Thursday, December 30, 2010

Happy Celtic New Year


I've probably said this several times before in this blog but St. Mike's is such a remarkably support place. Whether you are a student, faculty member or staff member if you have an idea or project you want to put into practice there are so many people with high levels of expertise who can make things happen. For example putting on the Concert for St. Patrick each year involves over a dozen different people from a variety of different departments who bring their skills and expertise to the project so that it is a success.

Sadly, not all organizations I have been involved with have this same spirit of support, a fact which makes St. Mike's stand out even more. I live in the town of Richmond about 15 miles from St. Mike's and for the past four years my wife Lucie and I have planned, organized and implemented the Celtic New Year event. During that time it has grown to involve almost 30 different performing groups in 9 locations around the town. Over 1000 people attend the event every year and we have donated around $15,000 to local schools and organizations to promote youth Celtic music and dance (that's the Heather Morris Highland Dancers in the photo).

This year we went looking for help to put on the event but were met with a devastating lack of support; the complete opposite to my experiences at St. Mikes. Consequently we had to cancel the event this year. We do hope to somehow find support to reinstate the event in 2012. Happy New Year.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Boxing Day


They say you can take the Englishman out of England but you can't take England out of the Englishman. For almost every day of the year I am as American as the next American but for a few days each year I am overcome by my "Englishness". (I promise these self indulgent blog entries will not last long). Boxing day, or St. Stephen's Day is one of those days. December 26th has been known as Boxing Day in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada for over a century or longer depending on which theory of its origin you believe. So yesterday I watched two English Premier League soccer games live on TV. Today Boxing Day is usually spent doing or watching some type of sporting activity or shopping for bargains in the after Christmas sales.

St. Mike's is pretty quiet for the week between Christmas and the New Year but I will probably venture into my office once the current Nor'Easter blows itself out later today. It looks like 5-8 inches which will probably mean I'll have to snowblow the driveway.

I'm using a different text in the Schools and Society course I first taught last semester so I'll need to redo the course before the beginning of the semester later in January. The new book involves the reader much more in thinking about teaching and education in general rather than simply reviewing ideas as in the one I used last semester. It even has a chapter by A.S. Neill, the British educator who brought us the memorable Summerhill school all those years ago and which is still going strong as a model of progressive education.


Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas


The Polar Express is one of my favorite children's Christmas stories because it's about trains and the idea of believing in something. This Christmas I've been asking people if they actually remember believing in Santa Claus or Father Christmas as he was in my childhood. Every person says they can remember believing even giving specific example of things they did.

Father Christmas always put my brother's and my Christmas presents in two pillow cases at the foot of our beds and I can remember so clearly peeking over the covers to see if it was there on Christmas day morning. It always was, of course, and I remember so clearly marvelling at Father Christmas's remarkable abilities. Exactly when I no longer believed I don't remember but it was quite a significant stage in my growth and development. I always remind teachers of young children that it's a good idea when teaching science to remember the conceptual limitations of children who still believe in Santa.

My first electric train set was my best ever Christmas present when I was 8, I think: a Hornby Dublo three rail outfit that grew over successive Christmases and birthdays to cover an 8ft x 4ft table. I remember being mesmerized by the smell of the new toys in their boxes. My brother and I and our dad and uncles spent many an hour building and playing with that train set.
Perhaps this is why even today one of my favorite relaxation activities is to watch old videos of trains on YouTube like this one narrated by John Betjeman, the poet laureate of England for many years. We are indeed products of our childhood. I now live next to the railway line in Richmond and still get a kick out of watching the train go by even if it is no longer pulled by a steam engine. I firmly believe trains are the future of our transport system.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Math Memories and NeighborKeepers

On a personal note I had my Beatles birthday a few days ago; the one in the song that asks "Will you still need me, will you still feed me....". I must admit that I don't feel that old especially when it comes to thinking about math education. It's exciting to think back over the years in terms of different things I've believed or thought about at different times.


There was a time, for example when I didn't think children should be required to remember their addition and multiplication facts; a time when I thought that you just need to help children understand. We now know that the development of memory plays a large part in learning math just as it does in learning how to spell or write good English. Memory, of course, will always be better if it occurs alongside understanding.

I had the last of the three NeighborKeepers Math Mentoring workshops I have developed last Tuesday. They are free and designed to help volunteers who want to teach math to "newcomer" families in the Winooski School District where the need for extra help is significant. Hal Colston , a local social entrepreneur, is the one who is making this all happen and I hope to have the graduate students in my math ed. course work with these families as part of a course assignment next semester. If you would like to become a Math Mentor let me know at;
twhiteford @smcvt.edu (leave out the space)

I think it's cool that the British Government just designated the Abbey Rd "zebra" crossing as a National Heritage site. It just goes to show that history is always being made.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Spirituality and Teaching

As I was reading some of the senior students' licensure portfolios this week and meeting many of them again at an end of semester gathering I couldn't help but compare them with my Schools and Society class students. Admittedly they have grown and learned a lot in the intervening two years but there is something else that makes senior education majors different from sophomore education majors and I think it has to do with the spirituality they have gained from their varied educational experiences at St. Michael's.

One of my colleagues in the Education Department at St. Mike's, Aostre Johnson, is one of countries leading experts on spirituality in education having published many books and manuscripts on the topic. One of the things I find particularly interesting is the way she defines spirituality in a pluralistic sense; in other words, there are many dimensions to the idea of spirituality in addition to the religious interpretation we tend to think of first.

There are, Aostre writes in Many Ways of Understanding and Educating Spirit, many ways we can think about spirituality. There's spirituality as meaning making , as self reflection, as mystical knowing, as emotion, as morality, as ecology, and spirituality as creativity. For example, spirituality as emotion is "a sense of wonder, awe, appreciation, and love for our universe and all creatures in it"; while spirituality as ecology means that "As a teacher, I can inspire kids to do things for the good of others, for the good of the earth". Isn't that neat, especially in a world obsessed by standards-based education?

