Month: May 2010

Total 12 Posts

Good Bloggers On Good Blogging

Kate Nowak leads; Sam Shah follows. Both offer some great advice if you’re looking to get into blogging. Alternately, if you’re reticent and timid about the whole thing, here’s a poignant quote from Kate, three months before she wrote her first post:

I don’t have a blog, because I have nothing original to contribute.

So there you go.

The Trouble Teaching Probability

[BTW: Pardon my dust. I swapped hosts from GoDaddy to Site5. Our long national nightmare is over.]

Riley Lark:

Probability only works on large scales, and then it really only approaches working. The kids all get the basic stuff, like coin flips having 50/50 odds, they all don’t get the more complicated stuff like standard deviation. They lack the tools for problems with continuous distribution, and as far as I can tell that leaves us with carnival games and card tricks. Which only work on average. By being my interested, lively self during class I managed to interest half of them for most of the time (what are the odds that you‚ interested in this question, Johnny?). But it was a hard unit for me.

And then he kills the probability lesson anyway. It’s like watching Danny Ocean explain all the reasons why the safe positively cannot be cracked before shrugging his shoulders and cracking the safe anyway. And, make no mistake, Riley is breaking into the Fort Knox of probability problems here with Monty Hall, a problem that causes cranial hemorrhaging even among professional mathematists.

I’m grateful I have just enough classroom expertise to appreciate what a thing of beauty it is when Riley draws fifty marks on the board behind him, a subtle classroom action that’s the equivalent in precision and style to Magic Johnson flicking a no-look bounce pass between three defenders for the assist.

Teaching WCYDWT: Learning

But where do you find this stuff?

some variation on this first quote has come up in every professional development session I have ever facilitated.

I just need to sit down and set some time aside to search for lesson ideas.

a colleague at Google while we were spitballing curriculum ideas.

The fact is that I don’t find ideas for curriculum. They find me. And I mean that as literally as possible. I don’t sit down and start searching Google for “fruit as a metaphor for the coordinate plane” or “Flash games illustrating angle reflections.”

I graduated college several years ago and, like many of my friends, I had to fill that learning vacuum with something. All of us came around to Google Reader within months of each other, which represented (for me) an evolutionary leap forward in managing my own learning.

If we really believe that mathematical reasoning undergirds Everything, then we need to keep learning about Everything, not just about the technical skills common to our own field. (I went at this same concept some time ago, though perhaps a bit inartfully.)

My suspicion, also, is that education will improve fastest when teachers recognize the incongruity between their own most exhilarating learning experiences and what goes on in their classrooms.

Question: what tools are essential to that kind of exhilarating learning? What is in your learning Swiss Army Knife?

Let me urge you to consider that question under the following fictional constraint: every time you tell a teacher to download a new application or set up an account with a new web application, the teacher loses a fingertip.

Bracket, for a moment, the grossness of the scenario. I’ll let you decide how the teacher loses the fingertip. The point is that y’all don’t understand that you’re a bunch of freaks. Someone links up some new online Photoshop knock-off and on muscle memory alone you’re entering in your e-mail address and a password and clonking away at your new toy.

Real people aren’t like that. And you give them too much grief, sometimes, for their unwillingness to sign up for ten different web apps to service ten different nuances in their learning which you have judged to be equally essential.

So: fingertips. Be careful here. I would give the fingertip off my right ring finger for Google Reader. I would sacrifice a second fingertip for Delicious.

Teaching WCYDWT: Introduction

It’s been a lot of fun lately to get invited to speak to audiences of educators about things that interest me. Those experiences have been profitable in the short-run, in terms of getting paid for work, but also in the long-run, as I get to workshop new ideas and modify old ones with fascinating people who are inadvertently improving the conversations I’ll have with future groups.

I’m learning that I’m jumping into this WCYDWT this thing way too early. Or, perhaps more accurately, that the WordPress tag known as “what can you do with this?” comprises two huge disciplines. It’s to my discredit that I’ve gone so long without noticing and expanding them.

One is learning. The other is storytelling. I can’t imagine how trite these revelations must seem on their faces. I’ll elaborate and then I’ll ask you to help me edit my professional development song and dance.

Math Like A Summer Blockbuster

A student in my online course did not appreciate the water tank lesson:

The [water tank video] is simply boring. I do not think middle school students would sit and be engaged throughout the entire video. [..] All we know is that someone is filling the tank; we don’t know its shape or dimensions, we don’t know the rate of the water flow, and, in the end, we don’t care. The video is too long and, quite frankly, uninteresting. I couldn’t watch the whole video (although I left it playing to listen for any changes) and I certainly can’t see a group of middle schoolers watching and being engaged.

This response gave me a good angle on three return volleys:

  1. What if we decided not to show the entire video? What could we do with that?
  2. The student mentioned that “we don’t know its shape or dimensions, we don’t know the rate of the water flow ….” Do you realize how much conceptual skill that critique requires? How many of your students can answer the question, “What do you need to know in order to solve this problem?”
  3. This.

That third bullet is a response to a wager I made back in February:

Twenty seconds into watching the hose dribble water into the tank, ask “how long do you think this is gonna take?” Ask [your students] for guesses. Just guesses. Write them on the board next to the guessers’ names. Whenever anyone raises the maximum or lowers the minimum, point it out. Then turn the clip off. Turn off the projector and proceed to whatever else you had planned for the period.

I wagered that students would riot. I found the whole classroom anecdote worthwhile, but here’s the vindicating part:

After the students made their predictions, I abandoned the water tank problem and moved on to something completely different. In each one of my classes, eventually a few of the students made a comment along the lines of “you never told us how long it took to fill the tank.” Sometimes the comment came only a few minutes after we had moved on. Other times, it came much later. More convincing evidence of the students’ level of engagement in the exercise came at the end of the lesson when I played the rest of the video. With their focus on the screen, you would have thought they were watching a summer blockbuster at the movie theater, not a tank filling with water in a classroom.