jenn_unplugged: (teacher)
This article about how schools can wound children is just heartwrenching for me. I am an educator, and I am committed to public education, but the direction NCLB and accountability have pushed us in these last few years feels so wrong, on so many levels.

It makes me sad to see what is happening, how the drive for "accountability" is actually widening the gap between those who are successful (however you want to define that) and those who traditionally are not. I just spent the summer working closely with middle and high school math and science teachers, and their stories are not so different from this.

As a parent of a future public school student, it makes me sad to think about what his experience might be like. And a little afraid, I must admit.
jenn_unplugged: (teacher)
Lebanon schools turn algebra into child's play

While most high schools in Oregon and across the nation struggle to get freshmen to pass algebra, one school district is trying something very different.

Lebanon, which educates 4,000 students in eight schools, is pushing algebra on students as early as first grade. And the kids are getting it.

More than 80 percent of Lebanon eighth-graders passed the state math test, compared with 66 percent at schools with similar demographics. No other large or medium-size Oregon district outdid its peers by 15 percentage points.


Among the key elements: Begin simple algebra and multiplication by first grade; have every child talk extensively about his or her mathematical reasoning; let students set up their own problems and equations and allow them to use big numbers if they choose; cover few topics in great depth; use lots of visual and hands-on modeling to make math ideas concrete.

"Something happens when they play with numbers every day -- numbers they come up with themselves, equations they write themselves," says Marla Ernst, a teacher who also coaches fellow teachers. She is largely responsible for finding the approach and spreading it districtwide. "They get an innate sense of what is seven, what is a fraction."


In primary classrooms in Lebanon, students deftly use number lines, work with negative numbers and solve basic algebraic equations. Few students sit stumped on the sidelines.

The day that (2 x 19) - 16 was one of the warmup equations in Beth Moore's third-grade classroom, every hand went up when she asked how they'd solved 2 times 19 in their heads so quickly.

Says 9-year-old Casey McEuen : "Sometimes the problems can be very hard and difficult, but we can figure it out."

jenn_unplugged: (teacher)
This was reported in the NY Times, incidentally. It's big news in Austin: Chris Comer, the director of Science Education at the Texas Education Agency, was forced apparently to resign after forwarding an email to her colleagues about a talk on evolution vs. creationism/"intelligent design". I know I shouldn't be surprised, because this is Texas, after all, but it's just stunning to me that someone would be punished for arguing that we should teach actual science in science classes, and not religion. I mean, seriously -- is it any wonder our kids are falling behind compared to the rest of the world in math and science? There are no other industrialized countries in which teaching kids science is controversial.

Someone forwarded this link to me today which I think sums up the issue very nicely. (A satire, in case it isn't obvious.) An excerpt:

In an effort to make math “more relevant to today’s third-graders — the future of our great country,” the recently adopted textbook questions the “old wives’ tale” that 2 + 2 = 4.

“Many families are uncomfortable with such rigid, formuliac thinking,” said the book’s publisher, Tatiana Rococo, CEO, COO and Secretary/Treasurer of Hot Off the Press, an Ardmore, Oklahoma-based textbook consortium that vows it “wants to keep its mind open when it comes to math and out of the gutter when it comes to everything else.”

“People like to say 2 + 2 = 4 — like it was a proven fact,” said Ms. Rococo, an Ardmore native who says she dabbles in mathematical pursuits such as astrology, bingo and paint-by-numbers works of art that decorate her sunken living room in her suburban home. “But that’s so not true! Not every mathematician agrees. In fact, there’s lots of controversy about that so-called ‘fact.’

If it weren't so close to the truth, it would be a lot funnier. :-P
Today is the last day of classes -- for me, anyway, as I don't have class tomorrow. It's weird how the semesters drag by for the first half, and then start to fly. The second half is always so much faster, for some reason, and then suddenly it's over. It always seems like the students and I are just settling into a rhythm when there are a few weeks left. It's too bad I can't seem to make that happen closer to the beginning of the semester. We'd get so much more accomplished.

I think I'm finally getting better. I've had two colds in the last month, the second more miserable than the first. It was interesting not to take anything for them. Cold medicines don't do much more than make you a bit more comfortable anyway, but it was interesting to go through them both with nothing but some occasional Tylenol. The value of decongestants is really in letting you sleep, I think. Without a decongestant, I had about four nights where I didn't sleep very well, and it made me pretty miserable. Last night was the first night I slept straight through (except getting up to pee once, which goes with the territory), and it was amazing!

