Wednesday, March 28, 2007

New name

A. Square comes from one of the best pieces of fiction ever written about mathematics. It's also biting social commentary on the order of A Modest Proposal. The source of the name, however, is left as an exercise to the reader. (If you did any advanced work in math, you'll probably hate the phrase as much as I do.)

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Memory is the great deceiver*

In addition to Calculus, I teach Algebra I among others. I have a tiny (although, I will not specify size for job security related reasons) Algebra I class. Small enough that we've been able to fly through the textbook and any other material I've dreamed up incredibly quickly. We're on the last chapter. After this, I need to sit down and write out a serious plan for what I'm doing for the rest of the year. Besides reading aloud for half the class every Friday (a huge hit).

There's one problem though: I'm just not sure how long it will take to get there and how much review of previous topics we need. We're currently working on roots and rational exponents in the class. Not terribly difficult, but not super easy or intuitive, especially the first time you see them. My students seemed to get everything that was happening. Then we took a break for a couple of days and talked about algorithms, including a class on the Euclidean Algorithm. We took three days and a weekend off from roots. Before then, we'd spent over a week straight working on them. My students knew roots, they could do equations with them, I though that one of the units I'd do after we finished the standard Algebra I curriculum would be imaginary numbers, because of how well they were handling themselves.

Except they seem to have forgotten everything. We picked back up where we started yesterday. Or at least, I tried to pick up where we left off yesterday. My students needed a lot of prodding, and a several explanation that I could have sworn they knew repeated. I was a bit frustrated to say the least. I didn't get angry (that's reserved for my upper level students, who generally misbehave (cue Cole Porter song) more than my freshmen. (Freshpeople? Freshlings? It feels wrong to use the last one, no longer being in college.)

This is something of a surprising development for me. Not that students forget things, but more that they forget these things so quickly after demonstrating a complete mastery earlier. I wouldn't be so frustrated if they'd be having more trouble with roots and rational exponents last week. I guess this phenomenon makes me worry about my Calculus students. We're covering a great deal more material in that class than in algebra and doing so much more quickly. How much can they actually be expected to remember? (Well, actually, quite a bit, given that the AP is rather soon.)

So for all four of my readers, my question is this: How much do you retain after a week from a class? Or, how much do you remember remembering from classes, especially math ones?

As I finish this post, I realize that I don't have a name to sign off with. I was going to use the generic teacher, or, perhaps adopt a pseudonym from a couple of famous mathematicians, but the latter seems overblown and pompous and the earlier, just playing boring. I'm not about to use my name here or any common screen names that I'm known by around the internet (or teh intertubes if you want to be all technical-like). So who am I? (While one would get points for suggesting Canby, I'm not about to adopt that name or that Mathemagician.) (Edit: It does say "Teacher" in the about the author bit on the left. But I still maintain that that is boring.)

*Paraphrases from "The Murder Mysteries" by Neil Gaiman

Friday, March 09, 2007

"Now the dog ate the baby..."*

I gave a test today on integrals and derivatives. Simple memorization, the students were given a week to study. I announced the test on Monday, said it would be on Friday and gave them the week to memorize the 40 odd formula required.

So of course, they waited until Thursday night to start studying and only asked me questions the period before calculus today. I was told that they were not ready. They begged me to grade it on an AP scale (I grade my calculus tests on an AP scale because I structure them like mini-AP tests. 60% and above is an A. I tend to have at most three As in the class every test.)

The amount of complaining I had to put up with about this test drove me nuts.

And they all did really well. Two of my students were sick, but the rest did really well. It looks like low 80's are going to be the lowest grades.

I'm happy for how well my students did. But I do want to beat them with stupid sticks every once and a while. ** If they put half the energy into working that they do into complaining, they'd all get 5's. But then again, I did that both in high school and college. I remember it very well. In a way, I'm amazed by my high school teachers. I've thought about getting back in touch with a couple.

I guess I'm just going to have to hope that more of them fall asleep in class. I have to get some use out of that super-soaker that I bought.

Also, if someone could point me toward a resource on creating footnotes in html or (even better) footnotes in blogger, I'd be very greatful.

*That's part of a Rocky Horror Picture Show callback (You wanted a dog so we got you a puppy, you wanted a baby so we got you pregnant, now the dog ate the baby and all you can do is bitch bitch bitch, whine whine whine, moan, moan, moan.)

