Learning How to Live: a Math Class Experience

On Thursday of this past week I began walking from one little building on our rural property to the next in preparation for my Advanced Math class that would start once recess finished. The general energy level on our property was extremely high as we had all just gotten out of Bible study and prayer groups, and everyone was busy eating their mid-morning snack, playing a pick-up game of soccer in our front yard or tapping away some upbeat tune on one of several pianos in our bright purple school building.

I quietly but very purposefully began moving rather unusual objects into our simple rectangular classroom: a large wicker table from our house’s living room [our family’s simple cinderblock home lies about six paces from our high school building as our family life with our 8 foster children is very intertwined with our open-door ministry efforts to the local community], three wooden stools, several boxes of colored pencils, a large bucket of water, old rags, and a cup of detergent.

As I greeted and passed by different students and teachers on my way in and out of my classroom, I smiled big – not only because we daily practice the art of joyfully loving one another, but because on that particular day I knew something no one else did.

Abigail, one of our new students this year, a 13-year-old in our small 8th-grade class, eyed me with a twinkle in her eyes and said boldly, “Teacher! I think you’ve got something really fun planned for our math class today! …I mean, just look at that big grin you’re wearing on your face!” She wagged a silly finger at me, waiting eagerly for me to affirm her conclusion.

My eyebrows arched high and my eyes widened as my smile grew even bigger (if that was even possible). I answered, “Oh, Abigail, I always wear this grin on my face, despite the circumstances! So, really, you have no idea if I have something fun planned or not…” I shrugged my shoulders high as my smile remained intact, inciting her to question her teacher’s sanity (as she had probably already done on several prior occasions).

She suddenly looked perplexed and then, slightly worried, as she realized what I said was true. “Yeah, you are always smiling…” [Here at the Living Waters Ranch we like to say that our smile is our uniform. Whatever is happening – good, bad or ugly – we choose to receive and display the joy of the Lord.]

I made a tight squeeze through the doorway with the rather clunky wicker table pushed through on my hip as I glanced over my shoulder at her, “I love you so much, sweetheart! See you in five minutes when we enter class!”

Our rural neighborhood – and the country of Honduras as a whole – is known for devastatingly low educational standards. Overcrowded, underfunded government schools are required to pass all students automatically, and it is not uncommon for youth to spend years in the formal education system without having learned virtually anything. Many students graduate high school without knowing the times tables or basic grammar rules.

In my Advanced Math class that meets four hours each week, we are putting an end to educational corruption, to a system that enables students to pass on to the next level without having first mastered the level they’re at. We work on strengthening their generally weak math base with dynamic methods and then go onward with loads of mental math, complex problem sets and, of course, many hours of homework each week. I like to call my students ‘human calculators.’

And so, five minutes later when all 12 of my precious mathematicians came sweatily bounding into our unairconditioned classroom after recess, I walked to the front of the room and began the process of announcing that secret that had placed that unusually large grin on my face.

Our 12-year-old daughter Gleny, one of the youngest students in the mixed-grade homeschool-style class, saw the bucket of water near the door and made a strikingly accurate guess as she plopped down into her seat: “Oh no. Those of us who didn’t pass the exam are gonna have to wash the walls.”

I threw my head back and laughed freely while all 12 eyed me with dread. It was, after all, the last day of the first grading period, and they had taken their final exam the class prior. I would be announcing the news everyone was anxious to hear.

After a short lecture, I began writing their final grades on the white board as the suspense grew exponentially…

Only three students passed the class: one with flying colors and two by the skin of their teeth. The other nine missed the mark. Several had a final average of somewhere around 45%. [But I know something that they perhaps don’t: even those who earned a woeful percentage in my class have progressed mightily as they’ve learned more than many youth in local public institutions who pass with high grades.]

Without ever taking the large, sincere smile off my face, I ushered the three victors over to the wicker table at the other end of the classroom where I had snacks, encouraging hand-written celebratory notes, colored pencils and open-ended art projects for them to enjoy.

The faces of the other 9 dropped. I had warned them several days prior that they needed to put forth a great effort to study for the exam, because they surely wouldn’t like the consequences if they didn’t. Now they all knew that they were about to find out just what those consequences would be.

I asked them one by one how much time they had dedicated to prepare themselves for the final exam – which was worth half of their final grade. Their answers: one hour. Five minutes. Not at all.

I then glanced over at the victors and asked them how much time they had dedicated to study for the exam. Their answers: five hours. Seven hours.

My heart rejoiced as I reminded my students – the best and brightest in our homeschool program – that, in real life (as in our class) consequences always line up with decisions. You reap what you sow.

And that is why I was so giddy. In our world – and especially in this Central American country where we live – so often the consequences experienced in this life do not line up with choices. The lesson of ‘you reap what you sow’ is so easily lost when the murderers and the liars seem to be getting ahead and the ones who dare to act justly get killed. Here there is very little trust in just consequences due to an unresponsive, corrupt justice system. Whereas the lesson of ‘you steal or kill, you go to jail’ should be present in everyone’s minds, here there is no such thought impeding evil deeds. Here, you steal or kill and you can just keep on doing so for many years to come because generally the police do not respond as they should and/or are paid off by evil gang lords.

In other schools, students can put forth a sub-par effort and receive grand certificates and diplomas. Lies are everywhere, especially in the Honduran educational system. A dear neighbor of ours will be graduating from the local public high school soon, and he’s renowned as a very good student, but his grammar is that of a very young child and he has yet to learn the times tables.

