Saturday, 24 December 2011

Much Ado About Nothing

Louis Lumiere, where's the lab coat?
My grade 13 chemistry teacher was a pocket protector short of the Jungian archetype.  With a slightly stained lab coat and coke-bottle horn-rimmed glasses, our homeroom teacher could've starred in any 1950s reel-to-reel educational movie.  No, he's not the one that got me interested in teaching, but he did inspire me enough to start my chemical engineering degree at the University of Waterloo.  He was the teacher that we could always get talking and was honest enough to say that if he was marking our lab reports, and the Leafs scored, we would get an A ... if the Leafs were scored on, we'd get a B.  He covered everything from cooking (don't work out the ratios with eggs, everything tastes better with more eggs), to working in chemistry (one day we used too much indicator dye to detect a leak and turned the St. Lawrence green) to life in general.  The only time I ever saw him speechless was when I left a 15 page categorized list of his quotations (with illustrations) on his desk as a Christmas present.

Well, one day he was waxing eloquent on life and advised us that we would be facing failure - either now, in university or in marriage.  Although this might've been in response to a tough test coming up, it wasn't said in a cynical way, but as a way to remind us that sometime, somewhere in life, we're going to take a few steps in the wrong direction and we'd best be ready for the consequences.  Despite my adolescent view that it would never happen, I knew that he was right within a decade and he helped me recognize that this was just a part of life so pick your self up and move on.

Growing Success
So we're sitting in assessment class, and we're dealing with late and missed assignments.  Unfortunately, there wasn't enough time to do more than recognize both sides of the argument and all of us were chomping at the bit to get involved in this discussion.  Overall, it's likely a good move that our prof didn't allow time for more than a very brief statement of both positions; nobody's position would have changed through the discussion and it's quite likely that a large majority of us would be on one side of fence.  Well, the part that troubles me is that I'm sitting on the fence when it comes to this issue.  My problem isn't that I'll have difficulty enforcing the procedures set within my school; but, both sides of the fence do a disservice to the student.

The Restaurant Analogy (aka I don't want soup with my ice cream)
About once a week, my wife and I head out for dinner.  Frequently, we get good service but there are times when timing becomes a problem; drink reorders aren't requested within 10 minutes of our glasses being emptied, appetizers don't arrive before the meal, my request for HP sauce is forgotten, or the not so subtle third request to vacate the table within 5 minutes of receiving the bill.  Overall, I get the impression that this is the camp most non-teachers sit in - the timing is so intertwined with the task that you can't separate them to assess them separately.  Usually, these are the times when my wife pays since she is far better at the poor service means no tip protocol than I am.  Typically, I'm the 5-10% with a slightly stern stare type so when the occasion demands it, I pass the buck to my wife.

And that's the problem with this analogy.  Lateness becomes subjective so a hard and fast policy isn't possible.  If the restaurant was busy and understaffed, there's no sense in punishing the server who's trying when it's a management issue.  The waitress that has given us excellent service the last few times will get penalized far less than the one whom we've never had before.  Finally, the server that gives us the honest answer as to why things happened will fare far better than the waiter who tries to brush it off as nothing.  And, depending on the person and their beliefs, the same service by the same person will be rated differently.

The Growing Success Analogy (aka two wrongs don't make it right)
Likely this is the camp that many teachers and parents find themselves in. We're already assessing responsibility and self regulation on the report card, so why assess the student twice on the same skill.  If we penalize for lateness, we've double-counted for lateness and not fully recognizing the student's knowledge and skills gained.  So, we're best to assess the lateness where lateness gets assessed and let knowledge and skills get assessed where they belong.  And I would be able to do this but ...

I checked Brock's Undergraduate Calendar admission criteria, and it's based on marks, not the other assessment categories.  The University of Toronto requests minimum 80%.  Here's York University's admission requirements ... again completely average based.  None of the universities are going beyond average in their admission sections.  Checking Niagara College's admissions, they select based on grades with a possible inclusion of the learning skills under their "prior academic performance" ranking criteria.  Checking other colleges resulted in similar findings; the averages aren't specifically defined but admission is based on prior academic performance.  It seems to me that by removing lateness from marks, we're assessing learning skills in a way that's being ignored by universities and colleges may or may not be paying attention to.  And by minimizing the effect of lateness on marks, we're setting students up for future failures in life when they enter university, college, or the working world and discover that lateness is always penalized.

