Saturday, February 20, 2010

About last night...

Having a few spare minutes before I have to get underway with this long working weekend, and feeling guilty as hell about my long internet absence in this space, I thought I'd take a few moments to follow up on one or two of the brief comments I made in my peremptory post last night before leaving for Charleston.

Indeed, I am in Charleston. I'll be here for a couple of days, during which time I'll be working away with the three folks from The College of Charleston whom I met at the CWPA conference back in September 2009. (Nicola's already got an alias; I'll call the other two Damian and Bella.) I'm not sure how much I've said about this project: we'll be digging into the weekly written reports penned by the REU students during the 2008 and 2009 programs, analyzing them from a rhetorical point of view, using them as mileposts to help us chart the development of the students as professional writers of mathematics as the program progressed. In order to help perceive this development I've refined the list of rough criteria I developed a while back on this blog. We'll see how that goes.

I'm tremendously excited about all of this; I feel like I'm taking my scholarship of academic writing to a new level.

Speaking of which, I finished up and sent off the book proposal I've been planning for several months now, flinging it across the country on diaphanous electronic wings. Its working title is "More than numbers: writing-to-learn and writing in the disciplines in the mathematical sciences," and I've submitted the proposal to Jossey-Bass via an editor I was directed to by my wonderfully supportive grad school colleague, Erdrick (thanks, man!), who himself has a text published through Wiley (Jossey-Bass's parent company). I'll let folks know how things progress on that front.

About the allusion I made last night to advancements in IBL: I've reached that point in the term at which I'm leading the students in the tedious work of integrating rational functions via the method of partial fractions, and, just as I've done for the past few years when teaching this topic, I'm using the step-by-step worksheets I've developed to help the students guide themselves through the algebraically intense process of partial fractions.

I always enjoy myself at this point, since I'm doing next to nothing as far as lecturing goes, and it's up to the students to chart their own courses. And more than ever before, the students are having a blast.

"Are we going to be doing more work in groups today?" one of my favorite students in the class asked eagerly at the start of class on Wednesday.

"Yup," I said.

"Awesome!" They couldn't wait to get into sets of three or four and dive right in.

Yesterday I hit the pause button and said, "so let me ask this: these worksheets, this step-by-step deal, with me saying a few words before letting you all take the reins, whaddaya'll think? Are you all getting a lot out of this? Is this something that's helping you learn?" The response I got was a more eager "YES!" than I've yet gotten from them this semester. It was tremendously encouraging.

I developed these IBL guides a few years back as a means of guiding students through what I've always thought is one of the least exciting topics in Calc II, but I've never taken the time to put together similar sheets for most other topics in the term. Given the students' obvious receptivity to this method this term, I'm going to continue with this set-up for a few more sections and see how things go.

I know I've indicated somewhere in a previous post (I don't have time to find which one precisely) that I've always had an inexplicable resistance to upping the students' centrality in the first-year math courses, and I've only very slowly inched towards the edge of the cliff from which I must take that leap of faith. I'm delighted that, now that I'm standing by the canyon's rim, my students are ready to push me over.

Yes, I realize that I just wrote that my students are ready to push me over a cliff, and moreover that I'm happy about it. I made no mention of the bungee cord tied around my ankles.

I'll leave with the following bon mots from a student of mine: yesterday one of my Calc II students compared my lecturing style to the kid's show Blue's Clues. "The way you pause when you want us to respond is totally like on that show. There'll be silence, and then someone will mumble something in response." Never having seen the show, I had to check it out on YouTube. Sure enough, two minutes into a ten-minute clip in which the title character and her human companion Chris join another cartoon dog ("Magenta") in a scavenger hunt, I was treated to an example of what my student had described, almost verbatim:

"I don't know what shape this is, kids. What shape is this?"

"It's a triangle!"

I LOLed.

Though she was kind enough not to mention it, I also noticed how my classroom manner is not unlike Chris's: we both overact the hell out of almost every line we're given.

"Okay, girls and boys, today we're going to work on integrating powers of sine and cosine!"

Great. My Calc II class is like a children's show.

On that note, I'll bid adieu. My working day's about to begin.


Cogswell said...

Would you be willing to email that worksheet on partial fractions? I think that I am a step behind you in incorporating IBL in calculus, and this could help me accelerate the process.

Derek said...

Wow, lots of great thoughts in this post. Your comments about the partial fractions worksheet inspired me to write a blog post on making active learning work in the classroom. And your student's comment about Blue's Clues made me laugh. I've seen enough episodes of Blue's Clues (and even more of the similarly interactive Dora the Explorer) to know exactly what you're talking about, and it's a good approximation of the kind of interactive teaching that goes on in my classroom, too!

One of my Vanderbilt colleagues has studied the impact of educational television on preschool kids. She found that preschool television shows don't lead to learning gains in kids unless they are interactive in the ways that you're describing here. I suspect that college students aren't that different from preschoolers in this respect...

Anonymous said...


I just discovered this post. I am just getting started in using work groups. I would really be interested in seeing that partial fraction worksheet. Could you please send it to me (


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