Wednesday, 28 September 2011

I want to ...

Well, we discussed google sites in tech class yesterday.  I'm sure that the rest of the class' mind was swept  up in the tide of possibilities as mine was.  Initially, I was focused on all the great resources I could add:  homework calendars, subject timelines, discussion forums, announcement sections, lecture presentation postings.

This morning, I got thinking about marketing the website.  How do I get the students to actually visit the website?  I can give them all the resources they could possibly need, but why would the students leave Facebook and Youtube for a classroom resource?  I'm sure that some would visit it anyways ... and when it came to assignment time, the students would seek that final resource.

But I don't want my website to just be a study site.  I'm dreaming of voluntary visits.  I realized that what I wanted more than anything was a site that would teach history the way I dream of teaching history.  Like this:

Or teach viking history like this: Viking Quest

Or problems with the British Succession like this:

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Passion vs Possession (sounds like the world's worst soap opera)

Yes, I realized too late that I had stumbled upon a learning moment.  Yes, I overreacted and I figured that walking around in a sleep-deprived state for a couple days was enough punishment.  Sadly, (insert higher power of choice here) decided that I hadn't fully figured things out, so my lesson was reinforced by a dose of the campus plague.

Cough.  Hack.  Blah.  I should know better than to try to get away with placing my thumb on the school / sleep scale. At least the cold is fading quickly so I can return to getting ready for the coming week. Wouldn't you know it, group work was at the root of my sniffles ... ok, maybe my over-the-top reaction to one of my partner's e-mails ... but I still blame group work.

So we're discussing evidence in our history class, and I focus in on what I consider the most problematic part of facts - the bias we impart.  More specifically, how do we provide adequate context for an event while allowing our students to form their own opinions.  Now I'm not fooling myself into thinking that I can completely bury my personal bias in a history class; my students will figure out my bias fairly quickly but I'm hoping to find a way to avoid shouting it from the rooftop.  For if I'm not careful, all the serendipitous newspaper articles I find (that tie into a lesson plan) will be from one paper and my sources of choice will tend to exclude social history.  It's not the overt bias that I'm concerned about, it's that habitual, unquestioned and unconscious bias that concerns me.

Add to that any biases uncovered among my students.  Our law class this week happened to deal with two cases where the teacher didn't recognize a student's bias and ended up offending that student.  And I wondered whether as history students, our history class had walked so far down the road of acknowledging and sifting through bias that we no longer recognize that our students will have a far more engaged view of controversial topics.  So I proposed to my partner that we use the Bible as an example.  Acts is one of the few readily accessible written accounts of life in the Eastern Roman Empire.  Also, the nice (or problematic) thing about the Bible is that most people have an ingrained bias in favour of or in opposition to it.  Along with this, I proposed an couple of different exercises dealing with the way the use of context can lead to a bias.

My partner replied that the exercises that I had prepared did not fit the assignment request (she was correct).  She advised that the primary source examples that I had picked did not fall within the standard curriculum (I could debate this).  And finally she gently said that I seemed to be a little hung up on bias and that it wasn't that critical.  By the time that she listed the course offerings in the high school curriculum (after we had read the curriculum for that class), I was seeing 10 shades of red.  I crafted and re-crafted a reply until 3 am trying to avoid the apology style of Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda.

So after a couple of 3 hour sleep nights (the previous caused by my over-preparation for my 15 minute microflop), I ended up with a cold.  And realized that it was my own fault.  I had let a relatively courteous correction lead me to over-react, over-stress ... and over think.  As the title indicates, my passion regarding bias had led me to believe that I possessed the one right approach.  All I can say is that I'm glad that I got this wake-up call now.  I'm fairly sure that somewhere along the way a parent, co-worker or student is going to hit one of my hot buttons while proposing something with which I have difficulty agreeing.  When that happens, I'll have the choice between being right and being healthy.  I just hope that I remember which option to pick when those times come.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Make the first two minutes go away

So, the first microteaching trial is done.  This was one that I wish wasn't going to touch my handicap.  Overall, it was a comedy of errors that left me fighting for recovery.
  1. That disc that we were supposed to bring to record the session ... the only thing that I forgot
  2. That 15+ minute lesson plan that I had crafted ... cut down to 10 minutes because
  3. I misread the clock and didn't realize that we were running so far behind as a group
  4. The hours that I spent converting a technology based presentation to a non-tech version ... wasted as it was actually possible to get a projector
  5. Trying to present a grade 10 topic to 5th year university students ... watch the activity timing shrink
Thank goodness my adviser was quite charitable with her marking as I felt nowhere close to the mark that I received.  I know that I overprepared the lesson.  I know that the working space was a challenge.  And I know that forgetting the disc was the ideal way to shake my feeling of calm ... but even without these influences, how do you get through the first couple minutes of a class without nerves.

