Thursday, March 19, 2020

Dorms Closed for Coronavirus: My 90 Second Announcement

Two weeks ago I was on spring break. Had you told me that I would be teaching online and not likely to see my students again for the remainder of the semester, I would not have believed you.  But here we are.

For the last week, I have been more exhausted than I have been since my daughter was born.  You know the good old days when you child would not fall asleep easily and then you would lay down in their room and fall asleep on the floor?  I adjusted to using Zoom for teaching my college classes. I learned how to do breakout rooms. When the students were taking their test in Canvas and they couldn't see the images, I scrambled and posted the images in the chat. The students who were absent received individual emails to check in on their health and well being each day.  Some are struggling.

I have always said I am a teacher first and that my subject area is math.  Three-fourths of my students were scheduled to take a test tomorrow.  About 90 minutes ago, the governor of Pennsylvania said that non-life-sustaining businesses are to be shut down as of 8 PM tonight.  My college students need to be out of their dorms in 24 hours.  Some have already gone home, but not all.  I know they are confused.  They want to do their best.  They feel conflicted.  They are emotional.  They are worried.

Here is what I sent to them through our class announcements about 10 minutes after the President sent the email saying that college students must leave their dorms in the next 24 hours and go home or to a place they consider safe.



My college went from Tier 1 to Tier 5 of our response plan in less than 10 days.  I am still shellshocked.  For all the other teachers out there, accept it.  Your teaching won't be the same.  Your students aren't the same.  They won't remember any (or very little) of the content that you might teach them over the next 2-3 months. Lower your standards now. 

The tests don't matter.  The syllabus doesn't matter.  You won't be able to go at the same pace. You are human.  Your students are human.  Listen to them and care for them.  Listen to your body and care for yourself.  Spend time with your family and care for them. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Think About a Person Who is Good at Math (Class Day 1)

On my first day of class, I wanted to set the tone that all students are capable of learning mathematics.  This can be a hard sell in a "Business Calculus class", especially with juniors and seniors that have been removed from a math class by 4 or 5 years.  To help students see that the characteristics of a person who is good in math are actually achieveable by everyone and within their control, I took a lesson from the playbook of Howie Hua.  He sent out a tweet a few days ago about this activity.

Step 1: Instruct students to think of someone they know who is good at math.  The person could be a family member, sibling, friend or classmate.  But it had to be someone they knew.

Step 2: Think about the characteristics that person has that helps them to be good at math.

Step 3: Have students work together to compile their list of 5 characteristics.

Step 4: Display the lists in the room and ask students what they notice about the lists.

The lists generated by one of my classes is posted below.



We had to unpack what "Calculated" meant in the first group.  They described it as being organized and thoughtful about how they approached problems, a "calculated approach".  We also discussed "thinking outside the box".  This is partly seeing things from multiple approaches and can be improved with practice.

In my second class, we put the responses on paper and looked at them under the document camera.  That class had words like focused, organized, hardworking, determined and diligent.  I pointed out that these are characteristics that can be developed by anyone and that means they were all capable of becoming better math students.

I also told the story about my first math quiz grade in college - it was a 50%.  And I mentioned that I went to speak to the professor right away about that grade and then worked hard to understand the material in the course, looking for patterns in the problems, doing extra problems and working with friends.  The lowest quiz grade in that class was dropped and that was my lowest grade. I ended the class with a B+, because I put in the extra effort and got help when I needed it.

Today I had a student find me to check his work and he told me that exercise in class made him realize he should start working early and it motivated him to come in for a little help.  I also had another student email me about coming in for help.  She admitted that math has been very challenging for her in the past, but she wants to work.

So, thank you Howie for a great opening day activity!  And if you don't follow Howie on twitter you really should.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Thoughts on my Last Lesson

Today marks my last day at Kent Place School in Summit, New Jersey.  In August, I will be teaching full time at Moravain College, a much shorter commute from my home in Easton, PA. This marks the end of my 26th year of teaching.  You may think that after teaching for that length of time that I had nothing to learn about teaching, about students or about myself.  However, I have continued to grow as a teacher and I have gained insights in each of these areas this year .

