Saturday, November 8, 2014

Vermont Fest 2014 and a Snake

The sign of a good conference is when you come away from it questioning everything about your work.

I like this snake drawing from the New York Public Library more than the three terrible photos I took of people in banquet rooms at the Killington Grand. I would never consider publishing a blog post without a picture.

At Vermont Fest this year, I found myself wanting to make a list of a bunch of things all students should get the chance to do in school.

Skype/hangout/video interact with people in other parts of the world
Type an equal sign into a spreadsheet
Make a personalized, LED-lit badge to explore how light works
Have maker/genius/whatever hour/day/week to explore something interesting to them
Publish their content (writing/photos/videos) on a blog and comment on the work of others
Learn about how computers work by writing some code
Be asked the questions How are you feeling? What do you think? and What do you need?
Use Google Research Tools to find and cite things.
Sit in chairs listening to a teacher talk a lot less.

Some great presenters I encountered include Chris Lehmann (@chrislehmann), Bonnie Birdsall (@bonniebird), Dan French (@danfrench), Adam Provost (@batman44), Lucie deLaBruere (@techsavvygirl), Charlie Macfadyen (@csmacf), Tricia Hinkle (@VTScienceFair), Matt Dunne (@@mattdunnevt). Check them out.

Here are a couple of links.
The Vermont Fest site with all kinds of other links to presenters

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Through the eyes of a student

Asbury Park High School, NJ, where my father used to teach.
I am excited about this article on Grant Wiggins’ blog entitled, A veteran teacher turned coach shadows 2 students for 2 days – a sobering lesson learned.

The first sentence is “I have made a terrible mistake.”

The reason the author made this statement is that shadowing students for a few days was an eye-opening experience. Her regret is that she didn’t do this early in her teaching career.

“...I wish I could go back to every class of students I ever had right now and change a minimum of ten things – the layout, the lesson plan, the checks for understanding. Most of it!”

This article is a heartbreaking read. Typical students at this high school sit passively in their classes for almost the entire day, an activity that left the author feeling “drained” and “icky”. Doing any kind of homework felt impossible.

“I was so tired by the end of the day, I wasn’t absorbing most of the content, so I am not sure my previous method of making kids sit through hour-long, sit-down discussions of the texts was all that effective.”

Gosh. More educators should shadow students for a few days.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Fibonacci and Fractals Links

I had the pleasure of being the co-presenter of a workshop called “Fibonacci, Fractals, and the Common Core Math Standards” at the VCTM conference at Saint Michael’s College on Friday. My partners were Professor Tim Whiteford of Saint Michael’s College and Laura Sommariva, a math teacher at Colchester High School.

The three of us shared what we’d done with students during a fifth grade field trip to Tim’s famous Penny Arcade. Here is Tim’s original write-up about that.

As promised, for the participants in our workshop and others, here are the resources we used to teach about fractals and Fibonacci numbers.

The Fractal Foundation Fractivities. How to draw Sierpinski triangles, do fractal cutouts and more.

Worksheetworks. Create your own graph paper and triangle paper.

On Being a Plant, Part 1, the 6 minute Vi Hart video we watched. She explains Fibonacci numbers, and demonstrates how to count the spirals on pinecones, draw realistic pinecones, and use graph paper to make a golden spiral.

Laura teaches summer math classes for elementary students in Switzerland. She has photos of her students here doing wonderful, related activities like building giant tetrahedrons out of mini marshmallows.

Have fun!

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Shelburne Farms Mini Maker Faire

I went to the Maker Faire at Shelburne Farms today for the first time.

This is what I did.

I made a magic wand with an LED light that turns on and off by touching a wire to a battery on the wand. I first had to figure out how to connect the LED to some wires, then run them to the battery correctly. After that part was working, I added sparkly silver ribbon to the stem of the wand and encased the LED light in crumply clear plastic tape for light refraction purposes. Voila! I am ready to put spells on people. Joanna Elliott, Flynn Elementary parent and teacher, was the wizard behind this project. See her fabulous art blog.

I made a puzzle book, a square flexagon (a previously unknown-to-me relative of the hexaflexagon) for comic-book type story-telling, and a mini book that could contain anything from math facts to the secrets of the universe. A matchbook size mini book can be made and then kept in an actual matchbox. Book Arts Guild of Vermont people helped me do this. Students might want to make these after reading the Red Clover Book entitled The Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleischman. This is an activity for any budget.