I'm a relatively shy fellow, so I feed off of nervous energy to help energize my presentations.  I'm also a fairly relaxed fellow so high energy states aren't my standard state of being.  As such, I haven't yet learned how to harness that energy ahead of time to the point where I can control it and gauge the appropriate amount.  After a couple of minutes, I get into the flow and my patter takes over and can feed off of that well of energy that I have waiting in the back wings.  But for the first couple of minutes, I've pulled a cork out of Mt Vesuvius and I'm desperately hoping that the flimsy "please be kind to Pompeii" sign that I'm holding up can actually steer the lava flow.

I love the material that I'll be teaching, whether it will be math or history, and desperately want to communicate that joy to my students.  I realize that not everybody will see the excitement of Roman History, but I'd really like to infect a few of the fence sitters along the way.  And I also know that my semblance of nerves won't help the matter since nervous teacher => anxious class.  I enjoy talking in front of people, I just have to find a way to control the energy within me when everybody focuses their attention on me.  And I recognize that much of this will come with time, but you never get a second chance to make a first impression ... and I'd rather not have my shaky impression colour me permanently.  But for now, Wile E Coyote has stepped off the cliff, and is holding up his 'HELP!' sign.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Snobs Anonymous

Me:  'hi, my name is Roy and I'm a snob.'
Group:  'hi Roy'
Me:  'I'm still kinda nervous admitting this, but I hate group work, and the irony of being here is killing me.'
Group:  'We were all where you were once.  Relax, we're here to help.'
Me:  'And I really need to change this.  I won't be able to assign group work with a clear conscience until I get over this hurdle.'
Group:  'Just remember the affirmations and you'll be fine.  Learning is a collective process.  Trust in your group mates and have faith that the end result will make everything worthwhile.'

One of my greatest concerns when entering teachers' college was the amount of group work that would be required.  Group presentations, group reports, group meetings, group ....  Suddenly I had visions of the past groups and the members that I had issue with:
  1. The apologist.  The one who arrives late for meetings, doesn't complete the task assigned on time, but usually has 'legitimate' reasons
  2. The opportunist.  The one who knows some members are driven to get good marks so will happily coast along
  3. The minimalist.  Always gets things done, but never really pushes beyond what's necessary
  4. The inspirationalist.  The one who has a completely different spin on the article to the point where many question if it was the same source, and wishes to move the group in a counterproductive direction.
  5. The born leader.  The one who must run the meeting and control the agenda.
Me:  I'm a lot of 5 with a dash of 4 here and there.  And if I root around deeply enough, I'll find a little of all 5 at some time or another.  Myers-Brigg had no issues classifying me as an Introverted Thinker as I max out the scale on both accounts.  I just have this belief that despite my understanding that the synergistic approach of group work results in a better product, the hassles that group work represents in my mind leads me quickly to the 'I wish I could just do it myself' corner.  Many would call me selfish ... and I cut my philosophical teeth on Ayn Rand so I can't deny it.  (I'd best add that Nietzsche changed my opinion fwiw).  And it comes down to one issue...

Trust.  When you set expectations for yourself such as I do, and you don't willingly accept the 'shoot for the moon and land amongst the stars' sidestep, it's tough to trust that others will try to live up to your expectations when you know that you can't realistically achieve them yourself.  And when an introvert is thrust into an extroverted world, an uncomfortable world within which no semblance of control is possible, fears starts to creep in like ants to an unguarded bowl of sugar.  I'd really like to confirm that I have the answer to this personal Gordian Knot, but I'm not sure that it exists.  All I can do is try to partition the past and try to find my own group work Tabula Rasa.  And I sure hope that I'm able to.  Because, somewhere down the line, I'm going to meet a student with similar foibles, insecurities and concerns ... and when I do, I'll be uniquely qualified to give an honest and convincing argument.

Failing that, I'll go back to my favourite Nietzchean philosophy, Amor Fati.  My version has always been:  There will be successes in life and there will be failures.  There will be things in the past that you might want to change, things that you can accept, and things that are ideal.  But deep down, you have to love the life that the fates handed you ... every error and every checkmark ... not by whitewashing over the past, but by accepting and loving your life to such a degree that you wouldn't want to change a thing.  For to do anything else is to deny those influences that made you who you are, and therefore, to regret your existence.

(someday in the future, I'll likely move my inside voice posts to private.  But for now, I'd much rather leave these nasty bits hanging around with the hope that someone else who's facing a similar issue might find a nudge in the direction that they wish to move)

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Fortuna Major Let Me In

Or if you prefer Dante to Harry Potter:
"It was the hour when the diurnal heat no more can warm the coldness of the moon,
Vanquished by earth, or peradventure Saturn, when geomancers their Fortuna Major see in the orient before dawn"

Last night, my wife attended her high school reunion.  Although I have yet to attend a high school reunion, I had considered attending my 10 year reunion (was a little too soon for my taste and a little too far away) so I had some idea of thoughts that might be coursing through her mind.  She`d be putting on that old favourite sweater that got lost at the back of the drawer;  it was comfortable and cozy back when you wore it regularly, but now it`s a little too tight, the stitching has changed and instead of recreating modern feelings of home, it can only evoke fond memories of those emotions.

