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Saturday, September 29, 2007

Choking Down Technology

I'm going to skip past the part where I apologize for my long absence. I've been busy, let's not over-analyze it.

The most blog-worthy event in recent happenings was my attendance at a T3 conference for pre-service math teachers. I'm not sure "conference" is the right word; in truth, it was a two day sales pitch. I was invited to participate by the faculty adviser for the math ed program. Mostly I was doing it for the free TI-84+ graphing calculator I would allegedly receive at the end of it. ( I still haven't received it, by the way.)

There was only one other pre-service teacher there. Everyone else came from local middle and high schools. The presenter/salesperson is a full-time professor at Drake University in Ohio, but I'd wager that she gets a healthy stipend from Texas Instruments, as well. She spent two days demonstrating all of the fancy things you can do with their various products. The central focus was on the Navigator hardware, which allow all calculators to be networked together. The teacher can view all activity on each student's machine at the press of a button. That image can be projected onto a screen or better yet, onto a Smartboard. It was all glitz and glamor, and the
audience ate it up. I was less than impressed.

The stuff she was showing us was neat, I'll admit it. But it wasn't as revolutionary as everyone seemed to think it was. There are any number of softwares available that could do the same thing with desktop computers. And those machines would still be able to perform a multitude of other tasks, rather than merely being graphing calculators. I asked if TI produced similar software, and was told that they did. Guess what. It costs exactly the same as a calculator.

The slogan of the event was "TI Cares." That's even their phone number: 800-TI-CARES. According to the presenter, Texas Instruments makes all of this technology available to schools because it wants to improve the world, and help train future employees. The fact that they are making money hand over fist doesn't factor into it at all.

If you know me, you know I love technology. I will use it in the classroom, and use it abundantly. I was just hoping to learn something new about how best to use it. Instead, what I got was a tutorial on several of the latest models. There was no discussion on where low-tech might still be superior. No statistics on the efficacy of technology heavy programs. The equipment she brought didn't even work consistently enough for us to do all of the activities that she had planned. All in all, I think I got out of it exactly what I had intended to- a new calculator. Except, I don't even have that yet, so I guess the joke's on me.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Politics of the Professoriate

I have read a few articles from the right wing recently complaining about the politicking of liberal professors. Until yesterday, I didn't really understand what the were getting at.

It makes sense to me to ground your teaching in real-world examples. If you're teaching a statistics class, then analyzing welfare statistics seems reasonable to me. If you're teaching biology, then debating the ins and outs of stem cell research seems entirely appropriate. Though they are common battlegrounds of today's political realm, as long as they tie in with the lesson, I think any controversy can be excused.

In my physics class, we are covering motion in two dimensions. Basically, ballistics. In a simple example involving range-finding, my professor segued into a review of the documentary Why We Fight and the Iraq War. He repeated a quote from the film regarding the success rate of so-called Smart Bombs and without much transition at all, stated that "we shouldn't be killing people."

It was an awkward moment, I thought, even though I happen to completely agree with him. I didn't see how the side note appreciably increased our understanding in any way, especially since Smart Bombs have on-board guidance systems and are not simply launched projectiles.

I have emailed him about the incident, and have yet to receive a reply.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Choosing "Choice"

I know I've been promising to write some posts explaining some of the concepts I am covering in class. Unfortunately, all of the things I have thought about discussing involve me being much more familiar with the Latex formatting syntax than I currently am. For now, you'll just have to read another one of my extemporaneous ramblings.

My schedule has kept me off of the blogosphere lately. The only discussion I have really been able to participate in lately is one about school choice over at Mindless Math Mutterings. I thought I would take a few minutes to elaborate on that issue here.

There are a few misconceptions about school choice and what it can and can't do. The idea is that simply creating a competitive environment will force schools to fix all their problems and become successful. They will either sink or swim. Here is the problem with that reasoning. The choice model is patterned after good old-fashioned natural selection. Whether you prefer the metaphor of a biological system or the business world, the simple fact is this. The vast majority of species and businesses that have ever existed have failed. They are extinct. They caved under the competitive pressures.

Selection pressures do force the cream to rise, but it happens through a process that can best be titled "creative destruction." If you implement that kind of system, you have to accept the fact that most of the schools will fail and be forced to close. Most of them will not be able to magically adapt overnight. That will leave legions of children looking for a new educational institution.

