Friday, March 30, 2012

A Conflict of Caring

Despite my many faults as a teacher I have always cared about my students, regardless of their age. When I was a 4th grade teacher I cared not only about whether they could read but about whether they chose to read. I cared about how they felt about learning math and I cared about whether they had friends and felt good about themselves. In these respects I am sure I was just like many elementary school teachers who see their role in a student's life as more than just  a sage on the stage or  a guide on the side.

I still care deeply about each student I work with whether an undergraduate or a graduate student. I want them unreservedly to be able to achieve their dreams of becoming  teachers and beyond; several of the students I worked with many years ago are now school principals. I care about the development of their knowledge, understanding and skills; about the development of the dispositions required of being a teacher. I also care that my students care too which is where the conflict of caring can arise.

Every now and then, and it doesn't happen very often, I work with a student who doesn't seem to have this sense of caring. This can manifest itself in a lack of caring about their own well being in terms of grades, attendance at meetings, commitment to field placement experiences or the subject matter of teaching. Sometimes a student makes the wrong choices, misses class too often, doesn't complete assignments on time or simply doesn't appear to care about becoming a teacher. In these rare cases the conflict of caring is created because I also care about my profession, I care about the children who will be taught by our graduates and the general quality of education. I don't feel I can recommend someone for a teacher license who doesn't share this sense of caring about themselves and others in the context of teaching. Sometimes failure to become a teacher can be a reality.

This conflict of caring  doesn't mean one stops caring about the student. What it does mean is that we have to find a way to resolve the conflict. Perhaps there is something other than teaching but still related to education that elicits the student's caring? To do this we help students identify alternative career paths and, perhaps, ways they can still achieve their goals at a later date.


Thursday, March 29, 2012

Information is not Education

We live in an age of information in which we can find out about absolutely anything. We can even find out about national secrets through Wikileaks,and even God is only a mouse click away, as one of my ecclesiastical colleagues once remarked. We can find out when high tide is in Sydney, Australia or what time Al's French Fries closes on a Saturday night. We can find out what grades we need to get this semester to achieve a B average and we can find out if Inter-Milan beat Juventus. We can download virtually any type of information and upload anything to a cloud. But what do we need to do with the information to turn it into a learning experience?

It probably depends on how we see the process of  learning. One way of looking at it is in terms of changing what we know, the way we think, believe or physically do things. Typically known as cognitive, affective and psychomotor learning this implies that in order to learn something some change needs to take place. If the information we are experiencing changes us in any one of more of these ways we can say we are learning. The learning can be either intentional or unintentional, it can be temporary or permanent and it can be for good or evil.

As teachers we must be astutely aware of the role of informational technology on the lives of the students we work with. We must take care not to fool ourselves into believing that students are learning just by accessing information, or, in fact, that they are learning what we intend them to learn. The superficiality of simply experiencing information through a piece of technology should not be confused with the process of learning. We made this mistake in the middle part of the last century when "hands-on learning" was all the rage . It took us several years to realise that "hands-on learning" was quite ineffective until it was extended to include "minds-on learning" to get the "hands-on, minds-on learning" that we still advocate for in elementary math and science education today. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Protect Your Internet Profile

"With a 'sneaky' smile, Claire said to me this morning while I was working with her during reading; "Ms. B, I Googled you this morning." Not that I have anything on the internet that I need to hide, a sense of panic quickly arose in my mind. "What on earth did she see!" I thought. Trying to play it cool, I looked at her and said; "and what did you find?" She began to smile again and explained to me that she found pictures of me playing field hockey and with "pigtails" in my hair. Right when I got home, I opened my computer and proceeded to “Google” myself. Feeling a sense of relief, I found nothing on Google about me accept field hockey pictures and a link to my secured Twitter".  This is how one of my students teacher's journal entries began from last week.

This is such a wonderfully eloquent and authentic account of what it is like to hear someone say they have Googled you. As a future teacher it is so important for Education majors to take care of their Internet Profiles. This is probably true of everyone seeking employment but probably not more so than those wishing to work with children. At one time one had to be careful because future employers and parents could Google you. Now, the level of technological sophistication of young children is so advanced that even third graders have both the skills and disposition to Google someone they find interesting or significant in their lives.  The message I send to all my students is never to put anything on the Internet that could embarrass you or show you in anything but a favorable light.

There are those who would say that what they do in their private life is their own business but once you put it on the web for others to find it no longer exists in your private life. If you don't want the world to know about it protect it with a password or privacy wall of some sort. But even then it may not be completely out of sight.  

