Thursday, November 15, 2007

Not your grandmother's calculus class

I'm writing this from my boyhood home (right down to the house) in Helena. Thanksgiving's still a couple of days off, I'm enjoying a little "leisure time" in the snowy wilds of Western Montana, and I thought I'd take an hour or so out to pen a new post, mostly by finishing off one I'd begun a while back but hadn't posted.

What is it that I love about teaching?

It's the little things, y'know? Little successes, minor (or not so minor) victories.

The Calc I students spent the past few days putting together their final writing assignment for the Newton v. Leibniz project, a reflection paper (the prompt for which can be found here) describing whatever it is they feel they got out of the project. I offered to take a gander at any rough drafts they'd like to slide across my desk, though only two of my 55 students submitted such a draft.

One of these drafts was a remarkable one, and its finalized version still stands as one of the strongest I've yet read.

After class early this past week, Uta quietly handed me a rough draft, and my spirits soared as I read it.

An excerpt (thanks, Uta, for letting me quote this!):

"When the [Newton v. Leibniz] project was first brought up in class, I assumed that it was going to be easy to research the historical dates of important events and the people involved. I was completely wrong in my assumption. While researching, I noticed that several different sources had different dates around the same year of when a document was published or a letter written. It was extremely frustrating, considering I wanted my research to be as historically accurate as possible. During the trial, I noticed some of the historical experts had slightly different dates than what I had found in my research, which was completely understandable. If the individuals in the 1700's had a difficult time proving dates and events, pinpointing specifics, then it is completely normal for people now to deal with the same conflicts."

Of course, I'm assuming Uta's not just saying what she thinks I want to hear, but she's never struck me as the sort of student who would do that.

I gave no lecture on the complexity of historical data and the inferences which can be drawn from them, no prompt asking students to describe the quality of the resources they were able to find. This excerpt was wholly unsolicited, purely personal, reflective.

I'm a happy camper.

I've read all of the reflections from the first section, and the second section beckons, sure to be read tomorrow. I've gleaned some more quotables from these reflections, many of which I hope to quote once I get clearance from the respective authors.

A few general comments of my own: I should begin by noting that the reflection papers that were most meaningful and helpful to me were those written by students who dared to say what they weren't so sure I wanted to hear. Those who were willing to be critical, to challenge me, to provided open and honest feedback, were among the more interesting and useful papers to read.

For instance, a couple of students mentioned being disappointed in the trial, feeling as though their own preparedness had been wasted by classmates who hadn't taken time to put together a decent case. Both of these students had advice (very little of it highly specific, sadly) for me on how to improve the project the next time around. I might solicit further information from them.

The students made a number of interesting observations about the nature of discovery and about the particular case we'd considered. Several made a distinction between "invention" and "discovery," several made reference to the collaborative nature of scientific study, and a few spoke of the social construction of knowledge, though not in such specific terms.

I'm looking forward to reading over the reflections from the second section. That section's trial was more animated, truer, more well-organized. The principal parties in that section's trial clearly had bought into the trial's premise and went at each other like two tomcats in a backyard brawl. The result was a more authentic re-enactment, with more excitement and engagement.

Since then the Calcsters have finished off their third mid-semester exam, this one take-home. I spent most of the plane trip back to Montana grading them, finishing during the trip's final leg. They did quite well, considering the difficulty of the exam. There were several As, several more Bs, and very few people failed (far fewer than on the in-class exams). I'll be offering the chance to do revisions once more, since besides the final writing assignment (constructing a math-themed poem...see the prompt here), the kids won't have a huge amount of work before the final exam.

For now, I'm going to take a little more time off. I'll get to the reflections tomorrow, and check back in then. I've got more to say about my 280 folks, too, as our time together draws to a close and I look ahead to administering our Writing Assessment project's post-survey.


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