Stories from School

By Robin Whitaker, The Joy House School Teacher

The most gratifying part of teaching at the Joy House Academy is watching students who have struggled in school for years suddenly begin achieving. A common weakness for most students is math. Maybe they believe they are dumb, or maybe they believe their ADD prevents their success, or maybe they have been “helped” so much in school that they have been cheated out of a necessary foundation. Regardless, they have the opportunity here to discover that they have been believing a lie, and when they make that discovery, success comes.

One of our graduates, Kylie, came to the Joy House having been labeled by her school a special education student and told that she would never be able to do high school level math. As a result, her parents believed that she would need to use notes to take any math tests. However, as Kylie began work in Algebra I (without notes), her test grades were generally A’s and B’s. I know that Kylie profited from our low student-teacher ratio that allowed her to get instruction, support, and clarification when she needed them. But I was interested in her perspective. One day when we were working together, I said, “You’re doing really well in Algebra here. Why do you think you’re doing so much better here than you were in school?”

She said, “Well, I was into things there that I shouldn’t have been into. I was on my phone, or I would skip classes, and I was doing other things.”

I said, “So when they told you in a meeting that you were special ed and that’s why you couldn’t do math, did you think to yourself, ‘Yeah, right. I can’t do math because I’m not paying attention and not going to class,’ or did you believe them?”

“I believed them,” she said.

Kylie successfully completed not only Algebra I, but many other courses as well. She graduated from the Joy House program and later from high school.

Another student who saw success here was Danielle. Danielle stumbled through Algebra I and was beginning to stumble through Algebra II. One day I confronted her with what I believed was her “stumbling through.” She admitted that that conclusion was accurate. She agreed with the recommendation that we start her over in Algebra II and that we work closely together. Helping her one day, I asked to see her work. She brought it to me. I couldn’t tell which problem was which; nothing was numbered, and problems were randomly placed on the page. I said, “Danielle, this is all over the place.”

She pointed to her head and said, “That’s how it is up here.”

A light bulb went on. I told her that I believed if she could get all of her work organized on her page, it would help get it organized in her brain. I gave her instructions on how to set up her notebook, take notes, and work problems on the lines. She followed through beautifully. During her last days here, she finished one of her last Algebra II workbooks in 3 days and said she was ready to take the test. I said, “Are you sure you’re ready? You finished it awfully fast…”

She replied, “Oh yeah. This is easy! I love this stuff!”

Danielle graduated from the Joy House Academy and was accepted into North Georgia College. I keep her meticulously organized notebook to this day to show other students who share the same struggles.

A current resident, Rose, has also made amazing strides here. She arrived with credit for Algebra I; as she began Algebra II, it became quickly evident to us, and finally evident to her, that she did not have the foundation necessary to have success in that course. She eventually became frustrated enough to accept going back through Algebra I to get what she needed. At first her grades were pretty good; but as she got in to word problems, she suffered. Invariably, she would try to procrastinate in taking the tests. When she took tests, her mantra was “I’m afraid.” When she encountered problems, she didn’t immediately know how to do, she just left them blank, and due to the panic she felt, did other problems carelessly. When Rose failed the word problem test, I sat down with her and said, “My goal is to show you the patterns in these word problems so that you can do well the next time.” She was very receptive and made the effort required. The next time she took the test, she made a B.

Rose stopped procrastinating, first because she began to realize that putting off the test only gave her time to forget, and second, because she was gaining a small bit of confidence. However, her anxiety continued. Then suddenly one day, I watched something magical take place. While Rose was taking the test, she said, “I don’t like this answer. I don’t think it’s right.” Instead of panicking, I saw her look at the problem and say, “Oh! I did this part wrong,” and then go on to correct the problem.

When she finished, I said, “Rose, you have crossed another barrier. Instead of panicking because your answer wasn’t right, you began to do error analysis and successfully complete the problem. Congratulations! Your math brain has turned on!”

Boy, was I right!  The last math test Rose took had three fill-in-the-blank questions with math terms, and the rest of the test was word problems. The only questions she missed were the three fill-in-the blanks. She   got every word problem, every calculation, and every sign correct. And that math brain didn’t just turn on in regard to math. On her physical science test, once again she correctly solved every word problem, all of which required equations dealing with gas laws.  She recently scored a 92 on the physical science test requiring her, among other things, to balance equations. Rose is finally figuring out that she even when a course is challenging, she CAN DO it.

It is the blessing and the joy of the Joy House Academy to watch the growth that comes when students realize they’ve believed a lie and that they are capable of so much more than they had ever imagined. Whatever else the future holds for our students, they leave here KNOWING that they CAN do challenging work.