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.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Busy, Busy Week

Every semester has its own rhythm depending on the courses I teach, the committees I'm on and the research I'm engaged in. It's about the 3rd or 4th week of the semester when things begin to settle into a routine.

This week the juniors in my math/science class completed their second week of public school classroom experiences and were full of wonderful stories about working with their 2nd - 5th grade students. Many of them are working with students recently arrived from Asia, Africa and other countries around the world.

My sophomores begin their field experiences next Thursday so there will more stories and experiences to hear about. My classes really seem to come to life when we can talk about real children.

I also heard this week that I had been awarded $4200 from the vanderHeyden foundation to bring the 3 noted Irish musicians to campus for the Concert for St. Patrick in March. Liz Carroll, Mick Maloney, and Billy McComiskey really are icons in their field and should provide the community with a wonderful concert. The concert will be free so it will be quite a challenge limiting attendance to the 350 capacity of the McCarthy Performing Arts Center.

It was also a busy advising week with several of my advisees wondering if becoming a teacher was what they really wanted to do with their lives. After 90 minutes of difficult thought and reflection one of my sophomores made the brave decision that perhaps a career in teaching was not something she really wanted to embark upon right now. She decided to continue with the same major she had paired with her Education major so no time/credit or additional expense had been lost or incurred.

The other student, a junior was having a difficult time accommodating two completely different philosophical viewpoints of Education. I really like it when my students are faced with these dilemmas because they are authentic opportunities for learning. We resolved the issue by deciding that any viewpoint you hold and believe in is more valid if you have a good understanding of the opposite point of view.

And isn't that a cool mathematically challenged double decker bus from the world of Harry Potter?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Fear of Math?

Few people really fear math enough to be classified as mathphobic or have math anxiety. There are even some people who have dyscalculia or the inability to deal with quantity and number. But I would imagine that for most people reading this, math is not their favorite topic in the world. Until I started teaching it it was not mine either.

If we look at math from a real world persepctive, an aesthtic one or just for plain fun it takes on a completely new dimension. Math IS the science of pattern. Look at this; isn't it amazing. If we can teach young children to see the patterns in math things become much easier to understand and remember. All the facts and procedures we have traditionally learned through memorization become so much easier to remember and work with when we understand them through the patterns they make. No rigor is lost and the basics are still just as important.

I tell the students in my Elementary School Math and Science class that it may not be their fault if they don't like or are not good at math. There are sadly still some places where people think it's OK if students don't understand or like math. In my course we explore everything, well almost everything, we think we know about math. We do it in an interesting and fun way so that when called upon to teach the next generation, my students will all understand the math they are expected to teach.

Here's a link to my math webpage where you'll find some neat examples of student projects and some motivating on-line interactive math activities. I promiose not to blog any more about math; Hmmmmm, OK I promise to try not to blog any more about math.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Fall in Vermont

Fall in Vermont means Harvest festival events. The crisp mornings and bright cloudless skies that characterize September have me thinking about the two festivals I always attend; one at Shelburne Farms and the other at Underhill.

The Shelburne Farms festival is exciting because my band, The Highland Weavers, has been playing there for over twenty years. We are part of the entertainment which goes on all day, (Saturday Sept 25 -we're playing at noon) and includes music of all kinds as well as just about every agricuturally related craft you can think of. That's my daughter, Marie, on the keyboard and me in the middle. The third member is Marty Morrissey, the only real Irishman in the band.

The other wonderful thing about the Fall is that it's soccer and field hockey season at St. Mikes. With my son Andrew I attend all the home men's and women's soccer games and the field hockey games. Jenny Boudrow (field hockey) and Teal Bryan (soccer) are both in my math and science class so it's great to stand on the sideline and cheer them on.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Teaching and Learning at SMC

I'm really glad that I volunteered to teach the Sophomore level intro to Education class Schools and Society. The difference between the Sophomores in Schools and Society and the Juniors in my Math and Science Ed class is only one year in time but in terms of teaching and Education it sometimes seems like a lifetime.

While all my Juniors are clearly committed to wanting to teach elementary school my Sophomores have varying degrees of uncertainty which I find wonderful. Some are positive they want to teach, some want to teach but are unsure at which level in the K - 12 spectrum and some are still not sure whether teaching is right for them.

My task is to present them with a variety of learning experiences which will help them come to a decision by the end of the semester. They really need to do this because there are different courses they need to take depending on whether they want elementary or secondary licensure or not an Education major at all.