I spoke with Richa, who is going to assist with a course called Intro to Relational Databases at Girl Develop It Burlington. There are classes and meet-ups. I want to go.

Champlain College Emergent Media Center folks explained what they are working on. Their new Maker Lab that had its grand opening party last night.

I saw a robot-building challenge and presentation by Joe Chase and his team of students from Essex High School. Joe is my neighbor and it was great to see him up there advocating for more design and engineering work in schools. My daughter took his robotics class a few years ago and loved it.

I saw and did many other cool things, including experimenting with magnets with Frank White from CreateItLab and speaking with the effervescent Michael Metz of Generator, Lucy deLaBruere, Courtney Asaro, and Graham Clarke, both of Flynn Elementary School in Burlington.

What a great day! Takeaways included an Arduino Robot Kit made by and the knowledge that so many people are working on creating engaging opportunities for people of all ages in the Burlington area.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Keep the Mystery

A few years ago, my husband told me he thought he saw a wolf running across our dirt road. At the time I said no, but maybe he was right. The creature he could have seen is a so-called coywolf, a coyote+wolf+dog that has allegedly established itself in the forests and neighborhoods of New England.

Yesterday, I was reading about the coywolf in the New York Times and was reminded of the incredible nuance, mystery, and ambiguity of the study of genetics and evolution. “Should You Fear the Pizzly Bear?” by Moises Velasquez-Manoff is an article about the effects of climate change on speciation.

“The dirty secret of biology is that the fundamental unit of science - i.e. species - in fact can’t be adequately defined,” said a Monterey Bay Aquarium scientist.

Even Charles Darwin saw the difficulty in the notion of species. From the Velasuez-Manoff article, “...[Darwin] was vague on how to define species, referring to ‘the vain search for the undiscovered and undiscoverable essence of the term.’”

As a child and then a teenager in school, science was presented as something that was unambiguous, and something that smart scientists in labs somewhere were doing with precision and finality. I was shocked when I began studying evolutionary biology in college. The taxonomic system of classification, a construct created by humans, prompted more questions than answers, its tree model seeming too simplistic to adequately explain the breadth and nuance of life on Earth.

Science became interesting to me at that point. I realized that everything wasn’t figured out already and people like me could join the conversation.

My learning about epigenetics in college caused me to question some of what I’d been taught about genes and heredity. Today, there is growing evidence and acceptance of the idea that traits can be inherited that are not written in one’s actual DNA. This directly contradicts what I was taught in high school biology.

As an educator who creates or curates units and lesson plans, often the temptation is to simplify things for students (and teachers). Another temptation is to rely on knowledge of a subject from my own (increasingly distant) school days. Do we present science in all its bizarre, unknowable complexity? How can teachers challenge even young students with unanswerable questions?

Friday, August 1, 2014

Summer Gems

Here are two articles you shouldn’t miss this summer, and they make a nice pair.

Why Do Americans Stink at Math?” by Elizabeth Green, July 23, New York Times, and “Most Math Problems Do Not Have a Unique Right Answer” by Keith Devlin, August 1, 2014, Devlin’s Angle.

I’ve come to the conclusion that our old ideas and stereotypes about math and education are hard to shake. It really means reading articles like these as they come out every month or so, in order to truly change our minds and our practice.

To whet your appetite, here are a few quotes:

One of the first math classes he observed gave him such a jolt that he assumed there must have been some kind of mistake. The class looked exactly like his own memories of school. “I thought, Well, that’s only this class,” Takahashi said. But the next class looked like the first, and so did the next and the one after that. The Americans might have invented the world’s best methods for teaching math to children, but it was difficult to find anyone actually using them. - from “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?”

Having earned my living as a mathematician for over 40 years, I can assure you that the belief is false. In addition to my university research, I have done mathematical work for the U. S. Intelligence Community, the U.S. Army, private defense contractors, and a number of for-profit companies. In not one of those projects was I paid to find "the right answer." No one thought for one moment that there could be such a thing. - from “Most Math Problems Do Not Have a Unique Right Answer”

The last summer gem is this youcubed video about using Number Talks in math class. How would you solve 18 x 5 mentally?

