Saturday, August 27, 2016

Why do you want to be a math teacher?

Each fall I teach the mathematics (education) course, Geometry for Teachers. For students in our secondary certification program, this is usually the first mathematics education course that they take.  On the first day of class every fall semester, I assign their first journal entry, which asks them to respond to the question, “Why do you want to be a math teacher?”

Their responses are always the highlight of that first week of classes as I feel like I get to know each of them better and I get hope for our future.  Below I have created a “top ten” list from their most common reasons.
Top Ten Reasons #Math261 Students want to be a Math Teacher
1.    Be a role model for students and help them become better people.
2.    Help people succeed.
3.    Carry on my love of math to others.
4.    Challenge my students.
5.    Make math interesting.
6.    Had a positive math experience in high school and want other students to have that same opportunity.
7.    Get to work with kids of all ages every day.
8.    Be a part of improving education.
9.    Help build students’ confidence in their ability to do mathematics.
10. Change society’s attitude towards mathematics.

I also wanted to share some specific quotes from their responses that stood out to me.
·         “I had never thought that my sharing knowledge and understanding of math could change a student’s life so much.”
·         “All in all, I want to be a math teacher because I love math and teaching is the best way in which I feel I could use utilize my strengths to make a significant contribution to society.”
·         “I want to teach students how to problem solve so that no matter what career they choose, they can use the skills that were developed in my classroom.”
·         “My goal is to find a way to challenge my students, make the subject understandable, present the topic with useful everyday occurrences, and, most importantly, make math interesting.”

And now you know why I get hope when I read these. These young people are altruistic and passionate about their career choice.  They have a true love for mathematics and want to share that with others.  Even though I am the “teacher” of this course, I know that I am going to learn a lot from them!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Twitter has made me a Better Teacher

Yesterday I was able to attend the #TIE16 conference in Sioux Falls with nine pre-service math teachers.  The highlight of the day for me was to hear George Couros talk with us about having an innovator’s mindset, and then having him sign my copy of his book!  During his talk, he brought up using Twitter and convinced some of the teachers in the room to start using it.  Then in the afternoon, Couros did a talk on your digital footprint.  During the second presentation, he talked about things we should do on Twitter (use your real name for your handle, put up a profile picture, have a public profile, and include a professional description of yourself) and things we should not do (have an obscure handle, leave the egghead for your profile pic, and not give people an idea of who you are).

I already knew many of the things that Couros mentioned in his digital footprint talk, but it made me think a lot about what Twitter has done for me.
Twitter has:
·         Connected me with other educators across the world, including Couros;
·         Allowed me to stay up to date on the latest news in mathematics education;
·         Kept me informed on the latest technology in education;
·         Helped me find speakers for the science and math teacher conference I host each summer: and
·         Facilitated increasing my involvement in mathematics education through connecting with others in #MTBoS;
All of these things make me a better mathematics educator.  I utilize Twitter to learn mathematics and technology, which I then share with my students.  My courses change constantly because of Twitter, but they are changing for the better.

One thing that stood out to me at the conference was that I think I am delivering a good math technology course to my students. They were informed of many of the technologies that were shared at the conference. As pre-service teachers, they may have more knowledge of technology than some in-service teachers.

This blog post is dedicated to all of my Tweeps who have helped me grow, learn, and share on Twitter. I am better because of all of you!

Saturday, March 19, 2016

What is the Purpose of Homework?

This week has involved multiple conversations about homework, in two of the classes I teach, in my office talking with our pre-service teachers, and in my house, where my 7th grader brought up the topic.  Apologies if this post is all over the place because all the conversations led me to truly think about why we assign homework.

I have been using an online homework system in math courses for several years—in fact, I was the first person in my department to try using one in calculus. I love online homework systems, mostly because I hate grading.  However, I struggle with them because students are only graded on their final answer.  My philosophy has always been that math is NOT about the answer.  How do I deal with this struggle? I also include paper and pencil quizzes and tests in my courses to see if my students truly understand the concepts and to give them feedback on their problem solving process. 

Having both parents as teachers has exposed our children to lots of conversations about education.  In fact when we were looking at my son’s grades in his courses, he was disappointed that he did NOT have an A in one of his courses. As we looked more closely at his points in the course, we noticed that his homework (B average) made up more of the course points than his quizzes and tests (A average).  He said, “I don’t know why my homework makes up more of my grade in this course. Homework is for practice.”  As a teacher, my children know that I am always more likely to take their teacher’s side if there is any sort of complaint or disagreement.  This time I wasn’t sure what to say because my son was right—homework is to practice.  In fact, I used to put the following on my syllabus. “Math is very much like a sport—you improve your ability with a lot of practice.  It is not a spectator sport but rather a full contact sport.

This brings me back to my own class, Calculus I Lab. This week as I was grading my students’ quizzes and they were not doing well, I realized that they may not be doing their homework to learn but rather to get it done.  So I went into class and asked the students how many of them were doing their homework just to get it done.  There were a couple of brave souls who raised their hand and admitted it.  I designed the Calculus I Lab course as a just-in-time review of algebra and trigonometry skills that they use in calculus.  I reminded them that the purpose of lab was to make them a better calculus student.  So then I asked them if they thought it was making them a better calculus student—some said yes, but some said no. Now I need to really think about how I can improve the lab—another summer project.

In our assessment course this week, we had planned a Homework Debate. We assigned students into two categories—Pro Homework vs Con Homework. Then we assigned some common readings and asked them to do some of their own research and come to class ready to defend their position.  First of all, we concluded that math majors aren’t the best debaters, especially when deep down they don’t believe in the position they are assigned.  The students went back and forth and rebutted each other, but in the end, we all felt like we were somewhere in the middle and it likely would depend on our class and our students.  We wrote the following items on the board at the end of class under Homework. 
  • Reasonable time for doing homework. 
  • Feedback (timely) is critical. 
  • Different forms of homework: group and projects. 
  • Personalized.

Later that morning one of the students from the class was in my office and she made a comment that really resonated with me.  She works as a tutor in the department’s help center and helps students every day as they work on their homework.  In our courses that use online homework, we have put restrictions on the number of attempts the students have for each problem.  Her comment was, “Why don’t you just give them 100 attempts?”  She feels like restricting the number of attempts puts added pressure on the students and often leads them to cheating on the homework by typing the problem into Wolfram Alpha or Chegg.  Her comment really resonated with me and I even passed it on to our calculus coordinator as an idea to propose to the instructors.

Homework is really a formative assessment to help students determine if they understand the concepts and to help teachers see where the students are struggling.  When we use an online homework system, we make homework about the answer.  When we restrict the number of attempts, we make homework high risk.  When we assign a large portion of the grade to it, we make homework summative rather than formative.  As teachers we really need to think about the purpose of homework and what the students should gain from it—it isn’t about us!