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Students Teaching Students in Everyday Algebra

AlgebraThese days in the Everyday Algebra class at State High, students wrestling with a problem can always count on someone knowing how they feel.


That’s because the daily intervention course for academically at-risk ninth-graders, formally titled College Prep Algebra I A/B, frequently uses former class students as teaching assistants. They know what it’s like to struggle with confidence, to try to grasp new material, to muster the nerve to raise a hand. Their empathy often means the difference between a light going on and someone staying in the dark.


“Some kids struggle with asking for help, so when kids are just open to asking me, it means something,” said sophomore Liz Link, a TA who took the class last year. “It feels like they’re comfortable with you. They know that someone is able to help them. We can understand what they’re going through.”


In exchange for academic credit, seven Everyday Algebra TAs this year are fulfilling various supportive roles, from assisting with preparing resources such as flash cards to addressing questions during class as needed. Math teacher Shawna Mukavetz, part of the course’s teaching team, said the TAs allow her and her colleagues to provide more one-on-one instruction without sacrificing other students’ learning — part of the district’s commitment to equity and inclusion in its schools.


“What we found is that it really gives us more flexibility during the lessons,” Mukavetz said. “There are times when a student is having a bad day and they just really need the teacher’s help by their side the whole time. On a day like that, if the teacher just sat down and gave that kid what they needed, then a lot of other kids who just had small questions, those wouldn’t be addressed. And so, by having the TAs in the room, they can run around and answer those questions and we can sit down with the kid who just needs a lot of support that day. It really frees us up.”


Circulating TAs often see subtle requests for help — a raised head, a glance — that teachers focused elsewhere may miss. That could be critical for a frustrated student who might become more discouraged while waiting for assistance, Mukavetz said.


Algebra“They would have time in their heads to tell themselves they’re not good at math and then they spiral,” she said. “Whereas a TA comes over and says, ‘You just did this,’ and they say, ‘Oh,’ and they’re back in the game.”


Eleventh-grader Dontae Allen enjoys having that impact in his former class because he sees himself when he coaches a student through a problem.


“When I was in Everyday Algebra in the ninth grade, I struggled a lot, so I feel like if I try to help these kids understand it better, it gives them an opportunity to succeed,” he said.


Fellow TA and 11th-grader Todd Ellis also recalls having difficulty with algebra, though in a different class, an experience that’s proving useful now for him and other assistants with similar pasts.


“I feel it’s easier for us to figure out some of the issues students may have because we’ve been here,” Ellis said. “We know what mistakes can easily be made.”


In fact, Mukavetz said, the Everyday Algebra program intentionally recruits former class students to be TAs because they tend to relate better to difficulties with math than peers at advanced levels. She has nothing but praise for her assistants’ professionalism.


“It’s hard to be a student and talk to other students and not get sucked into gossip or joking around or being off-task, and they do a really good job of maintaining contact with the kids,” she said. “It’s been so fun watching them work with the students.”


AlgebraShe also has relished seeing how being a TA has turned around some students’ academic performance and even their lives. It makes her think of one of Everyday Algebra colleague Lisa Turner’s favorite quotes: “Esteemable acts build self-esteem.”


“When we give kids a job, when we give them responsibility, you’re basically saying to them, ‘I trust you to do this,” and then they rise to that,” Mukavetz said. “That’s what builds their self-esteem.”


Besides the satisfaction of helping peers, being on the other side of the classroom has given Allen, Ellis and Link a greater appreciation for teaching’s challenges — patience, for instance — as well as its rewards.


“I know some kids don’t like asking for help from other students because it can be embarrassing,” Link said. “There are some kids who have started out like that, who wouldn’t even look up from their computer to ask a teacher for help, and now they’re asking TAs for help. It’s a really big milestone to see them improving.”


By Chris Rosenblum

Photos by Nabil K. Mark