And so on Thursday my heart rejoiced, because I knew that my beloved students would learn an invaluable lesson. Several of the 9 students who did not pass – three of our daughters included in the mix – had never before experienced such academic failure. Perhaps they were finally in a class that could not be passed with a nominal effort.

With the three who passed the class joyfully working on art projects in the far corner of the room, I then began filling the board with the ‘recuperation’ requirements. ‘Recuperation’ is a mandatory process in Honduras that is designed to ensure that all students pass, something which we are not in agreement with but is a process we are required to do. Whereas in most schools the failing students simply show up the next day to take the same exam again (several times if necessary), a false grade assigned if even so they never manage to pass the make-up test(s), we have a new technique: assign physical jobs and heavy homework loads as recuperation. If they do not complete the task with excellence, the failing grade remains the same.

Basically, you have to work if you want to pass (what a novel concept).

Recuperation to be turned in next week: 1.) Write the entire 4-page exam all over again, by hand, and complete it with excellence. 2.) 20 additional problem sets (each of which takes over 20 minutes to complete if done quickly) done with excellence. 3.) Wash the walls of our classroom today; wash those of the other math classroom tomorrow during recess. 4.) Receive a ‘strike.’ (Three strikes and you go to after-school detention, which lowers your overall GPA and is 2+ hours of physical labor under the sun). 5.) Write a half-page reflection about what you’ve learned.

My precious Gleny sighed deeply as she read the board – she had been right about washing the walls. Abigail, the one who had seen the wicker table and the colored pencils and optimistically guessed that the fun activity would be for everyone, eyed me with a little smile on her face as she began copying in her notebook the long list of recuperation requirements.

I went around the room, giving loving pats on the back and words of encouragement in the midst of total emotional devastation for those who did not put forth the necessary effort to pass the class. One of our new students, a 14-year-old boy, eyed me angrily as I blurted, “You know, I really like you! Even if you don’t like me, I really like you! You are gonna do a great job with the recuperation!” I gave him a hearty pat on the back and threw out a joke or two to lighten the overall mood among those poor souls who would soon be drowning in make-up homework.

That blessed day the students worked two at a time sudsing down the bright purple classroom walls while the others worked with pencil in hand to begin the long recuperation process, which would then be finished during their own time over the weekend. I sat at that delightful wicker table with the three who had worked their butts off to earn the prize. We drew. We colored. We chit-chatted. They divvied up the bag of snacks and read the hand-written notes I had left for them. It was great!

The following day I fulfilled my word to the 9, rounding them up during recess to finish the wall-washing job in the other math classroom. Teens on hands and knees, towels and rags in hand, soap and water everywhere, while less mature students from other classes passed by, observing the unusual process. After all, the ones washing the walls are the best students! They aren’t normally the ones who are assigned such consequences! What on earth had happened?

So we thank God, because this process of connecting hard work with rewards (and sub-par work with displeasing consequences) is not something that happens only in my classroom, but rather it is a team effort among those of us who serve, teach and disciple at the Living Waters Ranch. Several local Hondurans who have visited our mission (and those who now labor alongside of us) have commented that we “teach people how to live.” In a world devoid of love, we love abundantly because God first loved us. In a world devoid of truth, we proclaim it boldly. In a world where everyone is busy destroying one another and themselves, we go about quietly picking up the pieces, rescuing the lost and indicating the Way. In a world of confusion, of consequences that don’t correspond with actions – truth paid with murder; corruption paid with great wealth – here on this little piece of land we take very seriously the process of carefully forming those who come to us, of teaching them to live in the light of Christ, to take responsibility for their actions and, ultimately, to stand before the throne of the just Judge and give account for their every action, thought and decision.

The following day, my permanent smile fixed in its place, a 17-year-old young man who is new to our school this year found me during lunchtime and extended his hand. I instinctively reached mine out to receive his, although the lunchtime hand-shaking gesture seemed a bit odd. I tilted my head and looked at him as he began: “I just wanted to thank you for what happened yesterday.”

I felt confused. He was one of the ones who had not passed the class and who would now be working his butt off all weekend. What good could have possibly happened to him yesterday? “Y-yester-? Wha-?”

He continued: “For the math class recuperation. It is fair. I really appreciate that Jackeline [one of our daughters who is in the class] earned a 69 average, but even so you didn’t bump her grade up to 70. In other schools around here they would just give everyone a passing grade, but here the teachers are really interested in making sure that we learn. I’m gonna make sure that in this next marking period I work a whole lot harder to make sure I pass.” His smile was genuine, and his wisdom striking. He gets it!

My jaw was dangling somewhere down around my ankles as I sputtered, “ Oh, yeah, uh – great! Of course! We are so proud of you…” And he was off, getting ready for his after-school agriculture class with Erick. Wow.

We give thanks to God for guiding us as we form the young men and women that He brings us according to His Word, His love, His justice. While a handful of youth have left our program because they have chosen to believe the lies offered by a world that says decisions and consequences do not line up, we give joyful thanks to God for the roughly-40 who have chosen to stay, who like the 17-year-old young man who thanked me for the heavy discipline procedure understand what we are trying to do and are submitted to God throughout the process. Pray with us that the Lord would raise up great Christ-centered leaders (servants) among those whom He is training and transforming among us for His good pleasure.

Amen! Glory to God!

One thought on “Learning How to Live: a Math Class Experience”

  1. The programs you have created are amazing! The implementation of them is remarkable! That God let’s you see that they are making a difference, is such a blessing! Keep up the mighty work!!!!

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