Now, let me go and Google myself just to make sure.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

$200 For Passing Go

Actually in my case it was £200 For Passing Go: I grew up playing Monopoly and just about any other board game that involved trying to roll a double 6. Like many people of my generation it was the family thing to do, sometimes more than one night a week.

I grew up at #25 Coombe Bridge Avenue in Bristol, England. You can actually do a virtual drive by to see it on Google Earth in "street view". So 25 was a really important number in my childhood years just as 200 and 6+6 were. Later, when I took my GCE exams in High School 45 was a monumental number as it was the score one needed to pass. It was only a D but it was a pass. Later still 311 became a significant number; it was the room that contained the desks of all the Grad Ed students in the Education Department at the University of Illinois when I was a grad student. I first left the UK to come to the US at Gate 32 at Heathrow.

Our lives are defined by numbers for good, bad or indifference. These numbers are not only the numbers we are assigned such as SS numbers, telephone numbers, or the combinations of our bicycle locks. They are the incidental numbers of life, the house numbers, the cultural numbers such as 50 States, the numbers of siblings we have, the year we were born, our height , age, and weight, the Interstate we take to work, our house number, and so on. Each of us has a number profile that defines, guides us, controls us and says, in a subtle, often overt way, exactly who we are............This is my  blog entry #200.  

Friday, March 23, 2012

Learning to Walk Again

A month or so ago my lovely wife and daughter bought me a new pair of Frye boots exactly like the ones in the picture. I bought my first and only other pair in the summer of 1978 at the end of my first year as an American. It seemed a fitting thing to do. I even bought a pair of spurs that fit on them. I still have that 34 year old pair of boots, and the spurs, but my son Andrew has taken to the boots so I find myself bootless, and
perhaps, unhorsed.

I wore those wonderful boots today for the first time and found that I needed to learn how to walk all over again. At first, I was overly conscious of the way the heel hits the ground first and the slap of the top of the boot on the back of my leg. It took a time but by the end of the day I found I had adjusted my gait to a more confident stride to accommodate the awkwardness of the heel and calf issues. I was no longer shuffling along; I was striding with a purpose or moseying with a leisurely lope.

We learn to walk again each time we fall or get knocked down. Get right back on when you fall off is a well worn piece of advice that may hold true for horses and bicycles but seldom seems to work in the less physical aspects of one's life. A failed plan, a bad review, unfair treatment, a misread assessment are all things that can stop us in our tracks requiring a slow process of repairing or rebuilding one or more aspects of one's being. We need to take stock and decide where fault, if any, lies, and then move on with a strategy to make things as they were, put on a patch or, hopefully, improve the situation.

Mistakes, whether they be as a result of our own actions or those of others, are sites for learning and a College is one of the best places to learn how to learn from one's mistakes because it is a community where everyone cares about the welfare of the individual.

It seems that there are many places at different stages in our lives where we have to learn to walk all over again.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Math Might Get Tougher?

Last Monday morning the headline in the local newspaper, the Burlington Free Press, read Math Might Get Tougher. There are few things just about anybody wants to read less, especially on a Monday morning, than this. It seems almost inconceivable that both the Vermont Commissioner of Education and the Governor would endorse this statement at a time of looming national crisis vis a vis HS students' avoidance of math classes. The plan, as described, is to require all students to take Algebra II as a HS graduation requirement.

If we want students to develop a better understanding of math it would seem logical to first make it more attractive than to make it tougher. If we want more HS students to take more math and do better at it why doesn't the headline read "Math Might Become More Relevant" or Math Might Become More Creative" or "Math Might Become More Interesting"? As Vi Hart shows us there are so many ways in which  math can become more interesting, creative, relevant and meaningful to adolescents.

Perhaps the most depressing thing about the Free Press article is the way a student was described as "slogging away" at an algebra II course because she "wanted it to look good for college". What have we done to our education system when we have reduced the wonders and joys of learning to a letter grade commodity that can be used to gain entry into the next level where, once again, letter grades are all that seem to matter.

Several years ago, a professor at a college in another country made this observation. She said " Why is it that the visiting American students always ask what they need to do to get an A in my course whereas my students ask what sorts of things will they learn in my course?" 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Remember remainders?

The topic of 'remainders' came up in class today and one of the students was saying how she remembered being  taught in school to just say "remainder 1" or "remainder 2" when a number did not "go" exactly "into" another number in a division problem.

