From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul

A Lesson More Important than Math

That’s the point. It goes like this: Teaching is touching life.

Jaime Escalante

It was a hot, muggy day in mid-September in a bilingual classroom at Wilson Elementary. In spite of the heat, the room bustled with active, energetic second-graders. Over the duration of an hour, I observed a math lesson that gave me wisdom well beyond anything I could derive from mathematics. I was conducting research for my doctoral dissertation on the two-way bilingual education model. Mrs. Gamache, a dedicated, white bilingual teacher, was applying a kinesthetic experience-based method in teaching as she began a new math unit on sets and subsets. Our class comprised six students from Spanish-only families, six students from bilingual families and eleven students from English-only families.

Mateo, the class monitor for the week, turns over our blue Señor Pato language symbol at the front of the classroom. Now a red Mr. Duck reminds everyone that instruction has changed from Spanish for social studies to English for math.

On the whiteboard, Mrs. Gamache writes three potential subsets of the complete set of second-grade students in our class: kids wearing tennis shoes; kids who speak Chinese; kids who have brown eyes. She then asks the students to think of other possible subsets of the whole class set. The children call out their ideas as she writes them in red: “kids wearing black,” “kids with green eyes,” “kids who speak French,” “kids who are Mexican-American,” “kids wearing striped shirts.”

“That’s enough ideas for now,” Mrs. Gamache says. She writes the names of the three subsets she had initially introduced on three large sheets of chart paper. Then she invites the class to choose two of the subsets from their brainstormed ideas written on the board. As María calls out “Mexican-Americans,” and Martin chooses “striped shirts,” Mrs. Gamache creates two more charts, neatly printing their titles in big red letters at the top of each sheet. Then we tack up the five subset charts, strategically spacing them around the classroom.

It is time in the lesson to check students’ comprehension of the concepts. Mrs. Gamache walks over to the tennis-shoe chart and instructs the students.

“Raise your hand if you belong to the subset of kids in our class who are wearing tennis shoes.” A number of hands fly up.

“Why are you a member of this set, John?” asks Mrs. Gamache.

“I got black tennis shoes on,” John replies, lifting his recess-muddied foot above his desk.

“Yes, I see clearly that you are a member of the tennis-shoes subset.” She repeats her comprehension checks, moving around the classroom from one chart to the next, asking for children’s rationales for being members of each particular subset.

When she comes to the Mexican-American chart, she asks Marcela, “Why are you a member of this subset?”

Marcela responds, “Because my family has Indian blood.”

“Mine does, too,” Delia chimes in.

“My mom and dad were born in Mexico,” Daniela proudly volunteers.

Mrs. Gamache affirms their rationales for belonging to the Mexican-American subset, and she praises their “wonderful attention while learning the math concepts today!”

The lesson progresses. Mrs. Gamache directs the second-graders: “Now, go around the room and sign your name on the charts, but only if you are a member of the subset, only if you belong to that particular subset title on the chart. Do not sign your name if you are not a member of the subset. We’ll check the names on the charts at the end of the lesson to see if we all get right answers as members of our subsets. Then I will know if you all have learned our math concepts for the day: set, subset, member of a subset, empty set. Okay, I’m starting the timer. Take your pencil with you. Go!”

Twenty-three eager, noisy second-graders scramble in all directions to sign their names on the charts as members of subsets. The Chinese speaker chart remains blank. Toward the end of the chart-signing phase of the lesson, Mrs. Gamache and I exchange communicative smiles as we watch Clark join the long line of students waiting to write their names on the Mexican-American chart. He has light blond hair and bright blue eyes. He often and unabashedly expresses his self-confidence in becoming a Spanish speaker.

When the timer goes off, Mrs. Gamache directs the students to sit down at their desks and count the number of members in each subset. They enthusiastically count with her in chorus, anxious to see the results of their math lesson: fifteen students wearing tennis shoes; seven wearing striped shirts; zero who speak Chinese (ah ha, an empty set!); fifteen with brown eyes; seventeen Mexican-Americans.

Students who indicate they belong to the Mexican-American subset include seven students whose surnames and skin and hair coloring clearly indicate Mexican ancestry, seven students of blended ancestry who could easily “pass” for Anglos, and three Anglos whose heritage is clearly not Latino, none of whose parents are Spanish speakers. Mrs. Gamache, noting that the Mexican-American chart is the only list of names representing errors, offers an extension of the lesson.

“You know what? Students whose family members or ancestors have not come from Mexico are not really members of this subset. It’s great that you all are learning to read and write and speak Spanish, but of course that doesn’t make you a member of the subset of Mexican-American students in our class set of students, does it?”

Susan ventures a rationale for having written her name on the chart, saying, “I think I have a cousin who came from Mexico somewhere in the country. I have cousins all over the place!”

Clark timidly adds in an unusual-for-Clark quiet voice, “I really do think my mom’s aunt might be Mexican.” He looks up at Mrs. Gamache, eyebrows raised, arms out-streched and palms upturned, begging for a confirmation that he qualifies in some way to be in the Mexican-American subset. A second knowing smile is exchanged between Mrs. Gamache and me. Clark’s mother teaches fourth grade in the school, so we know her family beyond mere acquaintance. The third student in error remains silent, resigned to simply accept the correction as an unfortunate fact.

Through the lesson skillfully delivered by Mrs. Gamache, the students had clearly mastered the math concepts of sets, subsets and members. There were only three certain “errors” written on the subset charts. Why did such brilliant students portray inaccurate information on this singular chart designated as the Mexican-American subset?

This is the answer, the lesson I learned on that hot, muggy September day: The Anglo children wanted to belong to the Mexican-American subset. They wanted to identify with their Latino peers in the bilingual classroom, where the Spanish language and the Latino culture were valued and validated by an inspiring teacher every day. In short, the Anglo children desired to be in the cultural and linguistic group that held status in their classroom and in their school.

Children learn the lessons we teach them, but when we create the right conditions, they learn something much more important: how to love, respect and belong to each other.

Dr. Ellen G. Batt

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