The Colors of Algebra
Rigor and Resilience at a "Last Chance" School

Joanne da Luz, Life Learning Academy, San Francisco USD

Teaching Key Algebraic Concepts through Interdisciplinary Mathematics Teaching Students Who Have Failed in – and Been Failed By – Traditional Schooling

Where do I teach?

What are my students learning?

Teaching Practice
What's my approach?

Student Work






About Me

When planning for courses and curriculum, I have to focus on creating a safe and structured way for each individual to begin shedding their armor and feel as if they can safely take risks mathematically and academically. I have found that creating a student centered, hands-on, project based curriculum with multiple forms of presentation and representation provides the optimal structure for student learning when faced with lethargy, hopelessness, and resistance in student behavior. Teacher centered, lecture style, text driven curriculum does not engage my students.

The impetus for my work comes from two major concerns that are adversely affecting my students' overall success: an educational experience laden with failure, a lack of motivation and a lack of experience with academic language.

The lecture style approach that is so characteristic of the educational system my students have experienced prior to their arrival emphasizes memorization and rote skills practice without providing much groundwork for the conceptual representations of mathematics and how it models real life. I have observed my students' body language, tone of voice, and level of participation increase as they enter the classroom and see a bike or a piano or a set of tools or algebra tiles. These items often bring about laughter, inquiry, inflection, and movement. These affectations motivate them to pursue mathematics. When teaching students who have traditionally been labeled as incapable of learning, apathetic, and uninterested in their own education, motivation is a major component of their overall success and every lesson plan. When the task at hand becomes interesting and relevant, students are more likely to engage than to "check out." They begin to take risks, offering their own conjectures and asking their own questions, soliciting the responses of classmates, and being open to revision. As a result, the technical aspect of mathematics is broached through the kinesthetic development of concepts and ideas.

Secondly, the academic language needed to express mathematics is often missing from students' repertoire. I often find that asking my students to synthesize their knowledge so that it may be applied appropriately acts as a stumbling block for them and for me. They become irritated or defeated when presented with words like investigate, evaluate, determine, justify, and I become frustrated with their inability to take what I assume they know and apply it as asked.

About My School

The unique structure of Life Learning Academy is designed to reach some of the most challenging and marginalized students in our country. Operated by The Delancey Street Foundation, Life Learning Academy is committed to helping students develop healthy, productive, and independent lives by teaching rigorous academic, social, and vocational skills, and to instill positive community values through an"Each One Teach One" philosophy. Students are expected to pass on their newfound knowledge and mentor others while learning how to change their lives.


Site last updated July 5, 2006