Division, or "dirision" as Lewis Carroll called it, has always been the ugly sister to the other three operations and should never, as math lore clearly states, be attempted any time before fourth grade. I actually once had a third grader say to me "You can't talk about division until we get into fourth grade".  This is all nonsense of course as the picture to the lower left shows. We can do simple division in  first grade
   as long as students understand what it  means.
The depressing thing about the top picture is that it illustrates how much attention we used to give to naming the different numbers and how little attention we paid to what was really happening. Think about the remainder in the top picture for a minute. The remainder is clearly 1,  but 1 what? We could even record the remainder as 1/3 or .333333 etc but 1/3 of what would it be?

To answer these questions we need to know the nature of the referents of the numbers. In the lower picture we know these, or at least one, and we can assume the other. The referent of the 7 would be cookies and the referent of the 2 could be children as in "How many cookies would each child get if they shared 7 cookies equally between them?" There would be 1 cookie left over or each child could get 3 1/2 cookies. But, supposing we changed the question? How many children could get 2 cookies each if there were 7 cookies in the cookie jar? The problem would still look the same (7 ÷ 2 = 3 R1)  but this time it would be 3 children and not 3 cookies. What what would the remainder 1 be? It could sort of still be one cookie,  but what if we reported it as a fraction? 3 and a 1/2, or 3.33333 children? 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Education is a Global Enterprise

I've always thought a teaching degree is like a professional passport. Virtually every country in the world has teachers which is not true of all occupations. Many St. Mike's students study abroad through the one of the many study abroad opportunities offered at the college such as ASE while some graduates take an even bigger international plunge.

I stay in touch with many of my graduates through email and Facebook and it's always of great interest to hear how they are doing especially if they teaching abroad. I've been corresponding with Julie, an SMC graduate of a few years ago who has been teaching in China. She has shared many of her experiences with me such as teaching classes with as many as 75 students at a time. She has also shared the incredible work ethic that most of her students have as well as the pressure they are under to get into a good university when they are in high school.

I learned many years ago that it is a difficult to compare education systems in different countries without taking into account the incredible cultural differences that exist between countries. Math Education, for example, is significantly different in different parts of the world; even the math is different. In some countries girls and boys are educated in separate schools while in others girls may receive very little formal education. In some countries children with special needs are still educated in separate schools while in other countries children are treated as children and not miniature adults.

Understanding the education systems that the children of immigrants, or "newcomers", have experienced before coming to the US is an important part of their integration into US schools and classrooms. To help SMC undergraduate education majors do this we have them interview international students on campus so they begin to see how different Education can be in different parts of the world.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Spring Break: A Time to Reflect

So who am I kidding; a time to reflect? Perhaps not for the students who are off to sunny climes for a week of revelry. Then again, many St. Mike's students devote their Spring break to working through the MOVE service learning program on wonderful projects such as Habitat for Humanity and other similar enterprises. In fact, many of my faculty colleagues accompany groups of students to inner-city Philadelphia and other places around the country helping make housing more comforable for those in need.

For me it is a time to reflect upon my semester so far. I look at my courses and take stock of what we have accomplished in terms of the course content and student achievement. I also read my student teachers' mid-semester self-evaluations to get a sense of how realistically they see their growth and development as future teachers. As usual, my student teachers this term have a great sense of what they have achieved and what they yet have to do. This always makes the second half of the semester easier in terms of what is expected. They all have their solo weeks coming up within the next month which is always a time of great excitement and trepidation for them.

Spring break also coincides with the clocks "springing forward" which is also a sign that winter might be over, not that we've had much of a winter in Vermont this year with barely 30 inches of snow compared with the usual 100 plus. Perhaps I'll start planning my garden for this summer or putting the summer tires back on my car. Hmmmmm, maybe not; we could still get socked with a nor-easter.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Math Can Be Really Cool.

In the year 2014, the Common Core will be upon us; at least those of us who live in the 46 States that have signed on. The Common Core Math Standards are a step in the right direction and claim to remove the "mile wide and inch deep" tag the K - 6 math curriculum in most states has been stuck with for some 30 years. The breadth of the math topics has been reduced and the depth of expected understanding has been increased; both good things for any K - 6 student or teacher.

All is not good news, however. Many of the things we currently expect second grade students to do will now be required of first grade students, and so on throughout the grades. These changes have been collectively described as increasing our expectations of what children should achieve, or "upping the standards". The Burlington Free Press recently published an article in which the Vermont State Commissioner of Education advocated for increasing the math standards after a poor showing of math test scores on Statewide math tests.

Why is the focus always on increasing the standards for students and not on doing something to help them increase their accomplishments? Why do we not talk about increasing the math teaching resources, changing the negative, nerdy reputation that math has? Why do we not talk about making math more relevant to the students of today, making it more interesting and accessible?

This is already happening in the lower grades but it has to happen in middle and high schools when students actively choose to study different things; when students can be "hooked" into math classes because it is relevant, interesting, and dare I say it, COOL.