Thoughts on My Last Lesson


I'll known for a while now that teaching is more than just understanding a subject.  It is about the students in front of you at that precise moment. Yesterday was the last day of school.  It was a half-day.  No exams, no regular classes.  Just final good-byes and one last chance to have students think and perhaps learn something new. Faculty were asked to design an activity and students would sign up to attend the 30 minute session of their choice.  The one I led was "The Case of the Stolen Jewels".  Seven volunteers were actors in a mini play.  The players were the cook, the chauffeur, the maid, the butler, inspector Euler Toots, Lady Shmendrick and the narrator.  Jewels were stolen from the mansion and the thief dragged his feet through the snow to throw off the authorities.  The testimony did not fit what was on the map.  However, I asked the students if they could tell from the map alone who stole the jewels.  (Can you tell?  Hint: Think Euler path.)

Map for "The Case of the Stolen Jewels"
I did this session three times and each time the student interaction was different.  Not only the interaction of the students with each other, but my questioning of the students.  Usually when I teach a lesson multiple times, my last time is the best.  Reflecting on how the lesson went the previous time(s), I can anticipate student questions and the direction of the lesson better.  However, my first time of leading "The Case of the Stolen Jewels" was the best yesterday and I think it was a result of my questionning.  I believe there are three main questionning techniques that can either open up a lesson or shut it down.

Number 1: Type of question  

Consider the following two questions. "We said you could trace a path if you start and end at the odd vertices.  What other questions might Euler have investigated related to odd and even vertices?" versus "Do you think it is possible to trace if we have three odd vertices?" 

The first questions directs students to focus on the vertices, but doesn't suggest any specific changes to make.  Any answer to this question is open to exploration. This was the question I posed to my first group and we had a lively discussion related to changes they suggested - 3 odd vertices, all even verticies, all odd vertices, etc. They were thinking like mathematicians. 

The second question removes the mathematician agency from the students.  It is a yes/no question and leads students in a very specific direction.  And since it definitely has a right answer - it can be traced or not - students hesitate to answer because there is a chance of being wrong and in the eyes of many students, even on the last day of school, wrong is bad.  This second version of the question was asked to my third group of students and it definitely changed the atmosphere of learning.  I had to follow it up with multiple questions and the discussion overall fell flat.

Number 2: Wait Time

This year I became better at wait time.  When I would ask a question, I would often restate the question - either word for word or slightly revised.  This gave students who hadn't fully heard the question the first time to hear it and it gave some more time for students to think.  Also, I did not go with the first person to raise her hand as I would have in the past.  Doing this often rewards the fastest thinkers and leads other students to think "I don't need to think about this question, because she will call on Susan. Susan knows all the answers."  Instead, I would wait until many hands were raised and often call on students who participate less often.  And, even if those students say something that isn't fully correct, we unpack it as a class.  Early in the year, students learn that mistakes are a valuable part of the learning process. You can learn so much from doing something wrong.  In response to mathematical misunderstandings, you can often hear me say things like, "I hadn't thought of that. Thank you for sharing that idea." or "Let's think about that some more.  There is something we all can learn from what you just said." or "That is an interesting thought.  Let's see what happens when we do that."

Number 3: Share with Others First

Not all students are risk takers. Think back to your days as a student. How many of you would say "I loved to share my thoughts that could be wrong and incomplete in front of 15-20 of my peers for them and the teacher to critique."  Students prefer to participate when they think they are mostly right and will be validated for their correctness.  So, how do we get students willing to take risks and share?  When I ask a question and see that no one wants to take a risk to answer it, I say "share some thoughts about that question with your group for a minute."  Then, I walk around the room and listen in on the conversation.  Sometimes, I will even tell specific students that I'll be calling on them to share their idea.  More students are willing to become risk takers after that minute of sharing with others first.

This summer I will be leading/co-presenting at several different workshops or conferences. Often the pace of the workshops is frantic, but that generally doesn't lead to deep understanding.  Sharing, risk-taking and reflecting will be a large part of my workshops this summer, as it has been in my classroom this year. Be sure to visit my blog in the fall to hear about my reflections in the college classroom and if you are a teacher, be sure to take some time for yourself this summer to relax and reflect.