As teachers of children we must inspire them through our spirituality, whichever form it might take, to seek knowledge and understanding of the world about them; to want to pursue their best selves, and to discover the joys of intrinsic learning. To read more by Professor Johnson see: Nurturing Child and Adolescent Spirituality: Perspectives from the World's Religious Traditions.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Santa, 12 Days and Fractals

Happy holidays to everyone and here's a seasonal piece of advice; take care when your daughter is around with her cellphone. The next thing you know is the entire world gets to see you looking like this. Actually I was quite flattered since it does seem to convey some Christmas spirit.

Talking of Christmas the 364 items in all the verses of the 12 Days of Christmas now cost almost $100,000 dollars, $96,824 to be precise. According to MSNBC only 4 of the items didn't go up this year but there was a 9.2% increase in the overall cost of the items over last year. Isn't it interesting that there are 364 items altogether; one short of the number of days in a year.

Also with a math theme is the little known area of study known as Fractal Geometry, the subject of an incredible Nova program on PBS last night featuring Benoit Mandelbrot, the father of the study of fractals. I first became aware of fracals several years ago when I was working with a High School student with cerebral palsy. He didn't like traditional mathematics very much but really developed an interest in the creative aspect of fractals.

Something I didn't realize before watching the Nova program is that fractal geometry is a way of making mathematical sense of the natural world such as mountains, leaves, clouds and all sorts of things. It is even being used in medical science to predict things like heart failure.

The Sierpinski Triangle is probably the easiest way to think about fractals which are basically the iteration of the same shape over and over again, in this case a triangle. Here are some Google Images of fractals, and a Yale site with lots of activities.

And who said mathematics cannot have an aesthetic quality? Happy holidays everyone. Tim

Monday, December 13, 2010

Portfolios and the Semester Ending

The end of another semester and the same bitter sweet feeling that always is present. Over 16 weeks a course becomes a really important learning community not only for the students but for me too. I don't think I have ever taught a course twice in the same way in all the years I've been teaching; there is always something that needs tweaking, something that can be improved and something that can be added or removed.

I've taught my Elementary School Math and Science course in one form or another for more years than I care to remember but each year something changes. Last year it was getting rid of the unbelievably expensive textbook and substituting a small but remarkable paperback book about teaching math as well as the extensive use of the Bridges Math Program, the one used in local schools.

I also finally ditched an activity in the science part of the course that had been really irking me for the past several years. I always do both a direct instruction as well as an inquiry based activity on teaching the students how to teach the reasons for the seasons to upper elementary students. The direct instruction activity involves me demonstrating with the use of a flashlight and a globe how the 23 or so degree tilt of the earth on its axis as it rotates around the sun gives use different seasons and temperatures. The activity demonstrates the idea of insolation really well. I sit in the middle of the room with the flashlight (sun) and the students pass the globe around the circle keeping the angle of tilt pointing at the same classrooom wall.

After I demonstrate it I have the students do a similar activity with a small flashlight and a balloon for the Earth. This year the students finally said that this activity confused them after the clarity of the direct instruction. I guess sometimes it is better to use direct instruction rather than an inquiry-based activity.

My Schools and Society course, which I taught for the first time at SMC this semester, will undergo significant changes for next term.

Today's picture is of some Portfolios from last year. This is the document all senior Education majors have to complete, as required by the Vermont State DOE to demonstrate their competence to teach. It is one of several assessment pieces we use to recommend students for licensure by the State of Vermont.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

On Being an American

The topic of my sophomore class today was an introduction to diversity in education. The students read several different chapters for homework that covered different aspects of diversity such as gender issues, English language learners, school choice issues and special education. The author of one of the chapters raised the issue of "celebrating diversity" in the context of students new to American classrooms; students who have come from different countries.

This is something we work with extensively in our teacher education programs at St. Mike's because many of the local schools in Winooski and Burlington where our students complete their classroom experiences have large numbers of students resettled from other parts if the world such as Sudan, Vietnam and Eastern Europe. It is also the topic of my professional research; at least the math education component is.

One of the issues the author of the chapter raised is that if we celebrate diversity in our classrooms where do children learn what it means to be American. The discussion was a lively one with one student saying that the American culture has always been in a state of change as people have arrived from different countries and cultures at different times in history. We also discussed how many other countries are approaching similar levels of diversity even in Europe where countries like France and Germany are questioning their national identity. Yet another point discussed was the role of families in the transmission of culture. We even wondered if the American culture was still typified by apple pies and Chevies!

As an immigrant myself, the issue of preserving and celebrating one's "own" cultural heritage as well as embracing the American culture is an interesting one. Over the past thirty years I have felt myself become a little more American and a little less British but never completely letting go of my cultural origins.

On Thursday we'll explore the other major part of diversity, the inclusion of students with special needs in public school classrooms.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Good Ending Means a Good Beginning

Every gardener knows that it's really important to tidy up the garden at the end of the season so that it's all ready for a good beginning in the Spring. Here's a video of the students in FY193 Digging Down to the Roots: The Meaning of Gardens working on the Teaching Gardens at SMC to get them ready for the winter. FY193, a first year seminar, is co-taught by Professors Valerie Bang-Jensen of the Education Department and Mark Lubkowitz of the Biology Department. The course, which is becoming very popular with students, introduces them to the science and pleasures associated with gardening as well gardening related nonfiction, fiction, essays, poetry, memoir, and relevant children's literature.

All the plants in the Garden are related to various pieces of children's literature and so students get to experience the books they read through the actual plants themselves as well as the words on the pages. My particular favorite is the extensive privet hedge which comes from the Harry Potter books.

One of the other tasks the students had to do was take inventory of the words in the Word Garden. Out of the 350 or so words in the Word Garden only four were missing, COW, PEACE, LEPRECHAUN and WOOD; a testimony to the wonderful spirit of the SMC community.

I always encourage my students to make a good ending to the semester so that they are ready for a good beginning to the next one. Good endings always make for good beginnings.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

IDEA - A Gift To Us All


Yesterday marked the thirty fifth anniversary of one of the most far-reaching and good pieces of Federal law making in recent history; the passage of PL94-142 or IDEA, the Individual Differences in Education Act. Basically this law states that all students have the right to a free and appropriate education regardless of any disabilities they might have. You can read more about the impact of the law here at OSERS or here at CEC. I was in the second year of teaching fourth grade in England at the time and can remember the impact of the equivalent law there so clearly.

