Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Math Autobiography

I used to give this to students on the first day of class, and ask them to write one too. After enough years of this, their stories all began to blend together, so I stopped giving the assignment, though sometimes I still offer it for extra credit. It seems writing a math autobiography can be good therapy for people who've had bad experiences in past math classes.

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Extra Credit Assignment: Write your math autobiography. It needn't be as long as mine, but do go into some depth. Possible topics: good & bad experiences, how you feel about math, why, strengths/weaknesses, a math topic you enjoy, what helps you to learn math, … Must be typed. If you’d like, you can send it by email to svanhattum@ ...

Sue VanHattum’s Math Autobiography

I loved math when I was young. I remember playing school with my younger brothers, and teaching them math I'd just learned in school myself . My mom took us to the library every week, and I read every children's book on codes and ciphers in that library. So the first 'grown-up' book I ever took out of the library was on codes and ciphers.

Why did I like math so much? I think my family life was a bit chaotic, and math had an internal structure that I knew would always be consistent. And I didn't have to believe what someone said, I could know the right answer as well as the teacher did. I liked that.

In 9th grade, I was taking algebra, along with many of my friends. One day, most of them weren't in class. I asked at lunch, and found out the teacher had let them work independently, in a room off the math teachers' office. I knew I should be working with them, and told him so the next day. He said: "Well, you have trouble getting your homework done, I don't know if it would work." Maybe the intensity of my response is what convinced him to give me a chance. I made sure I got further than anyone else, and I loved working with friends, figuring it out for ourselves.

I went to the University of Michigan, and was put in an honors math class. Although I was excited about it and thought I felt confident, I had a dream that someone told me that there was a mistake, that girls weren't allowed in that class. (!) I worked on math about 4 hours a night, usually studying until 2am. Even with all that, I ended up with a very disappointing B-. I hadn't taken a trig course in high school, and everyone else in the class had taken both trig and calc already in high school.

The next term, I was less motivated and had lots of other distractions (falling in love was one of the many...), and I ended up failing. I took a year off school, and when I came back, I considered switching to another major. But nothing else called to me, and I was able to pass that class (with a B) when I retook it. So I slogged through a BA in math at U of M, but I left there feeling like I really didn't know much and didn't enjoy doing higher math.

When I began teaching (part-time) at the community college in Ann Arbor, I knew I'd found my true calling. To get a full-time position at college level, I'd need a masters degree. At that point I would have preferred a masters in computer science, but Eastern Michigan University didn't have that yet. So I took a deep breath and started in. I didn't expect to enjoy myself, but I was delightfully surprised. I liked almost all of my classes at EMU. My favorite courses were in logic. The math was fun again, once it was slowed down a bit, and my joy in it returned.

I liked it so much, I thought I'd get a PhD. I went to UCSD for that, and found it just as unpleasant as U of M, so I decided very quickly to quit. I moved to San Francisco and got work with a non-profit Internet provider doing tech support. It wasn't until 5 years later that I finally got back into teaching (and back to Michigan). I taught for 6 years at Muskegon Community College. I loved my work, but felt stifled in the town. [Actually, my main reason for leaving was that, as a lesbian, I was not able to adopt there, but I don't want to include that story in a first-day handout.] I applied for positions in Ann Arbor and in the Bay Area. I started here at Contra Costa College in 2001, and it feels like a perfect match. I think maybe it was meant to be.

I've had lots of fun these past few years, playing with the math while I look for ways to make it clearer for my students. I’ve also had the joy of watching my 6-year-old son learn number concepts.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Learning Log #1 / Great Circles Conference at MSRI

With my bad memory, how am I ever going to remember all the cool new stuff I'm learning about lately?! I think I'll keep a log of what I've learned from the internet each week. Just this morning I learned:

• The nautilus shell is not a real-world example of the golden ratio, even though we've been told countless times that it is. ('We' would be anyone who reads much popular math exposition.) An email correspondent (here's his blog) pointed me to gowers, whose post on a book he compiled pointed me to the fascinating God Plays Dice blog, which pointed me to the Shallow Thoughts blog, in which Akanna Peck documents the mismatch of shells and golden ratio spiral. (I'd say the thoughts are anything but shallow. Her reference is to shallow sky, which is the solar system.)

