By Marcus Owens and Libby McKenna
AmeriCorps members on the Horning Family Fund team serving at Anacostia High School

My experience with teaching and tutoring students in high school algebra has been a tumultuous combination of both joy and frustration. At Anacostia High School, there are students who seem to navigate through math class with ease, demonstrating fluency with mathematical terms and being confident in their work. On the opposite end of the spectrum there are also students who struggle with the very basic functions.

Out of the multitude of issues I have encountered these past few months as a City Year AmeriCorps member, there is one that pops up over and over again with many of my students: working with negative numbers. As soon as they see integers that have a negative sign in front, they feel lost.

I genuinely enjoy working with my students, and I am always ready and willing to provide some guidance. Yet I found myself becoming more and more frustrated because in my eyes this seems like such a simple task. I remember thinking to myself, “How could this happen? Who is to blame?” We have a diverse group of freshman students, but it is clear that at some point, this mathematical concept was lost in translation during middle school, and now the students are suffering. I have since realized voicing my dissatisfaction with the current situation does not help my students understand how negative numbers work. Rather, it is important to remember why we, as AmeriCorps members, have committed a year of our lives to serving our students. There is a need, and it is our job as City Year to make the best of the situation so our students will be successful.

My teammate, Libby McKenna, and I co-wrote this poem about negative numbers to express our difficulties in teaching this concept and also about our service in general. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did writing it!

"Mr. O, can you come here for a sec?
I don't quite understand.
I have a problem I need you to check 
Maybe you can give me a hand."

"I added -5 and 3 and got 8
But our teacher says I'm wrong.”
I exclaim, "Wait, Wait, Wait!
No wonder this took so long."

Every day we see this error
Ms. M and I agree
This problem presists for our 9th graders
And it always bothers me.

I'm sure they learned in middle school
This oh-so-simple task
It's an easy little rule
And it's not that much to ask.

But I think to myself—
"Don't let it work your nerve.
Put your pride on the shelf
For this is why we serve."

I regain composure
And say, "Let’s try this again."
Our students need exposure
To be great in grade 10.

I have to remind myself to always paint the sky blue
And remember to be patient.
You were once a student too
And had the same frustration.

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