Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The American Dream

In the midst of this strange, and at times, somewhat scary election the idea of the American Dream is frequently raised by a politician keen to remind people that things could be better if you vote for him, or for  her.

An old college friend from England asked the question on Facebook this morning; "So  what is the American Dream?". I didn't have to think long about what it is for me, and probably for many thousands of other immigrants to this country. The American dream is opportunity; the opportunity to fulfill one's life ambitions through hard work and perseverance. And with opportunity comes hope and the belief that things can be better.

Growing up in England in the 50s, 60s and 70s one's life was pretty much mapped out by the time you left high school. If you passed what were called 'O' level exams at 16 you got to stay on in high school and take 'A' level exams at 18. If you got really good grades in these 'A' level exams you got the opportunity to go to University. I think it was less than 8% of the population got this opportunity at the time.

My 'A' level grades weren't good enough to get to University so I became an apprentice surveyor. At the same time I was playing field hockey for a mixed team of men and women at the weekends and it turned out most of them were teachers. They seemed like a really fun bunch and so I decided to enroll at a teacher training college, where my 'A'level results were good enough, to become a teacher. Four years later I graduated with a bachelors degree in education and started teaching a fourth grade class at a primary school in Bristol, England. A couple of years later in 1974 I was also  invited back to the college as a Resident Adviser which is where I met the exchange students from the University of Illinois.

At the time I had progressed as far as I could through the teaching profession; the next step being a headmaster (school principal) which I knew I did not want to do. The other career path was to be a college professor and teach other people all about the wonders of teaching. Unfortunately, my 'A' level results were still not good enough for me to pursue this avenue even though I now had a BEd degree. "So why not come to America and get your PhD at the University of Illinois" said one of the American professors who accompanied the US exchange students, "It's the land of opportunity" he continued. So I did. I took advantage of the opportunity to get my PhD in teacher education which then enabled me to become a professor in a teacher education program helping future teachers learn all about the wonders of teaching young children. The American Dream is opportunity.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Curiosity; the Acorn of Inquiry

Many years ago when I was a graduate student at the University if Illinois one of my professors, the renowned Dr. Lilian Katz, gave an in-class assignment in which we had to rank 26 characteristics of elementary school students. The task was to put them in order from most typical to least typical based on our experiences working with children in the K - 6 age range.

The most vivid and enduring memory from that activity is how differently different students ranked one particular characteristic; curiosity. Some of us ranked it as high as 1 or 2 while others ranked it as low as 24 or even last at 26. Being graduate students in an Education program all 20 or so of us had experience working with children so it wasn't as if we had randomly ranked the characteristics. Once we started discussing why we thought this had happened a remarkable pattern emerged. There was almost complete correlation between grade level experience and ranking of the curiosity characteristic. All the teachers who taught kindergarten or first grade ranked it 1, 2 or 3 while all those, like me, who taught fourth, fifth or sixth grade ranked it 24, 25 or 26. Second and third grade teachers ranked it somewhere in the middle. After a lively discussion we came to the somewhat depressing but probably true conclusion that our school system and our teaching do little to foster, or even maintain our students' curiosity about the world in which they live. They enter kindergarten with a total sense of curiosity about the world and by the time they get to 6th grade we've completely destroyed it and replaced it with the search for the right answer or doing things the right way, so to speak.

I was reminded of this experience yesterday as I watched my grandson, Lachlan, playing with different things. One of them was a set of colored, wooden stacking rings of different sizes. First he tipped them off the post and then put them back on in a random order. He then held the stack of rings close to his face and pulled them off one by one running them over his face and through his hair. He did it gently and carefully savoring the feel of each ring as it bumped over his nose and through his hair. He then dropped each ring behind his head and watched it roll across the floor. His curiosity about the things he plays with is inspiring. He wants to know, to find out, to learn and to discover the world around him. Later, he was eating a circular piece of provolone cheese by tearing it into strips. As he did so he was mesmerized by the way it came apart in  long, even  strips,  

And, quite amazingly, he does this all without standards, performance criteria, blended learning, grades or any of the other verbal paraphernalia we have designed in the name of learning and education.


Thursday, February 18, 2016

A Son, an Uncle and a College Student

Every Monday and Wednesday afternoon I sit in my car on the south side of the campus quad at St. Michael's College and watch my son run across the grass on  his way to class on the north side of the quad. It doesn't matter if there is green grass showing or an inch or two of snow he always takes the same. most direct route always stopping at the same spot to retie a shoe lace. I sit and watch because I just want to share in his unbridled joy of attending a college class.

He's a student, a "sophomore" now, in Professor Doyle's class that meets in the Robotics lab. He absolutely loves the class and his fellow students and, of course, Professor Doyle. Taking classes at St. Mike's has added a major dimension to how he sees himself, to what he knows about the world as well as who he knows and socializes with.

Andrew is 23 and has Down Syndrome and is now a college student as he frequently tells me in his daily report to me of who and what he is. It always begins "I did hug Keith and Neil (two members of his favorite group, Celtic Thunder, whom he really did hug after their performance last year at the Flynn Theater in Burlington) and ends with "and I'm a college sophomore".

He takes from the class what is important to him. It's not a grade or a collection of assignments, papers or complex ideas. It's factual information about things that interest him related to the course content; facts he can recall at will in conversation and will always remember because he has a remarkable memory.  It's the interactions with his fellow class mates; listening to their stories, helping solve a robotics problem, feeling the joy of success when a project  finally works for his group.

