Saturday, July 12, 2008

Summer camps

We didn't really have summer camps when I was growing up. At least not thematic ones. We'd go to the seaside with teachers, but I don't recall doing any work. Today is my last day in math camp and in Portland, OR. I'm teaching a class on Banach Tarski paradox (take an orange, cut it up into finitely many pieces, rearrange them and make two oranges of sizes equal to the original one; or if you'd like do the same to pea and rearrange the pieces to make a ball size of the sun). Anyhow, with years I kinda grew to appreciate and like nerds. But as I was telling Mark, some of these kids take the nerdyness to a whole new level. The phrase I used was "of cosmic proportions". I thought it hilarious that to the question "Where in California are you from" this kid answered "Stanford". The class has been fun. It's pretty small, and some of these kids are super bright. Not only have they been totally following what's going on, but they have been coming up with some great ideas and picking up things they've never seen before with an amazing speed (I only gave 3 lectures so far, and we have one left). Others are undoubtedly also bright, but I can't tell because they don't talk. Even here there were 2 who refused to get up to the board.

There are several classes running simultaneously, and most teachers teach only one class a day and hold two hours of office hours. Whenever I went to anything mathy we'd do math during the day, and then hang out in the evenings. Not the practice here. The only people I hung out with were the kids during my class and my office hours! Nobody proposed any gathering (some talk of it last night, but then nothing happened), nor even asked me what I was doing and if I wanted to do anything. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't sitting in my terrible room being sad and lonely, but to be honest, I don't think I'll repeat this experience. Not because of the kids, but time has passes when all I wanted to do was do math, especially in a place I've never been before.

Friday, June 27, 2008


Mark sent me an email:

This is a school in the same county as the one we grew up in. Go to the one about "Mount Vernon Teacher could be Fired". I tried looking for a written story, and couldn't find it. Apparently, people watch newspapers these days. So I googled it:

Columbus Dispatch

Life Site News?!?

There are loads of others. Now, what sort of a teacher must this guy be if a LOCAL SCHOOL BOARD votes unanimously to fire him?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Left to write right :)

I'm afraid I may have hyped up this post too much, but here it is. I've heard many times people talk how students interpret equal sign as a signal to do something. While I certainly noticed that, I still think it would be unfair to say that the students do not understand the actual meaning of equal sign: the two quantities/objects separated by an equal sign are the same quantity/object. However, this understanding is somewhat fragile, and to me very surprising. This is where my left to right comment came from. It appears to me that the equal sign tells the students that what is on the left hand side of the equal sign is the same as what is on its right, but not the other way around. This was most pronounced in the distributive property of multiplication over addition. They can easily tell me that a(b+c) is the same as ab+ac, but when we start talking about factoring and we have to go from ab+ac=a(b+c) this becomes a great mystery. Even if I write it the usual way a(b+c)=ab+ac, and point out that we have an equal sign therefore going "the other way", that is from right to left, amounts to what we call factoring, it still remains illusive. There are many examples of left to right exclusiveness: (a+b)^2 is easily a^2+2ab+b^2, but not so much the other way; a^2-b^2 can immediately be said to be (a-b)(a+b), but they need to multiply out (a-b)(a+b) -- and often incorrectly. On the other hand if as an answer to some equation you get 5 = x, they will easily tell you that x is 5. Is there something to this or is it just a random peculiarity?

Something I think I forgot to mention that got me upset at the last conference. People will quote things that students say, wrong things, and laugh. Laugh? What exactly is funny?

Also, does anyone have 2 dogs? Mine almost always lie perfectly symmetrically. Do they coordinate? Does one peak at the other to see what a comfy position is for that particular moment?

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Catch up

The semester is over, and I enjoyed my last week immensely. I wish I could take more time off (although there was some work involved I mostly played), but no such luck.

My 1010 class is over. I take it the people in charge believe I did a good job because I get another one in the fall: 180 enrollment cap. I myself doubt this is even possible.


There was a week long intermission here. I went to Berkeley for a conference on teaching algebra. I had fairly interesting couple of days, although in many respects utterly unenlightening, especially from a point of view of someone who just taught a whole bunch of kids who failed to learn "enough" of it in high school. The reason I put enough under quotations is that I am not sure what this enough means. I am also not convinced that the departments that decide on qa requirements have the right idea of what their students need, bu more about this below. The reason I say unenlightening is that from what I can tell there are many good curricula and people (at least the ones I heard talk) all seem to, more or less, agree that algebra can be taught in a way that students learn and they have a pretty good idea of what that might be. It is then rather mysterious as to why the students have not learned more, and we haven't heard much on that topic. It was little unclear what the conversation was really about, as throughout the conference I couldn't shake off this feeling that people were talking about different things although they were using the same words, and several people in fact noted the same. Even that said, there weren't many disagreements and everyone was rather friendly and respectful. Except for Wu, I believe I might have mentioned him once before someplace in this blog, who started his talk by saying that the way we teach algebra is all wrong, and that it is basically "garbage in, garbage out", and proceeded to inform us that all the problems start with the way fractions are taught and that is the root of all of our problems. While I don't necessarily disagree with his proposed definition of fractions, I do have a problem with giving such judgmental statements without offering any proof that what he is proposing is better (or even different) from what is currently being done. I actually asked him for the proof, or in the absence of one, he could just give me some evidence that would support his claim. His answer was "Well, there is no alternative. What else would you do?" I would have expected something better from a mathematician. People tried to point out that his definition (a point on a number line) has been in the textbooks for at least last 10 years and what he is saying isn't all that revolutionary, but all those comments fell on deaf ears. I was rather upset by the lack of conversation and abundance of monologues on his part.

