Math is a #firstworldproblem June 1, 2014Posted by mareserinitatis in education, math, teaching.
Tags: math, teaching
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I was recently having a conversation with a friend about teaching when she launched into a complaint about students not understanding logarithms. The conversation became somewhat off putting because this friend fell into the trap of equating mathematical knowledge with intelligence. A lot of people do it: English majors will imply one is an idiot if one doesn’t appreciate the succinct stoicism supplied by Hemingway, for example. (And I use this example because I’ve been on the receiving end of such criticism: I can’t stand Hemingway, and it was torture having to relive it when the older son was reading and explaining Old Man and the Sea for one of his classes.) Hemingway hating aside, many of us tend to use certain sets of knowledge as a reflection of intelligence, and that’s rather simplistic (and not all that intelligent of us).
The reason this particular discussion irritated me is because there is a level of classism that seems to go hand-in-hand with assumptions about mathematical literacy. While being mathematically literate is a good thing, the reality is that I’ve met very mathematically illiterate folks who were able to navigate through life with no problems. Not knowing logarithms didn’t hinder them professionally or personally. Not knowing logarithms was no indicator of their intelligence. Not knowing logarithms didn’t stop them from appreciating, or at least tolerating, Hemingway.
In my experience, math illiteracy often has a basis in background. Kids whose parents are highly educated and/or wealthy often have a greater chance of both being exposed to advanced math concepts as well as being able to use such concepts more proficiently. In my classes, I’ve noticed a huge problem: kids from larger, urban schools and who aren’t minorities seem to be more likely to stick with engineering than either minority students or those from rural backgrounds. Kids who have engineers in their family are more likely to stick with it, as well. While this isn’t a surprise, and there’s been a lot of explanation as to why this is so, I suspect exposure to and comfort with math concepts is a big factor. Not only are they already feeling at a disadvantage because they are having to start farther behind their peers in the curriculum progression, they are often advised to change majors because their lack of math implies they aren’t cut out for the rigors of a technical profession. I’ve heard about this happening to my students as well as it happening to me. (I was once told that I should never have been accepted to college because I didn’t know Euler’s formula giving the trigonometric form for imaginary numbers.)
Living through those types of experiences has made me go out of my way to ensure that my kids have an excellent background in math before entering college. At the same time, because I’ve made a point to provide that level of education, I’ve become aware of many kids who don’t have those opportunities. There are a lot of bright kids who are forced to stick with grade level instruction despite the fact it’s obvious they’d benefit from acceleration. And then there are the kids for whom rigorous instruction and acceleration aren’t possible because it’s beyond their parents’ means and ability.
Back to my friend, it was hard to convince her that these kids weren’t stupid, and she seemed unwilling to accept that there wasn’t something wrong with the world that kids who don’t understand logarithms can actually go to college. I apparently couldn’t convince her that they’d be okay and maybe they just needed a bit more guidance to assimilate into the world of mathematical literacy. Perhaps we should’ve discussed literature instead.
A filtered education March 3, 2014Posted by mareserinitatis in education, homeschooling, math, older son, physics, science, societal commentary, teaching, younger son.
Tags: light, older son, physics, science, science education, teaching, younger son
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The older son is a lot of fun. Despite his statements that he has no desire to go into science, he seems to get and make a lot of science jokes. I know he’s not a scientist, but I feel comfortable that he’s scientifically literate. As he was homeschooled, I’m feeling pretty proud of myself.
I’m more anxious about the younger son, though. This weekend, he brought home his science homework, which focused on optics. The kids were studying filters, and one of the questions asked about what kind of light would you see if you shined a flashlight through a blue filter and then a red one. I asked him what he saw, and he said nothing. Unfortunately, he was told that he saw nothing because the flashlights just weren’t bright enough, but that what he should have seen was purple.
I’m pretty sure that if I had ever been bombarded with gamma rays in the past, I would’ve turned into She-Hulk at that very moment and started smashing things. Fortunately (or unfortunately, if being She-Hulk happens to be a goal of yours), that didn’t happen.
