Monday, August 29, 2011

First Day and Floods

I live in Richmond, Vermont which is around 15 miles down I89 from St. Mike's and it usually takes me 15 minutes to drive. This morning I left my house around 7:30 to get to my 9:50 class on time. I didn't make it. 3 of the 4 routes out of Richmond were flooded. This meant a long diversion north and then through Essex. I finally arrived in Essex only to be met by a parking-lot on Route 15. I returned home and sadly canceled my first class.

I later made it in to my 1:20-4:20 class after rush hour had died down. This was my Elementary Math and Science class and it was great to see many of the students I had in Schools and Society last Fall or Spring. I joked with several of them that they sat in the same seats as they had in the earlier class. The first class is always a time of nervousness and excitement for me. I'm never sure that they will get my somewhat droll British sense of humor ("We've got a lot to get through today so we may have to keep going until 6pm" said with a straight face). I also wonder whether I can convince them that math really can be user-friendly, interesting, relevant and aesthetic, and , most importantly, understandable. This usually takes quite a few classes but it's so important to start the course in the right direction.

I did miss meeting my first Schools and Society class but I will see them on Wednesday when we'll finalize the details for the interviews I have set up for them with a visiting group of Japanese students. We interview the students in small groups to find out what schools and education are like in Japan. Later in the semester we do this with students from a wide variety of countries. This helps my students get a better perspective on Education in the US as well as the type of schools immigrant children in the Burlington Schools might have attended before coming to the US. The global differences in K-12 education are sometimes quite unbelievable.

The picture is of Bridge Street in Richmond. The road continues a further 200 yards before it crosses the Winooski river.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

7 Ate 9

There's wonderful sign on a railway station in Durham, England that points the way to 'Platforms 1 to 3". We'll never know if the person responsible for that sign had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek (knowing British railways of the last century one can assume with 100% certainty it was a 'he') or not. But this wonderful example of math word play snapped by my colleague Prof. Valerie Bang-Jensen in the Word Garden, part of the SMC Teaching Gardens, clearly shows the work of a person with an appreciation for the more creative aspects of mathematics.

I have always thought the the inclusion of the aesthetics of math in the study of math makes it more user-friendly. For 250 years the math curriculum in public schools has suffered from a dearth of creativity brought about by the pragmatic need for all students to be able to "do the math". If we were to approach reading and the language arts with the same austerity with which we treat math there would be no creative writing, no poetry or anything else to relieve the monotony of decoding the written word. The "arts" in language arts help us recognise the beauty of language, the subtle variations in meaning, alliteration and other properties of language which enable us to make it personally meaningful and significant. Sadly there are virtually no equivalent properties of math. A review of the new Common Core standards illustrates just how sterile and uncreative our culture expects mathematics education in schools to be.

So I rejoice when I see an example of a kindred spirit, someone who is being linguistically creative with math, and I live in hope that one day we will be able to make the study of math as creative and personally meaningful as the study of language.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Hurricane and a New Semester

The Spring semester is the time the weather usually affects what happens at St. Mike's. Classes are occasionally canceled for snow storms, typically nor'easters, but this year it looks like the beginning of the Fall semester might coincide with hurricane Irene.

Several events have already been canceled and move-in day has been moved up to Saturday as well as Sunday. Two of my classes also begin on Monday and I'm beginning to wonder if we might be doing other things on Monday.

Forecasting hurricane's this far north is an inexact science but right now it looks as though it is on track to sock most of Vermont Sunday night and Monday morning. Hopefully, it will veer to the nor'east as these things usually do and we'll be spared Irene's wrath.

For those students wanting to learn more about the environment which, of course, includes hurricanes and other natural phenomena, there's a new interdisciplinary Environmental Studies major being offered through several departments this year at St. Mike's. This really is an exciting major which combines such diverse topics as meteorology, the politics of food, environmental ethics, philosophy of science, technology and environment, chemistry, human geography and more. It is the ideal major for elementary education students to combine with their education major. It will really stand out on a teaching job application not to mention the excitement one can foster in young children when speaking knowledgeably about hurricanes in the classroom.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Sports, caring and passion,

Last Week Shannon Kynoch, the assistant women's basketball coach asked me to be the faculty affiliate for the women's basketball team. This will be the third year I have done this and have to say it is a wonderful experience. Last year was particularly exciting with the team's first playoff win in many years and the coming year looks to carry on the same way. Logan Pintka and the other seniors have graduated of course but new recruits and the nucleus of last year's team will make for another successful year, I am sure.

Remarkably, the team had a 3.242 academic GPA at the end of last year which is higher than the college-wide GPA. Of course, I'd like to think, as faculty affiliate, I could take some credit for this but I can't. I have yet to meet with a member of the women's basketball team who is in academic difficulty.

My hunch is that the care and passion these young women show for their basketball rubs off to a considerable degree on everything else they do at college. In my experience, student athletes do not cut corners with their academic work in order to improve themselves on the court. I think one pursuit helps the other in a synergistic way that some other students may not experience.

The success of the SMC women's basketball team on the court and in the classroom is in stark contrast to what is happening in college sports nation-wide, especially at the larger, more "prestigious" IHEs. The recent debacle concerning the football team at the University of Miami makes one wonder if sports at such institutions really are, in fact, still sports.