In addition, I`m not sure if she could`ve kept me away if she tried.  There`s something providential about my first placement being at my wife`s alma mater.  I was going to be able to tour the school within which I`d finally be testing my teaching mettle.  It`s a strange feeling knowing that my first of four pre-practicum observation days is under two weeks away.  Gemini twin alpha is screaming, `how am I supposed to get my in class work done by the start of the teaching block` while beta is urging the coming 5 weeks to pass quickly.

So, while listening to stories of where lockers were and how much they had changed the school, I dipped my toe through the education student looking glass.  Within the math class, I saw the standard 4 x 8 grid of white-topped metal-legged desks.  Change the smart board for an overhead projection screen and it could`ve been my high school class.  I`m not saying this to be critical, since you work with whatever furnishings you`re given and with a large enough class size, options become limited.  But, I`d feel constricted in that room; I`d be as tethered to the smart board as students are to their desks.  The walking space was quite limited and for a heavy-set fellow like myself, so helping the student in C-6 (you sank my battleship) would be a challenge.  I`d need to rely solely on assignments, test scores and verbal responses for assessments ... and the possibilities for group work would be quite restricted.

Shortly thereafter, we wandered into one of the English classes.  Instead of the industrial grid pattern, the desks were arranged in 4 parallel columns with a wider center aisle and a backstop row.  No smart board in this class, but at least there was some walking space.  It seemed more conducive to group work (except for the back row) and there was more strolling room.  Individual assistance and assessment would be possible ... overall a slightly more conducive set-up for me.  Overall, things looked nicer until I looked up on the wall.

Step four of seven in the essay writing algorithm was a rough draft.  I remember the last conversation about rough drafts with a TA - it came shortly after expressing my dislike of  Given my feelings that beneath the happy surface of that service is an implication that I was guilty of plagiarism until proven innocent, I was investigating the `hand in your notes to prove your innocence` alternative.  The TA advised me that I`d need to turn in my rough drafts and barely avoided rolling her eyes when I asked her what a rough draft was.  Unfortunately, I write my essays by developing a skeleton, typing the essay while proofreading, and handing my final copy to my wife to take a quick glance.  Given that the final step only involves minimal changes, I don`t really consider my step two result as rough - especially since most of the final changes involve splitting up grammatically correct but clause-heavy sentences.  Her advice was to just hit save every so often so I`d have something to print.  Assuming that most students will choose the word processor option in lieu of the hand written version, I`m not sure that step four exists for most people.  At the same time, the other six steps work and having a misleading step four there could bring up a great conversation ... and having 1-3, 5-7 wouldn`t quite look right.

Overall, it seems that plus ca change ...  This visit gave me the opportunity to at least start thinking about classroom set-up in a more concrete manner.  In addition, I ended up one huge step closer to actually being there for real.  Plus, this might be my only change to teach history (with plans to change my first teachable to math along with hopes for my third placement), and as much as I love the more hiring friendly math option, history is just as wonderful.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Curriculum Hubris

Our math teaching class has spent a significant amount of time focused on the curriculum documents.  Everything from format to goals to specifics on courses has been discussed.  So to prepare for the review of the 11-12 math curriculum, I sat the documents side by side.  I watched where the paragraphs moved within sections, and saw what remained unchanged.  And one section shocked me.

So far, the entire purpose of our classroom dynamics class has been stages of physical and mental development of the brain.  Students will not be at the same level, but they will tend to progress through cognitive and social ranges within the stages.  But when I'm reading the expectations of parents and students within the curriculum, I notice cut and paste descriptions.  I'm kinda confused.

Unlike the 14 & 15 year olds, 16 & 17 year olds are concerned with getting licenses, part time jobs, life after high school.  During this period when their concerns are being focused on the future.  I'm not quite convinced that the 17 year old is going to be as motivated to work on school-related tasks in order to reconfirm the 'direct relationship between effort and achievement' cited in the 11-12 curriculum.

Perhaps I was the exception when I was growing up, but I had very little desire to spend time with my parents in my late teens.  I recognize that relationships have changed to some degree, as what would have mortified me as a teen (my parents coming to my job interview with me) is now being accepted by students (universities holding parent orientation sessions while students enjoy theirs), but I imagine parents are still having to fight for quality time with their teenagers.  I just can't see my father saying, "Roy, before you go out to see your girlfriend, we have to sit down and have a chat.  It's been a while since we sat down and shot the breeze about the second derivative test."  Firstly, because the material was far beyond my father's experience and expertise, and secondly because he was having enough trouble remaining an active part of my life that I'm not sure it would've been worth the fight to stay engaged in my high school education subject by subject.

Of course, I don't recall ever reading a curriculum document within high school, and I would be surprised if my father would have.  And I'm not saying that my father wasn't interested in my education, but unless things have changed significantly, the course summary was usually enough.  And please don't take my critique as disagreement with the expectations - I fully agree that they would be ideal conditions to ensure that both students and parents benefited as much as possible from the students' school years.  Unfortunately, the lack of changes between the expectations of the two documents kinda tells me that these expectations are for us alone.  Perhaps I'm overemphasizing the changes, so one size fits all.  But my gut feeling is that the students are moving from a time when parents can best help through hands on & subject related assistance to a time when parents can best help their teenagers with the planning necessary for increasingly complicated and independent lives ... and it's a shame that the curriculum expectation doesn't reflect this.

