Tuesday, February 25, 2014

New Education Minor at St. Mike's

For the very first time the Education Department at St. Mike's is offering an Education Minor. Designed for those who are interested in learning about education but not wishing to go all the way to get a major and teacher licensure the minor gives students several options of different paths of study. With the help of an adviser students can put together three elective courses to go with the two required courses. There are even choices of 2 out of 3 in the required courses.

There are so many careers where an Education Minor can make all the difference during the job interview. The minor is designed to fit easily with any other major so that a student can virtually double the job opportunities and prospects they mght otherwise have had.

There is also the possibility of  completing your education major and obtaining teacher licensure at a later date through graduate study if the decision is made at a later date to go into teaching. Many graduate students in the Graduate Education Program at St. Mike's have decided later in life that they want to pursue a career in teaching.

And finally, the Education Minor provides students with a safety net if they decide, as a junior or senior that the Education major they have chosen to pursue is not the one they want to complete. Since they are also completing a liberal arts major they can still graduate with their liberal arts major and a minor in education. All in all, it seems like a great addition to the Education Department at St. Mike's offerings.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Grit in the Math Class?

I was recently asked by a colleague associated with a professional organization related to math education what I thought were the best ways to develop "grit" in children. I must admit that I was a bit taken aback as the only context in which I have ever encountered that word before is in the movie True Grit. Intrigued, I decided to investigate why some people thought we should be developing  children's grit.

The first online definition I found was "courage and resolve, strength of character". Merrian Webster said "mental toughness and courage" while the OED also says :courage and resolve, strength of character". Some of the synonyms are interesting too, bravery, mettle, pluck, backbone. All the time I'm reading this I'm trying to visualize the first/second grade students in the classrooms I visit.

But before I dismissed the idea as just too non-academic or unrealistic in terms of an expectation in the school classroom I discovered "How Children Succeed" by Paul Tough. Little bells also started ringing in my head because the more I read the more it seemed like there was a direct connection between grit and the growth mindset described by Carol Dweck in Mindset, a book I am currently reading. Further exploration confirmed this connection when I came across this TED talk by Angela Lee Duckworth in which she also makes the connection between grit and growth mindset. Interestingly, she gave no indication of how grit should be developed,  and I really do like the idea of the growth mindset.

The original question was posed to me in the context of the word grit appearing in the Common Core Math Standards math practice standards. I've reread the practice standards several times and cannot find any reference to grit. There is certainly a reference to perseverance but is this the same as grit? Does perseverance really involve courage and bravery or is it the disposition of stick-to-it-ness that we all admire in people who have it? Do we really want children to be brave and courageous when they are engaged in math problem solving? For now I prefer 'perseverance' but I will reserve final judgement until after I have read Paul Tough's book.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Fractional Thinking in Kindergarten

The cover story of this month's NCTM publication, Teaching Children Mathematics, certainly catches the eye of anyone involved in teaching young children mathematics. The article, Can Kindergartners Do Fractions,is a very information piece on the author's rigorously designed research project in which she explored young children's fractional thinking through the concept of fair sharing. The researcher, Julie Cwikla, reports quite strongly that "the results indicate that pre-K3 children can fairly and properly distribute whole items but are confused with the "leftover" one or two items". Using drawings, writing and the spoken word Cwikla interviewed the students as they were given fair share tasks to solve. This meant that children were given plenty of opportunity to communicate their thinking in a variety of ways. The  interviews were video and reviewed by the researcher.

Perhaps the most interesting thing for me about this research is the selection of fractional thinking as a form of fair sharing or even the definition of fractions as a way of thinking. I find this particularly interesting because in sort of flies in the face of the provocative title of the piece "Can Kindergartners Do Fractions?".  If you were to present this title as a simple question to any person not involved in education you would probably be laughed at or at best receive a resounding "of course not".

I always wonder why it is that anything related to math is preceded by the verb "do" as in "do the math", "how do you do multiplication?"; "doing division"; "do some problem solving"; "do fractions". Also, if you say "doing fractions" to most people they will conjure up images of  1/3 or 4/7 or 3/4 x 4/5 or regale you with horror stories of how awful their experiences with fractions were in elementary school. And, of course, the conversation usually ends up with "change the sign and invert the second fraction"; a mystifying process to most people.

What this wonderful article does most  importantly is to remind us that fractions are a way of thinking about the world, a way of looking at parts of whole numbers, an important part of the quantitative literacy part of our growth and development. This idea of fractional sense has to develop naturally, as the author suggests from as early as age 3 so that later in school (grade 3 according to the Common Core Math Standards) students will be ready for the formal procedural aspects of learning about,understanding,  and communicating with, fractional terminology.   

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Grammar Doesn't Matter?

I've lost track of  the number of times people have said to me over the years "Well you're a math person so you don't have to worry about grammar". I've even heard "math" people occasionally dismiss grammar as only important to writers.

Whether one is a "math" person or not would seem to be irrelevant in the discussion about the value of grammar in everyday communication. It's well known that texting and other forms of social communications can all be entered into without regard to correct grammar or even conventional spelling without too much loss in the clarity of the intended communication. But what about when we are called upon to compose a letter, write a paper, or commit our thoughts to a written form  in a way that requires clear and precise communication of meaning? Do we rely on experts?

I've just started reading carol Dweck's book Mindset since I have been talking about Mindset theory for some time; ever since I audited Jo Boaler's math course last summer. Imagine my suprise when I came across this paragraph in the Introduction section of the book:

       'A little more about grammar. I know it and I love it, but I haven't always followed it in this
        book. I start sentences with ands and buts. I end sentences with prepositions. I use the plural  
in contexts that require he or she. I've done that for informality and immediacy; and I hope
        that the sticklers will forgive me'.

Part of me wants to applaud her honesty and nerve to do what I have always wanted to do; thumb my nose at the purists and the "sticklers" as she says. But, another part of me feels nervous about using this book as a model for my students who are all supposed to use good  grammar in their writing since they have to teach it and be good role models for children. Or do they? I heard recently that grammar is no longer taught at the elementary school level. I wonder what it says in the Common Core language Arts Standards?  

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Confidence Makes a Difference

It might seem somewhat obvious when you think about it but there is now research to support the idea that female elementary school teachers who are confident with the math they know have a significantly positive  impact on the way young girls learn math. Since most elementary school teachers are female one might be tempted to celebrate this research. Unfortunately, as the study points out, confidence with teaching math comes as a result of studying math in depth such as having a math major or pursuing a deeper understanding of math through graduate study or professional development. Sadly, very few elementary teacher candidates choose to pursue a math major although, interestingly, two of my current student teachers do have math majors. Both are very confident when they teach math.

One of the interesting things about the current elementary school teacher licensing regulations in many States is that in order to teach P.E., art. or music at the elementary school level, candidates are required to have a major in that particular subject. The same is not true of math or any of the other subjects taught at the elementary school level. In fact, it is possible in some situations for pre-service teachers to obtain an elementary school teacher license with only three credits of math education, a situation that would not seem to develop future teachers' confidence in their ability to teach math.

The Vermont Math Leadership Council (VMLC) was recently established in Vermont in an effort to  help teachers develop their understanding of mathematics.