**The stupid stick is from my days doing technical theater during high school. The (student) stage managers would threaten to beat the other techies with it when they were being very stupid.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Voice

I never heard a teacher mention it, but after a while, you start to develop a Bene Gesserit type of voice for classroom control. It's not so much that you can compel action with it, but there is a certain way of speak that I have found that instantly grabs a students attention and causes them to stop. It's not a yell or even that much of an increase in volume, it's simply a tone. I've usually used it with students in class, when they are more susceptible to me jerking their attention back from whatever was distracting them. But this has also happened in the hallway.

The first time I realized just what was going on was when I said one of the kid's names when she was horsing around in the hall with two other people. Immediately they all stopped and faced me. This was in a lot of ways, slightly creepy, that I had commanded this much attention through a name and a tone of voice.

I think part of this ability is directly related to the fact that I am a teacher and in a position of authority over these kids. But I believe that if I used that tone in the outside world, I'd be able to grab someones' attention, although, I do believe they would probably be slightly mad a me after I gained their attention.

On a completely separate note, here is a choice bit of conversation from today after I made a mistake on an integral in class:
Her: "Do you have stage fright?"
Me: "No. I'm up here acting every day and being heckled. I don't have any stage fright. It's simply chalkboard myopia."

N.B. Chalkboard myopia is the condition that explains why it is so easy to make mistakes on the board that you would never make if you were doing the problem by hand on a piece of paper.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A revelation

I am a crappy teacher. I am a good (especially for my first year) instructor. I am able to convey information to students well, adapt my explanations and have, to all reports, the patience of a saint. (Although when I think of saints, the two that come to mind, Augustine and Athanasius had relatively little patience. Especially Athanasius, who besides being a great writer of the early church was more or less a thug.) I had a student miss three weeks of class because she was out with mono and tell her mother that she was not worried about my classes, as I was a good enough teacher to get her caught up. (This information was conveyed to me by my boss, who is a very cool woman. I will probably write more about her later.) I was of course flattered, an happier to receive that compliment than the piece of (very tasty) zucchini bread soon after. I know my kids are learning. My biggest worry at the moment is what to do with my algebra class after they finish the textbook in late March.

So why do I say I am a crappy teacher?

I can't do the rest of it. My lesson plans are small notes to myself. I have lost more assignments from kids than I'd like to think about. When I do return work it is long after the unit is over. The only exception to this is tests. Those are returned promptly. I hate grading and procrastinate on it endlessly. My desk is an absolute wreck, to the point that my boss offered to help me with to organization of my files and grading (as stated before, she's really cool).

I love the act of teaching. The accompanying baggage is a real pain in the ass. I'm not planning on doing this indefinitely, but I had planned to continue for at least the next year. But I feel like a fraud in a lot of ways. Several college recommendations were sent out very late, to the extent that I worry that I hurt my students chances. I yell at my students for not getting work in on time (although I am perhaps the most lenient in terms of late work) and do not even give them an estimated date by which they will get their work back.

I know I am better at teaching than TA, my coworker who is also a first year teacher, but he is on top of his grading, lesson planning, etc. I don't know who is actually a better teacher in the end. My students may learn a little more, but his know what parts they actually understand and how they are doing. His students know when they need to increase the amount of work they put into a class. I have to tell my students that verbally.

This is all related to the fact that I am piss poor at organization. But the topic of managing mental disorders while teaching is for another post, not this one.

I suppose, in the end, that the fact that my students seem to look forward to my classes should be my part of my final verdict. That and the fact that they are learning and enjoying learning. But this still is not enough to convince me that I actually am a good teacher, not just good at teaching. (The bit about enjoyment is true for my math classes. I have heard multiple students remark that they hate physics, although I chalk this up more to the subject than to me. They are learning calculus and then immediately having to apply the calculus they have learned to the physics. It's really tough.)
I registered this account months upon months ago with the intention of starting a blog about my first and subsequent years teaching. In order not to endanger my job, I will simply state that I work at a small private school and teach math at all levels and a physics class. The kids here are no smarter or dumber than any other group, although we do, perhaps, have a few more from other countries than normal. This may come up in rants about students not understanding simple concepts like external vs. internal force.

So here we go. We all have to start somewhere.