Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Lead Zeppelin

My math class is full of musicians.

Class starts silently enough, or as silently as any 6th grade class can after pretzels and juice on a rainy New England Thursday afternoon when my students would all rather be whispering about the boy at the other table, or that video game their friend has, or the girl that so-and-so is now dating. Or about anything other than strategies for converting decimals into fractions and fractions back into decimals.

Class begins with the tuning of instruments - the sharpening of pencil nubs, the rummaging in backpacks, dragging of chairs across the creaky wood floor, the unnecessary shifting and lifting and setting down again of desks, because of course we are in the 6th grade.

Class begins with a quiz, and for a brief moment, stillness overtakes the room – sixteen pencil tips, honed to a point, hovering over sixteen desks, like bows above the string.

Class quickly progresses to decimals. “How many zeros do we need?” It is at approximately this measure in the lesson where talent emerges. Often it begins with just a subtle, discordant tap…tap…tap of a pencil on the beige plastic desktop. The sound is patternless, as if without intention, and, in many cases, there is indeed no intent, nor even realization. A minute or more will often pass before the boy or girl becomes aware of their music making. On more than one occasion I have surprised students with their own tapping. A raised eyebrow is all it takes to startle students into self-awareness and the looks of shock at finding one’s own hands beating lead drumsticks are some of the very best expressions of the day.

But, if I fail to catch the opening chords, the students in my class finally take notice of the pencil tapping. And if this happens, true music follows. Patterns develop. Short, short, long…short, short, long. The tapping becomes bolder. Short, long long, short, short...rap. And again. Louder, more complex. If I’m not careful, more instruments are imagined and join in. The acoustic #2, the techno click tops, the brassy metal-lined mechanicals. Sixteen beige, plastic drum kits. A crescendo of tapping that threatens to drown out all decimals and all fractions.

Teachers employ a variety of strategies to curb the pencil tappers of their classrooms, and each classroom has a quartet at least. I have five. Some teachers institute fines, five cents per tap. Ironically, the accumulated fees finance, among other school supplies, more pencils. I rely on looks and raised eyebrows. But no method is foolproof. As a teacher I can only negotiate. Tap on your leg, or your arm, or your hand, or your head, anything but the hard resounding plastic of the desk. Please. For my beatniks, I supply stress balls as substitutes, with limited success.

In my class, one boy in particular is a true artist. He practices at home, he practices in the lunchroom, and, yes, he practices in the classroom too. His rhythms are complex and nuanced. He is the type of artist who cannot be restrained, who on a weekly basis will bargain with me for moments of sanctioned tap-time. “I’ve been working on this pattern. Can I show you just once?” Or, “Ok, can I just get my tapping out? Thirty seconds. How about thirty seconds?” And on the few occasions when I give in, his gratitude is expressed in a morse code of taps, raps, and strikes of wood on plastic.

Recently one of my worst tapping offenders chose to write a school newspaper article on the subject. In it, he detailed, with precision, instructions for proper tapping etiquette, steps one through four. Bang your wrist on the desk, tip and tap the pencil. To whip the pencil sideways across the table only two fingers are required. For a “swizzbeat” slide the pencil tip back.

My students learned quickly that I was not a supporter of their pencil tapping. And, while they are unable to curb their musical outbursts, their apologetic looks are some comfort against the tangential accompaniments to math in room 309.

But I am not wholly opposed to tapping. My students do not know this yet.

For if I can forgo, for even a few minutes, the importance of tens places, hundredth places and lowest common denominators, I find that my class can be transformed into an orchestra of impromptu wood instruments.

What ingenuity of rhythms, what creativity of instruments, and what collaborations – as my students so naturally, and without cajoling, listen, respond, and elaborate on each other’s ideas in a conversation so simple and so complex as a tap.

And best of all, what excitement I find on their faces. What more can any teacher wish for?

Perhaps it is time to re-examine my dry-erase markers and my warped whiteboard – see them for what the truly are. I might have to practice at home occasionally, or in the office at lunch. If I can do this, if I can transform math into music, I believe I will have succeeded in capturing the excitement of my class.


  1. Sounds like you have the makings of a school-wide pencil-techno-mechanical-desk-and-dry-erase gamelon!

  2. Love the idea of pencil drumming orchestras, and How-To instructions written by students :)

  3. Jess,
    I will have to add this to my "bag of tricks" for differentiated instruction! :) Hope all is well. Miss you!