Overall, I'm not going to have any problems with whatever policy a school presents me with.  My thoughts are divided enough that I can apply either methodology.  I tend to be a fan of the obstacle course paradigm:  if you miss a deadline then talk to me, see me for help on that subject area, and then earn the right to a re-write (quiz / test).  And I do recognize that some items are more time-sensitive than others (larger projects usually offer more flexibility).  But overall, my chemistry teacher's voice is still asking whether I'd rather that they learn to cope with lateness penalties now, while it really isn't critical, or later on when it's far more expensive and life changing for the worse.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

You stole my reading day - thank you

Sometimes, I'm not quite as enthusiastic about heading to Brock's Hamilton campus.  Usually, this has been the site of our tech class, and probably my favourite class of the week.  But, after our final law class (test and assignment, 65% of our mark), most of our class was getting ready to finally enjoy a Friday off.  Usually, Fridays have been PD days, in school observation days, or conference days .... and at the end of our first term, many of us are in need of a break, and this was one of our two "reading" Fridays for the year.  Well, instead of a day off, our class headed to Hamilton to enjoy a lecture / presentation series on math teaching.

Yup, this was going to strain my ability to stay engaged.  As I love math, and I wasn't expecting the bamboo shoots under the fingernails moments that many non-math people might anticipate, this was going to strain my find 3 good things mantra a wee bit.**  At least I thought that things would be strained until the second presentation.  Shirley Dalrymple's presentation on teaching a 9 applied math classes.  As the past president of the Ontario Association for Math Educators, storyboarder for the Critical Learning Instructional Paths Support, and recipient of the Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence, she definitely was more than qualified to speak to us. Some of the highlights were:

  • Learning styles:  she has had one auditory learner within her applied math classes.  The classes tend to be evenly split between visual and tactile.  She recommended that we say nothing that a student couldn't say (and my inner Cicero cringed)
  • She starts her year with a poster project - students have to fill in the blank:  math is important in _____ because.  The students link math to real world applications and she gets a set of contexts within which to frame examples
  • With 10 minutes to go in class, she sometimes starts up a game of Math-O.  Students create their bingo card (filled with answers to problems), she reads out questions until 5 people win.  Net result, the students have willingly worked through about 25 math questions in 10 minutes - probably more questions than they would do for homework
  • Finally, she re-emphasized the importance of highlighters for word problems.  I've been using them with the students I'm tutoring, and it's nice to hear someone confirm that I was going down the right track.

Overall, I enjoyed this presentation for one main reason.  We've been presented with a number of theoretical approaches to teaching within teachers' college.  Almost every class has included some discussion on assessment - either Lorna Earl's Assessment As Learning along with the discussions in Growing Success on assessment for, as, and of learning.  Also, our math teaching class has been focused frequently on the necessary learning processes to teach the math curriculum in Ontario.  And as part of these classes, we've delved into many hypothetical uses for these assessments and processes.  What Shirley's presentation demonstrated is some concrete ways that she has successfully embedded these techniques into her class.

**Please note that I've got a couple posts in the works, one of which deals with motivation, overcoming the theory/reality disconnect frustrations, and finding 3 positive things about any class to focus on.

Monday, 5 December 2011

A quick thank you to Dave Lanovaz

When it came time to choose our Virtual Associate Teacher for Zoe's class, I immediately gravitated towards the high school math teachers on the list. As part of my considerations, I flipped through the peoples' blogs and discovered this post.  Yeah, I was hooked immediately.  As a fan of Angry Birds, I thoroughly loved that Dave had found a way to interest his class as to the link between Angry Birds and math.  Among my goals as a math teacher is a desire to show students that math is more than just calculators - it's an incredibly important tool to help us understand how the world works.  And in his blog, I found someone that didn't only want to do so, but was actively doing so in his class.  (By the way, I also loved the title of his blog, Sine of the Times).

