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.