Room A-142

Tricia Colclaser’s second-period Algebra II class (which, mysteriously, takes place first thing in the morning) is what many students call “regular math.” It’s not honors, not International Baccalaureate or Advanced Placement. It's not taken by tweens whose math skills are racing ahead of their hormones.

In the rush to push math faster, sooner, most of the citizens of Room A-142 are juniors who took Algebra I in freshman year. Some are sophomores. But most are on the old-fashioned timeline, the one I was on 15 years ago.

This is not a class about making numbers talk or philosophizing about the properties of zero. We are plodding through what Fairfax County and the Commonwealth of Virginia consider the fundamentals of second-year algebra. So far, a lot of our time has been spent reviewing material from first-year algebra. Still, the pace moves quickly and we see new concepts each class.

Algebra II looks different depending on the school system or state in which you happen to be plotting ordered pairs. Standards vary widely and are in flux these days. And, of course, a teacher's math smarts and approach can make a huge difference in whether the stuff is meaningful or not.

Colclaser’s job is to give her students enough math to keep them going and to get them to the next class, such as pre-calculus or AP Statistics. Colclaser, 29, appeals to students with a high-octane energy and a sociable demeanor. She wears a Fairfax Rebels football jersey on home game days, and starts the Monday morning math conversation often by comparing NFL scores.

But she’s strict, too, promising no extra credit, and checking homework every class, taking note when students say they forgot or shrug it off.

In 80 minutes, her challenge is to somehow teach something new to every student, including those who quietly whiz through worksheets and those who need help at every step. There are the students who think it’s easy but don’t try, and those who try really hard, but find it’s difficult, and those who keep mixing up the x-and-y axis. (Okay, okay... that was me. But I think I’ve got it now.)

Then there’s the occasional kid in the back of the room who keeps falling asleep.

"I don’t try to convert everybody. I do like to make it interesting, and I like to keep up the momentum," she said. "I just want them to try their hardest."

A lot of the work happens after class, during a free period in which students past and present come with questions about homework or problems they missed on tests. As the pace of the class picks up, and with interim grades coming, the number who need extra help keeps climbing.

By Michael Alison Chandler  |  October 1, 2008; 6:00 AM ET  | Category:  Class Time
Previous: Wasn't Once Enough? | Next: Algebra for All: The Push for Higher Math


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