Intentional Learning with Ole Mr. Alford

Who was the teacher from your school days who taught you more about what was important in life than any other?

For me, it was Mr. Alford, 9th-grade algebra. I learned of his passing about ten years ago, and with the benefit of hindsight, he has become my favorite from my Junior High School years. It wasn’t because he was charismatic, versed in the latest instructional wisdom of the day, a trailblazer for I’m OK – You’re OK thought. I don’t think he ever smiled, just an occasional kindly pursued-lipped grin. I don’t remember ever seeing his teeth. He wasn’t mean, but he was intentional in his instruction and unbending in the rules of his class. We called them rules; I know now that they exuded intention. His door was locked the minute the bell rang, and students knew not to knock. Three tardies and you were in detention, not the place students tried to escape to in my day. In his late forties, he had a distinctive stroll through the hallways. It may have been to accommodate a belly that pulled a piece of his shirttail out of his pants. His look was his look, not a slave to fashion.

(Lesson #1 – Life is all about self-discovery. Don’t rush to be like everybody else.)

Always wearing a tie that never made it to his pants, he rarely sat down in class. At the board writing and solving equations, he spoke in rhythmic tones, then moved to the boards that encircled the room, jotting down a dozen or more problems that we had to solve in pairs. Projected on a screen in front were 4-7 key terms that we needed to describe how to solve each problem. We had three minutes to solve our problem, and he selected pairs of us to explain how and why we solved our problems using the key terms. Yes, we listened intently, because we knew he’d call on others randomly to fix any miscues in the current report of a solution. We may have had to note a missing key term or a wrong step in solving the problem. He didn’t tell us which. We didn’t get a grade for listening or fixing miscues, nor did we earn a grade for solving our problem. We just knew what we did was important because he had asked us to do it. That’s the power of honest and transparent intention. Instruction based on informed intention engages learning unequivocally. 

(Lesson #2 – Make every move you make in the classroom with informed intention).

Mr. Alford was intentional to a fault. He seemed to know when all of us had internalized the process for solving the current math problem. We never had to work through all 12 problems, sometimes only three or four. It’s hard to remember what I learned. Yet there is clear evidence that I still use what I learned. To this day while shopping in a grocery store, I still cross-multiply to determine whether 4 / $5.95 is a better value than 3/$3.78. I don’t trust the computer-printed price per ounce on the shelves. One day at Kroger, I proudly reported an error in the price per ounce. Others remember the algebra processes Mr. Alford taught. When I reconnected with Ronnie Neil at our high school reunion, he quipped, “You still cross-multiply when you shop?  Me, too.” Ole Mr. Alford had a way of making us learn without getting our permission. Never once did he give us an answer, hints, oh yes, but never answers.

(Lesson #3 – Learning is more about process than right answers.)

Mr. Alford also taught us to become human calculators. Algebra 1 was just before lunch. And he always concluded the period 3-4 minutes before the bell. He leaned against the door casing and crossed his ankles and cleared his throat. The noise of packing up books and papers faded and he started, “I’m thinking – 27 … plus 19 … divided by 2 … multiplied by 10 … minus 80 … times 5 .. minus 487 … plus 3 equals how much. Mark your card with your ink pen (the only time in Algebra class we could use ink).  Everyone who wrote the number 500 on their cards came forward, handed them to Mr. Alford, and strolled down the hall after him to the lunchroom before the big rush after the bell. He left the other students with the problem projected on the screen.  In a buzz of refiguring, they came up with the right answers on their cards as a ticket back into class. 

(Lesson #4 – Focus less on what students know and more on how they use new knowledge.)

 I don’t think Mr. Alford was a teacher-conference junkie like some of my teachers. But his intentional teaching style showed evidence of the practice we’re hearing again from advisors for virtual learning in the COVID-19 pandemic. It took a pandemic for some students to become intentional learners with intentional teachers. I was lucky to have Mr. Alford.