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Hit the Target

I was fortunate that my boss found out about a STEM (Science + Technology + Engineering + Math) Coaches course taught by Dr. John Tapper and registered me and our district science coach. We spent four whole days at the Hampton Inn, which is a strange venue for a STEM course but it worked fine. I gained about 5 pounds because the hotel served muffins every morning and cookies every afternoon and I ate them.

I already knew John Tapper from afar because of his excellent book on math instruction called Solving for Why. This course wasn’t about math menus and differentiation; instead John got us thinking about teaching STEM and instructional coaching. There was lots of discussion, not lots of lecturing, and plenty of hands-on investigations involving buoyancy, force, and motion. John teaches college level math and education courses, but has experience as an elementary classroom teacher, administrator, instructional coach and researcher. I found his perspective refreshing and some of his ideas about STEM new to me.

I’d been wondering how to best integrate math with other content areas. In the STEM Coaches course, John pushed us to use math in a meaningful way rather than as an add-on. He asked, “What about challenging students to create a mathematical model that they will then use to make a prediction?”

It turns out there are fun, engaging ways to do just that. John gave us Straw Rocket Launchers (go here if you want plans to make your own). Two teams experimented with these, adjusting the launch angle and launch force to see how to get the straw to travel different distances. When each team felt they had enough data, John placed a hotel napkin on the sidewalk. “It must hit this target!” Teams measured the distance to the target, then decided how to set the angle and force of the launcher. No more practice runs - each team had one chance to get it right. See photos below of classmates crunching the numbers, then trying to hit the square.

There were a few different targets. Both teams were able to hit the napkin, but the small soup cup John put out was too tough.

It helped to experience these challenges as a learner. Everyone was engaged in the task and we had to really use the math and rely on it to be successful. A key point: hitting a target at a given (initially unknown) distance is very different than simply sending a rocket as far as it can go. The math ended up being the centerpiece of the activity, and the whole thing was really FUN.

We also tried to determine the minimum surface area for an effective parachute, create our own timer (pendulums, a hole in a water bottle), and decide how to predict if a given object would sink or float.

I have a new sense of how to use all four letters in STEM in a meaningful way, and how to give students greater ownership of their learning.

We should all try to hit the target!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

B Positive

B Positive is my blood type, and it has served as an important reminder about my attitude toward all things work-related (and non work-related).

I attended Dynamic Landscapes last week at Champlain College and had a wonderful time. The best presenters are those who are super enthusiastic about education and its potential. Though cynical about the way things are, wonderful speakers like Gary Stager, Thursday’s keynote, has an optimistic vision.

Gary says...

I am not surprised when kids do extraordinary things. I am surprised when adults are surprised when kids do extraordinary things.

What are kids really capable of? We need to find out.

Gary Stager is worth getting to know if you are an educator. He’s an advocate for kids working to their fullest potential with technology, and having high/low tech maker spaces in classrooms. His book is called Invent to Learn. Gary makes me want to be more radical.

At Dynamic Landscapes, I also attended a panel of educators who recently hosted the Smarter Balanced Assessment (Common Core) field test in their schools, facilitated by Peter Drescher of the Vermont Agency of Education. My district isn’t part of the field test, so it was great to hear from folks who know more. There was discussion of the nuts and bolts of the new assessment like the fact that students could take the test on a tablet but are supposed to have an external keyboard. There was talk of how to schedule the test to make it work, how to test the wireless capacity of the schools, how to prepare students and teachers.

I noticed that many of the educators who have administered the Smarter Balanced field test to students remarked that students enjoyed it. They like the tech format rather than dealing with pencil and paper, they liked the multimedia content, and the challenging questions.

A principal in the audience spoke up. I didn’t know him and didn’t catch his name. He said attitude is everything. This is a positive opportunity to learn. Let’s pull our sleeves up and make this work. There will be challenges, but we will learn a lot. Like any new thing there will be bumps in the road. His positive attitude was adopted by his staff and students.  

There is and will be lots of complaining about the Smarter Balanced assessments. Adult negativity is quickly taken up by students, and could rob them of important opportunities. As a math coach, I will model positivism.