I find it infuriating that, throughout my years of homeschooling older son and teaching younger son math, I have constantly been questioned about my ability to teach them. The implication has always been that I may have a degree, but they are experts on teaching. In fact, this particular teacher attempted to take me to task earlier this year about the younger son’s math curriculum…the same teacher who apparently doesn’t understand that light and pigments work completely differently.
After I managed to calm down, I explained that light filters are like sieves, except that they only let one size of particle pass through: nothing bigger can pass through the holes, but nothing smaller can, either. After this explanation, the younger son was able to correctly explain that the reason he saw no light from his flashlight is that the two filters together had blocked all the light.
I’m going to be watching very carefully to see what kinds of scores he’s getting on his answers and whether the teacher realizes she made a mistake. This was very disappointing. There was a new science curriculum introduced this year, one which I was very excited about. The focus was supposed to be on hands-on, problem-based learning, which is great for science. Despite that, it seems that younger son’s science education may be lacking. What good does it do to have a top of the line science education curriculum (or math…or anything else) when our teachers don’t understand what they’re teaching? And how is it that these same teachers can justify questioning the ability to teach material that some of us understand far better than they do?
Curriculum litmus test February 14, 2014Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, physics, teaching.
Tags: evaluations, learning, students, teaching
I received the written comments back on my student evals from last semester. I had a number of students who were very annoyed with the final project. The previous two years, the final project consisted of a Matlab project. After thinking about what a pain that was, I decided to change to a new project: a paper of 10-15 pages that has each student discuss their goals for getting through college. The general consensus among those who commented was that the project required too much work for a 1 credit class. There were several comments about how most of the other sections of this class don’t require as much work as I do, but the paper was just too much.
I’m sort of used to the comments about how much work my class is. I state up front that they can expect 2-3 hours of homework each week…for a 1 credit class (that is, we meet once per week for an hour). I also figure they had better get used to it, given the expectations of many of my colleagues.
I did find the comments slightly disturbing, however, because the implication seems to be that what I’m asking them to do is a lot of busy work. In a lot of classes, many students feel that they’re spending a lot of time doing things that they will never do again outside of college. They’re right, in a lot of cases. I took a ton of math as an undergrad, and Mike likes to tell people that I’ve forgotten more math than he ever learned. Sadly, the longer time goes on, the more I think he may be right.
The class I teach, however, is an academic skills class. This means I am teaching them how to get through school, particularly in the engineering curriculum. Do you know how to take notes? What are the key things that are important? Can you write a lab report? Do you even know what area of engineering you’re going into?!
These are the things I’m trying to teach them. My goal isn’t even to get them through the engineering curriculum, though a lot of the things I assign may be geared that way. I simply want them to get through school and graduate. I tell them this. It perplexes me, therefore, how they can view setting goals as a waste of time.
I really have put a lot of thought into my assignments. I want this class to be useful, and so I ask myself if each activity is something that will help them learn a skill they’ll need to get through school. In a lot of ways, I’m at an advantage: college is a very constrained environment, and I can tell what skills are useful until they graduate. After they graduate and get a job, however, their classwork may or may not be very valuable. It’s something that simply can’t be predicted.
I have had students come back to me and say that they are really glad I taught the class and they do use the skills that I taught them. I’m just not sure, however, how to make it clear to the freshman in my class that I really am not trying to torture them and that I do want them to succeed. I can only hope the ones complaining about writing their goals are so motivated and driven that a lack of clearly stated goals has absolutely no bearing on their performance in school over the next 3 1/2 years.
99 bottles of…oops January 28, 2014Posted by mareserinitatis in education, physics, science.
Tags: boy scouts, pascal's law, physics, science, Scientists, teaching, video
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Yesterday, I was helping guide some cub scouts (specifically webelos) through their scientist achievement. One of the things we had to discuss was Pascal’s law. Unfortunately, the instruction set on this was pretty limited: read and discuss. That, to me, means they likely wouldn’t understand it at all, so I felt like a demo was in order.
I decided to demonstrate the pressure change in a beer bottle. The concept is simple: fill an empty bottle with a non-compressible fluid (so water works, air won’t) and tap on the open end with a rubber mallet or even your hand. Of course, you want to do this over a bucket because the sudden change in pressure causes the bottle to break at the weakest point, usually the seam along the bottom, and spill it’s contents.