Up until that time all students with special needs of any sort in any grade level were collected together in Mrs. Fowler's class. I know she did her best but there was very little expectation that the students would learn very much. I remember them all congregating together in a corner of the playground during recess. The following year, 1976 I think it was, the Special Needs class was disbanded and the students "mainstreamed" to the appropriate grade throughout the school.

The change in the school was stunning and I remember it so clearly all these years later. I had two students, a boy and girl come into my class and although I don't remember their names I do remember they were both ethnic West Indian. Within six months, the time between reading assessments, both of their statistical reading ages had increased by more than two and a half years but, more importantly, they had made friends of their own age with whom they played during recess and after school. Gone was the stigma of Mrs Fowler's Special Class and in it's place a school-wide increase in the level of expectations of what the students with special needs could achieve.
The picture is of Andrew my son, who has Down Syndrome, making his assigned presentation in his H.S. social studies class about his chosen topic, Saudi Arabia.


Monday, November 22, 2010

NeighborKeeper Math Mentoring

This evening I'll be giving the second in a series of three workshops for a group of volunteer math mentors who will be mentoring children of immigrant families in Winooski, Vermont.
Designed to help children in grades K - 3 I introduce the mentors to strategies and ideas for teaching numeracy, place value, addition and subtraction to children, many of whom may have very limited experience of attending formal schools.

The first session last Monday in which I introduced the participants to some basic concepts related to teaching elementary school math, as well as specific issues faced by students from other countries, seemed to go really well. We talked about how different math is in different parts of the world and how important it is for students to understand as well as remember the math they learn.

This week we'll be exploring ideas about how children learn to count as well as how they learn place value and the Base Ten system of counting we use.

After the third session in two weeks the volunteers will meet up with families at the Winooski Community Center where they will help the children and perhaps, their parents, learn all about the math we sue in American classrooms. NeighborKeepers is community support organization developed by Hal Colston based on the national Circles of Support organization

Friday, November 19, 2010

Science and Design Technology


We started the science and design technology part of my math/science course yesterday. I always start this part of the course with several activities that focus on the "how" of science education rather than the "what". The "how" of science brings a focus to what we call the science process skills; skills such as careful observation, clear communication, making inferences and testing hypotheses.

The first activity was a science activity in which we explored the properties and characteristics of drops of water. Everyone is familiar with drops of water but not with what you can do with them or how you can study them. We used droppers to see how many drops would fit on a penny or how drops moved on a piece of wax paper. This is a great topic to do with young children but it's important for the pre-service teachers to get a sense of just how much you can do with a simple topic if you apply your minds as well as your hands.

The second activity had two parts and was designed to take the students from pure science to the field of design technology. One can differentiate between the two by the type of questions one asks. In science, the questions arise from the natural world: how does magnetism work? How do plants grow? What cases rain to fall? In design technology the questions come from how we use our scientific knowledge to solve everyday problems or create things to make our lives better.

The activity asked students to find out which of three variables affects the time of the sewing of a pendulum; its length, the weight, or where the release point is. That's what Maegan is testing in the picture. Once the students had established which it was the next task, a design technology activity, was to make a pendulum that would keep time by swinging once every second. In order to do this they had to use the scientific knowledge they had developed in the first part of the activity.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Mathematics, a Creative Art Form

Last Thursday marked the end of the math part of my Teaching Elementary School Math and Science course. To mark the event the students presented their eNotebooks to each other. The idea behind this assignment is for the students to celebrate the existence of math in its many forms outside the four walls of the classroom, be they school, college or otherwise. In groups of 1 to 3 the student choose a topic and then find 12 things mathematical about that topic and create an eNotebook using some form of technology such as PowerPoint or a Blog. I then celebrate their work by putting the eNotebooks on the Math Education website.

I am often amazed at the creative way students choose to connect with the math in their lives. This semester, Emily and Kelsey chose to do the math of high-jumping because they had both been high-jumpers in high school. I had no idea that nearly all high jumpers use five large and five small steps in their run up to the jump.

It's been quite a week of creativity. Sebastian, a senior ed. major sent me a link to Sir Ken Robinson's TED on creativity. It was so neat I showed it to my Schools and Society class yesterday. I always think that teaching is such a creative art form that there has to be a way to help future teachers be more creative in their teaching as well as include more of the creative arts in the school curriculum.

I took the picture above on Durham railway station in England a few years ago. I wonder how many people stopped to wonder what sort of thought went into deciding how to write "This way to Platforms 1 to 3". It could have been "1,2,3" or "1,2, and 3" or even the really interesting "1, two, 3"!!!!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

There's More to Teaching than Teaching


It was 70 degrees outside today so I took advantage of the warmth and put the snowblower back on my tractor. Now I really am ready for the winter. The picture is of my daughter Marie and her boyfriend Erik on vacation at Hermit Island this summer. Marie spent her college years bouncing from Oberlin to Berkeley and finally graduating from UVM with a degree in music.

As I've probably mentioned before she plays a lot of music around Vermont and beyond but she also has another life: she's currently in the Graduate Education Program at St.Mikes studying Special Education. She doesn't want to teach in a school, at least not right now, so she's taken a part time job with the Vermont Family Network (VFN), an organization for families with children with special needs. She wanted to do this part time because of her other, other life which is teaching piano.

She's a great example of what you can do with an Education degree besides teach in a public or private school. There are so many different things you can do with a teaching degree such as work; as an educator in a museum, an educator in a science center, for a publishing company that markets educational books, as a curriculum development specialist, for an educational organization such as VFN, as a teacher of children of families in the armed forces, for Teach for America, as an education related fund raiser, with children on a cruise ship, as a planner of educational visits for a large company such Ben and Jerrys. So many opportunities in so many places.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Being There

As I was driving back from giving a presentation at the ATMNE conference in Nashua N.H. last Tuesday I began thinking about how sensible the idea of conferenceing via webinar is. As I struggled to see the road through torrential rain on the 5-lane I193 through Manchester the thought of presenting my research to a national audience from the comfort of my office seemed really appealing. But the more I thought about it the more I began to realize all the things I would have missed had I stayed in my office.

