Friday, July 29, 2011

Early Math Knowledge is Critical

I have always believed that the most important year of our educational experience is kindergarten. If children are allowed to develop a really good understanding of basic numeracy in kindergarten then they are set for life mathematically as long as this understanding is nurtured and developed through the rest of the grades.

A really neat article appeared this week in eSchool News describing the results of some interesting research at the University of Missouri.

The researchers, monitoring 177 elementary students, were able to confirm that those students who developed a really good understanding of basic numeracy skills in kindergarten developed their math skills much more efficiently in first grade. These basic skills include knowing the Arabic numerals used in our counting system, knowing what these numerals represent, being able to count with meaning and understanding some basic facts.

The key to mathematical success for students in kindergarten is the presentation of the material in a way that is meaningful for the students. For example, learning to count rationally is a complex activity in which students need to understand, for example, the ideas of one and one more and one to one correspondence . When students first learn to count, say five fingers, they name each finger as one, two, three and so on. They don't fully understand the cardinality of counting (e.g. "fiveness:) until they associate the word "five" with the group of five fingers. We subconsciously give children a clue to this when we count with them. The first four counting words, one, two, three and four have rising intonation. When we say "five" we use falling intonation. In other words the voice goes up four times and then down for the final number of the group signifying the end of that particular counting process.

This, and many other important pieces of pedagogical content knowledge, comprise the Teaching Elementary School Math and Science course I teach at St. Mike's.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Science and Education

As prospective elementary school teachers, SMC students majoring in elementary education need to know how to teach science concepts and skills to young children. Saint Mike's is a great place to learn how to do this because there are so many resources available at the college and throughout Vermont. In addition to the science part of the Teaching Elementary Math and Science course students can take any number of courses through the science department at St. Mike's where there are many faculty familiar with the Vermont State licensure requirements for elementary teachers. One such faculty member is Professor Declan McCabe, who, in addition to being a great singer of Irish folk songs is also a key figure in the Vermont EPSCoR Streams Project. Through this project he has involved many SMC science and education majors in the process of collecting data through research projects into maintaining the health and stability of the stream and river systems in Vermont.

Another way Education majors can enhance their science knowledge is by taking the new Environmental Studies major. This is a wonderful new natural sciences, social sciences and humanities integrated major that provides the student with a wealth of knowledge and skills to share with young children. Since the State of Vermont licensure regulations require all Elementary Education majors to have a second major this new major provides students with a wonderful opportunity to further their interests in the sciences.

In addition, there is a new "half course" requirement in science education in the Education Department that provides students with the opportunity to experience one of the local science resource such as ECHO and the Shelburne Farms as well as work with students in science education on public school classrooms.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Contributing to the Field

One of the many duties of a faculty member at St. Mike's is to "contribute to the field". This basically means that we need to contribute to the wealth of knowledge that informs what we teach and what we profess. There are several ways of doing this. One can write a book, a scholarly article for a professional journal or make a presentation at a regional, national or international conference. Many people have become quite famous over the years through their contributions to the field of education and many of them can be found on the Great Educators website my students helped construct last semester in the introductory Education course I teach. You'll notice that some of the great educators date back several hundred years yet their ideas are still very applicable to the classrooms and schools of today.

I was recently asked to make presentations at two conferences in November. The first is at the annual conference of the Massachusetts Down Syndrome congress where I'll be presenting a paper on teaching math to children with Down Syndrome. The second conference, also in November is the annual ATMNE conference in Rhode Island. This presentation will be all about the power of the referent unit. It's a new and different way of looking at how we teach math to young children so that they develop a better understanding of number and quantity.

I completed my first sessions of meeting with incoming first year students last week. It was a great experience in which I think I was just as nervous as they were. The primary goal of the sessions was to get them signed up for their courses for their first semester at St. Mike's in the Fall. To my great relief they all managed to navigate their way through the electronic registration system and get the courses they wanted.

The picture is of my rather serious-looking son Andrew standing next to an eagle at the VINS exhibition in Quechee, Vt. VINS, the Vermont Institute for Natural Science, is a great resource for both schools and individuals in Vermont.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

English Language Learners

One of the ways the Teacher Education programs at St. Mike's have changed during the past five years has been the inclusion in almost every course of information for helping teachers teach English Language Learners (ELLs). This has happened at both the graduate and undergraduate levels and is a direct result of the increasing numbers of ELL students in US classrooms.