I did this demo for the first time in front of the kids. (I had ONE bottle of beer. No, I didn’t imbibe in front of them…I used it to bake bread.) It worked like a charm. If I didn’t trust physics so much, I wouldn’t have been okay trying it cold like that.
If you don’t have a beer bottle handy and would like to see this demo, there’s a good video on YouTube:
The end is nigh December 1, 2013Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching.
Tags: goodbyes, semester, students, teaching
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Coming to the end of the semester is an unsettling thing for me. I like to do something fun, like bring treats, although I always make sure to do that the week AFTER we’ve had evaluations. Once someone accused me of trying to butter them up…
But beyond that, I am left with this curiosity. I wonder how the students will do continuing on. I wonder if anything I’ve done has helped them. And, to be honest, I wonder if they’ll even remember the class a few years down the road…at least for something other than being the only female college instructor that many of them will encounter.
Anyway, it makes it awkward because it’s not something you can easily convey. I’ve always enjoyed teaching the class, and I let them know that. I tell them I hope they’re successful in their future endeavors. I’ve even considered giving them the Vulcan salute…although I’ve never followed through on it.
But there’s a bit of a melancholy feel as I’ll probably never know what happens to most of them.
Tags: grading, students, teaching
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I’m digging myself out of my grading hole, albeit very, very slowly.
I have to admit that reading these essays is kind of fun. At least some of them. There was at least one student so far who wrote that s/he needed no improvement in their time management skills…and then on about page five of the essay, it suddenly stopped with a request for an extension/redo. It’s really hard not to be snarky when things like that happen.
Most of them discuss the same issues, which is not a surprise. I’ve had a couple, though, that were quite interesting. My favorite so far is the student who compared getting through college to Lord of the Rings. Although there wasn’t a parallel for every goal I wanted them to discuss, there were a fair number of references.
I really enjoy it when I get to see a bit of creativity and personality creep into these things. I also like seeing how much their views have changed since the beginning of the school year. It’s amazing what three months can do to a person.
The best news is that I’ve figured out a way to revise the assignment so that it’ll be shorter as well as make it more effective. I worry, though, that this will remove some of the more creative submissions. I have to admit that I like how some of my students see themselves on an epic journey.
The thorn in my semester November 26, 2013Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching.
Tags: failure, grades, students, teaching
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There are two things I hate about being a teacher. The first is dealing with angry, threatening students. Fortunately, I don’t run into those too often, but they are seriously unfun. The second is dealing with students who don’t show up (sometimes physically, sometimes mentally) but still want to pass the class. This problem is more common than the first, though, so I’ve had to learn to get used to it.
The very first semester I was teaching, as an undergrad, I had a student who missed a couple labs. This student in particular annoyed me because it was someone I knew through other activities. When I introduced myself to the class, he said to his neighbor, quite audibly, “She’s the teacher?! This class is going to be SO easy.” The department policy was that anyone who missed more than a certain number of labs would fail, but I tried to be nice and let him make it up. When I set up a time for the first make-up lab, he showed up drunk and could barely function. I complained to the chair, and he got upset with me.
“Why are you letting him make up the labs? This is exactly why we have this policy in place. Fail him.”
I was surprised how easy a decision it was for the chair. Appalled, actually. But the student had been a pain all semester, so I rationalized that I didn’t owe him anything.
I got a call from him over Christmas break: it was my fault that he wasn’t graduating.
I don’t take lightly to guilt trips, so any residual guilt I had about failing him disappeared in that moment. The maneuver backfired, and I told him to take it up with the chair.
I’ve always wondered if his comment about the class being easy was an indicator that he thought he wouldn’t have to put in any effort. I also realized that he was right: if the chair hadn’t told me to fail him, he likely would have gotten through the class easily. That one was my fault: he accurately predicted that I was going to be much nicer than I had to be, and he was going to take advantage of that. I try very hard not to do that any more.
I really hate every time I have to go through this with a student. It’s not that I put a lot of faith in grades, but I would really rather that the students put in enough effort that I can at least justify passing them, even if just barely. It’s much easier on all of us.
I didn’t do the math November 24, 2013Posted by mareserinitatis in teaching.