Imagine if HS math teachers were like Vi Hart!      

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Open Education and Open Education

One of the great things about St. Michael's college is all the incredible workshops the IT folks run for faculty development. One in particular caught my eye today not so much because of the content but because of the title; Open Education Week is March 5 - 12, this week in fact.

My initial reaction was one of amazement because Open Education was all the rage when I first came to the US in 1977. In fact I supervised student teachers at the Olive Elementary School in Arlington Heights, Illinois, which was one of the many schools in the US using this innovative approach to education. The Education Department at the University of Illinois where I was doing my doctoral studies at the time was also one of the leading advocates for Open Education. Luminaries such as Roland Barth, Charles Silberman and Hassett & Weisberg (Open Education: Alternatives Within our Tradition) were widely read by both faculty and education students.

The basic idea of Open Education was to make education more meaningful and relevant to students as children in K - 6 classrooms. It put an emphasis on what was important to childen in terms of their interests, developmental stages and lives in general. It was the counterpart, in a way, to the traditional idea that elementary school is "preparation for life" or at least preparation for middle and high school life. Open education celebrated childhood and everything it stood for by making the curriculum relevant, interesting and important to the child.

Today the idea of Open Education is somewhat different and refers to free/almost free resources such as Flatworld Knowledge, Merlot, iTunes U, Carnegie Mellon, MIT Open Courseware, Khan Academy, Wikiversity to name but a few.

Mick Moloney and Robbie O'Connell tonight at SMC

The seventh annual Concert for St. Patrick will take place in the McCarthy Performing Arts center on the St. Michael's campus tonight and will feature two  of the greatest Irish American troubadors of all time, Robbie O'Connell and Mick Moloney. The concert will also feature the wonderful Celtic Knight Irish dance group and the Sleepless Knights a capella group; both groups comprising SMC students.

The concert is also a fund raiser for the Tom Sustic Fund for families of children with cancer. Doors open at 6:30 pm with a suggested donation of $20

Monday, March 5, 2012

Fractions, aaaaahh fractions

A mathematician saw an advertisement in a newspaper for a vacuum cleaner that was so good, it said, that it cuts your work in half. That sounds like a great deal, she thought, I must buy two of those. Tada!

Would you rather have half the money I have in my right hand or a quarter of the money I have in my left hand?

We use the language of fractions constantly in our lives from the time we are old enough to ask for half a cup of orange juice or asked to share a candy bar with a brother or sister so that we have half each. Ask any six year old how old she is and you will most likely get the reply "six and  half". Everything is just fine until we come across fractions in school and then all hell breaks loose and we leave common sense at the classroom door.

Remember the rigmarole we were taught to find 1/2 divided by 1/4? I seem to remember "Change the sign and flip the second fraction" as being the most common piece of nonsense we were taught in 4th grade. We never questioned the wisdom of this piece of sage advice because we never had a clue why it worked. It was part of the magic of math; it just worked when we had to use it on an exam question. Never mind the fact that we had no idea when to use it; "was it half of a quarter or how many times does a half go into a quarter or ........?"

How much easier life is now that we use mathematical tools such as the fraction strips in the picture. 1/2 divided by 1/4 actually means how many 1/4s in a 1/2 as in "how many 1/4s in the first 1/2 of a football game?". How many yellow pieces fit in one pink piece above?

As for the 'which handful of money would you rather have' question; it depends on how much money I have in each hand. The size of any fraction depends on the size of the whole to which it refers.

This is the topic of my math class this afternoon.    

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Can I Marry Your Daughter?

A funny thing happened in my grad math class last week. The class meets on Thursday nights and everyone I know knows that's when I'm in class and so they know not to call me on my cell phone. If my cell phone does go during class I have to answer it as it might be an emergency or crisis. So last Thursday, a week ago yesterday, my cell phone went during the second half of class. Thinking it an emergency, I rushed out of class but could get no reception. I returned to teaching only for the phone to go again some five minutes later. This time I raced down the hallway to the only place in the building where I can get reception. I answered the phone to find it was Erik, my daughter Marie's boyfriend. I told him I couldn't talk as I was in the middle of my class and returned to finish the class.

An hour later, when class had finished, I called my wife to make sure everything was OK and she burst out laughing. Apparently, Erik, unaware I had class, was calling me to ask if he could marry my daughter Marie. The request was somewhat urgent as he was planning to propose at the summit of the Sugar Bush ski resort the next day. He's a great guy and, of course, I would have said yes, but just to make sure everything went as planned he asked my wife Lucie if he could marry Marie.