Before I forget, during our curriculum discussions, one of the students went on a couple minute rant.  'Logic should be taught in math class but it shouldn't only be math's responsibility; humanities should be teaching it too.'  And for those few minutes, I felt less like a mature student and a little more like a member of the class.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Yo dude class rox lol

Busted.  Fail.  Burned.

It was bound to happen eventually.  Hidden behind a name card on top of the desk, one of my classmates got caught texting.  I hopped immediately into people watching mode and loved how the teacher initially handled it.  The teacher asked, 'what's your position going to be on cellphones in your class?  It may be driven by school policy, but either way, how are you going to deal with it?'  Sadly, no discussion ensued and the student sheepishly put the cellphone away.  Still, I thought this was an amazing way to deal philosophically with cell phones at our level.
A couple minutes later, someone tried the baseball catcher approach to texting and got a less Socratic reaction - a blend of the wrath of Achilles, the Medusa gaze, and Napoleon's whiff of grapeshot.  Well, if nothing else, we had learned the real cellphone policy in that class.

Personally, I hate cellphone culture.  My personal opinion is that it's impolite, egotistical, and places unreasonable expectations upon its participants.  If I'm having dinner with you, your text message can wait until the bill is paid.  If you have to answer your phone in the restaurant, either head to the lobby to take the call or spare me the dirty looks when I comment on your conversation (loudly enough so the person on the phone at the other table can hear me).  And, with my 'get off my lawn' fist raised in the air, people don't need to be able to reach you at any minute of any day - 'when I was young, we didn't even have answering machines.'

Oh, and I'd best add that I know that my opinion is wrong ... well, make that slightly out of touch with the times.  And because my opinion doesn't reflect everyone's values, students will be allowed to use cellphones in my class.  Someday in the future, I may be cursing Pandora for not warning me ahead of time; but for now, if the school policy leaves cellphones up to my judgement, I'll be giving a reluctant nod of assent.

I assure you that it's not because I have any desires to be the cool teacher.  My wife convinced me to watch the Harry Potter films not by telling me what amazing films they were, but by telling me that all of the spells they cast were in Latin.  I'm never going to play halo, I will never watch Jersey Shore, and good luck getting me to sit down and appreciate any music recorded after 1987.  If the only way that I can build rapport with the students is by feigning the ability to do as they do, I'm wasting my time in teachers' college.

Part of the reason I'd rather allow cellphone use is that my genetic code doesn't include the 'do as I say, not as I do' allele.  Every essay and blog entry (ooh an e-mail) that I've written has (I wonder what's going on in twitter) likely taken twice as long as it could have (I wonder if students will appreciate me yelling 'accio glasses' from time to time) due to my mayfly attention span.  We live in a multitasking world, and with very few exceptions (final exams come to mind), it's rare that one can devote more than 15 straight minutes to a given task.  The ability to switch tasks is critical, and despite my wish that something more important than a 'whazup' text message was the distraction, the students will need the skill.  With the appropriate boundaries, hopefully I'll be able to instill a bit of The Road Less Travelled at the same time.

The second reason for cellphone use will be a bit of a quid pro quo arrangement.  I'm hoping to get the smart phone users to agree that in return for the ok to use their cellphones in class if they'll agree to be my researchers from time to time.  What's the current $CDN value, what are today's mortgage rates, how does wikipedia sort their entries on vampires?  I've seen another teacher use cell phones in the class this way and it seemed to be quite effective, so I'm hoping to model his practice.

In addition, I recognize that there will be times when they're going to test their boundaries in the class.  There will be times when the student's action will require immediate correction, times when the action is worthy of a gentle I'm aware and not impressed acknowledgement, and some things that I'll have to let go.  As someone advised me, 'you've got to pick and choose your battles' and I'm going to have a tough time seeing texting a message on the same level as a racist comment.

My final reason is that I know that my initial reaction is out of touch with the modern cellphone reality.  Every day I'll be certain to see a couple students walking to class together, both of whom are texting other people, and neither student sees an issue with the behavior.  If it were me, I'd see it as the height of impoliteness, but for them it's perfectly ok.  And I'm guessing that's why the teacher blasted the class ... because cellphone use in the class was seen as a personal insult.  Given my feelings about cellphone use, I'd like to say that I won't reach that limit of frustration ... but I know that someday I'll regret having reacted as that teacher did.  I just hope when those days come, I'll lean more towards the "how can I make future classes more engaging" than the whiff of grapeshot.  After all, it's not like I was able to remain focused on creating that lesson plan from start to finish without interruption, so how can I hold them to a higher standard?

In closing, I'd appreciate any other thoughts on this.  I was able to convince myself in August that I would need a cellphone to gain an understanding of the cellphone culture, but two months of texting hasn't helped me understand why someone would feel the need to text from class (emergencies excepted).  And perhaps I'm lying to myself, since students who text always try to hide their texting in some way.

