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A City Education: Forget Basketball, It's Time for 'March Mathness'

Only 15 percent of students at Los Angeles' Markham Middle School are proficient in math.

In our A City Education series, two City Year corps members share their experiences working as tutors and mentors in schools in hopes of closing the achievement gap and ending the dropout crisis.

"I hate math!" "Why do we have to do this?" These are common complaints I hear in the math classroom I work in at Markham Middle School in Los Angeles. I sympathize with my students—I remember crying in frustration over math. But ready or not, every student in the state will take the California Standardized Test next month, which helps determine what classes they take next year and generates federal funding for Markham—and they must be prepared for the math section.

Being prepared won’t come easy: Only 15 percent of students at Markham score "proficient" or above in math, while the rest are "basic" and below. I explain to the students that I overcame math anxiety and made it to college. But positive motivation only goes so far—the kids also need intensive work on their math skills. It can be hard for one teacher to reach every student in class every day, so small-group tutoring at City Year provides crucial support. That means my team at Markham has been busy working, both one-on-one and in small groups, on math concepts with the 85 percent who are not proficient

My teammate Tessa introduced her students to a month of "March Mathness", a play on the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament, to review what they’ve learned this year. At the beginning of March Mathness, all of her students took a diagnostic exam in which each question focused on a sixth-grade math standard. Tessa colored in a square next to each student’s name on a large poster if they could demonstrate proficiency in the standard by providing the correct answer to the corresponding problem. She then placed students into small groups that corresponded to the standard they need to master, which allows them to receive individual attention.

One student in particular, Matt, has a hard time focusing in class and has had trouble finding the "greatest common factor" on math problems. Tessa knows he has the aptitude to do well, but he needs a learning environment that's tailored to his needs. So this month, Tessa has been working closely with Matt, going over numerous practice problems and giving him individualized instruction on the concept.

Tessa is there every step of the way, looking over Matt's shoulder, as he works out the problems. Tessa and Matt review every problem he gets wrong so he doesn't make similar mistakes again. Thanks to her efforts, we recently heard Matt say with pride, "I finally get it!"

Indeed, Matt has improved significantly, colored in plenty of standard boxes next to his name, and told Tessa that he's "one step closer to doing well on the CST." Tessa reminds him that scoring well on the test is important, but his bigger goal should be developing the confidence to take more math classes.

I also try to boost my students' morale by doing little things that make them laugh—after all, they can only hear about my own math anxiety so many times. I made a paper puppet called the Math Monster that attacks kid's desks when they're not doing their work. If a student needs help, the Math Monster will stay at her desk. The students know math is as challenging for me as it is for them, so I make a good role model, showing that I will won’t give up until they understand.

And now because Matt will survive Tessa's "March Mathness," my Math Monster won't creep up on him in the future. When Matt and my students get to factoring polynomials in high school, they'll see those sixth-grade math concepts as a first step to solving those problems and will understand they have meaning beyond the CST.

Photo courtesy of City Year Los Angeles

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