"The Football Player who Could Not Read"

I work at a university. My job is to teach students enough algebra so that they can pass the ELM and Mathematics Competency requirements for a baccalaureate degree. The student population I work with is very diverse with just one common link Ė they are all what is not called "educationally disadvantaged." (I once had a woman who was so embarrassed to be in my class that she almost refused to attend. She had a Ph.D. from Wisconsin university but had never been required to take math. She was interested in taking graduate work, but found the ELM too difficult and so enrolled in my class.) What this means is that they are presumed to be intelligent enough to be enrolled at the university level, but lack the skills necessary to pass the Entry Level Math (ELM) requirement.

Many of my students are desperate. They have to pass the ELM or Mathematics Competency (Comp) in order to


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enroll normally. Since they cannot enroll, they must "crash" all their courses. This is getting to be very difficult. In addition, they must pass the Comp in order to graduate. Many of my students are ready to graduate except for passing the Comp.

A few years ago, I had a tall, striking, handsome black male in my class, who I later discovered was a star on the varsity football team. He was the leader of a clique that hung around him. His vocabulary was good and he seemed very interested during the first few classes. As with all of my students, he had scored less than 30% on the math diagnostic test and was required to attend my class to remain eligible for his scholarship.

After the first week of the semester, he started missing classes. When he did attend he seemed disinterested. When the midterm came, he failed. I have a very personal approach to teaching and tried to find out what his problem was. The normal lines of communication were not available; I was not able to approach him directly.

To put this in perspective, I need to give a little personal history. I did my student teaching at a high school in a predominately black community. I taught honors math and physics. I had a student with outstanding potential who ran my physics class. Everyone in the class took their cues from him. I tried a lot of tactics I had been taught in school, but they didnít work. In fact, I got a reprimand from the school principal who told me, "I donít care what you do in the class. Just keep those Ö. In your class from bell to bell so they donít tear up the school."

One day this student seemed very interested in class. Eventually he approached me and said he wanted to learn from me. I was overwhelmed. He asked me to show him the intricacies of chess. As the class was watching, I showed the moves and how the game was played. While I was amazing at their interest, they stole everything out of the physics lab.

This was a real learning experience for me. I have black friends and understand some of the difficulties they have in dealing with a white authority figure. When my friends



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have invited me to their homes, they have often had to justify my presence to some of their black friends. Even with an explanation, some of their friends refuse to accept my presence and leave shaking their heads. It is a difficult cultural problem.

Because of my experience, I could tell there was some additional pressure on the black football player in my academic skills class. I recognized the non-verbal warning signs that he gave off when I tried to discuss the situation in front of others. For that reason, I arranged to have all students who had failed a test meet me during my office hours.

Unfortunately, he didnít show. I waited until a day when the class was working on individual assignments and asked him in a low voice why he had failed to show. He was non-responsive. I felt he was ready to get up and leave. I then told him I would be in my office the next two hours and to try to come by.

He did come to my office. I closed the door and showed him his test, asking if he had any questions I could help he with. He said no. I then proceeded to ask a few needs assessment questions. What was his math background? What kind of problems seemed to cause him the most trouble? None of this worked. I then asked him why he was in my class. He told me it was required for his football eligibility. "If that is the case," I said, "why not work on the assignments and attend?" He said he didnít have the book but was evasive about his non-attendance. At the same time I felt he really wanted to be able to talk to me. There was a barrier that had to be crossed and I was looking for a way to cross it. Finally, I asked him if the clique that had attended with him the first few days were also football players. He said that most were. The fact that he was still sporadically attending meant to me that he wanted to learn. With this knowledge, I talked about how many skills it took to be a good football player. I said you are capable of learning enough algebra to pass the ELM and Comp, so why not give it a try?

We had broken the ice. Now came the problems. As a leader in his group (most of whom had dropped out of my class), he had difficulty coming to class. Worse, he


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couldnít buy the book and do the homework assignments based on it. I told him he could utilize the study hall copy of the book. I taught five sections that semester and told him he could come to any of them that was convenient (and be unseen by his friends). Now we were actually talking to each other.

I broke out the book and started personal tutoring. As long as the problems were numbers and operators, he seemed to do well. But it slowly dawned on me that he was waiting for me to tell him what the question was on the homework assignments. Finally, I turned to some straight word problems and asked him to work them. He became very agitated and I thought we had blown the small agreement we had come to. I asked him to read aloud a simple sentence requesting a percentage of a dollar amount. As I did this, I watch and realized he couldnít read.

I said, "Not to worry, Iím here to help. Here is how we are going to get around your lack of reading skills." He didnít deny my observation but instead asked, "How?" I have a sheet of key English words that translate directly into math symbols. He could learn algebra and I immediately reinforced that by showing him a few problems that he could do. Then I showed him how to circle the key words and put their math equivalent operators into an equation.

After that he came to different sections but at least twice a week. I game him special worksheets tailored to develop the math equations from word problems to work on. He came to my office hours a few more time, but at the end of the semester, he passed the ELM and Comp.

When I see him on campus he usually recognizes me, but never as "the math professor". Instead he will say something about me "being a good guy for a prof". We even "high-fived" once or twice.





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