Blog serendipity - aka anarchy until 14:00

Well, it turns out that I read a chapter of educational psychology a wee bit early.  Make that a day early as the class isn't until 8 am tomorrow.  Suddenly, I find myself with a delightfully huge block of free time - especially since I don't need to be ready to consider Law class until 2pm tomorrow.

During my second volunteer block, the fellow I was assisting would put me on the spot during the prep period and ask me the occasional philosophical question.  One of those questions still haunts me.  I'd just helped out with his 11 applied math class and a conversation similar to the following occurred:
  • 'So Roy, why do we teach them trigonometry and quadratic equations?'
  • (naively I replied) 'Well, you've got to know those things, you need them in real life.'
  • 'Roy, you already know based on your assessments and interactions that not all of these students will be going to university or college - and many that do won't be in a math based course.  When are they going to need trigonometry?  When have you used trigonometry?'
  • (digging myself deeper) 'This past summer I was cutting baseboards and measured the width of the board, knew it was a 45 degree cut, and I calculated the amount to add to the measurement using trig.'
  • 'Did you do this for every cut?'
  • (eyes just peeking out of the hole) 'no, I went back to cutting the boards a bit longer and marking them to cut them to length.'
  • 'So Roy, why do the students need to know trig and quadratics?  You've just confirmed that most of these students won't need trig for future studies and unless they're conducting a thought experiment, they'll never use them in life.  The time you need to figure this out is now, and not when you're sitting across from an irate parent.'
Well, after a few months, I've come up with a few ideas on how to answer this.  Answer #1 is my 'I am smarter than my body' response.  I can look at two buildings in the distance that appear to be the same height, and if one building is further away I intuitively know that it must be taller.  I can also throw a baseball to someone, and since my arm is not a cannon I need to throw it in an upwards trajectory to get it to the other person.  My body instinctively knows trigonometry and ballistics / quadratics, so my brain should be able to figure them out too.  As you get older, there's less time for trial and error, so why not understand these skills instead of just applying them blindly.

Answer #2 is my 'I am smarter than my calculator' response.  I sincerely hope that I'll be able to instill enough adaptability into my students so that a broken calculator won't be the end of math until another calculator is found.  I want them to be able to say to me that they know the answer is wrong, and ask me to help them figure out why.  Similarly, I will cringe whenever I hear a version of "that's the answer that the calculator gave ... it must be wrong."  Just as I will never forget the endings for Latin first declension nouns, I'm hoping that I can find a way to nurture some exceptionally strong estimation and verification skills among my future students.  And the only way that they will be able to estimate well is to know what their calculator should be doing ... ie know the underlying trig skills.  Oh, and I should add that when my first year engineering prof tried to teach us estimation, my response was 'what a waste of time ... why not just calculate it?'

My final response will be the 'I am not Nostradamus' reply.  Dennis Dyack used the old Norse he learned during his undergrad within one of the video games he developed.  I returned to studying history 20 years after I had last taken a history class, and used the the same answer template for identify and significance questions that I learned in grade 10 history.  I should probably add that I also hated creative writing with a passion and avoided English classes like the plague.  Yup, you'll never know where you'll be in 10, 20, 30 years and what skills you might need at that time.  So why limit your options; learn the skills now and they'll be waiting for you if you ever need them later.

So, given Zoe's  comment (and thank you), I have to ask why we are not teaching high students logic?  If my response #1 is correct, that mathematics is an attempt to translate instinct to awareness, then why are we not going to the next step?  Formula manipulation is just a variation of the law of identity (A=A therefore A-3=A-3).  When we ask students to check their work, we're asking them to verify their premises (steps) in order to verify their conclusion (answer).  Given that students are already applying symbolic logic within math class, why not show them what they're doing instinctively?

I can be nudged off of my soapbox when it comes to math, but I have real troubles leaving informal logic out of high school humanities classes.  We're asking students to critically analyze sources, but we're not reinforcing the tools to do so.  The students recognize racist arguments are wrong, but is this because they recognize that ad hominems are fallacies or based solely on their moral compasses; what happens if the moral compass shifts?  Should they be able to recognize straw man fallacies when they come across them - as a mature student I get away with them all the time.  Finally, some of these are so slippery that even knowing about the fallacy only results in a slight sense that something is amiss (if ... then statements are the worst for this).  And in a world where we're moving away from absolutes, I'd much rather that we equip students with all the tools necessary to avoid generalizations while ensuring that they have well-constructed arguments for moving away from existing myths.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Goodbye Ruby Tuesday

Don't I wish.  Sadly, I'm going to have trouble treasuring Tuesdays until I'm out on my practicum.  With three classes on Tuesday along with a couple of quality hours on the QEW, I'm usually facing an 8 to 6 day with negligible breaks in between.  Last night I got to enjoy the 3am study call as a busy weekend led to some late night fun with Cohort prep (5 minute microteaching session), Tech in the classroom prep (did I actually cross all my 'I's and dot all my 'T's for class) and history teaching class (read articles, write reflections).  Usually, these occasional sleep-deprived moments can be taken in stride provided I'm not facing an 8 to 12 solid morning of Educational psychology (scan the intro, read a chapter, doze off when it gets too psychy and not educationy enough) and instructional dynamics (scan the intro, read 2 chapters and an article).  Unfortunately, I can't come up with any failed attempts at wit when relating my study for instructional dynamics as I still have one and a half chapters to go.

