September 13, 2005 Extra Credit
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September 13, 2005

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"When They Leave Here They Learn Algebra Is Fun"

No Child Left Behind places an emphasis on the importance of mathematics by requiring states to assess students in math yearly in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Starting in elementary school, children should be learning beginning concepts in algebra, geometry, measurement, statistics and logic. In addition, they should be learning how to solve problems by applying knowledge of math to new situations. They should be learning to think of themselves as mathematicians-able to reason mathematically and to communicate mathematical ideas through talking and writing. The following are excerpts from an article in yesterday’s Commercial Appeal (TN) highlighting an elementary school teacher in Memphis, Tennessee, who is teaching students to enjoy and excel in math:

"Algebra teacher Ophelia Slack is from the old school. She’s part of that old guard of ‘pull-up-those-socks-comb-that-head
-don’t-you-sass-me-you-better-yes-ma’am -me’ teachers who fanned out across the Civil Rights-era South and prepared African-American children for the realities of racism. The teachers who told their students: Little black boys and girls, people don’t think you have minds. Show them we know differently.

"So nowadays she watches with satisfaction as her 9- and 10-year-old Gordon Elementary School students whip through algebraic linear equations. Slack calls it sitting back in her glory.

"‘Somebody asked me once, ‘What makes you think you can do anything with these kids? Don’t nobody expect anything from them, why are you even trying?’‘ she said and then folded her arms across her chest. ‘Every child has a mind and can move beyond that. I’m trying to take them from x to y.’

"At Gordon Elementary in North Memphis, the ‘x’ factor equals a student body that is mostly black and two-thirds economically disadvantaged. … The ‘y’ factor equals 60 former students who all scored as advanced on the Gateway exam. Slack uses tiny numbered blocks and chess pieces to help her elementary students literally get in touch with math concepts.

"Red blocks equal positive numbers. Green blocks equal negative numbers. White chess pieces are negative x. Blue pieces are positive x. All the pieces are placed on laminated pictures of scales. To reach a solution both sides of the scales must balance.

"‘Once I eliminated the fear then they soared,’ she said. ‘People don’t like algebra, they think it’s hard. But when they leave here they learn algebra is fun. I love it, I could do it all day.’

"Ten-year-old Marterrius Massie’s appetite for complex math problems is insatiable. 3x-2 (-x + 4) = 2x +1. So x =3. No sweat. 2 (-x) + x+2 (-x+2)= x. Well then x must be 1. Child's play.

"Marterrius finished a worksheet of such problems in less than 10 minutes. He’s one of the school’s brightest math scholars and in fourth grade was moved to the fifth grade algebra class because ‘I was learning it too quick.’ When Slack slyly replaced a green block with a red one, Marterrius quickly piped up and said, ‘That’s supposed to be a positive.’

"‘I’m learning the things that I would have learned in seventh and eighth grade, so I’ll be ahead,’ Marterrius said."

The complete text of this article is available from the Commercial Appeal online archives for a fee.


About Extra Credit
NCLB Extra Credit is a regular look at the No Child Left Behind Act, President Bush's landmark education reform initiative passed with bipartisan support in Congress.

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Last Modified: 11/29/2006