I wouldn't have been able to pick up 16 copies of the ET math catalog for the students in my class; I wouldn't have met Marianne, the teacher from Maine, who was a student in my math class at Trinity College in 1984, and I wouldn't have met the teacher from Brookline, Mass. who is going to send me all sorts of interesting information about teaching math to students from a variety of different countries. I also wouldn't have attended an interesting workshop on how politicians use identical mathematical data to support completely opposing viewpoints.

When I finally reached the start of I89 and the 140 remaining miles home I started to generalize the idea of "Being There". I started thinking about the commercial on TV that shows a young lady in her pyjamas extolling the virtues of getting a degree "without even having to leave your bedroom". Can you imagine just how awful that would be? The URL for the program is even something like degreeinpjs.com. A Google search for getting your degree in your pjs shows a remarkable number of organizations offering this folly.

Call me old fashioned but I think it denegrates the art of learning and reduces the degree to a piece of paper you can buy on-line as if it were something on eBay. It also denies young people the opportunity of seeing the larger world, or joining in service activities and life-changing experiences through the Student Life Office. College is a place to make lifetime friendships with people from all over the country and the world. A degree is so much more than a bunch of courses with passing grades.

Today marks the last day in my math/science course we'll be exploring math. The rest of the semester will be devoted to science and design technology. The picture above is of a student's rubber band roller from last semester. more about that later.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Antique Math


A really neat thing happened a couple of weeks ago. I arrived at my office to find an old cardboard box waiting for me. I opened it and was immediately aware of an old musty smell. Then, to my delight, I realized the box was stuffed full of old math text books; 1783 being the oldest. Yes, I know I probably need to get a life but for several years I've been collecting old math books from the 18th and 19th century. I find them at flea markets usually for a nickel or a dime; they are never larger than 7in x 5in and usually about an inch thick. The box was a generous gift from Jody Willis, my predecessor at SMC who knew I collected such books and who is now retired and no longer needs them.
Whenever I have a quiet moment or just need to relax for a minute or two I pick one up and read a page or two. Here's a math word problem from French's Common School Arithmetic published in 1873; the one pictured above; A peddler traveled 6.75 miles one day, 4.6 miles the next, 7.384 the third, and 2.14 miles the fourth. How far did he travel in the four days? Here's another; A boatman carried 8,532 barrels of flour from Oswego to New York in 9 down trips. How many barrels did he take each down trip? I guess one has to assume he carefully loaded exactly 948 barrels on each trip!! Here's one from Primary Arithmetic (1904) At 10c a peck, how much will 1 bu. of potatoes cost? This is from a time when liquid measures came in gills, pints, quarts, gallons, hogsheads, butts, and tuns.
In addition to the dramatic changes in measurement units over the years the topics of the word problems provide a wonderful commentary on the changing nature of the American culture let alone the state of math education. The word 'mathematics' was really only applied to the elementary school curriculum within the last fifty or so years. Up until then one really only learned arithmetic up to the age of 11.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Clocks and Music

The clocks "go back" tonight so that we have an extra hour to do something with tomorrow. The clocks went back in Europe last weekend so we've been an hour closer to Europe for a week! The whole idea of time especially how we can "change" it so easily is one of the most difficult things to teach and for young students to learn.

One of the easiest ways to think about what is really happening when the clocks "go back" is to try to imagine time disconnected from the changing hours of daylight and nighttime caused by the rotation of the Earth. We can lay a transparent time zones grid on top of an image of the Earth and slide it back and forth however we want to. What we try to do is make time fit with human activity so we move the time zone grid back and then forward across the Earth's surface twice a year to make it lighter in the morning. Here's a great website that shows the time zones as well as daylight and darkness covering the Earth. If you leave it up long enough on you monitor you can actually see the area of darkness move as the Earth rotates on its axis. Here's a neat site that tells about the history of "time shifting" as it is sometimes called.

Time is also involved in music and music has always been a big part of my family's life. The pic is of my son Andrew and daughter Marie rocking out. Andrew loves the group Celtic Thunder and Marie plays music around Burlington including Honky Tonk Tuesdays. She's also a featured vocalist on Phish's Mike Gordon's latest solo album, Moss.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


Such a neat thing happened today in my Teaching Math and Science class. Sometimes in teaching things just converge in the neatest way. The topic of the class was how to teach measurement skills. I set the class up so that students complete a whole variety of activities on how to teach time, distance, weight, volume and capacity, angles, and area. We also look at some of the on-line interactive activities you can use to teach measurement skills such as this neat activity for teaching angles.

Anyway, about half an hour before class was due to start I visited the BBC website to see what's going on and there was this incredible video of a group of students demonstrating how they could make Big Ben chime 13 times at midnight. So after we had discussed the reading for the week I showed it to the class on the SMARTboard. It is such a neat demonstration of math and science at work in real life and how a true understanding of something can lead to such neat activities.


There are so many neat things on the web that we can use to help us make sense of the math we teach and learn. Here are a bunch more interactive activities that are both fun and instructive.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Great Educators



I've been reading my students' Great Educators papers this week and for the most part they are really good. The task was for the students to research the primary theories of each of the nine educators in either elementary or secondary education using the webpage we created and then describe what they thought their teacher licensure program would look like.

This is the first time I've taught this course so the first time I had made this assignment so I wasn't sure how it would turn out. I think it really worked well judging by the quality of the papers. Now the students will have an initial awareness and knowledge of these theories that will be expanded upon in subsequent courses over the next two and half years.

I've learned a great deal too because I was quite unfamiliar with many of these theories especially those in the field of secondary education.

The image is of Nell Noddings who is a world reknowned writer and theorist in the ethics of caring in education. Her work brings to our program a sense of caring about our students' welfare as well as our students' concern for the welfare of the children they will be working with.
Noddings recently made a presentation on the SMC campus as a guest of Aostre Johnson, a member of the Education Department faculty.