Based on this, you may ask what on earth I'm doing here.  Well, I've always believed in the power of procrastination as a force for good.  But, the real reason why I popped by is that my fingers are aching to add a couple topics here and I ... do ... not ... have ... the ... time.  I will likely repeat that mantra a few more times until I can convince myself that blogs should not lead to further sleep deprivation.  Without further ado's (or adon't's) I have to ask:

Why does the high school curriculum not include logic.  One of the best courses I took during my second undergrad was an introduction to symbolic and semantic logic.  Math students employ symbolic logic in most classes but are never introduced to the basic skills they're employing.  History students employ semantic logic whenever the floor is opened for discussions but are never introduced to the facts and fallacies of semantic logic.

One of the history articles today advocated removing myths from the teaching of history in favour of a student constructed relativistic version.  Mythology is a problematic approach as there are no capital 'T' truths; but, these visions are such a unifying force (along with being an effective means to underpin society's values) that I worry we're tossing the baby out with the bathwater.  After all, every historiography is someone's version of a myth so by removing focus from myth we're encouraging students to hide their myths behind evidence selection and causality links.  Should we be removing myths from history or is this swinging the pendulum too far.

Well, I'll flesh these out in the future.  After all, chapters 5 and 7 still await ... and my keyboard has decided that hitting the ' key will now result in the display of a è.  Someday Ièll know how to fix this, but for now Ièll just silently growl.

Monday, 12 September 2011

How a piece of paper taught me the exponential function

During my second volunteer block, the 11 applied class was preparing to learn about exponents.  So their teacher handed out some pieces of paper, and casually said to me "here, have one Roy."  So we folded it once, and responded that there were now 2 layers.  Folded it again and confirmed that there were 4 layers.  With the next fold, some students replied 6 layers until others counted the layers and confirmed that there were 8 layers.  With the 4th fold the students had recognized the pattern and by induction got 32 and 64 with no difficulty.  So to prepare for the graphing exercise, they wrote out a table with the values of x, 2 to the x, and the first differences.  While they were graphing the function, the teacher motioned me over, pointed to the first difference column and asked "so Roy, do you understand 'e to the x' now?"

Wow, it took 25 years of using the exponential function to finally understand it.  I could always rattle off a few digits at the drop of a hat, toss you a numeric value courtesy of the limit definition, and celebrate when it showed up in calculus as my labour saving friend.  I could recite the mantra "the slope is equal to the x value" 'til I achieved nirvana, but I could never answer the question "how do you know that?"  This coming from the math student who tries to avoid using the binomial theorem in his work because he doesn't remember how to develop it.  (as an aside, I do recall that it was derived through completing the square, but since I haven't worked my way through it recently ... the binomial theorem only comes out when eyeballing / completing the square isn't working).

This came to mind today after my Math teaching class was done today.  Last week we were asked to shake everybody's hand in the room, calculate the number of handshakes between the 14 people, and tell the group how we knew.  Strangely enough, none of us actually gave the answer 91; I reached out for the summation of 1 to 13 while another selected 14 C 2.  This week our follow-up exercise was to try to come up with the visual representations or methodologies that our students might use.  One group used the matrix technique (cross out the diagonal and those below the diagonal) and the other highlighted the people in colour and crossed out the duplicates.  My reaction to the matrix was 'oooo, subtract the diagonal and divide by 2.'  Other people were attracted to the colours in the other representation and commented as such.  And until the prof mentioned it to us, I hadn't realized that they were the same solution diagrammed in different ways.  To my discredit, I had no use for the colour representation until the link with the matrix was established.

Overall, I wanted to remember these things today for a few reasons.
1)  Students will pay attention to different things ... and if I'm not careful they'll pay more attention to the format than the effectiveness.  Also, if I'm not careful, I'll use a format that doesn't attract their attention.  I was attracted to the matrix solution as it seemed to be a more 'math-like' approach (in my mind).  Unfortunately, matrices have more limited applications and many students won't gravitate to a math-like response to this kind of question.  Others were attracted to the colours in the list ... a solution that seemed a little too laborious a counting and colouring exercise to me.  It's not time effective (in my mind), but it popped off the page for many despite the extra colouring time required.
2)  I'm aware that there will be many solutions to every problem.  With a bit of engineering and a lot of liberal arts in my education background, I tend to be one that gravitates to a solution that many others won't find attractive.  What I'll have to work harder to realize is that there are many representations of the same solution to any problem.

Well, time to get back to my 5 minute micro-teaching planning.  Tomorrow, 9 people in my cohort are going to be learning more about making dill pickles than they could've imagined.  One week from now, it'll be a 15 minute presentation on vampires and choosing sources to supplement an essay's thesis.  Working title:  Don't put Bela and Bella in the same room.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

I need a bottle

Naw ... I've got no plans to return to those foolish halcyon days of my first university degree.  We're talking one of those Jim Croce bottles that save moments complete with the emotional underpinnings required to recreate that feeling of 'wow' when I'll need it in the future.