That population overflow will cause the second major problem. Will the few remaining schools be able to scale up their success? Most of the schools that are doing really well are small schools. Whether they are private, public, or charter, they have small teacher to student ratios and they are able to cater to specific demographics. They do creative things like using students to clean up the physical plant instead of hiring full-time janitorial staff. But will they be able to do the same things with a student body that's been increased tenfold?

If you have any experience in the kitchen, you know that some recipes can be doubled or tripled, while others can't. What was exquisitely delicious when prepared for two is revolting when prepared for two hundred. Or a political example, if you prefer. Communism works extremely well in small groups. Contained familial styled villages can live quite happily using that political system. But I think we all remember what happened when that compound was scaled up to the size of a country.

Choosing "choice" would provide our nation with better schools over the long run, of that I have little doubt. But in the meantime, we will be closing a lot of schools and failing a lot of kids. I just don't think it's the answer.

Friday, September 14, 2007

I Pity the Fool

If you have a problem,

if no one else can help,

and if you can find them,

maybe you can hire....

A few weeks ago, my co-workers asked me if I had organized my Trapper Keeper for school, yet. I told them that I was all set except for my A-Team lunch box.

Today they gave me this belated birthday present.

Please Stand By

Sorry posts have been light this week, folks. I'm still trying to get used to the new schedule. I plan to post the first "lesson" tomorrow. I think it will be a short one on probability. It should be simple enough that a total beginner could understand it, so even if you don't "get" math, try to follow along. That means you, Mother.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Happy Birthday to Me

I received this lovely image from a friend today to commemorate the start of my fourth decade upon this Earth. Many people have asked me how I am handling this milestone birthday, and my typically nerdly response has been that it only appears significant due to our use of the base-10 counting system. Seriously, though, I see it as just another day in a life that is being lived well. I have no real regrets and I have been steadily crossing things off of life's "to do" list. My plan is to devote the next thirty years to helping kids understand how math can help them cross things of of theirs.

So here's to the big 3-0.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Politics on the Brain

Occasionally, Pencils Down strays away from its math education mission statement and ventures into the world of politics. I don't see any way to avoid this, since part of being sentient is having one's own opinions and part of being a blogger is voicing them. My own position on the political continuum is roughly at the midpoint. I tend to be fiscally conservative and socially liberal. I am a registered Independent and have happily voted for members of both major parties and several third-party candidates. I have friends who fall to the far right and far left of the field, and I argue with all of them.

Curiously, one of the most common arguments is of what exactly defines a Liberal and a Conservative. Many people choose to define it by what positions they take on certain issues, but that doesn't speak to controversies yet to be unveiled. Others use those political labels and the names of their party interchangeably, despite the fact that the party platforms have slid up and down the spectrum, even flip-flopping over the years. I read definitions in a political science textbook once that have stuck with me for both simplicity and accuracy. In short, a to be conservative means to look for the solution to a problem in the past. When faced with a new dilemma, they will attempt to apply the solution that has always worked with similar issues before. A liberal, when confronted with a new problem, will tend to dream up an entirely new solution. They prefer the untested to the status quo.

There is nothing to stop people for employing both methods in differing areas of life. I have already admitted to doing so. But what exactly causes a person to be one way or the other. It's the age-old nature vs. nurture argument, and nature has recently released some new results. Some psychologists at New York University have employed a simple test to investigate political persuasion. Test subjects were first asked to rate their political persuasion, 1 being conservative and 5 being liberal. Then the were each shown a different series of two letters, M and W. Regardless of the pattern, one letter was always more prevalent, showing up 80% of the time. The researchers found that when asked to match letters with the computer, subjects identifying with conservativism were more likely to "incorrectly" choose the dominant letter even when shown the other one. Liberals had a slightly "better" results, showing a greater ability to choose the "correct" letter even though it appeared far less frequently.

