Sunday, May 22, 2011

Fun Times

I'm smack-dab in the middle of the freest time of year for me, that three- our four-week-long end of May, during which time I'm generally "relaxing" after a successful semester, working like mad to take care of the various reports due from me in the next few weeks, and busily prepping for the REU that starts two weeks from tomorrow.

This year my wife and I were able to get away for our first "real vacation" (defined as "a trip involving neither work nor family visits") in several years, a five-day cruise to the Bahamas. Of course, being who I am I managed to make the most of it by bringing along some highly inappropriate pleasure reading, the thirtieth anniversary edition of Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the oppressed, the central text for the summer Learning Circle I'm taking part in in June and July. (The only reading material I saw which may have vied with it for the "Most Ironical Reading on a Cruise Ship" award was one woman's copy of Orwell's 1984; I think if she'd have been reading Huxley instead, she might have had me beat.)

I'll likely have more to say in the coming weeks about Freire's philosophy as it applies to math education at the university level, but I wanted to put forward in this post an idea for a new ongoing writing project I hope to implement in at least one of the two classes I'm organizing in the fall (Precalculus and Abstract Algrebra I).

Oddly enough, I got the idea from the cruise company. Every evening around dinner time we were treated to a delightful turn-down service, featuring complimentary mints, expertly folded towel animals, viz.:

and a copy of the Fun Times, the cruise ship's guide to all of organized activities that would be going on on the ship the next day. It was little more than a newsletter, three or four pages in length, just the sort of periodical I think a class (or two) full of students, working together, could crank out at least once a week, if properly prepared to do so.

So here's the idea: ask students to put together an ongoing "newsletter" for their class, The Algebra Times, or The Precalc Picayune, if you will. Its content would be flexible, and what went into it from week to week would be left to the discretion of the students (I'd want to have as little to do with its creation as possible). Perhaps, for example, the precalculus newsletter could include

  • study tips,
  • hints for tricky homework problems,
  • advertising for study groups,
  • applications of course material to areas outside of class,
  • games and puzzles,
  • "letters to the editor,"
  • recommendations for class activities,
  • recaps of recent class activities,
  • personal reflections on math in general,
  • etc.
Whatever. It'd be up to them. I'd stay out of the day-to-day operations. Maybe I'm being overly sanguine, but I can imagine a handful of particularly eager students taking on editorial and managerial responsibilities (there are a few in every class). To ensure participation by the class as a whole I'd require every student to contribute to the newsletter at least once, twice, thrice, something like that, during the course of the semester. (Jointly-written contributions would count.) It would be difficult to "grade" contributions (I might shy away from this entirely, keeping it a low-stakes exercise), although I'd provide feedback to authors confidentially.

How's this sound? Colleagues: have you tried something like this before? Students: would this be something you'd be all upon?


Jean Marie said...

This sounds like fun, but aren't you a little worried about loading them down with too many things? And also keeping all the things pretty directly connected to the learning goals for the class.

It seems like your classes are doing so much (really really cool stuff), that it could be too much. Not sure if you are balancing their load in other ways.

I can be heartless about assigning a lot of homework (totally on board with that). I also am bothered by the reports of how little time students spend on homework now vs. 20-30 years ago. I worry about assigning too much, but there are times when I get angry when I see the half-hearted effort that some students put into it.

Where the balance point is, I do not know. I do know, Patrick, that you have a lot of cool ideas, and I am interested in hearing more about what you decide to do and how you find that balance point.

DocTurtle said...

One thing about the various assignments I give my courses: only rarely do I bring more than one big one to bear in any one course. For instance, I won't be using the "textbook" assignment in either of my courses this coming fall, and if they're working on a newsletter, I'll probably scale back on the miniprojects that often adorn my courses.

I'm also likely going to try this idea out in one of my courses (likely Precalc), not both.

I completely understand your concern, but what I've discovered over the years is that if you challenge your students to do more and show that you expect them to do that more, and do it well, they will do it, and they will do it well. I think too many faculty err on the side of expecting too little, rather than too much.

So, your concern is well-placed and duly noted, but I'll be sure to account for the new project in adjusting their workload.

Thanks, as always, for your comments!

Jean Marie said...

I still hear a lot of complaints about too long/too difficult homework, and maybe I am oversensitive on that account.

I also know that when I've looked at homework, I've been disappointed (not by everyone) but by several students who clearly are not putting a lot into it. I've also been pleased by several who have put effort into understanding it!

I'm still trying to find my balance point. And also integrating some ideas I've had from you and some on my own. I'd love to talk more about it (all) sometime.

Anonymous said...

I can honestly say that having the burden of something like a "Precalc Picayune" on top of having to learn the challenging material would deter me from taking additional classes with you...I know that's harsh but it's the truth - maybe find some other way for integrating math and writing that's not so tedious; remember that people often take math courses with the intent that it'll provide some refuge from their writing intensive courses.

DocTurtle said...

@Anonymous: perhaps this is the means I've been looking for of bringing my class sizes down!

In all seriousness, not to sound callous, but my goal with providing such an activity (balanced by eliminating others, as I described in my response to Jean Marie's concerns above) would not be simply to assign writing for the sake of assigning writing. No, writing is truly a learning tool: the writing shouldn't be seen as "on top of" other course activities, but rather meaningfully integrated into them.

Moreover, the writing required for such a project would (I hope) not be the dry, dull, highly prescriptive stuff assigned in many writing intensive classes. Rather, I would hope that students would make this writing their own. We all write an enormous amount in any given day (when you count, as I think you should, texts, tweets, emails, Facebook status updates, blog posts and comments, and so forth)...why do we do this? Because writing is, ultimately fun, and useful. We learn through it, and we enjoy doing least when we get the chance to control what we write about.

That's the kind of writing I'd be expecting.

Please remember that you can't hide from writing: if you're in college, you're on your path (I imagine) toward a career that, whether you like it or not, is going to demand solid written communication skills, regardless of whether you're a literature major or a math major. The best thing you can do to prepare is learn how writing can help you meaningfully make sense of what it is you want to study, and what it is you want to learn. That's what this assignment would help students do.

Anonymous said...

True, true and I realize I can't hide from writing nor am I even trying to - I actually like writing/communicating but I feel like math is a language in and of itself and so to impart such an extensive writing component ( especially something as tenuous as a bloggish newspaper w/ puzzles and games ..really?!) in a course where it's so unnecessary will only frustrate students. Maybe I'm wrong, but being a pretty level-headed student myself I feel I speak for quite a few when I say these things.