Sunday, February 27, 2011

Teaching, Sports,and Other Activities

Andrew, my son, and I watched the St.Mike's women's basketball playoff game against UMass-Lowell today. It was a first round playoff game and St. Mike's won 74-59. The men's team also won their first round play-off game on Saturday which marks a resurgence in the fortunes of both the men's and women's teams.

I have a particular interest in the women's team because I am the academic advisor to the team. I am rarely, if ever, called upon to do anything because they are all such great student athletes who all understand the importance of playing well on the court and working hard in the classroom.

Two of the students are also Education majors. Marylyn Ferreira, the demon guard, is in the last semester completing her Elementary Education degree while Alexa Long, a dominating forward, is a sophomore just beginning her journey in Education.

Many of the education majors at St. Mikes also play on other varsity sports teams including lacrosse, baseball, rugby, volleyball, field hockey and and ice hockey. I think this is absolutely wonderful because it adds to the skills and interests that our students bring to the classroom when they are working with young students in the elementary, middle or high school. It's not just in sports that our Education majors excel outside the classroom. I think if I were to take a poll of our education students I would find they are involved in just about every aspect of the life of the college in some way.

Becoming a teacher also means becoming an interesting person whether it's on the sports field, the stage, or volunteering for one of the many service projects on campus.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Changing World of "the Basics".

This is a picture of the first real toy my parents gave me when I was a lad; around 1952 I think it was. Many toys have come and gone since that time but this, and a Dinky Ferrari that arrived a year later, are the only two that survive in my collection from those early days. It was red when new but I painted it green to match the color of the buses in Bristol, UK, where I grew up. If you look closely you'll see that it's broken in several places and there is a large nut and bolt right through the center from top to bottom. I remember my dad repairing it when it kept falling apart; such were the times.

Apart from being a wonderful nostalgia piece the double-decker bus reminds me of a different time; when production techniques were much more primitive than they are now, and when the value of something as simple as this toy meant that my dad had to repair it rather than just throw it away and get a new one.

There are those, in quite large numbers, who would have us return elementary school teaching methods to those in fashion in the 1950s and '60s. They would like to see desks in rows, memorization rather than understanding in math and the development of recitation rather than personal reading skills. This constant call for a "return to the basics" in Education is quite out of place in a culture where change and progress are welcomed and encouraged in almost every other field of human endeavor. I cannot imagine going back 60 years in medicine or technology.

The answer is a complex one that cannot be arrived at through a single explanation. For many successful people the "traditional" education they received as a child worked wonders and should be replicated today. Sadly, for each successful person there were probably a dozen or more for whom this type of education failed them. Today, we expect all students to succeed at some level rather than just the top 5% as identified on the bell curve. Today, we expect all children regardless of their ability or disability to succeed; no longer do we shut children with special needs away in institutions designed to keep them out of sight.

The elementary schools of today are places where children are taught to value and learn from their peers; to understand what they are learning and to develop a joy in learning that will last a life-time. Children are still taught the "basics". It's just that the basics are not the same as they were 60 years ago just like the double-decker bus probably would not be a hit with most 6 year-olds today.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Learn What Matters

I often think about the St. Mike's motto, Learn What Matters. I think about it in the context of the courses I teach because although both my undergraduate courses are required courses for licensure in elementary or secondary education I still have the "academic freedom" to develop the content of my courses.

This is where I have to really consider what matters both to me as a teacher and to my students who will be future teachers. Time is limited in a 4-credit course so I have to select the content really carefully making sure that the experiences my students have and the knowledge, understanding, and dispositions they will learn, are the most relevant to both their life goals and to my vision of what teaching is all about.

Right now, I believe that what matters most in my courses is that students truly understand what they are learning and that they are equipped with the understandings and abilities to make wise decisions in their lives. The more we understand what we learn, as well as the experiences we have, the more empowered we are to lead full and good lives through which we can pursue personal happiness.

This week in my math course we explored what it means to understand the Base Ten system of place value that we use to count and communicate number. I asked the student what a 'place' was and what 'value' meant. Everyone stumbled around trying to define the terms in the context of our counting system because they were so familiar with the terms and yet, had never questioned what they really meant. After half an hour of working on a variety of activities I think everyone understood that "place" only has meaning in the context of other "places" and that "value" only has meaning if one identifies the referent for a particular place. For example, in 6,284, the tens place only exists, and has value, because of the ones place. Remove the ones place and the value of the 8 changes from 8 tens to 8 ones (tens and ones are the referents).

When you have to teach young children all about our number system, understanding how our number system works is Learning What Matters.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Other Side of the Desk

My Schools and Society students have started their field placements at the two schools in the Williston School District, Williston Central and AllenBrook schools. Central is a 3 - 8th grade school and AllenBrook a preK - 2nd grade. They are both incredible schools with dedicated teachers and administrators; great role models for the SMC students who are getting their first experience of what it's like to be the "other side of the desk".

It was neat to hear the students in class after their first visit; I could barely stop them talking about their teachers and the students they are working with. This is so different from the first week of class when they would hardly say anything. It will be like this for the rest of the semester as we weave their school experiences into the educational theories they have been, and will continue to be, learning.

Since this is an introductory level course I try to give the students wide exposure to many different educational theories so that when they study them in more depth in more specialized courses later in their program they will already be familiar with the names and main ideas. This is a little bit like the "spiral curriculum" used in public schools where concepts are introduced at successively more complex levels as the students develop their cognitive skills. It's also a bit like developmentally appropriate practice which is a theory often applied to early childhood development. The students don't yet have enough practical experience to apply the theories in depth, but they soon will.