B Positive.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Who Gets to Graduate?

On Sundays I love to play tennis and read the New York Times. There was a great article this past Sunday. Author Paul Tough shares some sobering statistics about who is graduating with four year degrees, who isn’t, and why.

You must read the whole article. Go and do that now. My big takeaways: remedial classes and groups don’t work and students in some demographic groups (low-income, non-white, parents who didn’t graduate from college) are at risk but can be helped. It isn’t really new information. It is just more evidence supporting certain ideas.  I want to know how we can apply this to K-12 public schools.

Every college freshman — rich or poor, white or minority, first-generation or legacy — experiences academic setbacks and awkward moments when they feel they don’t belong. But white students and wealthy students and students with college-graduate parents tend not to take those moments too seriously or too personally...It is only students facing the particular fears and anxieties and experiences of exclusion that come with being a minority — whether by race or by class — who are susceptible to this problem. Those students often misinterpret temporary setbacks as a permanent indication that they can’t succeed or don’t belong…

“What I like about these interventions is that the kids themselves make all the tough choices,” ... “They deserve all the credit. We as interveners don’t. And that’s the best way to intervene. Ultimately a person has within themselves some kind of capital, some kind of asset, like knowledge or confidence. And if we can help bring that out, they then carry that asset with them to the next difficulty in life.”

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Organizing Information

New York Public Library

Max Ray’s talk at NCSM was about a math lesson he taught twice. The first time things didn’t go as well as he’d hoped. Max had the opportunity to reflect with his collaborators afterward. Luckily, they were going to teach the same lesson again to another group of students the same day. They decided what they wanted to do differently based on the results from the first group.

Here is the excellent write-up of that lesson by Max. The second go at the lesson is one in which the teachers respond to students who need support by modeling an organizational strategy. They actively avoid giving students hints about how they might mathematize the problem situation they’ve been given. It is no surprise that Max has done a nice job organizing the student-teacher-student volley into tables in his article. The outcomes in the second lesson are superior.

The ability to organize information is an important skill. When I observe students engaging in math problem-solving, often their success hinges on if and how they organize their work. Organizing information is also the key to great writing, troubleshooting, designing websites and databases, waiting tables, using spreadsheets, teaching, talking, and many other things. Here is Rob Lamb’s Collaborative Infographics for Science Literacy site, which also relates.

If you are a teacher, test it. See how students respond if you honor their ideas and teach only organizational strategies.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Latest and Greatest in a Nutshell

Dan Meyer
There are some very good things happening right now in the world of mathematics education. Being at the NCSM Conference gave me the opportunity to connect with many of the greatest minds in the field and hear about their current projects.

Here are my top picks for books to buy, courses to take, blogs to read...right NOW.

NCTM’s Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success for All. The book Steve Leinwand keeps waving around. I read a draft in the fall. Educators need to start turning to this when figuring out how to do professional development, how to craft school goals, what to look for in classrooms. It’s radical.

Visible Learning by John Hattie. This book is being enthusiastically talked about by greats like Tim Kanold and Bob Laird. Subtitled “A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement”, it’s the new go-to resource for knowing what truly works in education.

Tim Kanold. Check out his most recent post about math homework.
Max Ray. I went to an excellent workshop for teachers by Max and also saw his engaging Ignite talk. He’s with the Math Forum @ Drexel. There are problems, videos and more.
Dan Meyer. Prolific blogger, thinker. Recently published Great Modeling Tasks in Three Acts (for NCSM members only, except for one freebie).
Annie Fetter. At Math Forum with Max. Great Ignite talk about her artist mother and the math she used.
YouCubed. Not a blog but go there and sign up for updates. Watch some of the videos.

There are two online Stanford courses taught by Jo Boaler that are a must-do. Last summer, I took How to Learn Math for Parents and Teachers. It was fabulous. It was free then, now it costs $125. Worth it.

This year, Jo Boaler has added a brand new course called How to Learn Math for Students. It’s free. I haven’t taken it yet but I recommend trying it with a young person you know. It sounds like it is appropriate for children ages 10-18, but for children younger than 13, a parent or teacher should register and share the material with the child. Go to the site and register. It begins in May.

People to Follow on Twitter

Who I missed
Uri Treisman. But here’s the audio of his talk.