Back to the ground and up again: Math reeducation in an urban public school

Brian Webb, University of Rhode Island

Document Type Article


In response to news about very low test scores in math amongst 11th graders in Rhode Island, I designed a year-long tutoring and mentoring program for a small group of underperforming tenth grade boys beginning in September of 2008. Starting with concepts first introduced at the 1st grade level of math, I progressed systematically upwards through subsequent grade levels using concrete manipulatives while asking the question, “Why do we do it like this?” My justification for this approach is three-fold.

First, reacquainting the students with math concepts and operations at their most basic levels instills confidence in some of the young men, giving them an opportunity for early success and reminding them that they actually do know something about math.

Secondly, by starting at the beginning and systematically progressing forward, each of the young men has an opportunity to identify his particular learning gaps and subsequently address them with me. In math, knowledge builds upon itself, and fundamental learning gaps make mastery of higher operations like those in algebra and geometry nearly impossible, as many of the boys I work with are discovering.

Thirdly, the use of concrete manipulatives gives meaning to the seemingly random algorithms the boys have been performing without context or success for the past 10 years. For instance, adding two 2-digit numbers sometimes requires the “carrying” of a one to the tens column. But what does this really mean to them? Through the use of counting blocks and dialogue, I am able to provide a visual analog for the “carrying algorithm” the boys have been performing robotically. It is as if I am letting them in on a secret, and that knowledge feels special.

The mentoring aspect is a key component to the success of my program. While the tutoring focuses on skill development, the mentoring builds personal character in a manner that allows academic capacities to unfold. In reflecting on my project I argue that actively blurring the lines between mentoring and tutoring augments a very specific teaching style. That teaching style enables one to react and adapt to spontaneous occurrences within the planned curriculum, which in turn heightens the ability of the teacher to illustrate the relevance of the lesson to an individual student’s learning.