his neck including one of a poorly drawn heart with a number inside it. The step-dad and mother were there as well, along with Laura’s little sister—everyone but my student. And then there was a man who arrived late and sat in the back, looking somehow familiar, with a bored look on his face, slouched at a desk.

Part I: Not your mother’s algebra 1 & the guy who really knows.