I learned a bit too late that there are some decongestants I can take, just not ones containing pseudoephedrine. I would have had to write down the names of the others and take that list with me to the pharmacy, heh. But if I get sick again this winter, at least I'll know.

I was at Target yesterday at lunchtime buying gift wrap, and there was a woman in front of me with an infant and a three-year-old boy. She was clearly trying to buy some Christmas presents for the boy, and was trying to hide them from him. But as soon as those little Spiderman dolls went on the cashier's belt, he spotted them and starting saying, "I want that!" She ignored him, but he became more and more insistent. She tried to tell them those weren't hers, that she wasn't buying them, but he didn't care. She finally held up a shirt to block his view while the cashier scanned them and quickly bagged them. She stuck the bag under the cart, which he missed, but by that point he was freaking out, screaming and pretty much throwing an tantrum.

After the cart wheeled away, the older lady in line behind me said, "See what you have to look forward to?" Comments like that are really sort of rude, but for some reason I found it funny, and I cracked up laughing. I have no idea what I would do in that situation, you know? That woman seemed like she just wanted to get her shopping done and get out of there, and she didn't stop to deal with her son's tantrum. I can see it both ways. Heh. :-P
jenn_unplugged: (teacher)
In a math course I teach, I happened to mention that I knew someone who could turn his pants inside out without taking them off, and one student took it as a challenge to see if she could figure out how to do it. She not only did it, but made a cool video to document it. You can check it out here. :-D
jenn_unplugged: (teacher)
Pat Kenschaft, a mathematician retired from Montclair State University, wrote a book for parents called Math Power: How to Help Your Child Love Math Even If You Don't. It's about to go out of print, despite being well-received in the mathematical community. Pat wants to get as many copies of it out in the world as possible and is organizing one last order with her publisher.

The text of her email is here. )

I thought I'd pass this on so you can get one if you want. If you work in a school or a library, note that she will be happy to send a free autographed copy for the library. Send her an email at the address under the cut if you're interested, and feel free to pass this on.

As an aside, Pat used to have a call-in show on public radio called Math Medley, which I was a guest on several years ago (show # 196, if you scroll down) back when I was a grad student. That episode doesn't seem to be available for download, which is just as well -- IIRC it was sort of hijacked by a caller who railed on about something completely off-topic for ten minutes. :-P

Anyway, read a book! Fight evil! ;-)
jenn_unplugged: (teacher)
I've been either a teacher or a student for as long as I can remember. I barely remember anything before pre-school, and with the exception of the year I was in Up With People, my life has centered around the academic calendar. So when the "back-to-school" commercials start up in late summer, I start to feel the excitement of a new school year beginning.

I'm so used to time being measured out in academic years that I often forget what it must be like for people whose lives aren't organized around semesters and summers. I can't fathom not having 2-3 weeks at Christmas and 2-3 months in the summer to get things done. School terms are intense and stressful, and I love having that time to step back and reflect on what was accomplished, and then plan for the next go round. I get to do my job in a fairly autonomous way; within certain guidelines and expectations, I'm free to structure my courses as I see fit. I don't have a supervisor telling me what I should be doing at any particular time. It's up to me how all of it happens, and I like that. With the exception of scheduled course and committee meetings, I set my own hours. I can do a lot of my work from home if I want. My non-teaching (and non-committee) time is fairly open, so I can do whatever I want. I can think about lots of cool things, read interesting articles, and do my own research. I get to use my time to try to make a difference in the way mathematics is taught, and I do understand how much of a privelege that is. (And how I bought that privelege in blood, sweat, and tears for five years in grad school...)

But one of the things I have come to realize is especially interesting about being in education is the fact that every year, I start over. If there are students who are driving me nuts, I only have to deal with them for about four months, and then they're gone. If I didn't like the way things turned out in a course, I get to improve it and try again the next year. I am almost guaranteed that I will only get better at my job as time goes on.

And you know, that's pretty damn cool. :-)


Apr. 13th, 2006 07:47 am
jenn_unplugged: (teacher)
This was posted last night on [ profile] teaching_math:

Hello all. I am a middle school math teacher taking a class for my masters. I have an assignment to do, and all I have to do is submit a lesson plan on how to develop the concept/definition of the derivative. Does anyone have any premade lesson plans they can forward to me? I'd grealy appreciate it. :)

My response: No offense, but isn't this the internet equivalent of "Will someone let me copy their homework?"