It is important to note that even if this experiment can be repeated, it doesn't imply that one position is evolutionarily more adaptive. There have been plenty of times in history when the combined selection pressures have favored either a liberal or a conservative approach, so one can not be said to be more adaptive than the other. I suspect that applying a healthy dose of both is the most pragmatic way to go about it.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Great Expectations

If you recently felt an inexplicable tremor in the tectonic plates of the blogosphere, and are curious as to exactly what might have occurred, wonder no longer. The shifting was caused by the much anticipated arrival of newcomer and reformed lurker, Jackie. Her comments have brought insight to numerous blogs over the last year, and she's finally ready to unleash the full measure of her intellectual fury. Continuities is sure to make its mark and I recommend that edubloggers go ahead and get in on the ground floor. I'm putting her in my blogroll and RSS feed immediately.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Back to School Week: Day 4

This will be the last post in this series. I'm getting sick of writing a diary, and frankly, I don't know how people do it. I've grown bored with myself after only four posts.

After I posted yesterday, I downloaded the first two Calculus lectures off of iTunes. It was basic algebra and I fast-forwarded through most of it. This class will be a review the biggest challenge for me is going to be scheduling times to take the tests.

This morning, I experienced my first extended use of the clicker. After we answered the questions, our results appeared on the screen. Then we argued with each other for a few minutes, and voted again. We continued until one answer received 100% of the vote. It was really quite fun, and definitely a useful teaching tool.

Now, I am off to work. For the first time since school began, I will be working a full shift.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Back to School Week: Day 3

In the traditional Tuesday/Thursday repetition, this morning found me once again in general Physics. Today was our first foray into the use of the infamous "clicker." I was still flying high from my fortuitous clicker purchase yesterday. I had planned on making a quick stop at the bookstore before my Java class, expecting it to be a fairly simple transaction. The powers that be had decided to trump my hand by packaging the clicker with the textbook rather than stand-alone. Just as I was cursing the gods, a classmate who already had the clicker from last semester arrived hoping to buy just the book. It was one of those happy little accidents that rarely occur outside of Bob Ross paintings.

Anyway, as I said, we used the clickers to answer some simple questions. I kept expected Regis Philbin to ask me if it was my final answer. We quickly moved on to some basic definitions and set the stage for kinematics in one dimension.

Statistics is moving along at a slow and steady pace. I expect we'll be into simple probability by by next week. Today we were defining events and sample spaces and variance, etc. Still no end in site to the stupid questions from the geriatric brigade. I suppose I'm just going to have to learn to deal with it.

On an unrelated note, I found a new apartment today. It is everything I was looking for-3rd floor, utilities included, off street parking, pet friendly, and less than I'm paying now. There's even free wireless and the landlady will let me paint. I'll have a two week overlap, so I can decorate and move at my leisure.

The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Back to School Week: Day 2

Only one class today. Java programming. Seems like it's going to be pretty easy. The teacher is aiming the class at people with zero programming experience. Personally, the last time I wrote a program it was in BASIC on my Commodore VIC 20, so I don't mind taking it slow. Things got off to a rocky start when our classroom door was locked. We decided to commandeer the adjacent room, and began the lecture. It soon became apparent that the lesson plan was dependent on the LCD projector locked next door, so we waited on security to come with a set of keys.

In addition to the aforementioned snafus, there were many stupid questions asked by my fellow students. I need someone to tell me how I can get over my immediate and transparent physical response to these inane queries? As a teacher, I can't afford to react this way.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Back to School Week: Day One

For the next week, my posts will be purely autobiographical. Feel free to tune back in next week if you begin to grow bored with me.

Today began with Physics (Calculus based.) There are about 80 people in the class and there's a good chance that I'm the oldest. Most of them are either Physics majors or engineers of some kind. The teacher seems pleasant enough, insisting that we call him by his first name, Paul. His teaching style is somewhat discombobulated. He pulls examples out of the air, rather than preparing them ahead of time. Because of this, he often confuses himself. Much of the class consisted of us struggling to follow his running monologue. I did a lot of erasing, and in the future, I probably will let him get a bit ahead of my note-taking in order to preserve rubber.

I was not surprised that technology is going to factor heavily in the course. For starters, people don't answer questions with raised hands anymore. I have to purchase a radio-frequency clicker that will allow me to answer multiple choice questions. It feels a bit like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Also, all homework is done online. Since I purchased my textbook via Amazon, I did not receive the passcode for the homework database. I will have to buy it stand alone from the website.

After class, I watched as he answered a handful of questions. He was patient and willing to restate himself. This is something that I'm going to have to work on as a teacher.

