Sunday, September 30, 2012

This Teacher was a "Super Hero"

When a teacher is described as a "super hero" in the local media you know that he was something special. Sadly, George Cannon passed away suddenly last Monday. He was a chemistry teacher at the South Burlington High School and was clearly a very, very special teacher in the eyes of his students. At a time when the teaching profession is undergoing assaults from all sides it is incredibly encouraging to know that there are teachers like George who light up students' eyes to the joys of learning.

I never met George but I wish so much that I had. I can, however, listen to his words of wisdom in this Youtube clip in which he describes so clearly his approach to teaching and his beliefs about how high school students learn best. R.I.P George: we will all miss you. 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Mindstorms Storm the Mind

For many years I have been including design technology activities in my teaching Math and Science courses. I have used a variety of "found" materials to teach the design technology skill sets to my students. Design technology is basically the application of scientific knowledge and understanding to the improvement of the human condition through problem solving and invention.

Today, the term 'engineering' has replaced 'design technology' but everything else remains the same. The change is a good one because the discipline was constantly being confused with 'information technology' and other forms of  technology; a neat example of how word meanings change over time.

To upgrade the engineering aspects of my courses I want to introduce my students to the Lego Mindstorm materials similar to those used in Mike Thomas's Williston schools engineering program I blogged about several weeks ago. The Lego Mindstorms materials are a long way from the Rubber Band Rollers I usually have my students create but they offer infinitely more in terms of opportunities for developing genuine engineering skills in young children as well as in college students. Just imagine the sense of accomplishment when you build something such as a Lego robot or a vehicle and then program it to do things using your laptop computer. You can even program it to solve a problem such as climbing a step or getting out a a 'room' using light  and motion sensors. Here are some YouTube videos of many of the possibilities.

Just think of the language development, the social studies, math and science students can learn while they are engaged in authentic inquiry with projects like this not to mention the motivation!


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

And a Hush fell Over the Crowd

Many, many years ago when I was a fourth grade teacher I remember trying several things during my first year of teaching to get the students' attention when I wanted to say something to the whole class. I don't  have a particularly loud voice and I knew I didn't want to spend my life shouting and so, after trying the usual, "Everyone look at me" or a loud handclap I finally found a totally silent strategy that worked to perfection. I stood, with my arms folded, next to my desk and waited. It took about two weeks of repeated attempts and reminders to "condition" the students (34 of them one year) to stop talking and look at me. It became so effective that occasionally I would accidentally stand next to my desk and the room would suddenty go silent. The next minute I would be asking the studnets what was wrong and they would let me know that I was standing "on the spot" as they called it.

One of the neat things about working in so many different classrooms obcserving my students is that I get to experience a variety of ways that teachers get their students' attention. Many have little bells, chimes or gongs, others use a rhyme such as "1 2 3, eyes on me" to which the students respond "1 2 eyes on you", while others flash the lights or use a verbal command.

Every so often I come across something quite out of the ordinary such as the teacher at the Olive school in Arlington Heights, who I worked with many years ago, play the scale on a recorder when she wanted her students' attention. The effective part of this strategy was that she didn't resolve the octave scale until all the children were paying attention. This drove the more musical students in the class crazy and so they would make sure that their peers were soon giving the teacher their full attention so she could restore harmony through the resolution of the octave scale of 8 notes.

One of my current cooperating teachers has a wonderful way of getting her third graders' attention. She says "And a hush fell over the crowd" to which all the students reply "Hush". Isn't that neat?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Emotions of Numbers

I started blogging 239 blog posts ago; or about two and a half years ago. It was great fun to watch the readership grow month after month and I started keeping track of the different countries where my blog was being read. It was really neat to see that it was being read in over 65 different counties by upwards of 75 people a day. Perhaps not earthshaking numbers in terms of the big picture but enough to keep me motivated to keep blogging. Occasionally people would respond with comments and I had 7 followers.

Then it all changed. Some time in the summer of 2012, the blog address changed as St Michael's College launched a new website and I was once again assigned to obscurity. My readership plummeted from 65 - 125 pages a day to 0 - 6 and I was devastated. I was told it was like "shouting in the dark" or "screaming in a storm" and that my readership would return as long as I kept writing. Well I have kept writing but very few people read what I write.