Stepping back a few days, I was facing another "why do you want to be a teacher" icebreaker moments.  My love of problem solving, along with a Brock seminar induced love of hearing my own original thoughts expressed to a group, always creates an overwhelming (and frequently troublesome) desire to express a different and new response to any question that I'm asked more than once.  Wouldn't it be nice if I could be satisfied with Beach Boys-style rephrasings of my overwhelming desire to inspire students with my love of history and mathematics.  Sadly, I'm one of those introverts ... the ones that employ the coping mechanism of quasi-theatrical / shock appeal responses as the means to deflect attention from me to what I've said.

My response:  "after 20 years, I couldn't avoid becoming a teacher any longer."

Now, before you think that this is a facetious response, well, it's one of the most honest answers that I could give to the question.  Back a quarter-century ago, one of those employment interest surveys that were tossed around by guidance counselors told me that I should look at math / science teaching.   Given that the other field the test said that I would excel in was as an IRS agent, I was easily able to discount the results as inaccurate.  Upon hearing this my step-mother (who recently retired from the YRDSB) confirmed that it would be an excellent field for me to explore.  Oh yeah ... my step-mother's confirmation helped my teaching career as much as The Odyssey's sirens helped sailors. So as much as I'd like to say that my nascent introspective talents steered me away from teaching, as I definitely wasn't ready, it was more my teenage rebellious side that steered me towards the right decision than realizing that it was not the right time for me.

Through the next 15-20 years, plenty of teaching opportunities came up within my various jobs.  So I wrote and presented a successful 10 week commercial underwriting course during my insurance days.  I frequently trained co-workers on new systems or different ways of using the existing systems ... but in my mind these were just part of my regular job and not evidence of me having any teaching skills.  And once I returned to university, it was because I was a mature student that people came to me for help, and definitely not because I was able to teach.  Even when I gave successful seminars or pre-exam reviews for a group of classmates, well, it wasn't anything that I did.

Overall, my decision to enroll in teachers' college started by accident.  It was getting to that 3rd year decision point ... the 'what am I actually going to do with this liberal arts / history degree' moment.  When it came to application time, I started considering masters' programs, tossed in a couple applications for history masters' programs, and got a 1 way ticket to physiotherapy courtesy of a transport truck and a surprisingly secure Ford focus at 100 km/h.  With my plans put on hold for a year, I considered graduate work a bit more and I came to the realization that I was a little old to be starting on the road to tenure.  I enjoyed writing, but I had no desire to do the exhaustive research necessary to enter the publish or perish world.  Overall, I realized that the part of being a professor that was exciting me the most was the teaching portion.  In addition, a year and a day after our car accident, my father died.  One of our last conversations came back to the inevitable "son, what do you want to do with your life."  And, I was finally able to answer him, "dad, I'm going to become a math teacher."

So, after a 20 year wait, I finally started down the road to teachers' college.  Each day of classes, I wake up at 6am and put my dad's watch on my left wrist.  I can't say that I see 6:00 daily due to the alarm clock - it's set at 7:00.  I just find on a daily basis that I can't sleep any longer.  Why? ... Because I can't wait to start teaching.  Every day I wake up with my brain in excitement-fueled hyper-drive and filled with 'what if,' 'what about,' and 'I wonder if this would work.'  And that's really why I want one of those bottles.  I know that there will be days when I might be feeling a little down and not feel that level of passion necessary to inspire my students.  And, for those days, it would be nice to just be able to open a bottle of now to remind me of these times when I couldn't wait for my career to begin.

Friday, 9 September 2011

First Post: ... aka Spamming the Blogsphere

While reading through my course outline for 8Y59 I noticed:  "First Post: Why did you take this optional course? What is your view of technology in education?"   So without further ado ... welcome to my first post.

 Well, I'd like to say that I took this course solely for my future students' benefit since I recognize that effective use of the available technological tools will be of significant assistance in their learning.  I can keep them more engaged with a few "wow, how did he do that" moments.  I'll be able to maximize the use of class time by offering them the means to experience auditory, visual and tactile learning along with additional resources for more enthusiastic students.  Unfortunately, the valid shouts of my altruistic self are being overwhelmed by ...

My selfish side.  What can I say ... I like to play with toys.  The first time I saw a smart board and actually got a chance to work with it, I recall my inner geek screaming "this is ... like ... the coolest thing ever."  I'd like to say that I'll bring overwhelming enthusiasm to every course that I'm asked to teach.  Oh yeah ... I just can't wait to be trying to find a less rote-memory way to teach biological chemical processes ... and um, lets delve deeply into what the symbolism behind that black flower in (what was that book we were reading anyways).  Yes, I recognize that I won't be won't always be screaming Latin phrases at the top of my lungs within an ancient history class.  Nor will I always find the opportunity to show people the beauty of the bell-curve, or the fun of probability.  But with the use of technology within the class, every so often my inner child will overwhelm my feelings on the material and remind me that it's play time, and play time can be nothing but fun.