But it's what he brings to the class that is, by all accounts, so wonderful; a boundless sense of optimism, an eternally positive outlook on life where there are no mountains too high or seas too wide. An individual challenge to each student in the class to look inside themselves and see who they really are, and then to grow in the knowledge that they have made a new friend, understood someone who thinks a little differently and, perhaps, overcome some assumptions.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Cost of College

I've often wondered why the cost of college is such a major issue when the cost of everything else seems to increase far quicker than the increase in what we earn to pay for things. A loaf of bread, when not on sale, now costs just under $5. An oil change for my car is nearly $80. Both are dramatically more expensive than they were just a few years ago. Yet, by themselves, both are fairly insignificant in actual dollars when compared with the vast amounts of money that need to be invested to become an educated person. And here is the essence of why, to my mind, it is such an issue. It is because all the things that we need in order to live are wrapped up in one phrase, "the cost of college" which includes all the increases in all the things one needs in one's daily life, which, when added together, become a dramatically large increase.

Anyone who supplies a product or service to a college that increases in price is responsible for the rising cost of college. This includes insurers, builders, lawyers, medical workers, caterers, and the infamous text book suppliers. For the past ten years I have used subsequent editions of an excellent math education text that has increased in price from around $40 to $215. True, students can rent a copy of get an ebook version for less money but I've always encouraged my students to develop their own personal professional libraries. I've always allowed my students to purchase the 7th edition instead of the current 8th edition for a fraction of the cost and there is very little difference in the content.

Anyone who, while searching for a college, has looked to see the extent of the amenities at a college under consideration is also responsible for the rising costs of becoming an educated person. In order to stay competitive, colleges have to make sure that they have the latest in technological advances and support services, the most complete recreational facilities and the most up to date living accommodations.

Anyone who has considered attending one of the notorious on-line, for profit, "colleges" is also responsible for the rising cost of becoming an educated person because they have reduced the number of people available to attend authentic colleges which increases the competition for students causing the situation described above.

Just about the only people who do not contribute to the rising "cost of college" are the people who work at colleges. Salaries for professors, for example, have increased woefully over the last ten years, in some cases, less than 15 percent. Lecturers (professors)  in Scotland have been engaged in strike action because of the state of their pay structure.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Bedtime Maths at Bed Time

When I first heard about Bedtime Math on the local public radio station a year ago I thought to myself "duh, why have we never thought of that before?". Now it seems like a no-brainer and there is evidence, although still tentative, that this program is working according to recent research at the University of Chicago.

We've known since the Stone Age that reading to children at bed time will help them become better readers as well as more curious and motivated individuals. So why not maths?

I think the answer to the success of this program lies in the way the author, Laura Bilodeau Overdeck, has managed to shed the nationally pervasive view that maths, especially at the preK - 6  levels  is nothing more than computation.  She sees math through a wider lens through which she weaves numerical relationships and patterns into everyday events and stories. The books contain questions at different levels that can be used by parents to match the developmental/ability levels of their children. One interesting finding from the study is that the books really help parents who are anxious about math or who did not have good math experiences in school.

Earlier today my daughter called to say she had just purchased her first Bedtime Math book for her 18 month old son Lachlan. She also added that he is seeing twos of things everywhere, and says "two"; even when he is breastfeeding :)

Friday, February 5, 2016


You can probably remember a teacher who touched your life in a positive way at some point. Perhaps it was a third grade teacher who patiently helped you understand what the commutative property of multiplication was. Or maybe it was a fifth grade teacher who was passionate about literature and always found a way to help you make every story come to life. Or it might even have been a high school history teacher who dressed up in period costume for classes about the civil war.

Have you gone back to your school to thank that teacher?

There is nothing quite like the feeling that comes from being a good teacher; whether it's guiding children to a better understanding, sharing one's passion for a particular topic, compensating for a child's tough home life by caring a little bit more, or helping a student develop a growth mindset when they say they'll never understand fractions. Being part of a classroom full  of children for a year is an amazing experience.

It's not easy though, if you want to do it right. It' not something you can do by reading a book, taking a single course, spending a year in a classroom with a practicing teacher or just doing what comes naturally. Being a good teacher and getting the most fulfillment out of it involves a rigorous, challenging but incredibly rewarding intellectual process of thinking, reflecting, acting and developing the professional dispositions of a teacher. It involves having a good understanding of what you will teach, a practical grasp of how children develop and learn and the accumulation of a toolbox of teaching strategies you can call upon when needed.

A great place to do this is in the undergraduate or graduate programs at St. Michael' College where theory and practice are integrated in a way that enables you to be the best you can be.      


Thursday, February 4, 2016

What is Maths?

For the past several year I have defined maths as the science of pattern and the art of making sense. This definition has probably developed as a response to the still somewhat prevalent view that maths, at least at the elementary school level, is the study of numbers.

I have tried to operationalize this idea by having student look at maths from many different angles especially from the aesthetic and relational points of view. I have included the study of fractals in my courses because I feel they epitomize the idea of numerical patterns and relationships which are so important as we try to get children to remember concepts, ideas and factual information.

I have read much by Jo Boaler and other illuminaries who believe that maths should be taught the way I believe it should be but I have never read anything quite as clear and eloquent as this piece by John Seibert of the Math learning Center, publisher of the wonderful Bridges Math Program.

The analogy of  defining maths as the study of numbers and comparing it with literature as the study of the alphabet is absolutely brilliant in its simplicity and absurdity. Numbers, like letter, are simply some of the things we use to convey meaning and communicate with.  And this sentence, "Perhaps it is through the lens of patterns that math can transcend the procedures that have come to define it" is exactly what we should be helping young children do.  Seibert then concludes with this masterstroke, "After all, when we teach our students their ABCs we expect them to one day write their own papers and poems. In teaching our students their 123s, shouldn’t we support the same creativity?".