Tags: goals, grading, reading, teaching
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I came to a horrifying realization this weekend: I should not have assigned final projects for my class. Or at least not this one.
I decided to actually use a textbook this year after being sent a review copy of one that lined up very closely with many things I was already teaching. I pretty much stuck to my original plans for the class, except I made one big change. I got rid of the programming project, deciding that I really didn’t have time to teach them much other than how to get really frustrated.
There are some assignments that come along with the textbook, and one of them is a 10-15 page essay on goal setting. It’s a great project. Students are given a list of several areas that affect a student in both major and minor ways (including thinking forward to what they’ll be doing after school). The students are supposed to reflect on where they are and where they want to be. Then they’re supposed to do some goal setting and try to figure out how they can get closer to the ideal that they outlined.
This might be a good project if I had 30 students. I have almost 100. And each paper is 10-15 pages long, so we’ll say 12 on average. That’s about 1200 pages of reading I have to do. I have two weeks to grade them, so I figured if I did 10 projects per day, I’d be good. That’s about 120 pages per day.
I got started Friday but progress was limited due to our weekly family activities that occur Friday night. I figured I would make up the difference yesterday, but came to an awful realization: grading projects is a lot more time consuming than grading programs.
I discovered that reading reports/projects, is really not much better than reading novels. I am an abysmally slow reader; I’ve never been able to figure out how to skim. When I read a novel, I generally read at a 25 page/hour pace. That’s about what I’m doing with the reports, too. I can read about two in an hour…three if they’re shorter and I’m really cruising. This means I’m spending about 4 hrs/day over the next two weeks to just grade this assignment. Next fall, I either have to drastically shorten this assignment or do it far earlier in the semester.
I suppose it’s just deserts. My students were very freaked out when I gave them the assignment and only three weeks to do it. (Although, to be honest, I believe about 2/3 of them did it within a couple days before the assignment was due.) If they knew I was regretting assigning it now, they probably wouldn’t be able to contain their schadenfreude.
A useful exercise November 19, 2013Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, older son, teaching.
Tags: effectiveness, evaluations, students, teaching
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Since I began teaching this class, I’ve had this nagging question in my head: is what I’m doing effective? I’ve contemplated inquiring as to whether anything changed in terms of retention or GPA of students who went through the class before versus after I started teaching. It would be good to track that as much as possible, so that I could see if changes in the class manifested in changes in those retention-type numbers, although I wonder if I would be able to evaluate micro-changes in the class that way given other issues seem to swamp data about student behavior. (It may just be me, but I’ve noticed that when the economy is good, more of my students seem to be interested. When it’s not good, I have a lot of students who are back in school because they think it’s the only way to get a better job or the students are very pessimistic. It seems like the attitude of all of the students get pushed in pulled in ways like that.) It might also be a good thing to put on my resume. Wouldn’t it be impressive if I could say something about improving retention in the dept. since taking over the class? Having quantitative data saying you’re an effective teacher certainly can’t hurt.
On the other hand, I’ve wondered if it was worth the time to do so or if the school would give me some reason why they couldn’t provide me with that kind of data. Or worse yet: what if I didn’t like what I saw? (It’s easy to attribute favorable changes to one’s efforts but seems hypocritical to evaluate negative changes as being out of one’s control.)
When I started teaching this class, which is supposed to be an academic skills class for freshmen, it was done as whatever each teacher wanted it to be. I imagine most people put a decent amount of effort into it, but there was one year that apparently didn’t go well. A former classmate told me that when he took the course (a decade ago?), the prof decided that, being engineers, they didn’t need academic help: they needed social skills. They spent the entire semester playing fantasy football. I wish I was kidding.
When I put the course together, I came up with “everything I wish I’d known as a freshman plus all this stuff on how to learn and study effectively (because I’d been reading a ton on learning disabilities because of older son) along with things I’ve observed my students really ought to know even if I knew those things at that age”. So, I jammed a lot of stuff into the course. And, as I said, I have no way of knowing how well it’s working as the only feedback I’ve had was student evals (which, I have to admit, have been much better than I anticipated).