My selfish side also reminds me that there are a whole lot of us out there looking for jobs.  A whole bunch of well-qualified, well-trained, enthusiastic people looking for a limited number of positions.  Yes, as a mature student, I'm going to be noticed among the group by virtue of my greying hair.  I just want to make sure that I have a more tangible and skill-related difference than others to offer when it comes to the hiring time.  Being noticed is nice, but following that up with a rare skill to highlight on my resume will be critical.  I want a full-time job sooner than later, and courses such as this will help push my CV to the top of the pile.

With regards to technology in the classroom, it's a double edged sword.  As long as it remains a tool, it is an invaluable resource.  Provide a class with PowerPoint slides ahead of time, and they have the ability to consider the material ahead of time and develop questions that will afford them a deeper and individualized understanding ... or at least ensure that they have a readily available resource to ensure that missed classes can be caught up.  Assignments can be sourced far more quickly so more time can be devoted to writing the paper than finding the material.  Finally, students can actually focus on the new material as opposed to the rote processes required to develop answers since there are tools available to do the manual work.

Unfortunately, technology quickly becomes a crutch if you don't ensure that the skills behind the tool are learned.  In addition, it's critical to ensure that along with the use of technology, the students and teachers develop a high level of adaptability.  We've all seen the "what will I do now" dance when an instructor's power point presentation didn't save properly or the smart board won't turn on.  Some teachers skate through gracefully, some fall through the ice, and some just leave the skate guards on and walk out.  Similarly, the loss of wifi due to the college strike resulted in Mohawk Students exclaiming that they couldn't get their schedules, couldn't do research for papers, and couldn't connect with their friends back home.

Overall, I'll go back to the calculator for my closing.  
1)  In the 70s, there were no calculators allowed in public school - calculations were done manually or not at all.  Today, this would seem more like trying to hide from reality than effective schooling.  
2)  In the late 80s, I wrote my first few actuarial exams with a calculator with highly advanced functionality ... there was a % key and also a 1/x.  1.07 * = * = M+ * = * = * = * MR * 1.07 ... woo hoo, my first of 3 calculations is done for my 37 year annuity and I ask myself, are we testing my knowledge of annuities or my ability to perform rote mathematics?  
3)  Finally, you walk into a high school class today and ask them to multiply 2 x 3 ... and then offer them graphing calculators.  For me, there's nothing sadder than seeing students reach for calculators when they could count fingers to get an answer faster.
Somewhere between these 3 options is the right balance.  It's unrealistic to keep the tool out of the students' hands as they will be using it outside of school and we need to mirror reality.  It's helpful to know how to complete more difficult calculations manually, but too much focus on the calculations detracts from learning.  And finally, there are times when we have to find a way to say no to technology.


The first lecture must be tough.  Now, I'm not getting this from any of my instructors showing an ounce of nervousness, despite the fact that more than one of my past teachers has confided that his or her first class nerves lasted at least 15 minutes.  My hint came from the format of most of these introductory classes.  Despite some differences in arrangement and time allotted to the lecture, the format for almost every class was the same.  Some instructors made some genuine efforts to break from the standard format and some apologized for the lecture-heavy nature of the first class but overall:

The format seems to be:
1)  an introduction of the course leader including her or his qualifications
2)  the distribution of a syllabus along with a review of of the contents typically highlighting major assignments
3)  some form of icebreaker for attendance purposes including name, how you got to this class (previous university, teachables) and some other personal details (something interesting about yourself or past experiences that relate to the given class)
or 3a)  2 truths and a lie
4)  depending on the length of 2, a short introductory lecture
4a)  possibly some initial discussion questions on the nature of the class
5)  confirmations of required readings for the next class

The time efficient part of me wants to scream out, "give me the syllabus ahead of time so that I can review it before class and come with appropriate questions."  Then my realistic side reminds me that by misreading my timetable I sat through 3/4 of a special ed class (before realizing this) instead of my scheduled law class ... ie my preparation skills leave a bit to be desired so expecting a thorough pre-reading of the syllabus is probably unrealistic.  I'll likely stop beating myself up shortly over this oversight, but for now I still shake my head in disbelief.

I think that the piece of this standard introduction that I'd like to change the most is part 3.  I'd much rather take the Little Prince's approach as opposed to the standard approach.  I realize that facts are easier to convey, but where people did their undergrad work and what their teacheables are ... well these kind of details really don't tell me too much about my classmates.  I'd much rather hear answers to a question like "what are the most important things about you that you'd like others to know?"  Knowing that my subjects are math and history or that I did my undergrad work at Waterloo and Brock tells you so little about me - you learn far more about me through my link to chapter 4 than most of these intros could ever convey.  2 Truths comes closer, but with the audience focusing on which is the lie, it's tough to remember the truths.  And given that many truths are chosen to deceive or cite very small details of a person's life ... I'd be hard pressed to recall five of the truths that I heard and I'm not sure that most of the truths that I recall go beyond the 'facts and figures' type of information that the pilot cautions against.  I'm not naive enough to believe that we should still be able to see the 'sheep in a box,' but I'm hoping to find a way to try to a little harder.