Dealing with the fear of being a boring teacher.


Why I Light Myself On Fire

I promise to expect my students to practice (i.e. homework) math skills because they see the need, not because I’m doling out points like a Pavlovian Pez dispenser.

About a year ago today, I was about to give teaching the axe. I was mired in the bog that had been my educational experience, and I was attempting to reconcile the methods modeled to me with the current information glut that my students now live in.

I’ve been forced recently to really think about why I do things in my classroom. Why do I ask them to take derivatives of functions that will never model anything in real life? Why do they come to me with a just-get-it-done attitude?

These questions have gone from being slightly annoying to an obsession. I can’t allow this to happen anymore. I can’t allow students to get A’s and go to college who have no academic souls.

Here’s what I promised myself:

I will no longer hide under the rock of “college readiness.”

If I teach my students to think, they will ready themselves for any task.

What does this look like in a real classroom? We did a spontaneous WCYDWT the other day. I was rolling up a garden hose before I left for school, and I noticed that water came out whenever I cranked the reel. I asked them if we could figure out how much water was expelled with every turn. This morphed into releasing the pressure in a hose after the spigot was turned off and measuring how much came out. They also noticed that the water shoots farthest as the hose begins to discharge. My brain dinged, “Related Rates!”

They had a much harder time with the dinging. They didn’t want to see it as anything more than an excuse to have class outside. Do you understand what sort of disease that’s a symptom of? Do you understand how sick our kids are? Do you?! All they want is to do something else.

This is not OK.

I had to actually reassure them that investigating the hose was an OK use of time. I had to reassure them that they wouldn’t be bludgeoned secretly by some esoteric quiz problem if they ‘wasted’ time with this highly interesting and engaging little trifle.

I sat in my empty room at lunch, after calculus had left, and I just sort of laugh-pouted.

Many of them can do related rates problems from the book, but faced with one in real life — and I want to say “couldn’t” here — it’s really more like they didn’t want to believe that any of the math could be real. Eff.

I will never give an A to a student who cannot demonstrate extensibility.

We string our standards together like popcorn and cranberries on the tenenbaum. We expect them to be wowed by the organization of our rooms and the linearity of the book. This is all trash. SBG has helped me organize learning, but for all its methodology, it’s pedagogically bankrupt.

What matters is that learning is motivated. They have to want the new knowledge, and “because it’s the next chapter” is the kind of reasoning that will have me knocking on your door at 3 a.m.

Extensibility is why inquiry is a must. You must allow students to immerse themselves in their own questions, and then dig themselves back out using the theories and laws that have been so sterilized into frictionless planes and perfect lab manuals.

Aside: Let me just be clear. Throw away your effing lab manuals. They are murder. They are lies. They are absolute trash. The content does not matter, it’s the process it takes to get the data that matters. It’s building the apparatus and findings its flaws that makes good students, not using a banal air track to be positively thrilled by constant, frictionless acceleration. barf.

This blog is functional. I want to remind myself what I’ve done, and I want to give you all some ideas for lessons. So, extensibility can only come from a truly unique situation. Here’s an example of how I managed to believe that a student understood friction:

A student suggested the idea of tying a sled behind his car and cutting the rope at predetermined speeds. He and his group wanted to measure how far the sled would slide before coming to stop. They wanted to know if friction would provide the same acceleration at all speeds. They postulated that friction would decrease as the speed increased for microscopic reasons.

As they analyzed their data, they found that their confidence intervals overlapped by far too much to really give any credence to any sort of trend. Their data seemed to indicate that the frictional coefficient did not depend on speed.

Disheartened, they went to researching why this might be so, and in doing so became acquainted with the RMS-Speed definition of temperature, and all sorts of other microscopic physics concepts that might play into their experiment.

As they explained to the class, I beamed. They were thinking. They believed their experiment was uninteresting, but as I wrote down giant “10/10″s all over their feedback paper, I knew that inquiry mattered, and that the content is secondary.

Teens are capable of meta-cognition but are rarely asked to do so:

I recently assigned Lockhart’s “A Mathematician’s Lament” to my calculus students with the vague directions of “respond somehow, before the final.” Right now I’m feeling like this was in error. I don’t know if they can handle it.

Someone described Lockhart’s paper as “shop talk” unfit for non-teachers. The idealist in me scoffs, but I still worry. Will they be able to take it with a grain of salt? Will they start heckling their old math teachers? Should they be? Can they see the forest for the trees enough to care? Is Lockhart full of it, and there’s really no problem at all?

Exoneration, thy name is student blogger.

High Schoolers, and teens in general, have been sold a bulbous lie. They’ve been told they have no monetary worth. They’ve been told they cannot change the world, and they are left to use their vast energy surpluses on consumerism training and white-knuckled clutching to childishness. /tear.

I promise to assign Lockhart’s Lament every year. I promise to expect my students to practice (i.e. homework) math skills because they see the need, not because I’m doling out points like a Pavlovian Pez dispenser. I promise to set myself on fire every morning before class and to teach as if it were the only way to squelch the flames.

I should stop, I’m going to have to clean up a lot of black goo, again.

Can you tell I’ve been reading Alfie?

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Shawn Cornally • September 28, 2010

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