Tuesday, June 17, 2014

9 Books to Read and Reread

In this post, I offer some suggested readings that I find help inform my approach to teaching. The books are listed in no particular order. 
For any teacher, I recommend:

  • What Works in Schools? Robert J. Marzano, Debra J. Pickering, and Jane E. Pollock. (Note that there is now a second edition available with a substantially different organization. Either edition is valuable.) This book (first edition) discusses nine strategies shown by research to be effective in improving student learning outcomes. Sometimes the strategies are “obvious,” but it can still be helpful to be reminded that they are important teaching tools. For instance, summarizing and note-taking are effective. However, for me, many of my students have never been taught how to take notes, or have never discussed strategies for taking notes. So I make an effort to tell students when someone states an idea that I think everyone should write down, and I set aside some time for students to discuss what they should write down during class. Other strategies take a more concerted and planned effort to implement. For instance, generating and testing hypotheses is another strategy. While this is a natural part of doing mathematics, this reminds me to include tasks in which students do more investigative work. More than a list of nine ideas, the book has specific recommendations that are helpful. For instance, what are some important features to make cooperative learning successful? These are the kinds of specifics that are discussed in the book.
  • Why Don’t Students Like School? Daniel Willingham. Willingham is a cognitive psychologist who poses some key questions and answers them from the perspective of his discipline. There are a few things that I like about this book, and that make me go back to it. One of the things I like is that each chapter closes with implications for the classroom. For example, one chapter discusses our human tendency to prefer and make sense of things as stories. In a course like precalculus, this might be used to frame “telling the story of a function,” where a function has properties like limits as x goes to infinity, asymptotes, periodic behavior (or not), symmetry, and so on. In calculus or analysis, the story idea might be put in terms of the central “conflict,” will a sequence converge or not, or another, is a function continuous or not. Rereading (or skimming) this book and thinking about the implications often inspires me to find ways to improve my day-to-day plans.
  • What’s the Point of School? Guy Claxton. Claxton describes what he believes are the core goals of an education. These are big-picture concepts like developing people who are curious and are lifelong learners. While this is not a book that I return to for help in thinking through the details of teaching, I find that it helps to remind me of what is really important in my role as an educator.
  • Switch. Chip and Dan Heath. This book inspired the name of my blog. The Heaths describe how to make a switch—a change—either in yourself or others. The single most important idea is that a lot of what we do is driven by emotion, and so we need to think in those terms when looking to effect change. The authors go through several ways of activating the emotions that will enable a switch to happen. I have returned to the book many times, for example, to remind me of how to approach students who are struggling, to help them find the emotion that will drive them to turn around their performance in my classes.
  • Understanding By Design. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. This is a book that puts forth a framework for thinking about curriculum design by starting with the end results, then thinking about how those results will be measured, and only then moving into designing the learning activities that will produce the desired end results. I return to this book from time to time to remind myself of how to frame my goals, and how to find ways to measure progress towards those goals.
  • Mindset. Carol Dweck. Dweck has done significant research into the power of having a growth mindset, a mindset in which one believes that through hard work, one can get smarter or better. In the book, she describes some of this research and how it can make a difference across different domains of school and life. The book helps to remind me of why a growth mindset matters, and serves up examples that I use in explaining the power of the growth mindset to students.
For math teachers at any level, I recommend:
What’s Math Got To Do With It? Jo Boaler. Boaler has studied high school students experiencing problem-based curricula and compared them with those in traditional curricula in two different countries, the US and the UK. This book describes some of what was learned in those settings, and distills for a general audience—including parents of schoolchildren—some of the key ideas of what mathematics learning is, or should be, about. From the perspective of a math teacher, this book is less likely to offer ideas for day-to-day decisions, but like Claxton’s book, helps to remind me of the goals of teaching mathematics.

For college teachers, I recommend:
What the Best College Teachers Do. Ken Bain. Bain’s book centers how the select group of highly-respected teachers he studied approach teaching, from preparing for class, to setting expectations for students, to conducting class, and so forth. Each chapter holds a wealth of good advice, like seeking the commitment of the students: asking them to consider whether they are willing to do what it takes to succeed in the class, and therefore have them commit to the effort required. I find I sometimes return to the questions he poses in the chapters as a way of gaining a fresh perspective on my courses.