The other wonderful thing about teaching the course is that I get to revisit many of the Great Educators who were instrumental in the formation of my own ideas and beliefs about teaching; Nel Noddings and her 'caring curriculum', John Dewey and his theory of discovery learning and Lilian Katz and her ideas about the importance of teachers having positive dispositions. I was lucky enough to work with Dr. Katz when I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois.
The pictures above are of my students hard at work in my Math and Science Ed course

Friday, September 10, 2010

One of the neat things about St. Michael's is the existence of hidden treasures that are, at first, not so obvious: events such as the Playhouse theater and places such as the Teaching Gardens of Saint Michael's College. Established several years ago by Prof. Bang Jensen (Education) and Prof. Mark Lubkowitz (Biology) as three gardens; Books in Bloom, Native Plants, and the Arboretum, the Teaching Gardens have now expanded to include the Word Garden and the International Garden.
The International Garden has an "equator" running through the middle of it which is really neat.
My favorite part of the Teaching Gardens is the privet hedge from the Harry Potter books because it reminds me of England where everyone has a privet hedge somewhere in their garden. Almost any time of day someone is relaxing in the Gardens, having class, or making sentences with the words in stone in the Word Garden.
For a small financial outlay Chris Cleary, the stone artist will laser your favorite word in stone.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Number 4

One of the most interesting parts of my research into how students from other countries have learned math in different parts of the world is how different numbers mean different things to different people. (I'm still trying to finish my third research paper for the year on teaching math to English language learners but the beginning of term business still predominates. This doesn't stop me, however, from thinking about the implications of what we are finding out).

One of the International students at SMC we interviewed last semester spoke of how the number 4 is closely connected to the idea of death in his home country, South Korea. He said that the fourth floor of a building is usually labeled F and not 4 and that there are several other examples where the number 4 is not used in a visual sense.

So can you imagine what it must be like to be a nine-year-old recently arrived from S. Korea and finding yourself in a classroom with a large Number 4 over the door. If, as teachers, we are aware of these subtle cultural differences then we can help young chidlren overcome their fears as they begin their new lives.

Here is a link to my Their Math Counts Too website which is where I'm collating the results of our research. That's a picture of Sahar on the site, she's a fifth grade student at the Sustainability Academy at Barnes in Burlington who has helped me with my research.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Concert for St. Patrick

For the past four years I have planned and implemented a Concert for St. Patrick at SMC during the month of March. There are several reasons I spend many hours doing this not least among which is the desire to return St. Patrick's day to a festival of dance and music as opposed to drinking frenzy which it seems to have become everywhere. I have also seen it as an opportunity to promote Irish dance and music performance on the part of members of the SMC comunity. Several years ago Julie Griffin Carty, an SMC student and world class Irish dancer started, together with several others, the Celtic Knights Irish dance group. Now numbering some 20 students they perform at many events and are quite spectacular.

Over the years many SMC students have performed at the concerts including singers, pipers, whistle players and groups. We have also been entertained by groups from the Vermont folk scene such as Atlantic Crossing, Woods Tea Company and my own band, the Highalnd Weavers. Declan McCabe (biology professor) and Richard Kujawa (geography professsor) are two notable regulars.

This coming March we have the possiblity of being entertained by three of the iconic legends of Irish music in the US. If all the stars allign (i.e. the funds can be accumulated) Liz Carroll, Mick Moloney, and Billy McComiskey will perform at the McCarthy performing arts center on campus in March.

The other exciting part of the Concerts for St. Patrick is that they are fund raisers for local charities. The first year we raised funds that became part of the SMC response to Katrina. This was followed by two years raising funds for Parent to Parent of Vermont. We now raise money for the Tom Sustic Fund for Families of Children with Cancer. The experience also provides an opportunity for one or two SMC students to learn how to put a concert like this together.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The End of the First Week

I've now met all 36 of the students in the two classes I'm teaching this semester. I have a course release this term to help put together the Vermont State DOE ROPA report which is required of all colleges in Vermont that have teacher education programs leading to licensure. But that's another story. My major task now is to match all 36 faces with the 36 names on my class lists. I will do this by September 14th! All my first day of class nerves have gone and I'm excited to really get to know the students and help them learn the course material.

There's quite a difference between sophomores and juniors in terms of the way they are in class. On the first day of my sophomore class they just sat silently waiting. In my junior class they happily chatted as many of them have already had Education courses together. By the second day of the sophomore class they were chatting like juniors. They had already completed the first reading assignment and were eager to share their thoughts. Active participation: I think they really got it.

In addition to teaching courses SMC expects all tenured faculty to engage in "scholarly activity". This can take many forms. If you are an artist of some sort then it's a piece of art, performance or visual. If you are a scientist it is usually some form of scientific paper based on your resarch. For Education professors like me scholarly activity is more typically a paper in an Education journal such as NCTM's Teaching Children Mathematics. Last year I had two papers published and was guest editor for a New England math journal. This year I have submitted two papers with one more to go by the end of September. The first had to be revised and I haven't heard about the second one yet. Each time you get "The Letter" it's a little bit like getting your SAT results all over again.

I'm doing something different in November that I've never done before; I'm presenting a Webinar to an international audience. It's based on my current research which is in the area teaching math to students who are English Langauge Learners. More about that later.

On a personal note winter is on its way and I'm seriously thinking about taking up snowboarding to see if I can keep up with my son, Andrew. One of the fundamental beliefs I have about teaching children is that we must be very careful not to underestimate the positive and wonderful things children are capable of. Here's a YouTube video of Andrew snowboarding last winter at Bolton Valley, a wonderful ski area less than 20 miles from SMC. Stick with the video until you see him doing 360 after 360, remembering that he has Down Syndrome. I had no idea he could do this until I saw the video from the camera on Jeremy's helmet. Jeremy is the wonderful VASS volunteer who has been teaching Andrew to snowboard.