As of this moment, 3 people read my blog yesterday and no one has so far today. I've started pinning my blog posts on a bulletin board outside my office so that at least my students can read my pearls of wisdom but that seems to defeat the purpose of a blog. Perhaps this communication medium has run its course and our culture has tired of on-line titilation. I hope that the other 42 people who blog have better readership than I do otherwise there's an awful lot of wasted energy.


Student Teaching

I'm supervising four student teachers this semester, two undergraduate and two graduate students. Three of them are at Williston Central School, a 3 - 8 grade school while the other is at the K - 2 Allen Brook school, also in Williston. Their classroom experiences are each unique but they all experience the same developmental process that we all go through when we embark on a new life adventure.

Many years ago I came across Frances Fuller's Concerns Based Adoption Model (CBAM) of socialization into the teaching profession and have used it ever since as an assessment guide to the progress student teachers make during their student teaching semester. The CBAM provides me with a way of assessing where the student is in her development as a teacher. Through reading entries in her daily journal and weekly observations in her classroom I am able to tell which of the three stages of development the student is going through.

The three stages are basically this; concerns for personal survival, concerns for teaching and, finally,  concerns for student learning. Students usually pass through the first stage within a couple of days of being in the classroom although sometimes self doubt can creep in later when things don't go as planned or they experience a particularly tough day. The second stage of concerns, "am I teaching properly?", can last for several weeks or even a month or two. In this stage the student is preoccupied with her ability to plan lessons, manage the classroom, keep records and deal with the everyday demands of being an elementary school teacher. The final set of concerns are characterized by a focus on student learning and is quite a magical time. The student is usually confident in her teaching abilities at this point and knows her students well. She no longer accepts whatever quality or level of work they hand in but bases her expectations on what she knows each student is capable of  doing.

She has arrived at the point where she is concerned that each student is learning to her or his potential. This is both the art and science of teaching and is what it is all about..    

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Nu, Numb, Numbers

I've found the perfect activity for getting through long, tedious meetings. Every time someone says out loud a number write it down. You then have some wonderful raw data to play with and do all sorts of things with. For example, if you have to attend lots of meetings on the same day like I did last Friday you can compare the numbers mentioned in each meeting. This will give you a Numerical Meeting Profile or NMP. Sometimes the meetings are dominated by small numbers while at other times they can be characterized by large numbers. Meetings can also be differentiated by the different types of numbers that are mentioned; ordinal (sequencing - third grade), cardinal (counting - sixpack) or nominal (naming - 2011) just to mention a few number types. The recorded numbers can only be those spoken and not any written on any form of presentation. This could get out of hand very quickly.

Another way of exploring the numbers is whether they are naked numbers; in other words does the speaker include the referent with the number. A naked number is one that has no referent attached such as "two-ninety nine" for a price or "six two" when referring to someone's height. This activity can be amped up considerably by pretending one is from another country, planet or occupation. For example a "two point five" would not cause any alarm if it came up in a discussion about engine size.  When discussing student GPAs, however, it can have the most dire consequences for someone.

It would be interesting to develop NMPs for different groups of people. For example, would an NMP for a group of mathematicians be different from an ensemble of historians at their monthly department meetings? What would the NMP be for a group of 20-somethings out for the night on the town?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Smoking in the Principal's Office!

President Reagan was in office when I moved to Vermont and supervised my first student teacher at Williston Central School. That was 30 years ago in 1982. The amazing Marion Stroud was principal at the time and I can remember sitting in her office chatting and smoking cigarettes; I kid you not.  I listened to her dreams of a new Williston school building with Kivas and "houses", ala Harry Potter's Hogwarts, and a real theatre and an Olympic size swimming pool. Such was her dynamic nature that within just a few years she had accomplished everything except the swimming pool.

Marion was a rare visionary in a world now dominated  by the bottom line and adherence to rigid standards. She had worked for some time at the Bankstreet school in NYC and brought with her to Williston three critical elements of education which were to form the foundation of a remarkable school; experiential learning, interdisciplinary learning and collaboration.She forged the school into "houses" of grade groups 1 - 4 and 5 - 8 where teachers worked together across grades and students learned in communities designed to promote real learning and not just give them an education.

I found Marion to be a kindred spirit for she too was British and a proponent in the US of the British Open Education movement upon which the Bankstreet school was based. I watched the school go from strength to strength as teachers bought in to her belief that a caring, collaborative and conscientious environment was the most conducive to the all around growth and development of every student and every teacher. The school became a leader in the application of technology in the field of education and was actively supported by Seymour Pappert, one of the great educators of the last century.

