Saturday, February 25, 2006


shouts Mark, a musician in the Air Force, as I enter the classroom. And so begins my Thursday night pre-algebra class. Pre-algebra includes topics that most people learn in junior high, but at our college it draws fifteen hundred students each semester. Nobody takes this class for fun; they take it to move beyond their current life situation.

Miranda is a fifty-year-old mother of four who is tired of doing manual labor for a living. She wills herself to stay awake for our three hour night class.

Jeff hasn’t taken a class in twenty-three years, but he’s tackling this now because he wants a pay raise at his job as a machinist. The next step up for him requires an associates degree.

Maria wants to go into nursing. She sits by herself on the right side of the classroom, works diligently and isn’t afraid to shout out ‘Stop!’ when she can’t follow one of my steps on the board. She also keeps the time for us – letting me know when break should be and how much longer until class is over.

Ronelle, a strikingly sincere man, never finished high school. He spent his youth in all of the wrong places – and has the tattoos to show for it – but now he’s turning his life around.

Hadji is one of my many students from Somalia. He’s clearly had a good education, but he struggles to remember all of the intricacies of factoring, order of operations and how to work with negative numbers.

Cuizon is from the Philippines, where he claims to have taken Calculus. He’s forever trying to solve more complicated problems than the ones we do in class, but he still sometimes confuses equations with expressions.

Tozi just joined our class last week and I haven’t learned much about her except that she has a beautiful accent and completes her work without difficulty, sometimes even helping Jeff with his.

When I get to the front of the classroom I shout back:
“What’s 2 raised to the zero power?”
“One!” they respond.
“What’s 20 divided by 0?”
“What’s the area of a rectangle?”
“Length times width!”
…and so we go for several minutes. I’m actually astonished at their memories.

Last week we learned about negative numbers and order of operations. This week we introduced polynomials. You know the kind: two x-squared plus six x minus three, for example. “Let me solve it! Let me find the value of x!” Cuizon shouts from the third row. "We can’t solve it," I explain, "it’s not equal to anything; it's just an expression."

“Well, what IS x?” Ronelle wants to know. "Think of x as a place holder," I tell him. "For example, you know that you will earn $10 for every hour that you work. Your formula for how much money you make is $10 times x, where x is how many hours you work. The formula works for any number of hours that you plug into x."

Ronelle was skeptical about this explanation, but he conceded that it made sense. “By the end of the semester will you please tell us how to figure out what x is?”

As the evening progressed we solved more problems and learned new techniques for working with polynomials. At one point Maria crossed the room to give Ronelle a note card to help him remember sign changes when multiplying negative numbers. Then later when I wrote problems on the board, the students clamored to be selected to solve one in front of the class. And whenever someone would make a mistake Mark would give them a friendly correction-yell, "Remember buddy, a negative times a negative is a positive!"

Prealgebra is not a class most professors sign up for, but it's one the new guy inevitably has to teach.

I've discovered that with its incurably persevering, charming and eclectic students it's one of my absolute favorites.

Just wait till we learn fractions!

*all names have been changed

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