"I actually kinda like math ellie helped", Michelle told me through a game of Hangman

“I actually kinda like math ellie helped”, Michelle told me through a game of incomplete Hangman

In the past month, I have been volunteering with Frontier College, working with their partner program at an elementary school in a less advantaged community in Toronto. Frontier College is a nationwide literacy organization that is dedicated to improve Canadian literacy rates, focusing on students in high needs areas. I’m working with 36 students in grades 1-5 in an after-school program, where I, along with the staff, ensure they have a balance on academic competencies, physical and creative activities. In a very short amount of time, I instilled in them passion for Math and French, and in return, these amazing kids inspired me to be better. (I changed all the names below.)

Be Rachel

I love Mathematics, and my goal as a future teacher is to help my students see why Math is fun. At the placement, the kids see me as the go-to Math tutor now, and they crowd around my table when they hit a roadblock with a number question. One Friday, Rachel, a grade 5 student, asked me to show her division. We went upstairs to the library, and while the 35 other students were in the computer lab playing online games (it’s a Friday), we found a quiet corner with pencils and papers. I asked if I could see her homework and she replied, “Oh, I don’t have any.” She just wanted to learn division from me before she learns it from her teacher next Monday.

Then I realized, here sits Rachel, the amazing proactive Rachel who wants to learn outside of the classroom. I started explaining the simple relationship between multiplication and division, and I made up questions off the top of my head. Rachel slowly saw the difference between solving simple division and long division. She especially loved it when I showed her the time-table tricks: Multiples of 10 add a 0, multiples of 11 just double the digit of the other number…

Students will love any subject if they can navigate through and make sense of it, especially Mathematics. When things start to click in their heads, they simply can’t get enough. Rachel stayed in the library with me for an hour, and asked me to give her more and more questions that ended up covering a few sheets of paper. She was genuinely delighted with every right answer, and tried and tried again with every wrong answer.

I went home that night motivated. Partly because I was able to engage a 10-year-old for an hour to learn division (talk about Mission Impossible). Partly because I saw Rachel’s progress in a short time. Partly because I got to know Rachel, the amazing proactive superstar. But mostly, Rachel showed me the best learning attitude: stay hungry. I’m studying for my GRE exam, and I sat down that night with a heightened hunger to do more, to learn more, to aim for a higher score.

From now on, when I ever want to procrastinate, I will remind myself to be more like Rachel.

Peel the Onion

Just before I think I am starting to know the students, they show me another side of themselves. The loud ones aren’t always troublemakers, the cocky ones aren’t always confident, and the quiet ones aren’t always shy. One thing they have in common, is that they are all interested in something. That something can be anything, but every student I work with is curious about something. And that curiosity creates a desire to learn.

Michelle, a tall grade 5 student, always steps on our toes and gets into trouble. She’s either too loud, too aggressive, too mean, you name it. But I walked by one time and I saw her sitting quietly writing equations on a piece of blank paper. I noticed she didn’t get all her answers correctly, so one day, I decided to bring flashcards to see if she would ever be interested. When she saw them, to my utter surprise, she lit up. We went through the deck three times. Each time Michelle got faster and faster, and along the way, I was showing her multiplication short-cuts and she got faster still.

After the third round, I was getting tired. I thought she would also be losing interest, but she said, “Again!” This girl who used to always run around the room and fist-fight with her friends, is actually sitting with me doing mental math with her fingers…. and having fun!

Danny, Michelle’s partner-in-crime, is double trouble. She walks around with her head tilted back, nose held high, and almost never smiles. When I first drew the cards out, she put her palm up and said immediately, “No I can’t do math. I’m not good at it.” But I knew it was only a self-perceived weakness. Michelle and I were having so much fun, she was eventually drawn in. Without having to ask, she started looking at the questions, and yelling out answers when Michelle got them wrong. More often than not, she was faster at the flashcards than Michelle.

Whether it is Michelle, Danny, or Rachel, every kid I work with have shown me their different layers, and how dynamic they can be when they are put in separate situations. They taught me to have a deeper understanding for people. Ability is not related to behavior or personality. It’s always easier to work with the “nice” kids, but every seed needs to be watered, and every potential needs to be nurtured. As leaders in learning, we always need to make the effort to peel the onion, and look past the top, often superficial, layers. Never assume the rowdy troublemaker will refuse to sit down with you to work on algebra. Every student wants to learn.

From my experience, if you are able to hand them even a small flashlight to help navigate through the jungle of a subject they’re struggling with – whether it being Math, Physics, or English – they will be engaged. Because young students are explorers. They have an immense curiosity, and if they feel they are stepping forward, they will continue to step forward.

A grade 3 student made me a Valentine's Day card during arts and crafts.

A grade 3 student made me a Valentine’s Day card during arts and crafts

It would be misleading to say that these students are benefiting more from me than I am from them. Every time when I walk into the room, despite the loudness and chaos and yelling and running, it is the warmest place I have been in a long time (not only because we have -30 degree weather in Toronto). I can’t remember the last time someone was so excited to see me as to run across the room to give me a hug, or tell me through a game of Hangman that I made a small difference, or downright impress me with their baking at such a young age. I can’t remember the last time I came home from work smiling, and it’s all because of these 36 students. Every single one of them.