Through their public school classroom experiences our students come into contact with many children and families who are significantly less fortunate than they are. As future teachers, it is really important that they show they care about the students they will be teaching.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Great Words Live Forever

November 2 and it's election day. I'll vote later today and I hope my students vote too. When I became an American citizen in 1985 the Judge said I had earned the right to do two things I could not previously have done; carry a gun and vote. Being able to vote was a gift but I must admit to having no desire to have anything to do with guns even in Vermont, this mecca of hunting. I became a citizen in front of the judge at Burlington High School in a neat ceremony that was part of the social studies curriculum at the school that year. Luckily, I didn't have to renounce my British citizenship due to the dual citizenship treaty of 1948.

When the CBS news anchor came to the end of a story on the passing of Ted Sorensen, Kennedy's speech writer, he said "Powerful men die, but powerful words live on" which seemed such a wonderful statement for both the man and the times. The English language has such incredible versatility and depth that in the hands of a master wordsmith such as Sorensen virtually anything is possible.

The same, although less so, is true of young children. Those who master the intricasies and complexities of the language at a young age are generally destined for a better start in life than those who do not. The language and reading courses in the Elementary Education licensure program at SMC provide an incredible amount of information on how to teach all aspects of literacy which is defined in the courses as a meaning making process. There is also a wonderful Literature for Children and Adolescents course which introduces students to the exciting and vaulable world of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry that should be part of the lives of all young people. Here's the Department Pages Literacy webpage.

One of the interesting things about becoming an America was learning how to write the American way as opposed to the English way. In addition to the subtle spelling differences I also had to learn to write sentences that didn't contain 8 commas and various other forms of punctuation that meant the sentence ran to the length of a good size paragraph. You might have noticed this when reading any of the classic great British literature books; T.S. Eliot in particular. Apparently the longest sentence in the Guinness book of records is from James Joyce's Ullyses at 4391 words.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Making Sense


Last Thursday we had a wonderful discussion in my Math/Science class about the way tools help us make sense of mathematical ideas. We've been reading this remarkable book all semester with each student being responsible for presenting a part of each chapter in a whole class discussion.

I really like this book because it's quite inexpensive and it really challenges my students, and me, to think about the meanings we attach to the math we have learned through our educational experiences so far. I like to think of Education in general as the process of making sense of what we learn. Each time we have new experiences we either make sense of them based on what we already know or we reorganize what we already know based on the new things we are learning. I think this constant interaction we have with experience is the essence of learning. As teachers we need to make sure that students' experiences are rich and interesting so that the process of making sense is fostered and kept alive.

What is currently difficult to make sense of is what is going on with the mid-term elections. Making sense relies on access to the facts, respect for the truth and having a somewhat logical approach to life. Politicians seem to be playing hard and fast with the facts on both, or rather, all sides while there is clearly a lack of respect for the the truth as well as the opposition. Listening to endless character assassinations and accusations makes it almost impossible to make sense of a particular candidate's real message and ideas for the future.

I do need to correct an inaccuracy reported a couple of blogs back. My brother Ali did wear a watch for many years before he became a teacher and he does have a good sense of time.





Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Humpphh Week


Sometimes no matter how positive an outlook one tries to keep the world seems to conspire to test every aspect of one's mental resolve. It's been the second week of advising at SMC which is always a great time to meet with students out of class and catch up on what they've been up to. Here's a link to my advising webpage. I also have to clear them to register for courses for next semester, and make sure they are aware of their GPA requirements and the various other Vermont Department of Education teacher licensure requirements they need to follow. I can even advise my study abroad students via email such as Kaytlyn who is studying in Australia. The hmmpphh part is those few students who fail to show up to their advising meetings and the difficulty sometimes of getting all the various graduation and licensure requirements to fit in 4 years and 124 credits. In the end everything always works out with the requirements and I always give the no-shows a second chance.
The math ed and special education meeting I attended at the VT DOE on Monday was interesting. The Special Ed presentation was great but the math ed piece just didn't seem to come together the way I would have done it; perhaps I'm too critical. The hmmppphhh factor here was that some of the math content seemed off the mark and there was no real theory as there was in the Special Ed piece. When two professional fields such as these collaborate it seems to me that there should be a form of synergistic theory development rather than two separate courses of action or thought.

And then finally, my house decided to give me hmmpphh in a big way. This past summer the town of Richmond received stimulus money to completely rebuild the aging Victorian sewer system. Two days ago I noticed water in the basement. Unfortunately is wasn't rain water as I first thought but a leaking sewer line. It turns out the contractors probably did a poor job of connecting the new line to the existing line exiting my house.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Einstein's Dreams

Last week, one of my esteemed colleagues in the Education Dept at St. Mike's, Dr Jonathan Silverman, lent me a wonderful little book called Einstein's Dreams. It was wonderful because it is a very small book and took only 2 hours to read, cost only $2 if I want to buy a copy, and because I have never read anything by or about Einstein before.

I read it in 2 hours Sunday morning and had to take notes, 26 notes in all. Small though the book may be it is packed with intense images that force thinking into new and unimaginable ways of perceiving time. Time like a nightingale in a bell jar, time that stands still, is circular and runs in fits and starts.

My favorite, however, comes near the beginning of the book where Lightman describes Einstein's two perceptions of time; mechanical time and body or personal time. Mechanical time is regulated by clocks and watches and is all powerful in determining all sorts of things from when NASA launches rockets to when classes start and finish.

Body or personal time is a function of the individual. One gets up when one wakes, eats when one is hungry, and goes to class when one feels the desire to learn. Well, perhaps the last one is a bit of a stretch but it does illustrate the dilemma that many of us have regarding the personal conflict we often feel between the two times.

My brother has never worn a watch in his life. He's a retired high school chemistry teacher and never felt the need to know the time other than an occasional glance at a school wall clock or punctuating period bell. I now wonder whether he had a wonderful personal clock or whether he just relied on external cues, living his life at the beck and call of others. He lives in the Outer Hebrides so perhaps time really is less consequential there.

Our lives seem to function regardless of the moment in terms of time. We look at the clock not to see what time it is but to see how much time has passed or how much time is left. The moment itself is meaningless; it is merely a referent we use to gather more important information.