Between classes, I got my student loan refund and deposited it in the bank. I also timed out the trip from school to work. It took me about 20 minutes, and even with a new apartment, I expect to be able to do it in 30.

I had learned in Physics that lab classes will not meet until next week, so Statistics would be my last class of the day. The demographics are very different from the first class. Out of roughly 20 people, 6 of them are obviously much older than me. I can tell those older people are going to annoy me. Several of them talked nonstop, in that lonely, awkward sort of way that people advancing in years tend to do. I'm sure one day I will fall victim to this verbal diarrhea, but for now it is irritating. There are also many more women in this class, close to 50%. This tells me that the class is probably required of many majors, including biology and history. I know that sounds chauvinistic, and I hope my regular readers know that I wish that were not the reality. Like it or not, women are not currently flocking to the STEM fields. I hope to change that, but for now, I think it's a fair assessment that the math in this class will be geared to a wider audience.

So that was Day 1. I'm still on cloud nine, and part of me really can't believe that I'm finally back in school. Tomorrow, I have Java programming and that's it. Hopefully, my deposit will have cleared so I can buy my clicker and do my physics homework. If not, I could be off to a bad start.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Twas the Night Before College

Visions of derivatives dance through my head.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Math for the Cosmo Girl

I wrote so many posts (here, here, and here) in anticipation of Danika McKellar's Math Doesn't Suck that many of you may be wondering why I haven't reviewed it yet. I have no excuse other than that I've been busy. But I finally got around to reading it tonight and it's about what I expected.

It looks and reads exactly like an issue of Cosmo. The front cover sports a sexy photo of McKellar with superimposed titles in a variety of fonts and sizes, exactly like the glossy covers of fashion mags. Inside, there are explanations and examples of math concepts, broken up by testimonials and horoscopes. I read it pretty much the way I read Cosmo*. I scanned through the testimonials, skipped over the quizzes, scoffed at the horoscope, and put it back on the shelf.

It is definitely geared toward the girly-girl and I think that's just fine. Boys have plenty of other books directed at them. Although, the quotes from school aged girls got a bit redundant, and Danika is not nearly as funny as she seems to think she is, the explanations were presented in a clear, concise manner with lots of great tips and short-cuts. The book will definitely be a powerful weapon against math anxiety for young girls.

*My girlfriend has a subscription and I like to know what manner of rubbish is going to somehow get me into trouble each month. And as an aside, she always manages to stack the issues out of order, which bugs me because it jumbles up the Guy Without His Shirt on the spines.


After several years of plotting and planning, only one holiday weekend stands between me and my second collegiate experience. That being the case, I thought now was as good a time as any to discuss some changes to Pencils Down.
Up until this point, I have been sharing my own assorted layman's ramblings concerning math education. All that I know has come from either first hand experience as a student or from various books I have found at the local library. Many of my posts have seemed somewhat outlandish, even to me, but they have all stemmed from my sincere belief that math education in this country can be improved. There are still way too many people who cower in fear when presented with even the most vaguely math related conundrum. We can do better.

On Tuesday, I will take one step closer to my goal, and I fully expect that phase transition to manifest itself here. As you know, I will be working full-time while carrying 16 hours my first year. I will be busy to say the least, and many of you have expressed understanding, should the frequency of my posts diminish. I thank you, but I doubt that is going to happen. The primary reason that I began blogging was to get a jump on my own education. I have learned so much already from teachers like Dan, Dave, and IB, that despite my real life instructors, I can't imagine cutting myself off from the free communal knowledge I can get online.

I am, however, going to structure my posts a bit differently. In addition to my random musings, I am going to add two regular weekly elements. Once a week, I am going to give a lesson based on some concept I am covering in school. I want to practice explaining math skills to others and now is as good a time as any to start. Please be critical of them, so that I can learn from your experience. Another weekly theme will be a kind of meta-analysis. While I am in class, I will not only be listening to the teachers, but also studying the other students. I will be in there with a bunch of 18-20 year old kids. This group isn't too much older than the students I plan on teaching, and I feel that a little sociological journaling might help me prepare for my own classroom. I will change names when necessary, but I plan to write once a week about how my younger classmates are responding to the teaching methods of the instructors.

You'll still get a healthy dose of the random; I can hardly help that. But since you've been at my side for the journey so far, I thought I ought to bring you with me on the next step.