Thursday, May 29, 2014

St. Matthias

Tomorrow, May 30, 2014, marks the final gathering of past students where I completed my undergraduate studies, the College of St. Matthias in Bristol England. The college opened in `853 and was one of the first in England designed specifically to train teachers. For over 100 years it trained women teachers to work in state run C. of E., as they were known, school (Church of England). I first attended the College in 1972, three years after it went co-ed, after training unsuccessfully to be a quantity surveyor. I decided I wanted to be a teacher after playing for several years on a mixed field hockey team that was comprised almost exclusively of primary school teachers, and what a fun-loving bunch they were.

I was accepted at the college to study primary education and geography. Even in those far off days primary (elementary) teachers were required to have an academic major. Throughout my four years there, three for a teaching certificate and one extra for a B.Ed., I was active in college politics, sports and music. I was the Public Relations Officer for the student body which meant that every week we had to publish the college paper called the Spectrum. We had to type it out on special carbon paper and then put it on a printing machine that we turned by hand; it was always a ruch to make the Friday noon deadline. We covered some pretty excitiing events during the time I was there such as a World Cup in 1970, several  student sit-ins and all sorts of sporting and music events.

Like most of us I look back on my college days with great happiness and now realize just how good a job the lecturers did in preparing us for a future in the world of teaching. Many of the beliefs and values I formed those 40-something years ago are still so applicable and important today. I keep up with many of my old college friends thro ugh social media and Ade George's Old Lags site as they have scattered around the world. Most are now retired but seem to have led happy working lives.

The college closed as a teacher training institution in the 1980s and became part of the University of the West of England. Within months the dear old halls of residence will be flattened to make way for a housing development but at least the historically listed buildings will be preserved as a Steiner school..  

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Pennies, Fractals and Fifth Graders


What an incredible day we had at St. Mike's last Friday. Having seen the "Penny Arcade" in the local media, Joni Pecor, one of the the fifth grade teachers at Flynn Elementary School  in Burlington decided she wanted to bring the three fifth grade classes on a day-long  field trip to learn more. We started the day as a large group, 50 students and 10 adults, setting a focus for what they would be experiencing. I wanted to make sure that the students were learning the math embodied in the display and not just looking at pennies all day.

So the theme for the day was "seeing patterns and making connections". I had asked two incredible math teachers to help me out, Karyn Vogel, a BSD Math Coach, and Laura Sommariva,  a Colchester High School math teacher who had been a student in my grad maths course last semester.

Laura developed a one-hour class on fractals beginning with a virtual visit to the Fractal Foundation site. The students then went o to complete their own Sierpinski triangles using isometric graph paper or dividing up a a simple equilateral triangle on a piece of paper. They finished the activity making Sierpinski triangles out of pennies.

Karyn's class focused on number patterns such as the Fibonacci sequence and began with a Vi Hart video.  She then had them explore fir cones and various other natural things to explore the occurrence of the Fibonacci sequence in the natural world.

For my part, I held class in the hallway next to the "Penny Arcade" and explored the many different fractals and number patterns illustrated through the use of pennies stuck to the wall. The three fifth grade classes circulated around the three activities with a break in the morning and a break for lunch. We had planned for the students to spend their lunch break in the Teaching Gardens but a rainy day meant inside recess.

All in all it seems to have been a great day in which the students got to see how wonderfully creative and joyful learning about math can be. There were times we found it difficult to get the students to disengage from what they were doing so that they could move on.

Isn't that the way learning should be?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

To Sir With Love No More

For the five years I taught fourth grade in England before emigrating to the US in 1977 I was referred to by the students in my classes as "sir". At the time, and until this morning, I always saw it as a quick and easy way for students to get my attention or acknowledge me as their teacher. It never even crossed my mind that it was in any way "depressing or sexist" as has been described in an article on the BBC today. I must admit to being torn by the article. Part of me agrees that it could be construed as creating different levels of respect in school based on gender; something I would certainly not want to happen. But, the more I think about it the more it seems that the word "sir" is not being used in the sense of Sir Walter Raleigh or Sir Alex Ferguson as the article suggests.

There's another use of the word that is less formal as in the way it is used in a store when you are customer. The feminine equivalent in this context is ma'am which I guess was used in schools as a way of addressing female teachers in years past. This clearly would not work today especially in the British culture. Neither would 'Dame" work which is the feminine equivalent of  'sir' in  its more refined definitive form; as in Dame Judi Dench. It clearly would not work to call female teachers 'dame'.

The other way to go to create equality would be to have students refer to male teachers  as "master", something I think was done during the nineteenth century in the UK. Or, perhaps 'mister' would work but then that has a bit of a pejorative feel, thanks to its use by children in literature.