• How to model a hand! Maria Droujkova's natural math google group included a discussion titled Changing Shapes with Matrices that pointed me to this youtube video on modeling a hand in 3D. My son and I also liked this one on modeling a head.

And then, of course, I learned more about tools out there on the Web. I signed up for twitter, even though I won't use it on a cell phone, so that I could read Maria D's notes on the Great Circles conference. And as much as I try to follow Maria's work, it took another site to point me to this slide show of hers about all the sorts of math-related social sites kids might want to participate in.


Great Circles Conference at MSRI

With help from Maria's notes, here are some of the cool things those math circle folks are doing:

• Mary O'Keeffe, who founded the Albany Area Math Circle, spoke with passion about how she includes kids at different levels.

• Bob & Ellen Kaplan, from the Boston area, did math circles with younger kids. Their 'always collegial, never competitive' vision of math circles will be an important part of the anthology I'm putting together. (Their website is here.) I have already used Ellen's pancake problem (what is the greatest number of pieces we can get with n cuts through a circle?) with my Wildcat kids and some college students.

• Janet Metz's talk on Gender, Culture, and Math was riveting. She used the infamous remarks made by Larry Summers (formerly pres of Harvard, now economic advisor to Obama) that questioned women's ability to excel in math and the sciences, as a springboard for introducing some great statistical evidence to the contrary. Here's a paper she co-authored on this.

Summers imagined that men and women have the same average intelligence, but that men's varies more (more men are either kinda dumb or exceedingly smart), and imagined that this, along with women stopping to have babies, was why Harvard has no tenured women in math. (Here's a Slate article for more background.) I say imagined because the evidence is clear that the 3rd reason he gave, and then basically dismissed, namely discrimination, is clearly the dominant force. If you look at international data, for instance this page from World Economic Forum, you see that performance on math tests is closely linked to the Gender Gap Index. Of note is girls' performance in Iceland, where they do better in math than the boys do.

• Fred Smyth, of the Full Potential Initiative, gave another riveting talk on the psychological dimensions of women's under-representation in mathematics, titled Implicit Attitudes and Stereotypes matter in Math and Science.

• Tom Davis gave a great talk about using math to think about geography. His website is here.

• Zvezdelina Stankova talked about some of the stories in her new book, A Decade of the Berkeley Math Circle.

I'll edit this post as soon as I can find out who said this, but I can't leave it out. One of the programs described got kids analyzing art mathematically, and a bunch of them were standing in a museum discussing a piece. An adult walked up and asked what they were talking about, and... "Suddenly this kid, who was a failure in math, was talking to adults about topology in statues."

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Thinkin' 'Bout a Revolution, Whoa O

Kate said:
My hope is that what we are witnessing here is a paradigm shift. At the intersection of problem-based lessons, digital projectors, blogging, and frustration with poor-quality textbooks, is blossoming a new way of bringing mathematical understanding to our kids. We don't need to buy anything new, or anyone's permission...just the structure, and the willingness to be observant and curious, and the humbleness to imagine that there might be a better way. I think this is just the beginning. I think this is going to spread like a fire.
Coleen wrote a great reply at Structure of Mathematical Revolutions*, and described 3 stages we've entered: transparency, collaboration and organization, along with a possible evangelism stage, in which we'd be convincing other math teachers how great this all is.

Dan added his thoughts here, comparing Kate to Obama, and after that I couldn't help joining the party.

I hope someone will write a chapter describing this phenomenon for the anthology I'm putting together. The anthology is mostly about learning math outside the classroom, but I think it's vital to find ways to bring the great ideas provided by math circles, centers, festivals, home schoolers, etc, back to the classroom, where most kids are learning math.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

And 'Rithmetic, by Daniel Greenberg

I love this article, and now I can't find it anywhere on the web. So I've put it on scribd*. (There are permissions at the end for copying it.)

