Kayla took her final exam today in math. She took a 7th grade math final and got a grade of 76% on it.
Looking back three years ago to when I was asked to work with her in the beginning of 6th grade, I am grateful to be able to share this day with her. The first half of sixth grade, I banged my head against the wall trying to "catch her up" to the rest of the class. I went head to head then with the principal and asked for permission to pull this child off this curriculum and teach her separately from the class. I promised that if I did that, I would be there for her every day (ok, some days I traveled, but for the most part) and stick with it until she graduated or was able to be integrated.
Half way through sixth grade, I pulled her out and put her into a 3rd grade book of a totally different curriculum. She struggled, but kept trying. We went back to the basics... learning to add. For an hour and a half every day we struggled on through the simplest basics. Some days she got it. Some days she forgot everything she knew.
Last year we did a fifth grade book. Skipping up two years, we slogged through word problems, fractions, measurements, and found some delight in geometry. There were still many tears and never a test mark higher than 71%. But that second year was a milestone in another way. She lost her fear of math and began to believe that she could do it. I told her honestly that I don't believe she should chose a career in math like accounting, but that she will be perfectly capable of managing life normally with the skills she is learning.
This year, I took a risk and started the now eighth grader on a seventh grade curriculum. There is a big jump from fifth grade to seventh. She buckled down and began to learn. I took away her calculator for the first part of the year and made her slog through long division one more time. In fifth grade, she had learned fractions with the help of a scientific calculator. The focus then was simply on "how to enter the right numbers and get a right answer". When I saw how well she was grasping concepts this year, I took the calculator away for a few months and said, "You are doing well enough now to be able to understand how this works." And she did. I gave it back when we got to calculating interest again.
The assistant principal looked in on us once this year and said, "She has really overcome her emotional disability in math." That is true, and I am proud of her.
The last half of the year, she began to really believe in herself. A test score of 87% got her thinking, "I could maybe get a 100% once in my life." I backed her up. I taught her test taking skills, reasoning skills, double checking skills. I encouraged her. We practiced for tests. I showed her the test the day before, "see, this looks just like the review sheet you just did well on. It is nothing to be scared of." We reduced her anxiety. Her grades crept up. 92%, 97% Then came the day when she got 99%. She looked at that grade and groaned... she had got the last question wrong. I think she was hurrying because she was excited. She begged, "What if you give it back to me and let me try that last one again - don't tell me anything about it, just let me try?" So I did. And she got her first 100%. I'm not sure who was more proud - her or me!
She went on to get three in a row. Test after test going back home with a big red 100% marked across the top. She still needed tutoring and she will never be strong in math, but she was proving them all wrong. This kid could learn!
We did a big review over the last weeks, and she was taking her final test (which I wisely did not tell her was a final test but simply said, 'hey why don't you finish this last review sheet and then we'll move on". Big things like "final exam" would still paralyze her brain.). I watched her do well on the first half and was thrilled, but she did not finish that day. Looking back, I wish I had pulled her out of a few classes that afternoon to finish. They had a week off for a end of year trip, and she came back today to finish it up. A week later with no review right under her belt, and she made some mistakes she might not have made if she had been more prepared, but she still finished it with a mark of 76%. I suspect her final term mark will be around 85% and her year total will be around 75%.
That is a victory worth celebrating. Through three years, we've also developed a relationship, and I've spent a lot of time this year simply teaching critical thinking and preparing her for high school. I won't have her anymore, but I will still be in town. I will see her at church. I told her to call me if she gets stuck again. I'll still help when I can.
But today watching her smile as she remembers her math and works through the problems, I am reminded how much it matters not only what we teach, but how we teach it. Kayla's situation was the result of a child with learning disabilities caught in the middle between a strong parent who thought one course of action was best and a strong principal who thought another was best. Neither was willing to back down. The principal said that if the parent will not admit the child and her siblings have learning disabilities, then he won't do anything to help, and eventually the parent will be forced to see that he (the principal) was right. Great plan and it would have worked, but where was Kayla's best interest in it all? Is she just the guinea pig used to prove a point?! That was when my irritation with the matter grew to outrage and I took her on as a permanent one on one tutor.
I was nervous. I am not a teacher. I have no training in learning disabilities. I am not really that strong in math, although I do enjoy it. Math was my weakest subject on my SATs. But I had a fighting passion that this one child not be thrown to the side in a showdown between two very strong adult personalities. I was deeply concerned about the future of a child with poor logic skills who would go into high school thinking she was a failure. What would she turn to to fill that void in her that says, "you're stupid and can't do things"?
So we learned together.
And when the assistant principal said this year that it was good to see her get over her emotional handicap, the fear of math, I was irritated again. Our principal is trained in a high level of at least one way of working with kids with learning disabilities. He had all the skills to help, and he had worked with her for a few years. And she ended up with an emotional handicap.... after all that help, all she knew was that she could not do it. I think the problem was in the how not in the what he was teaching her.
She needed someone to believe in her. She didn't need to be scolded one more time. She didn't need to be asked complicated questions.
Our school has a firm belief that you should teach kids the "why" behind math. That they should thoroughly understand what is happening when you multiply or why 2/3 plus 1/2 works out to what it does. That works ok for smarter kids, but it is baffling at times. Math problems are presented a varying number of ways and the kids are to understand what was going on.
I dropped all that with Kayla. I told her my goal is that she learns to get the right answer. I couldn't care less if she understands the concepts, but that she learns to know what is being asked and what she needs to do to get the right answer.
I challenged the principal to give me this one child, who is obviously not going to survive the way things are, and let me teach her with a whole different theory. Let me teach her "how". How to do the math. Then let's see if later on if she begins to catch some of the "why". He shook his head because that is against his theory, but allowed me since "she's not learning anything anyway". She proved this year that it worked. She did understand some of the concepts once she had repeatedly been doing the problems.
But most of all today as she finished her final exam, I am proud of her. She made it from 3rd grade getting Ds to 7th grade getting As and Bs in two and a half years. That is an accomplishment! I am proud of her for sticking with it and struggling through. It is quite a commitment to ask a child to work hard on math for one and a half hours every day one on one. Just the focus needed for that is rough. She did it. She'll walk across the stage in a few days to graduate from 8th grade with her head high. She knows she has struggles in some things, but she also knows that she can overcome those struggles and she can succeed. I'll be in tears when she gets her diploma. We've come a long ways together and I've grown to love this child turning into adult.