the twit


    a recommendation

    what follows is an early draft of a recommendation that i made for a student (anonymous in this context) i had last year for algebra ii, and currently have in trig/precalc. in writing the recommendation - as you'll see - i devolved quickly into a rather personal meditation on my own growth in the past year and a half - as seen through the context of my relationship with this student. clearly, the letter needed less of me and more of him to be sent on to a college - and it was heavily adjusted for that pupose. however, the recommendation's original form strikes me as a rather appropriate witness to whatever it is that i've been doing in mississippi.


    The Players:

    Mr. Molina, teacher

    The Scene: The first day of the 2006-2007 school year at Jim Hill H.S., Jackson, MS. In between class periods, students are arriving for the initial meeting of a Trigonometry course. Mr. Molina – swarmed with familiar and unfamiliar faces – is frantically trying to keep order.

    [Enter J]

    Mr. Molina [irate] J: get over here and give me your schedule!

    J [smirking] Mr. Molina – you know I wouldn’t enter this classroom unless I had to.


    J’s story is a story of growth – else I would not be writing him a college recommendation letter some few months after the encounter above. In fact, I’m honored to be at a point in my relationship with J that I am able to write such a recommendation, because – I will be very honest in admitting it (for the growth I refer to is mine as well) J was by far one of my least favorite students during the 2005-2006 school year - this is definitely not the case now. What is more – despite the conventions that a recommendation letter presents – I find no more fitting a way to honor J than to reflect on how much progress he has made, and also bear witness to the growth he has inspired – and at times forced – within me.

    As a first year teacher in a school district far away from my own home (Cleveland, OH) and schooling (Amherst College, Amherst, MA), I quickly developed a very particular definition for a student that I did not like – one that could run my classroom whether I liked it or not. Such a concept was of course a projection of guilt regarding my own vast inexperience; some days all I wanted was for my students to magically sit down and relax, so I could simply process what was going on. This – I quickly learned – would almost never happen, and would most definitely never happen when J was in the room. What is more: he never missed a day, and never skipped a class. I would wake up in the morning afraid of the inevitable J.

    I will always tell people that I learn the most about teaching from my worst classes. They never let me skip a beat; I need to be a better teacher every day for them – all I can see in the midst of a boring or riotous room is my own failure, day in and day out. J was the figurehead of my most frustrating class – if he didn’t get a concept, his social force of wit and bravado would derail any intentions I had of moving forward; if a management decision of mine carried any hint of injustice or inconsistency, J would bring the class to a tense standstill. Up against this, I was compelled to do two things: (1) work relentlessly towards consistently effective instruction, (2) figure this kid out – through phone calls home, conferences during class, casual conversation, pump-up speeches during a test, anything. Many messages home ran like this: J is a leader in my classroom – I need him to decide to lead as a positive role model for his peers, not a negative one. J decided to take over the class today, and I’m rather frustrated that he did so after all the progress of late. J is clearly an intelligent young man – if he has a lack of confidence in math, I’d love to work with him after school.

    As far as I could tell, the 2005-2006 school year ended in a stalemate between J and me; we had survived the year together, but I hadn’t seen the academic or leadership growth that he seemed so obviously on the brink of. Summer passed, and a new school year began – christened with the humorous/tense exchange that opened this recommendation. However, within the first few weeks of Trigonometry it was clear that some change had come over J – he was much more calm and much more focused, and was easily passing the new and difficult content. Moreover, our exchanges became much more familiar and frequent – developing quite naturally into an ongoing, casual discussion about our shared interest in hip-hop (he recently burned me the new Jay-Z CD; I’m currently burning him Nas’s Illmatic) and politics. It seemed that J was finally opening up to constructive dialogue with a subject matter he found intimating and the people that were responsible for it.

    In the middle of the first term, a parent-teacher conference confirmed my observations; over the summer, J had confided in his father about his frustration with math. Furthermore, J admitted the importance of overcoming his weaknesses if he was going to succeed in a challenging college environment, and so resolved himself to take on Trigonometry/PreCalculus – regardless of the consequences. After my third semester of working with J, I must say – with the deep pride that I’ve recently found belonging to a teacher – that he is doing just fine, and is doing better with each class meeting. Of course, he has days when he’s frustrated – but I think that this year I’m better at preventing it and he’s better with dealing with it. Most importantly – however – is that J is well on his way of figuring out just what he’s capable of – even if it’s a painful, personal journey. This is incredibly encouraging; it shows me – a recent graduate of the liberal arts tradition – that J is in an ideal position to continue to mature and strengthen in an academic and social environment that cultivates an attitude of critical analysis upon a foundation of essential knowledge. He has always had the ability within him to grow into a strong thinker and a strong leader; it seems that finally J has followed this up in my mathematics class with the courage to engage in the risks and vulnerabilities that come with strength. So, it is without any hesitation that I strongly recommend J for enrollment at X - a place that I have no doubt will continue to challenge and support him on his path to excellence.