Thankfully, the school still retains much of Marion's vision through the dedicated work of many of the teachers who still inspire children through their enduring beliefs in experiential, interdisciplinary and collaborative learning.

The Museum of Science and Engineering in Boston is an amazing place; more so since Dr. Ioannis Miaoulis has become director. What he has done is to create an entirely new dimension of education and learning that brings science into the world of engineering (what we used to call design technology).

Instead of just learning about the natural environment as we do in science, Dr Maoulis has focused our attention on the idea that we use what we know about science to improve and protect the world we in which we live. In science education at the elementary school level the focus is on inquiry. Students are encouraged to use their natural curiosity to learn about the world in which they live. Which substances are magnetic? What do plants need to grow? How do rivers create valleys? In engineering, students are encouraged to use the science they have learned to solve problems. How can you make an object move using magnetism? How can you grow a plant without any soil?  There is a neat program at the Boston Museum of Science (EIE) designed to help students develop their engineering skills from a very young age.

One local school that has an incredible engineering program is Williston Central school where Mike Thomas has been guiding students in grades 3 - 8 in the art of design and construction using a variety of motivating activities and materials. On any given day the students can be engaged in designing and making a medieval  trebuchet or programming a Lego robot they have made using a computer program. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Math is the Science of Pattern

Every semester when I start a new math ed. course with a new group of students I increasingly see the value of exploring and including the ideas associated with pattern in the course. When you stop to think about  it there is almost nothing random about math, in fact, trying to come up with complete randomness requires the sue of sophisticated computer models.

There are several different definitions of "pattern"; pattern as a design, pattern as a model or something to be copied, and pattern as a regular sequence or set of events. It is this last definition that is most relevant here. If we can help children see patterns between different mathematical entities it will help them remember, recall and make sense of what they are learning. We can do this from the earliest stages when children learn to count by 2s, 5s and 10s. What makes this type of activity even more worth while is to count by 5s starting at 3 or count by 10s starting at 7. Whenever i do this with my students I can see them initially stumbling and going slowly. Then, as they see the pattern emerge they speed up and end up rattling the number sequence off.

The Fibonacci number pattern identified by the squares above and dun flower to the left is a classic number pattern that occurs all over the place. It can also be demonstrated in the Sierpinski triangle, a classic fractal, as well as in Pascall's Triangle.

Here's another amazing number pattern. Add 1+2 (=3)+3 (=6)+4 (=10) +5 (=15) +6 (=21) +7 (=28) +8(=36). These are called triangular number because they make triangles (imagine 1 + 2 next to each other like steps etc). Now add consecutive triangular numbers together and what do you get? Yes, a square number. Imagine turning 3 upside down and fitting it together with 6 to make 9.

Math is, indeed, the science of pattern. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Handwriting on the Wall

We recently received an email message implying that one of the goals of Higher Education was to eliminate paper forms of communication. By utilizing all the different forms of technology-based communication programs at our disposal we could actually run our college courses without our students ever having to handwrite a single thing. They could complete their papers using Word and submit them for assessment through eCollege. We would then comment on the paper and return it complete with a grade which would also be entered into the Gradebook feature in the same program.

Since I am a blogger I am clearly an advocate for technology in all it's various forms but something worries me, a lot, about wanting to achieve a paperless culture. Yes, we'll save lots of trees just as Kindle and other book forms are doing, and we would save hours and hours of painful handwriting practice sessions for young children in schools. But is this really what we want?

If our cultural goal is a paperless society then the art of handwriting will no longer be valued and if it's not valued it will not be taught. We will then have to make sure that we always have a keyboard of some sort with us complete with a form of printing off notes, letters, shopping lists and anything else that we might incidentally need to communicate. Perhaps all those hours, days, weeks  and months spent learning how to do joined-up writing, as we used to call it in England, could be spent teaching keyboarding skills instead. But is this what we really want?

Several years ago I read an interesting research paper in which parents were asked whether their children's teachers should spend writing instruction time teaching keyboarding skills or handwriting skills. The results of the research were overwhelmingly (80%) in favor of teaching handwriting skills.

There are many ways in which handwriting can be integrated with technology. The IPAD2 a well as the SMARTboard and many other forms of technology accommodate handwriting and some can even convert it into print. If one of our goals is to create a paperless culture then we must make sure that we don't also create a keyboarding only culture and bring about the demise of handwriting skills.