As the article suggests, children could call teachers by their first names which may change the classroom dynamic quite significantly. They could also use teachers'  last name which could be quite difficult for teachers with multi-syllabic double-named last names. And then of course there is "teacher" but that has always seemed to be a sign of disrespect.

In the US we have always used last names, a last name initial as in Mr T, or a first name. "Sir" just would not work here, or probably anywhere else on Earth which makes me sort of selfishly wish that it didn't change because it is so uniquely British. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Engineering is Elementary

This summer I have the opportunity to teach the graduate level Science and Engineering Education course I developed some time ago. I last taught the course in 2007 but not a lot has changed in the intervening years vis a vis science education. One of the things that has remained a constant since the early days of inquiry centered science education in the 1970s is the influence of Wynne Harlan. I always thought her name sounded like a shipyard or steel mill which is funny because so great was her influence on science education around the world that she should have become a household name. She and Sheila Jelly almost single- handedly got teachers to think about science as a process children should learn as opposed to a bunch of facts to be remembered or, more often than not, a magic show.

She took 'hands-on' science into the world of "hands-on - minds-on" science so that children began to interact cognitively with the activities they were doing as opposed to being simply docile observers. She challenged teachers to foster and cultivate the natural curiosity of early childhood  and to get children to ask questions about what they were experiencing.

So while the fundamental philosophy of teaching science has remained the same there have, of course, been changes. When I first taught the Science Education course it was just that, science education. The first thing I did was to add 'design technology' as an emerging field of study in which children took their new science knowledge and applied it to solving problems. Such an example would be to investigate what affects the swing of a pendulum and then use this knowledge to create a pendulum that swings once every second. Design technology was the forerunner of what we now widely call engineering as promoted so eloquently and effectively by the Boston Museum of Science through their Engineering is Elementary program.      

The impending New Generation Science Standards I am sure will bring about more changes inn the way we teach elementary school science and engineering but I am afraid there might not be enough hours in the school day to include everything we want to these days. Perhaps it's time to increase the school day and/or the school year!!!!!


There's a really interesting discussion taking place about the role of coding in the elementary school classroom. A colleague at SMC, VBJ, alerted me to this article in the NYT in which the topic is debated from a number of perspectives, some of which seem to be quite factual while others appear to be based on opinion and beliefs. It reminds me to some extent of the current debate about global warming. There are those who take it seriously because they have read the research and those who just believe it's not an issue.

The NYT debate is interesting because it starts off as a simple discussion about the role or coding  in the elementary school  and seems to morph into a discussion of the wider issue of the role of technology in the K-12 curriculum. As with most things these days, there seems to be a polarizing of opinion from John Dvorak' idea that it is a scam, to Hadi Partovi's plea to teach coding as early as possible. Each, of course, argues from the position of self interest a little bit like the members of our national government as opposed to examining the merits and demerits of the topic itself.

I've watched young children in elementary schools use code to program Lego models they have built, and I've recently discovered I've watched teachers integrate engineering and technology  activities with math and ELA  activities to motivate children  to read and develop their math skills. There is no need to develop an either/or approach to the integration of these new concepts and skills into he elementary school curriculum.

Some argue that we must attend to "the basics" in elementary school although very few people seem to agree upon what these are. Some will include coding as a basic, along with keyboarding, while others still believe they consist of the 3 euphonious Rs as John Merrow calls them.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Boy Falling

This morning on NPR's  On Point with Tom Ashbrook the topic of discussion was "Struggling Boys on the Way to the Workplace". The focus of the discussion addressed two primary issues, the changing nature of the workplace and the changes in the way we educate children and young adults in our systems of education. The expert in the studio for this latter issue was Peg Tyre, author of The Trouble with Boys. You know when an issue is becoming a national crisis when it begins to appear with increasing regularity in the popular media such as NPR and the New York Times as opposed to just education journals.

I've been aware of this issue for some time since my work supervising student teachers takes me into many different elementary school classrooms almost on a daily basis. In some of the kindergarten through fourth grade classrooms I have worked in  during the past five or so years, the time I have noticed the difference, the behavior between boys and girls in general has been so different that sometimes I have had to ask the cooperating teacher what is happening. I remember one class in particular several years ago where the behavior of the boys was quite astonishing  to say the least. It seemed to be worse during transition time when they would move in strange ways  and make strange noises; I kid you not. The teacher, an incredibly resourceful and responsive person, came up with a solution that worked a treat. During the transitions she had all the students quietly sing a song they had all learned. In another kindergarten class I worked in recently almost all the boys were on some sort of behavior plan.

As the NPR program points out the issue doesn't seem confined to the elementary school. High schools are finding it more difficult to keep male students focused on the work required to make it into college. Even at the College and University level things seem to be different. At a recent senior academic award ceremony I attended, all but one of  those students receiving awards, as identified by faculty  members, were female students. The one male student receiving an award was where both a male and female athlete received awards.