Reflections on math minutes and test prep craziness

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Test preparation today sometimes steals from regular classes and long-established electives in the core curriculum. When I was teaching Spanish a couple of years ago, I was expected to steal 4+ minutes from each of my classes every day for “math minutes.” I passed out, timed and collected math minute worksheets daily. After a few weeks, I followed the lead of colleagues and did all the worksheets in one big 10-minute lump at the end of the week, saving paper-handling.

After a few weeks of picking up sheets obviously covered with wrong answers, I also sometimes dropped Spanish for long enough to explain how to do that day’s math before my students tackled their latest challenge. I ended up losing more than twenty minutes during those Friday classes, but that seemed preferable to passing out papers to be slaughtered by students who 1) did not know the math expected and 2) did not care.

A school secretary was tasked with keeping track of math minute compliance. In a school with more than 2,000 students, I can’t imagine how many total hours of work that represented. Every teacher had to do math minutes. Once each quarter, we also had to assign a five-paragraph argumentative English essay. The secretary called if papers were turned in late.

Five or six classes each giving essays adds up to a great deal of writing. Students whined, “I have to do this for art, math, chemistry and history, too!” Resentment was high. Substandard efforts were common. Some essays were hand-slopped together in disconnected prose, filled with non sequiturs and fascinating logical leaps. Should we allow illegal immigrants to settle here? No, I discovered, because they will use up all the food and water.

Well, that would be bad, that’s for sure, I thought. Fortunately, I did not have to grade the essays, although I was supposed to correct them, looking for problems in grammar and structure. Sometimes I hardly knew where to start. Thirsty folks, those immigrants.

Was the net effect of student palpable ill-will and lack of effort worth the results? Math practice and essay writing are beneficial to students, so administrators could easily justify extra practice time in these areas. What got forgotten or ignored in the process, though, was the opportunity cost, the material never taught in Spanish, history, music or ceramics, material taken away from classes that didn’t directly address future test needs, especially when so little productive effort was put into some of the actual math minutes and essays themselves.

In exchange for that opportunity cost, we probably did gain points in math testing. I am not sure we gained points in English. I read through too much massacred English that had been used to sculpt a stunning lack of critical thinking. The kids knew they had to do the essay. That poor secretary was checking. They also knew that their essay did not count toward in their Spanish grade.

Eduhonesty: Do you have math minutes, essays or their equivalent to do? This is my advice for you: Try to make those minutes count. If you have to drop what you are doing to teach math or English, do what you have to do. In the end, we only have our students for a short time. We don’t want to waste their time. I kept trying to get back to Spanish. If I had my minutes and essays to do over, I might have taught more math. I would have let the English go. I can teach English, but I doubt I could have convinced those students to care about their essays when they were simultaneously writing five of them for no grade.

But I let my students wing the math minutes too many times. Those minutes tested discrete topics that were teachable. If they had to do the work, they should have received the instruction necessary for success from the start. I could have managed that with my initial math minutes.