At least, I didn’t until today. I had requested to have some upper-level engineering students come to my classes to talk about their experiences and answer questions. One student went through my class last year. At some point, she said, “I bet you all think this class is a waste of time.” She continued, saying how useful the class was in transitioning her from high school, where she didn’t have to work much in order to get good grades, to college where things were more challenging. She mentioned a couple of the project-type activities I had them do and said she’s using that information a lot in her upper-level classes.
I was surprised. That’s exactly the kind of thing I’m hoping to hear, but I was surprised that she began discussing that unprompted. (I had only mentioned in introducing her that she was a former student.) It’s made me wonder how many other students have similar perceptions being a year or two into the program…and whether I need to rethink my view of trying to get concrete data.
The “dear teacher” letter November 11, 2013Posted by mareserinitatis in education, gifted, math, teaching, younger son.
Tags: gifted, gifted education, math, teaching, younger son
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Last week was parent-teacher conferences at the younger son’s school.
If you don’t know, I dread these things. I had been feeling better after last year, but then I realized I’d been lulled into a false sense of security. In particular, two years ago, younger son’s teacher was having a fit because he wasn’t doing math with all the other kids. The thing we kept getting was, “He’s really not all that great at math.” Last year, we attempted to have the younger son do his math curriculum at school. We kept trying for a month. However, it was very clear that his teacher was unable to help him, so they sent him out into the main office area where there was a lot of traffic…and no one to help him. We said we would take care of it at home and didn’t hear another thing about it again.
At the beginning of this year, there was some noise that he would do the math at home in addition to the math at school. We quickly put a stop to that and said, “You’re punishing him for being smart.” Making him do two sets of math a day is no good.
The thing is, I really don’t understand this. He’s doing excellent by standardized testing standards. What more do they want? I sure hope they aren’t saying, “If Johnny worked just a bit harder, he would be at the 98th percentile instead of the 96th!” Or are they saying that if they worked harder, they could beat Suzie’s score in math? I seriously doubt it…and if they are, then I think they’re a little bit whacked. All I can think is that this is either a control issue or a conformity issue. It has absolutely nothing to do with his math ability.
Which, incidentally, isn’t all that good. “You know, he’s not the top student in the class as far as math testing goes.” That’s what we got. I suspect this is, “He’d be doing better if he was doing math with all the rest of his classmates,” as in I should feel guilty for making him miss out on the stuff his friends are doing.
Unfortunately for her, I really get irritated with things like guilt trips and appeals to social norms. I really don’t care if my kid is doing something different.
The other issue is that it has *everything* to do with his math ability. She’s taking math scores and comparing them to other kids. We already know that his processing speed may not be that great and that he’s not the kind of kid who likes to spend time memorizing things. Math at the elementary level is all about those things: computation and recall. However, his reasoning and visualization skills are really great. Like most elementary teachers, I think she doesn’t understand that math is more than multiplication tables. She recognized that he knows those things, but that maybe he needs time to figure it out rather than having it at the tip of his tongue. What she doesn’t realize is that he’s not the kind of kid who is going to tolerate endless drilling of memorization facts when his real strengths are in logic and reasoning. Would you like math if it was always doing the types of things you hate? This kid is stoked to get into algebra soon…why would I want to kill that and tell him he needs to practice flash cards more?
There are ‘optional’ tests on the MAPs in science and science reasoning. His scores in both those areas were the same for 10th graders and above, according to national norms. Why do they always want to hold kids back to their weakest skills, even when those skills are still obviously above average for their age mates? Even in his ‘weak’ area, he’s still near the top of his class…and they conveniently ignore his strengths and pretend like those have nothing to do with the issue at hand.
I have to write this teacher a letter with some follow-up information. However, there is a part of me that wants to ask why there is such a focus on holding younger son back when they should instead be focusing on allowing ALL of the children to perform at a level appropriate to their abilities.
You see, when she said he wasn’t at the top of the class in math, I didn’t feel guilty. I felt bad for those other kids because they were being held back and not having the opportunity to work on interesting and challenging work the way younger son is. Rather than being ashamed that my son is getting to do things he finds interesting and challenging (so that he’s also learning about having to work hard and deal with frustration), I wondered why the teacher and school aren’t ashamed of what they’re doing to those other students.