I have always thought that time seems to pass much faster the older one gets because each successive year is a smaller fraction of one's life. Perhaps this is what Einstein meant by relativity? I'll make sure I refer to Lightman's book in my math course when we explore ways of teaching children about learning to tell the time.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Times They Are aChangin'

I watched part of the SMC field hockey game against U-Mass Lowell today. The picture is of Jenny Boudrow who plays for the team and is also an Education major in my math and science course this semester.
Sadly, we lost 3 - 0 but U-M Lowell is ranked #3 in the country so it wasn't too bad.

I enjoy watching field hockey because I used to play in England where it is a really popular men's sport. It's amazing how much the rules have changed over the years for example, when you take a "free hit" you can move with the ball. I think all the rule changes are designed to make it safer: I still have many scars on fingers and shins from my playing days: I used to play for my college, St. Matthias. Sadly the College closed many years ago but there is an Old Lags website that's the nearest thing in the UK to having an Alum Society.

Teaching and Education also change over time in response to prevailing political, social and educational trends and pressures. There is something in the field of Education called "The Pendulum" that I don't think probably exists in any other professional field. The pendulum is
constantly swinging between two polar extremes of educational ideologies. At one extreme is the somewhat progressive approach to education of the 70s and 80s; open schools, open classrooms and the integrated curriculum. The other end of the pendulum swing tends to be characterized by rigid standards based on specifically predetermined classroom teaching strategies and materials; a bit like what we are currently going through, perhaps.

Interestingly, school architecture, as well as many other things, reflects the swings in the pendulum. In South Burlington, each elementary school building has an older part of self contained classrooms built in the 50s with an open plan addition built in the 70s. Around the late 90s the open plan parts of each school were sectioned off into separate classrooms as the pendulum swung away from the progressive thought of the 70s and 80s.

I must admit I'm personally looking forward to a return to the more progressive times in Education: I wonder if it will happen any time soon.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A Busy, Busy Week


It's been a busy week. I finally completed and submitted my third manuscript of the year for review for publishing in the TESOL journal. TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) is the international organization for anyone interested in working with students who are English language learners (ELLS). I also had a paper on the same subject accepted at the TESOL conference in New Orleans in March.


Yesterday I was invited to join the Vermont Developmental Disabilities Council. This is a volunteer position with quite an extensive time commitment; minimally 4 full-day conferences a year plus committee work. I need to find out more about the organization before committing to it. There is still so much advocacy work to do in the field of special education especially at the high school level where students with special needs still do not receive the same opportunities to have "rich and interesting" learning experiences as other students do. The Life Skills curriculum comprising things like making beds, shopping and cooking still tends to dominate the high school experience for students with special needs which is quite depressing. As important as these things are they are more the responsibility of the family rather than the school.

My first webinar has been postponed indefinitely which is a relief. Trying to work out exactly how these things work is quite the challenge so to have as much time as I need to get a handle on things is a great help.

Next Monday I'll be helping out at a statewide conference on teaching math to students with special needs and on Tuesday, November 9 I present a paper at the annual ATMNE (Association for Teachers of Mathematics in New England) in Nashua, N.H. All these things are very typical activities of college professors everywhere and are important ways that we enhance our own teaching as well as our academic fields in general.

It's also been a busy week for Andrew Jumonville, one of my brothers-in-law who's commissioned life-sized bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln, Jesse Fell and David Davis will be unveiled outside the Center for Performing Arts in Bloomington, Illinois this weekend. Andrew has a great sense of humor and if you look closely you'll see that each of the three men in the statue is making rock, paper, scissors with one of his hands. You can't see it in the picture but there's also the word "rabbit" and a bee in the hat you can see. The picture shows Andrew in front of the statue outside the Bloomington Performing Arts Center in Illinois.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Web-pages Temporarily Disappeared!


Part of my job that I really enjoy is creating web-page resources for students and teachers. Instead of watching TV at night I get hours of endless pleasure out of creating web-pages on all sorts of topics that might be of use to SMC students or teachers in public schools. I really like the creativity involved as well as the challenge of finding exactly the right resources that I think will help people when they are creating an instructional unit, trying to find resources for a project or paper or that perfect interactive math or science activity to go with a lesson plan.

This morning, a colleague called to say that the Department Pages, all 250 or so of them, had disappeared off the face of the earth; perhaps the face of the ether would be more appropriate. Instant panic was resolved when I realized the link had been renamed but was still there.

When I select resources to link to I use a lens based on the philosophy of the teacher education programs at St. Mike's. There are so many resources available that I feel to be of any use each set of resources needs to include only the best, most useful and relevant links. I also try to stay abreast of changes in the resources I use. For example, YouTube provides a facility now that you can link to just the video thereby avoiding the often inappropriate comments many people seem to enjoy posting.

The picture is of my son Andrew just after he scored a perfect 300 on the first generation Nintendo Wii system. Part of my ongoing research is how to incorporate the incredible opportunities offered by the Wii system into educational practices for students with special needs in schools. The picture is on my Wii Play Together web-page.

A Teaching License is Like a Passport



Every country in the world has teachers. When you get your teaching license you can potentially go anywhere in the world to teach. That deosn't mean that teaching and Education are the same the world over.

Two weeks ago the students in my Schools and Society course discoverd this by interviewing a group of international students studying at St. Mike's. The goal of the activity was for the SMC students to get a sense of the similarities and differences that exist in K -12 education on a global scale. The international students were from China, Japan, France, Venezuela, Congo, Peru and Panama. The interview contained ten questions ranging from simple (At what age does school begin in your country?) to more complex (Did you like school?). An additional goal of the activity was to help the students identify the difference between ideographic (pertaining to an individual) and nomothetic (related to a group or norm) data. Whenever we use an interview as a data-gathering device it's really important to make this distinction.

Yesterday in class we discussed the results of the interviews. Of all the questions they asked the one that provided the most surprising answers concerned the way students with special needs are educated in other countries. In most of the countries represented, sadly, there are still special schools for students with special needs. In many countries they are treated as "inferior" citizens and not allowed to integrate at all with the rest of the population. Interestingly, the notable exception is Peru; at least according to the individuals interviewed.

When we teach students from other countries in our US classrooms it's important to understand
something about the education experiences they have already had before coming to the US.