Finally, for college math teachers, I recommend:
The Moore Method: A Pathway To Learner-Centered Instruction. Charles A. Coppin, W. Ted Mahavier, E. Lee May, and G. Edgar Parker. The four authors of this text each describe how to implement the Moore method, as they see it. The book offers the reader a chance to consider various aspects of teaching in a learner-centered environment, and benefits from the approach of the authors, which is essentially to offer their individual responses to the key questions in setting up and operating a Moore Method course. This variations-on-a-theme approach has the effect of providing the reader with a canvas and a palette, rather than promoting a specific paint-by-number prescription. The authors take on a wide variety of issues associated with implementing the Moore method, including such topics as, What if no one has anything to present? How do I grade? and many others. I have returned to the book many times to seek out new ideas of how to handle syllabus construction, or to remind myself of ways to approach managing an IBL classroom. (In full disclosure, I should mention that I am personally acquainted with the authors, and have worked closely with Ed Parker.)

What are some of your favorite or most inspiring reads from the educational realm?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Typesetting Mathematics in Google Drive

In a previous post, I mentioned that in the native Google formats on Google Drive, it is difficult to typeset mathematics. Here I will describe how to work around this issue. 

Options for creating images with mathematical symbols are:
  1. In general, the first ways that come to mind to typeset mathematics are via LaTeX, MathJAX, by using Equation Editor for Word, or by using Math Type. However, in order to adapt any of these to a Google Doc or Form, an image (JPEG or PNG) is needed. Since I prefer LaTeX, I use a LaTeX to image compiler to create an image that can be inserted into a Form or Doc. I have been using SciWeavers. The site is not perfect, as it can be difficult to get justification and alignment right, but it does the job. You can copy-paste the image or copy the URL and let the Google Form retrieve the image that way. For a Form, it makes the most sense to typeset your entire question and copy it.
  2. Typeset mathematics in your favorite way. Then take a screenshot and crop it so that it has only the math that you want. Finally, copy-paste the image into the Google Doc, Form, or whatever you are working on.
  3. Create the entire document outside of Google Drive, but load it into Drive for the purposes of sharing or whatever other reason you want the item in your cloud account.
  4. g(Math) is a Docs add-on that renders math formulas and graphs in Docs. I have not tried it, but this at least solves the problem for Docs (but not Forms). 
These are either incomplete or inelegant solutions. I am hoping that by posting, either someone will suggest a better alternative, or that Google will address the issue.

By the way, for those of you using Forms with your math classes, I am working on a list of some alternatives to Forms that are out there—and there are a LOT of options. This will be the subject of a future post.

After I composed this post, I wanted to make sure everything was up-to-date, and I found this thread https://productforums.google.com/forum/#!topic/docs/mMQl4IkKG2c that includes the same suggestions for Forms. 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Joys of Teaching

In this post, I explore the question: What are the joys of teaching?

Teaching is something I have been doing for a long time, going all the way back to when I was a student and a tutor. Early in college, I decided that I wanted to teach at the college level. (Immediately before that I had planned on a career in engineering.) If I had to put my finger on what made me want to teach then, I think it was that, as a tutor, I had seen the joy of connecting people to mathematics, a discipline that is associated with a lot of negative experiences for many students. But, as with so many things in life, as we grow older and gain more experience, what we appreciate changes. Nonetheless, seeing students light up when they grasp an idea remains a particular joy for me.

I enjoy teaching because I enjoy the challenge. Each semester, I find myself faced with challenges: I am challenged to react to students’ misconceptions that I have not seen before, or I am challenged to get students to invest their best effort, or I am challenged to find new ways to keep students engaged in class. Every year, I reflect back on what has happened in my classes, I review the evidence of student learning, and I think over the learning experiences that students had. I always see a need to do better. I always rethink my course problem sets and grading scheme, and I look for ways to remake them in ways that will encourage students to learn more from the course.

I enjoy teaching because I enjoy connecting with students. More than just teaching content, teaching is a coaching and mentoring relationship. I have been at my school long enough that I have had a number of students at multiple points in their careers, sometimes across lower and upper division courses, or in their undergraduate major and in master’s courses or teacher professional development institutes. Sometimes, students complete a course with me and continue to come back for advice or assistance. I enjoy seeing the students grow and gain new perspectives on what they have learned, or seeing them begin to transition from thinking about the classroom from the student’s view to thinking of themselves as teachers.

I enjoy seeing the impact of a positive learning experience for students in a way that I cannot see through the other things that I do. Being in front of, in the middle of, and generally in the presence of students gives me opportunities to impact students in ways that are not visible when I am in the role of researcher, or serving the university.

This is a time of year for reflection, and for planning. I encourage my fellow instructors to take a moment to enjoy the fact that teaching is an awesome responsibility, and a great privilege. Enjoy teaching in spite of, and perhaps because of, the challenges! 

Feel free to share your favorite joys of teaching in the comments.