Both the Burlington and Winooski school districts have large numbers of K-12 students who have been resettled, along with their families, in these two Vermont towns. Since both are right next to St. Mike's it is relatively easy for us to place students in these schools so that they can gain practical experiences learning how to teach English Language Learners. This gives St. Mike's graduates a significant competitive advantage in the job market when they are looking for education related employment upon graduation.

It is an exciting time in my own field, math education, as we begin to realize that ELL students face significant challenges in learning math in US classrooms while at the same time learning the English language. Contrary to common belief math is not the same the world over. There are significant differences in the math students learn as well as the way they learn it in different countries around the world. For example, some countries don't use base ten while others have completely different ways of solving simple problems. In many countries, boys and girls are educated in different schools while in some countries girls may receive no formal education at all.

I gave a presentation to a group of teachers in a local middle school this morning in which I shared my research findings and introduced them to my website My Math Counts Too. I always begin such presentation by challenging the assumptions that many of us hold regarding math education. For example it's easy to attribute a student's lack of math skills on the fact that they have very limited English. This is not always true. I once worked with a third grade student who could not count past 8 in English. When we interviewed her in French, her first language, she could not count past huit. It turned out she had received no formal math education in her native Congo.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A New Four Years

Tomorrow I meet with two groups of students new to St. Mike's to help them register for classes for the Fall semester. This is the first time I have had this experience at St. Mike's so I'm both looking forward to it as something new and different yet am a little apprehensive as to whether I will be able to answer all their questions and help them with the technology involved in registering on-line.

I think the key to a successful experience for both the students and me is to remember that new beginnings, no matter how carefully orchestrated, are going to be exciting, unfamiliar, and new all at the same time. They are going to be different things to different people and unique to each person in every aspect of the word. What is important to one will be insignificant to another; what is worrying for one will be a breeze to someone else, and what is exciting for yet another student will be ho-hum for someone else.

At times like this I always remember my first trip to the US in 1977. It was also my first airplane flight so there was much that was new and exciting. I can still remember my first thoughts. I can actually remember being concerned that passengers on the plane were not issued with parachutes; believe it or not!!!! I can also remember looking out of the airplane window as we came in to land at Chicago's O'Hare airport and wondering what all those little blue circles and rectangles were next to the houses. It actually took me several days to realize they were swimming pools. I was also amazed at how straight the roads were through the Illinois cornfields but was relieved that the language was the same; or so I thought at the time.

So I will try to be as prepared as I possibly can be tomorrow as I welcome my two groups of students to four years at St. Mike's. But above all I will remember that they are individuals who will each be experiencing something slightly different and unique. And if I get stumped by a question there are so many support people available that a good answer will not be far away.

That's me on the right of my brother Alastair in the picture on a recent trip to Scotland. I have yet to wear my kilt to class but I may well do this year.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

College Friends for Life

Earlier this week one of my old college friends posted a link on his Facebook page to a Ken Robinson TED that I also happen to use in my Schools and Society course at St. Mike's. Philip, the friend who posted it, and I went to St. Matthias College in Bristol England in the late 60s and early 70s. As the FB thread developed he remarked on how our college days had been so formative in the way we perceived Education, and probably the world in general, for the rest of our lives.

As I recall the classes and experiences I had as a student at St. Matthias I can trace the origins of many of the educational ideas I believe in today. I even remember some of the names from those halcyon days such as Mr. Pennycad, Mrs. Husband, Miss Graham and Mr Wright. I remember vividly the first classroom experience I had where the teacher I was assigned to told me, on the third day, to walk into the classroom after morning recess, clap my hands twice and tell the 34 third grade students to sit down and listen. My first act as a teacher was a success!

I also remember the incredibly active social lives we led in a time when students carried the social conscience of the world. There were sit-ins or lie-ins almost every week for some cause or other. We also played sports such as cricket, soccer and badminton. We even played croquet which was always taken very seriously. One evening, we actually staked out a rather annoying fellow student by hammering croquet hoops over his arms and legs so he couldn't move. I seem to remember someone releasing him at about 4a.m. the following morning!

My FB friends list is full of old college friends now dispersed around the world but I bet if you spent half an hour talking education with each one there would be some common themes that kept returning because of the common incredible experiences we gained at that great little college. I'm sure the same is true of St. Mike's graduates.