The picture is of part of Sefton Park school in which I started my teaching career in Bristol, England. The windows to my classroom are just to the left of the inside corner of the building. My fourth-grade classes averaged thirty students for the 5 years I taught there. The students' families had ethnic origins primarily in Pakistan, India, the West Indies and,of course, England. My first professional development as a teacher involved learning about some of the cultural characteristics of the Indian, Pakistani, and West Indian cultures and way of life.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Best Advice

I've just put my advising sign-up sheet on the wall outside my office for students to sign up for their Fall advising sessions. I meet with each of my advisees to go over their plans for the next semester and generally check in with how things are going.

When I first meet a new advisee, usually as a sophomore, the first thing I say is that the degree they are working towards is their degree. By this I mean that they can put together the courses they would like to take, the courses they are interested in, as they fulfill the degree requirments. My role is to give advice as to whether the choices they make are the best choices for now and for the future. For example, in the short term I don't want my advisees to overload themselves with too many courses requiring field placements or labs in one semester. In the long term it's important to think about the things that future employers might be looking for in a transcript or cv.

With the double major requirement for Education majors it's really important to keep an eye on the sequence of courses in each major. To do this we have the students write out their 4-year plan on sticky Post-its on two manilla folders as in the picture above. We deliberately keep the process low-tech so that changes can be easily made anywhere and at any time. It's a really good feeling to open the folders and see how everything fits together too. There's an Advising web-page that students can use to put together their 4-year plan and keep track of everything else such as the required 60 hours of public school classroom experience prior to student teaching.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Teaching Can Run in the Family

Like many other walks in life teaching can run in the family. I know many teachers whose parents were teachers and whose children are teachers. I also know many teachers who come from families where there are no other teachers too. I got into teaching because the field hockey team I played on at weekends was composed almost entirely of teachers. It was a mixed team, 6 men and 5 women players and we were called the Jackdaws. At the time I was a Quantity Surveyor but didn't really like it. So I quit my job and went off to college at 21.


There are lots of reasons why we become teachers. Some get into it because they love being around children while others want to change the world. Some like the idea of the long summer vacations while others love a particular subject such as math or english. There are those also who like the idea working with specific populations of students such as English language learners or students with special needs.

Whatever the reason, it's important to explore that reason and there's no better way than getting classroom experience in a public school on the "other side of the desk". In my case, I certainly didn't become a teacher because all teachers like field hockey, but being around teachers and hearing them talk about their jobs sewed a seed of curiosity that I followed until I had gained enough classroom experience that I knew that was what I wanted to do with my life.


That's my daughter Marie and son Andrew in the picture about 4 years ago trying to stop me from watching a St. Mike's women's basketball game. My daughter is now getting her graduate degree in special education at St. Mike's and my son works one day a week in Alliot, the college cafeteria. Although he graduated H.S. this past summer, because he has a disability, Down Syndrome, he has four more years of H.S. eligibility during which time he will work part-time jobs such as serving food at Alliot.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Best 4 x 4 by Far


Like many other colleges and universities in the US St. Michael's is moving to a 4 x 4 system of courses. This permanent change will affect all students coming to St. Michael's in the Fall 2011 semester and beyond. What this basically means is that students will take four 4-credit courses each semester instead of the current five 3-credit courses. The primary reason for this is so that students can become more deeply engaged with fewer topics of study each semester.

As you can imagine making such fundamental changes to a college curriulum has been a lengthy and involved task. Each course within each major, and each major in each deparment has had to be reconfigured in terms of seat time, content, assignments and all the other many different things that go into constructing a college degree. The Liberal Studies requirements has also been reconfigured so that it more closely represents the needs of students preparing for life in the twenty-first century.

In the Education Department this has been an exciting process as we have reconfigured our courses and the degree requirements while still addressing the VTDOE licensure requirements which all our graduating students must demonstrate proficiency in. Luckily, my Math/Science course just needed a little tinkering as it was already a 4-credit course but the Schools and Society course I teach will need to expand by a third.

The other 4 x 4 in my life is this 1973 Land Rover; the Land Rover motto is the blog title for today. I love tinkering with old cars and this one reminds me of the days I spent working on Motorway (Interstate) construction during summer vacations when I was completing my undergraduate degree in England in the '70s. I would have to "chauffeur" the civil engineer around all day on the unfinished Motorway avoiding huge earth moving machinery. I remember writing educational essays on fence-posts while waiting for him. I wonder if they are still there?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

"To Teach or Not To Teach?"that is .......

the question. We're into the second week of public classroom experiences in my sophomore class and it is so exciting watching the students come to terms with whether they think they want to teach or not. One student has already decided teaching is not for her and has dropped the course.

Everyone else has thrown themselves into the experience whole heartedly whether they end up continuing in the licensure program or not. Their first reactions to being on the "other side of the desk" make for great discussions. Some find it challenging at first while others seem to take to it immediately. For some, they have wanted to teach since they can't-remember-when while others are still exploring if it really is what they want to do. It's Columbus Day break this coming week so I won't see them until the week after when they will have lots more stories to share.

The Juniors in the math/science class are also enjoying their experiences teaching math in public school classrooms. Some of them are quite surprised by how math education has changed even in the short time since they were in elementary school. They seem to really appreciate the focus on developing the children's mathematical understanding.

I absolutely love steam trains and always visit one of the preservation railways in England every time I visit. This is one of the steam trains on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway that runs from Whitby where Bram Stoker wrote about Dracula. There are also some wonderful old videos on YouTube by John Betjeman, England's poet laureate and steam enthusiast in the 60s and 70s like this one, Branch Line.

Monday, October 4, 2010

An Amazing Classroom Activity


This summer I read Malcolm Gladwell's Blink and was really intrigued by his reference to several things mathematical. In particular he describes how, in China, in takes considerably less time to count from 1 to 10 in Chinese than it does in English because the number names are shorter. He went on to suggest that this is one of the reasons why it is easier to learn math in China. So in class last week I asked Jeff, who grew up in Taiwan, and Sheila, who grew up in the US, to count aloud from 1 to 10 at a normal speed, Jeff in Chinese and Sheila in English, starting at the same time.