Okay, I went on to give her some ideas for where she might look, but still. WTF?
jenn_unplugged: (teacher)
One of my colleagues just sent me a link to the report from a study comparing certified and uncertified teachers in Houston. There were quite a few Teach for America folks in the sample, and the study found that not only do certified (that means they went through a teacher certification program at a university) teachers affect student achievement significantly more than do uncertified teachers; there was essentially no difference between the Teach For America fellows and other uncertified teachers in the sample.

So even being very bright and highly motivated still doesn't make up for not having been through a teacher education program, basically.

I've always had mixed feelings about TFA, to be honest. I think it does more good for the people who participate in it than for the kids taught, for one thing. TFA fellows tend not to stay in teaching; they think of it as something along the lines of the Peace Corps. They fulfill their commitment and then go off to get their MBA, having learned something about life in the inner city that will (hopefully) stick with them. They pop into poor urban or rural kids' lives, and then leave again. The kids get yet another inexperienced teacher the next year, who will likely be just as unprepared to teach them, just as ignorant of what teaching and learning are really about, and just as likely to burn out and leave in three years. And this is considered a good thing because, sadly, that teacher turnover would be the same whether the TFA fellow was there or not. "At least they had a smart and enthusiastic teacher for a little while!" people say. This report shows that it doesn't actually matter if their uncertified teacher was a Harvard grad or a laid-off engineer; neither helps them as much as does a prepared, certified, educated teacher.

I'm going to meet with an incoming graduate student this week who's just finishing up his TFA run in Brooklyn. He's clearly an exception because he's actually interested in continuing in education. I'm curious to see what he thinks about the results of this study.
jenn_unplugged: (teacher)
Every now and then, I get emailed this sort of thing, usually accompanied by much hemming and hawing about how hard it is, and how kids today couldn't do it because schools have been "dumbed down" so much. Here's a copy of the exam, preceded by the typical "our schools today suck!" comments (I've copied it straight from my email, and there are some parenthetical comments in there that aren't mine):

Eighth Grade exam from 1895 )

Whenever I get one of these, I always wonder if it's comepletely accurate -- you never know. I haven't looked up the source. But the language is a bit archaic, which lends credibility. The other things that make it seem 100 years old are the emphasis on practical "town and country" mathematics. Nothing beyond arithmetic, nothing that isn't just computation, nothing that requires any sort of algebraic or creative thinking.

The questions in the other topics are also telling. There aren't any "Why?" questions, really; they all ask the student to state memorized rules, and maybe to provide an example. Nothing asks the student to explain, or to extrapolate, or to justify. The history questions ask student to recite facts, not to explain why events were significant, or what political and social factors brought them about. There is a geography question asking "Of what use are rivers?", which is extremely telling! (Back to the whole "God gave the earth to man to use" philosophy of environmentalism, which has got us where we are today.)

There isn't any science. The only free writing the student is asked to do is to write a 150-word paragraph. That's about the length of an abstract, maybe 6 sentences. That's what we expect of second graders these days.

The thing that always gets me about how these are sent around is that there is an implied message that we have "dumbed down" schools since then, that this material is somehow hard and something kids today couldn't do. But this material isn't hard! It just relies on rote memorization of many things we no longer force kids in schools to memorize. For example, we don't force kids to memorize so many explicit language rules anymore because it was shown that such things didn't improve their writing and reading. It was a pointless exercise.

Having knowledge isn't about being able to spout trivia on command. True understanding isn't demonstrated by reciting facts and computing the answers to arithmetic word problems. There is no critical thinking here. There's no synthesis of ideas. There's no applications of ideas to new situations. There's nothing in this test that reflects what we consider to be evidence of actual learning and understanding, today.

The mathematics eighth graders do today is so far beyond what was required 100 years ago! Those folks would be stunned to learn that we now expect all kids (and yes, that includes the non-white ones and the female ones) to be ready for algebra at the end of eighth grade. We expect them to have mastered proportional reasoning, and to know how to apply many of the basic ideas of Euclidean geometry. There is none of that in this test.

So what if kids today couldn't pass this exam? They can do far more complex things, they can solve problems, they can think creatively and sift through large amounts of information very quickly, and so much more. The kids from 100 years ago wouldn't be able to pass our exams, either. And, frankly, I think ours are better!

So why does this always bother people? Why do they think education has gotten worse over the last 100 years? The only answer I can come up with is that they themselves don't understand what it really means to learn or know something, what the purpose of schooling is, or what the activities of learning should be. But I'm sick of getting this email, I can tell you that.

ETA: I posted this on [ profile] math_teachers too, and someone there looked it up at Urban Legends. It looks like the exam is indeed real, but the author of the entry also explains why such things don't imply our educational standards have fallen. :-D

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