The other reason why I respect Dave Lanovaz's teaching style is his ability to do this.  Dave was able to offer a motivational speech without excessive sugar coating.  He underscored the competitiveness that exists in the world, and used that to motivate the students to find the best within themselves, and not to just settle for the easy way out.  Finally, he was able to recognize that this great discussion wouldn't resonate with everybody, and he didn't judge the students either way.  Someday, I hope to be able to do this since it's far more important than my stock answer to 'why do we need to learn trigonometry anyways.'

Finally, Dave has been an awesome support during my initial teaching blocks.  When I've had questions and concerns, he's always pointed me in the right direction.  When I was setting up this site for my presentation today to our math teaching class, he recommended a few resources for me to incorporate.**  Whenever I tweet something (as rare as that still is), he always asks how I'm doing ... how things are going?  It may seem a small thing, but it's wonderful to know that someone who doesn't really know me is willing to take the time to ask me questions.  While my health has been less than ideal, and it's dragged my energy level and mood down, his questions and advice have always been a branch to help me pull myself up.  I'm definitely hoping to stay in touch with Dave, for around Valentine's Day, my long awaited math teaching block will begin.  And I'm fairly certain that I'll be running into a few issues along the way (like what is this Geometer's SketchPad and how do I incorporate the OAME examples into my class).

Once again Dave, thank you for all your help and support so far.  I look forward to the days when I can actually offer you some assistance in return.

**(Quick aside ... Since I'm fairly sure that you'll be reading this Zoe, I'm not sure whether to thank you or scream at you for introducing me to google sites.  I can no longer bring myself to prepare a static hand-out for my presentations in teachers' college.  All I do now is create a google site, toss the class a shortened link and present away.  It takes far longer to do it this way, but I end up giving them a resource that is actually useful and won't get lost like a double-sided summary sheet.  Who wants to type out all of those links anyways when one bit/ly link will give them a full list of dynamic links.)

Thursday, 1 December 2011

It's tough to return

Well, I've started a number of posts since the end of my teaching block, I've edited said number many times, and haven't been able to polish them enough to have them get my seal of posting approval.  So, when in doubt ... stream of consciousness.

1)  A dry mouth is a sign that your lesson has become too teacher-centred
2)  Rubistar - you are one of my best friends.  I was lost marking my first essays until I found you.
3)  Google Docs - you still hold the documents for my entire class.  Every note, handout, test, assessment tool.  I think you were my tech bff along with your cousin Google Sites.  Oh, and teaching you to two classes was probably my highlight of my block.
4)  It's tough to balance the 'edu' part in edutainment.  And I can't get over the thought that videos are me taking time off.
5)  Prezi - I do love you but it's an unhealthy relationship.  Don't worry, while I'm still at Brock you'll never fully go away - I've got a math resources presentation with your name on it next Monday.

6)  Make sure to learn to use the tool (VCR comes to mind) before it's time to use it in class.
7)  I 'can' develop all of my resources from the ground up ... but sometimes it's best to keep my life in focus and get help from your associates.  They know what has worked before, and likely those three hours spent developing the 'ideal' hieroglyphics handout could've been spent elsewhere had I used his version.
8)  Sleep is a luxury at times.  I wish I remembered how to sleep in later than 5:30.
9)  You don't really need to be up at 4:30 most mornings to polish that afternoon class' lesson plan and handouts. But it's going to happen anyways
10)  Do not forget the latter part of mens sana in corpore sano.  When the diastolic blood pressure gets too high ... your sane mind doesn't matter when your body crashes.

11)  Never try to be someone else in front of the students, even the person that you believe Brock wants you to be.  Be yourself, and integrate what you can from other methodologies.  There's a Hamlet quote here somewhere.
12)  When you can't find a way to engage the class, stop trying so hard.  Become far more student-centred and let them engage themselves.
13)  Skill building was probably my favourite part of the entire teaching block.  Must do more.
14)  I'm not sure that my love of history can overwhelm my desire to teach math.
15)  I'd like to resign my membership in the 'Loyal Order of Crotch Police' please.  Cell phones aren't going away so lets just allow them so that I can use them in my lessons and teach responsible use.  Shaming responsible use ain't working.

And finally, um .. yeah.  I guess it's time to figure out this job hunting stuff asap.