I was inspired to put it online by a discussion on the change.org education blog, about Sudbury schools. Someone asked about math, here's the answer.

Comments, anyone?

*There are permissions at the end for copying it, so I know it's legal. But the folks at Sudbury school aren't comfortable with the fame this piece has gotten. So many people focus on this: "I found a book in our library, perfectly suited to the job at hand. It was a math primer written in 1898." And they want to know what book it was. But the book wasn't the important part of this story. The kids' choice to delve in was what made it work.

I asked for permission to include this piece in my book, and they wouldn't give it. So in the book I explained the important parts of the incident, and included a short quote.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Math Teachers at Play #5, and ...

Yesterday and today I attended the Great Circles workshop being hosted by the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley. It was marvelous! I'll write up my thoughts about it as soon as I can. (I hope to include links to lots of exciting sites, mention some research on gender issues in math, and mention some books I discovered while there.)

Today marks the 5th Math Teachers at Play blog carnival, posted at Let's Play Math! I didn't submit anything this time, but Denise included my Students Learning Through Teaching post. I guess she must have liked it. Personally, it feels too experimental for me to want to promote it yet. Will it help my students? I'm not sure. What do you think?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Students Learning Through Teaching

I teach beginning algebra at Contra Costa College. Most students in a course like that do not like math. I work hard to create an atmosphere of working at it and having fun with it. However, I still feel like I'm too tied to the textbook. Reading blogs like f(t) and dy/dan really inspires me. (I must admit, I also feel like such a slow learner when I see all the amazing things they're doing.) But there's more... The burst of energy I've gotten this semester from all the possibilities available on the web is great. A student in another class recommended khanacademy.org and then we heard about mathtv.com. After I watched the videos on that site, I figured, "We could do that!"

On Thursday two students presented one problem each. And then on Friday 3 students presented a problem each. All of them were recorded using the video capacity on a digital camera. The student whose camera it is has put them all on Youtube. (I haven't learned how yet.) And I've linked to them here.

We had a great time with these first few presentations. Students are asking more questions, and listening better. When I showed how a step on one problem could be done in a more elegant way, the student who had presented it said "That's beautiful, Sue!" I was delighted. "Bet you never thought you'd say that about a math problem!" (And we're talking rational expressions here, one of the ugliest topics in the beginning algebra curriculum.) ;>

They're all up now: Here's Hira, Stanley, Tulawna, Brandon, and Nailah. You guys are great! When we get back from Spring break, I'll have to be as brave as you all, and get on YouTube too. In search of a tripod...

Friday, April 3, 2009

Math Teachers at Play #4

My favorite way to explore the nets.

Blog carnivals are a way for people who follow one blog to find out about lots of other blogs on the same subject. Denise's Let's Play Math! was the first blog I followed regularly, and Math Teachers at Play is the blog carnival she got started. Looks like it's scheduled to appear every two weeks. And my brand new blog is in today's carnival, Math Teachers at Play #4!

I'm off to a weekend contra dance camp, so I'll have to wait until Sunday to explore all the great blogs gathered there. I hope you all enjoy mine.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Benezet - An Amazing Bit of History

L.P. Benezet was the superintendent of the Manchester, NH schools in the 30's. He decided that there was a big problem with math instruction and decided to delay formal instruction in math until 6th or 7th grade. In the earlier grades the children still learned about days of the week and month, time, money, estimating, measuring, and so on. They also focused more on reasoning and communication skills.

The complete articles, which were originally published in the Journal of the NEA, can be found here. I read the Math Forum, and saw Benezet mentioned. I posted a topic there to gather information, and another to discuss pros and cons. But the folks there insist on flaming each other, so it's a bit tedious.

Anyone here know anything more about his experiment?
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