PS. Well it's been a year since I wrote my first blog and I'm beginning to wonder if this might not be my last. I've enjoyed every minute of it but it's getting more and more difficult to think of something new each time. I can only blog when I have something to say and it's been a week since my least one. Perhaps the new semester will get me thinking again!!!!! Perhaps someone else in the Education Department would like to take my place!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Teach What Matters

The Common Core is almost upon us. The next iteration in the evolutionary process of deciding what to teach students in public school classrooms will become law within the next couple of years. Sadly, it is but an evolution of what went before. There is little, at least in the math standards, that engenders genuine excitement since it is basically what we've been tying to do for the past thirty years. Perhaps the greatest morsel of revolution is the reduction in the number of standards so that the requirements should no longer be, hopefully, "a mile wide and an inch deep". This should give students and teachers the chance to focus on what is really genuinely important in the world of quantitative literacy.

The old favorites, ambition, distraction, uglification and derision, to use the Mock Turtle's versions, are still there in most grades in the elementary school curriculum just as they were over 200 hundred years ago even though most kindergartners today are tech-savvy enough to use calculators, iPADS and email! How much better it would have been to have focused on the real concepts of combining, separating and comparing used in problem solving.

What seems to be missing from the Core Curriculum, although it may be buried there somewhere, is what learning and teaching are really all about; helping children learn the values of honesty and self worth, the ideas of compassion and caring, of sensitivity and humility. Helping them realize that most of the important things in life are not things but the friendships we cherish, the loyalties we develop, the aspirations we generate, and the joy of learning for it's own sake.

In my Schools and Society course at St. Mike's I challenge my students to identify what they care about and where their passions lie. Teachers who care and have passion have a better chance of teaching what matters.

An Army of Brooms

I never thought a broom would be seen as a symbol of hope and yet that's exactly what it appears to be in this remarkable photo snapped by Andrew Bayles on his cell phone. Like many ex-Brits I have been concerned by the recent riots in England and have been in touch with family and friends to make sure they're OK.

The British press is full of analyses as to the underlying causes of the events of the past week but the idea of people getting out and clearing things up themselves is characteristic of a nation defined by the "stiff upper lip" and can-do spirit. The England of today is different in many ways from the England I left in 1977 and yet there are elements of the culture that are illustrated by the 'broom army' that date back generations to WWII and beyond. Although I have been an American citizen for over 25 years I still retain my British citizenship and sense of 'Englishness' to a certain degree.

The ASE study abroad program in Bath, England is one of the best run and most popular study abroad programs we have at St. Mike's. It is one of the very few programs designed specifically for Education majors in which students study and learn how to teach in British primary schools. Also, unlike most other programs. students share living facilities with British students as opposed to being housed with other American students.

So, if you are thinking of studying abroad through the ASE program please try not to let the events of the past week affect your decision.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

I'm Giving up my Watch, Maybe.

I have decided to stop wearing a watch or, as Sir Ken Robinson calls it, a single function device. I am certain that this simple act will suddenly transform me into a millennial person, a person, like most 20-somethings, who can do whatever they want with technology. A person for whom technological facility is second nature and automatic, or so it seems to me.

I ponder these thoughts as I try to come to terms with the changes in thinking required by my new web-editing program, Expressions, and my new Word and Outlook programs. As a pre-digital person , it seems to take me forever to make the changes required in the routines I have struggled to learn in during the 20 years of the existence of the world of computers. I'm off to take a workshop for all this in a few moments so hopefully my techno-journey will be eased somewhat.

All joking aside, I sometimes think that the educational process today is much more a two-way process than it used to be. I will learn a great deal from my students this coming year about the uses and value of the technology they bring to the classroom.

The Ken Robinson TED, by the way, is part of a series on Education that he has made. Each one is provocative and makes you think about what we take for granted. I've always thought that advances in Education occur through evolution and not revolution but having listened to several of the Robinson TEDS I'm not so sure. The problem is that we tried revolution once in the form of New Math in the 60s and it was a total disaster. However, his insistence on the need to move away from the "industrial revolution model" for schooling seems really compelling.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Furthest From the Sea

I've just returned from a week in Maine, the annual family vacation, on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. It's always good to be by the sea; the sand in one's toes and the opportunity to gaze at the horizon and dream or think about life's less important details. Even the place we stay, Georgetown, and the neighboring Robin Hood have strong sentimental attachments.

Having grown up in England the sea was always an integral part of my life. My grandfather and several uncles sailed the seven seas for many years and family vacations were always spent by the sea. In fact, and this is one of those less important life details, it is impossible to be more than 72 miles from the sea in England (or Scotland for that matter). I was thinking about this as I gazed at the horizon on the beach at Reid State Park last week and decided to find the exact spot where one is furthest from the sea; a worthy mathematical exercise.

And what better authority to call upon than the good old BBC. So here it is. Church Flatts farm (pictured above) is the furthest most spot in England that one can possibly be from the sea. A single step in any direction brings you one step closer to the sea. To be exact, the coordinates are Latitude 43 52.6 and Longitude 1 37.2.

This just goes to prove that absolutely everything in our world can be quantified mathematically and that it's lucky I only spend one week a year gazing at the horizon.