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.