Then they will be ready to take their places as teachers in public school classrooms just like many of the teachers at the Williston schools who were also students at St. Mike's.

The picture is of the recently installed wind turbine that generates electricity for the Allen Brook school. The school is in one of the windiest locations I know of in Vermont and the turbine is the brainchild of John Terko, the school principal.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Math is the Science of Pattern

We had a great discussion in my math ed. class yesterday in which I suggested to the students that not all math needed to be problem centered as suggested in the book. I think mathematics has an aesthetic component that students should learn to appreciate. As a group, we're reading a great book, Making Sense, by James Hiebert and several other great luminaries on the world of mathematics education.

Every so often, however, I feel I need to disagree with their wise words. I do this partly to get the students to think more critically and partly because I really do disagree. Although the book was written 14 years ago it is still very current except in those one or two areas where I think we've moved on. One of those areas is in the authors' need for all math to be problem centered.

Problem-centered math education arose in response to the traditional idea that students were passive participants in their own education and that their heads were simply to be filled with information. We know now that students must be actively engaged in their learning and that problem centered math education is one of the best ways of doing that. However, there is more to math that solving problems. Math education must have a strong and well planned aesthetic component in just the same way as do language arts and the teaching of reading. When children learn language they learn all about alliteration and onomatopoeia and how to write poetry and construct creative writing stories. Students never seem to ask "when am I going to need this" as they do in math class when asked to learn the strategy for finding the volume of a cylinder.

We need to make sure that students develop the same appreciation for the pattern and art (click screen and turn the volume up) created by numerical and spatial relationships that they do when exploring word images and the creation of feelings and sentiment through writing.

There's a practical side to all this too as the recognition of a pattern really helps with memory and understanding. Learning one's multiplication facts as just adding another multiple as in one 3, two 3s, three 3s and so on dramatically increases the efficiency of the task.

Click on the picture above. Can you stop the circles moving? Are they really moving?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Great Educators

My Schools and Society course is at the point where the students are beginning to construct their Great Educators web page. Each student finds three good on-line resources connected with any of the Great Educators identified on the page. Once the page is completed they will use the resources to construct their first Philosophy of Education paper. This is something they will return to over the course of the program at SMC as they learn more about teaching, learning and education in general.

To construct the list of names I asked all 14 faculty members in the Education Department who had been an influence on their professional thinking and whose theories they referred to in their courses. The list is broad in both its scope and depth in terms of ideas and fields of study. There are even references to educators from the nineteenth century. There are, however, themes running through this list. There are quite a few progressive educators as well as those who believe in Education as a form of freedom. There are also several with a focus on learner-centered teaching and the importance of recognizing the stages of development that all students go through.

The picture, by the way, is of Matt, a recent SMC graduate who now teaches in the Burlington School District and frequently has SMC student teachers in his classroom. When the picture was taken, he was being a Word Wizard to motivate his students during a reading class. Matt is also a Great Educator.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Numbers in Our Lives

One of the topics in both my grad and undergrad math education courses this week is how our lives are decorated, for want of a better word, by numbers. The Super Bowl is on right now and we know how numbers in the form of stats, yards, inches, seconds, points and pounds are rasied every fdew seconds and can influence the outcome.

One of the things I do is ask the students to think about the numbers in their lives. Do they ride a 650? Do they drop 1 and purl 2? Do they live in 104? Are they 19 years old. The really fascinating thing about this topic is that the important numbers that define our culture such as 50 (States), 1492, 100 (senators) etc are different for different countries.

26 is really important to those who believe there should be a united Ireland while 3 is of great significance to Bosnians. I recently discovered that 4 is associated with death in many Asian countries and that 13 means virtually nothing to the same people.

Just think about all the sayings that have numbers in them; 3's a crowd, on cloud 9, the whole 9 yards and "gimme 5". Are they the same in each culture? Do people from other cultures know what we mean when we say 6 of one and half a dozen of the other? What if they have no word for 'dozen".

There's an advertisement currently running on several TV channels for the Direct TV company in which they say you can receive 6000 TV channels by Direct TV. If you were wondering what to watch and it took you just one second to check out each channel it would take you an hour and 40 minutes to go through all 6000 channels. By that time you would have to start all over again because you would have missed the time slot for the programs you were checking out!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Why such interest in numbers? Unless we make children aware of the numbers and numerical relationships, as well as every other type of math such as geometry, they will never see the relevance of what they are learning in the math class to their own lives.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Let's Not Forget Summerhill

Yesterday in my Schools and Society class the students presented their readings of four chapters in the section of the book titled What Makes a Good School. Each chapter described a school that worked, from an inner city school in New York, Central Park East to A.S. Neill's school, Summerhill, in England that he started in 1921.

Interestingly, these schools, and many like them are still labeled progressive even though, like Summerhill, they have existed successfully for 80 or more years. The existence of such schools serves to remind us that there are different ways of looking at the ways young children should be educated and the ways individuals learn best. This ideas of exploring alternatives is something that is woven into many of the education courses at St. Mike's where prospective teachers are challenged to think reflectively about what they really believe the teaching profession is all about. There are frequently lively discussions about the value and purpose of standardized testing and the radical idea that, given choices, young children will usually make the right one.

Two themes came out of the four chapters that we read and discussed; teachers must be passionate about something and teachers must care. For example, teachers must be passionate about what they teach and they must care about their students. A teacher's passion for learning or for history or Spanish literature can inspire students, while teachers who show they care help students develop positive feelings about themselves and their surroundings. To have both passion and caring is what makes a great teacher.

We may not be able to turn all our schools into replicas of Summerhill but we can take what matters from schools like these and incorporate it into what we believe teaching is all about..