Sure enough, Jeff had finished counting by the time Sheila had reached 8. Most Asian students also do not have to deal with the incredibly difficult, non-intuitive and odd words "eleven" and "twelve", as well as the difficult to say "thirteen". Counting the teen numbers in Asian languages is achieved simply by putting the single digit number names together with the number name for ten as in "ten and one", ten and two" and so on. These two facts alone probably account for why Asian students tend to learn to count more efficiently than US students and hence do better at math. It really has little if nothing to do with having better teachers or educational systems.
In fact, Jeff gets quite a kick out of finally understanding many of the things he learned by rote in Taiwan.

In England, they call high wheelers "Penny Farthings" after the two coins that are no longer used. We would call it a "Quarter-Dime" but it doesn't seem the same somehow!!!




Friday, October 1, 2010

Practice - The Other Cornerstone

Theory and practice; theory and practice; you cannot have one without the other. All of the good thinking about teaching and learning our students do has limited value if they cannot practice their ideas and skills with real students in real classrooms. At St. Michael's we are blessed with a remarkable variety of classroom settings where our teacher licensure candidates can gain experience working with students representing the entire spectrum of the K -12 population. Here's a Google map with links to all the schools we use for our field placements.

I know it's hard to believe when one considers Vermont but we are situated in a remarkably diverse area in terms of the types of schools and student populations in those schools. Both the Burlington and Winooski school districts, each less than 5 miles from campus, are resettlement centers for immigrants to the US (the children are called "newcomers" in the schools) from all over the world. Something like 40 different languages are spoken in schools in these two school districts alone. We celebrate this diversity as a gift to our local culture.

Schools range from relatively large to significantly small, from new to old, and from private to public, from rural to suburban to inner city and from more or less homogeneous to completely heterogeneous in terms of the ethnic, SES and cultural backgrounds of the student body. This incredible diversity means that students pursuing teacher licensure through either of the two licensure programs (K - 6 or 7 - 12) gain experience working in all types of educational settings and with all types of students, faculty and administrators.

The public school classroom-based experiences begin with the very first Education course and are an integral part of every Education course in some way culminating with the full semester student teaching experience. All the full time faculty in the Education Department work with students in public and private schools settings so our theories and ideologies remain grounded
in practice.
That's Sahar, one of the fifth graders at the Barnes Sustainability Academy in Burlington.


Thursday, September 30, 2010

Theory - One Cornerstone

I first studied John Dewey when I was a grad student at the University of Illinois. My first semester, Fall 1977, I took a course with Joe Burnett, Dean of the College of Education at U of I and the world's foremost expert on Dewey. In that class, Burnett shared an example of Dewey's ideas about reflective thought from his book How We think.

It involved Dewey standing on the deck of a Lake Champlain ferry in the 1920s, the same ferry as the one in the picture, trying to work out the purpose of the pole protruding from the ferry wheel house. You can just see the pole bisecting the word Champlain. After much reflective thought, and to keep a long story short, Dewey concludes the purpose of the pole is to serve as a false bow for the ferry so the captain has something to aim the vessel with; the ferry has no conventional pointed bow.

Learning to become a teacher involves the development of many different skill sets and theoretical ideas. The relationship between them is what Dewey called using one's executive means to achieve one's inspired vision. In other words we must have opportunbities to develop our ideas about teaching and then put them into practice.

In my Schools and Society course one of the assignments requires the students to write a paper on what they think their Teacher Licensure program will be like at SMC based on the "Great Educators" whose theories form the basis of the program. Before the semester started I asked my colleagues which "Great Educators" had influenced their thinking most. The students and I then created a Great Educators web-page with links to information about those 18 Great Educators (9 elementary and 9 secondary, for the purpose of the assignment). They will use this resource to construct their papers which are due around Thanksgiving.

One of the first things I did when I arrived in Vermont in 1982 was to visit Dewey's house on the UVM campus.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

How Do I Teach?

I can't remember the exact time when I became a constructivist teacher. I think it just happened as I began to realize the importance of the learner being intellectually involved in her/his own construction of meaning. It probably started when I was teaching my fourth grade students all those years ago at Sefton Park Junior School in England. Over the years I have found that, regardless of age, the individual learner has to be involved in the learning process.

I can teach but my students do the learning. As a teacher, my task is to structure the learning experiences so that all the students in my courses have the opportunity to construct meaningful connections between what they already know and the new meanings they are creating. Sometimes this means modifying what you already know and understand and sometimes it means just extending one's existing ideas.

I also believe, and I have come to this realization more recently, that my students must have a voice in their learning. In all my classes, both graduate and undergraduate, an important part of the learning process is for students to be able to talk about what they have prepared for class. Each student's interpretation of the reading, the eCollege activity, or their public school classroom experience provides a different but important perspective on the topic of the class. Being able to acknowledge and accommodate these different perspectives is a valuable learning experience on so many levels.

The picture is byPhoebe Green, a student in my Teaching Math and Science class last year who managed to cultivate several vegetables including this bean from the 15 Bean Soup beans we planted during one of the science classes. This is a great activity to teach 4th grade students.



Monday, September 27, 2010

A Great Plan Gets Better


It's great when a good plan comes togther especially when it continues to get even better. As a result of my research I am including more activities and information in my courses about teaching students who come to the US from other countries.
One of the most important things we can do as teachers is to have some understanding of the types of educational experiences the students have had before arriving in the US.

As an assignment in my sophopmore level Schools and Society course we are getting together next week with a group of international students in Rick Gamache's class. Rick is a professor in the Applied Linguistics Department and an international student advisor. The plan was for my students to interview his international students to find out about the Education systems in their countries. He then thought it would be a great idea for his students to interview my students about the US Education system.

This all grew out of my son Andrew needing to interview a student from Africa for his African studies course at his high school. Rick has also been working with a group of six African Fulbright scholars. In the end, this plan flourished to include a trip by the six African Fulbright scholars to make a presentation in Andrew's African studies course at Mount Mansfield Union H.S.

The picture is of the Callanish Standing Stones on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides off the northwest coast of Scotland where my brother Alastair lives.