A Mosaic In Progress

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 30 2013

Dear Stanford

Dear Admissions Officer at Stanford University -

I noticed that in this year’s application to the Graduate School of Business you ask, “What matters to you most?” It’s a hard question for me to answer but I would like to address the question on behalf of one of my students, TS. He is a 7th grader from a small town called Vanndale. I admit that he loves to share about his latest kill after hunting over the weekend like any other student. However, he isn’t shy about revealing something important to him … setting foot on your famous campus.

One of the first projects in Math was to create and administer a survey to their peers to propose a strategy for how to make the math classroom successful and enjoyable at the same time. I thought this project would be limited in scope – just e-mail a survey around and ask a few students to gather some data. Instead, I started getting projects with student interviews from the neighboring elementary school and spreadsheet data with colorful charts that had over 60 responses! I was pretty mysterious on who the guest judges would be right up until the end. The reactions were generally subdued when I finally revealed who my judges would be – three friends who graduated from Harvard, Northwestern, and Stanford. I guess candy had to be the primary incentive.

TS was the only student with a different reaction. His eyes lit up as he asked, “Mr. L, you mean to tell me that our presentation will be looked at by someone from Harvard and then someone from Stanford?” I nodded my head. He quickly added, “Will I be able to get to Stanford from this?” This was a question I dodged at the time by saying, “Well, he is a graduate and not someone in charge of admissions but be encouraged that if you receive positive comments that it’s coming from someone who knows what it takes to get in!” You should’ve seen his reaction when his group won. His arms shot up in the air with a huge satisfying yell of celebration! It was all because of his presentation abilities and analytical thinking. His skills in reading and writing could always improve but he chose to be among great students to make up for it.

The next few months went by with a multitude of word problems, assignments, tests, quizzes, etc. and he remained diligent but I was worried that the focus he had was lost. Then one day he politely raises his hand asking if he could ask me a question in private. TS asks, “When are we ever going to use this stuff in the real world?” Instead of trying to give words of what I believed a Sue Lehmann finalist would give, I trusted him enough to be honest. “Some of this you need for 8th grade math. Some for Algebra I and II. Some for college. Admittedly, a small percentage of what I’m teaching you is stupid and you won’t use at your job at all. However, sometimes these problems are just there to teach you how to persevere.”

I applauded his courage to ask such a question and I think he took it to heart because I never saw such passion and bravado from someone who is trying to solve for x. Suddenly, I would have to tell him to stop yelling out things like, “NO IT’S NOT 9! YOU HAVE TO SUBTRACT BEFORE DIVIDING!” and “LOOK THREE HENS CAN LAY FOUR EGGS IN FIVE DAYS … HOW COULD TWELVE HENS LAY SO FEW EGGS IN THAT AMOUNT OF TIME?!”¬†And I’m not sure what happened after spring break but he suddenly became the “cookie monster” of equations. “MORE PROBLEMS! GIVE ME PROBLEMS NOW!!” if you could just imagine such a thing could be said in Math.

On Thursday, I had my students separate themselves based on how confident they felt in their math abilities. The highest level was actually reserved for 8th grade Math. I expected to see many of my students hover around the lower levels but I got the opposite effect. In fact, TS and another student rallied a group of ten to systematically solve every single equation. He managed to assign roles to students – there were those who could calculate, those who readily provided materials, etc. Instead of multiple little conversations, there was only one voice … the “cookie monster”.

After congratulating him, he decides to verify that what he was solving was being taught in 8th grade. Indeed, it was. We moved on to Science together and the class went by as usual. Towards the end, he asks me a second time about whether or not we were actually doing 8th grade math. In jest, I tell him, “I could give you 10th and 11th grade problems if you really want.” Normally, that’s when the conversation ends but he takes me up on my offer. I give him a problem on solving systems of equations on a slip of paper discreetly. He looks at it and tells me that he’s going to try and solve it in advisory. The next day I come to find out that he took the problem to Miss W, our Art teacher, and she begins teaching him how to do substitution (her math was quite good =). Now I start giving him a real-world situation where he had to guess the number of coins in my hand when only given a count and coin value. When TS arrives at an answer, he declares that he’s going to show it to the other math teachers as if to prove what he can do. And then he asks for another slip of paper …

Among his classmates, TS has such a clear direction of where he wants to go … and he’s only in 7th grade. Yet what irks me is that I receive the same question asking for my opinion on whether or not he can receive a college scholarship to your school but a part of me has to bite my lip. What matters to me most is that I have the opportunity to channel others to a world beyond what they know and connect them to people. TS has an insatiable appetite that your school can satisfy. I hope that he would get exposed to a new world … and I hope others will get the opportunity to meet this young 7th grader from rural Arkansas.

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    Midwesterner being thankful for every written experience … even when it hurts =)

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