The highlight of this conference for me were couple of hours my friend Brynja and I spent talking to Bob Moses. This was the second time I heard him speak, but only first that I had an opportunity to talk to him. I had a chapter of his book still unread, and I finished it on my way home, and I could hear him read it to me in his soothing, calm, respectful, and powerful voice. I was so impressed with his demeanor especially because my reactions to the world and its injustices are so different. I suppose I still have some growing up to do.

The premise of Algebra Project is that algebra course in middle or high school is a gatekeeper course. A student who has not been successful in algebra courses in their secondary schooling will have to take remedial courses in college (and the ones I have seen are NOT organized in a way that supports those students) and thus their cahnces of succeeding in studies that would lead to higher paying professions and economic mainstream would be severely diminished. While I wholeheartedly agree with this assessment, I have come to believe that the role algebra plays in lives of many college students is very different from the role algebra plays in lives of high school students. Majority of students who who take remedial courses in college, and by remedial I mean college algebra (what makes it "college", btw?) and below fall into two categories. First are students who aspire to be majors in fields that require courses above college algebra and they either need a refresher course or are on their way to fulfill the requirements for those courses and these students are at least somewhat motivated to learn if not smitten by mathematics. The second category are students who are seniors, and have waited until their last year in college to fulfill the quantitative requirement for their major. Most of the time these students are mortally afraid of mathematics, convinced they are no good at it (how do I explain to them that it's not about being good/bad at it?) and are unwilling to try because they have sentenced themselves to failure (not that the system is designed in such a way that their prejudices will be dispelled after taking these courses). This second category is the one I wonder about. First question I have is why are these departments determined that manipulating radicals is an important thing for their students to know? I am the first one to say that students should take mathematics, but I don't see algebra as an answer to all our troubles. These students are clearly in professions that they wanted to be in, and by not teaching them algebra we are not depriving them of a successful future. Why can't we teach them something that they may enjoy more, that may relate to them more, and that, hold your breath, might even change their attitude towards mathematics so that they wouldn't go home and tell their kids how they "hated it", "weren't ever good at it" or "never needed it"? We have a course Quantitative reasoning that is supposed to be that, but 1010 is a prerequisite for it which sort of beats the purpose, and further it is really full of boring problems, and calculations of the monthly payments on your house (I used a computer to calculate those, too), and I can't even remember, I suppressed it from my memory, it was so boring, and I was teaching it. Ok, you have a point, maybe I taught it badly, and that is most definitely the case as that was 8 years ago and I knew nothing, although to be perfectly honest I'm not sure I know a whole lot more right now. The second question is then how do we go about changing the requirements and course curricula? This is becoming a novel :) so I'll stop. I need to remember to talk about

Left to right


Monday, May 5, 2008

More about me

Got tagged by Jonathan (who is a math teacher)

The rules:

1. The rules of the game get posted at the beginning.
2. Each player answers the questions about themselves.
3. At the end of the post, the player then tags 5-6 people and posts their names, then goes to their blogs and leaves them a comment, letting them know they’ve been tagged and asking them to read your blog.
4. Let the person who tagged you know when you’ve posted your answer.

Here we go.

1) What was I doing 10 years ago?
May 1998. Completing my first few months of teaching in a high school in Sarajevo. I had just returned from Croatia where I finished my undergrad. I loved the job, but hated being in Sarajevo. Had no friends left, knew no one, stayed with my parents, decided I needed to leave. I asked my undergrad advisor if it was too late to apply for grad school in the US. People he knows said to go ahead, and accepted me without a GRE or TOEFL. Borrowed money for a plane ticket and three months later landed in SLC.

2) What are 5 things on my to-do list for today (not in any particular order):

(I’m giving tomorrow morning’s list)

1. Finish writing up observation notes for a student teacher I saw teach few months ago!? Eek.
2. Give a tour and entertain 35 high school students who are interested in teaching math.
3. Clean up my office, it is super messy.
4. Start seriously putting together the geometry workshop I'm organizing this summer.
5. Run (this should be number 1)

3) Snacks I enjoy:

Candied ginger and almonds. Pretzels.

4) Things I would do if I were a billionaire:

1. Billionaire?
2. Give it away?
3. Save lots to travel :)

5) Three of my bad habits:

1. Putting things off
2. Giving up on things
3. Biting my nails now and then

6) 5 places I have lived:

1. Sarajevo
2. Zagreb
3. Salt Lake City
4. Ann Arbor
5. Barcelona (very briefly, almost doesn't count)

7) 5 jobs I have had:

Yeah, right. Afraid this one will be a short list, unless I can put the jobs I could imagine myself having.

1. sort of an accountant
2. mathematician, although I list this reluctantly. I have still to decide what that really means.
3. teacher

8) 6 people I wanna know more about:

1. H
2. lsquared hasn't started writing yet, but comments often.
3. Vlorbik
4. IB a math teacher

A needy friend needs me, so 4 will have to suffice.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

I need help

Ok, it's about 1010 again. This class has a departmental final. One of the people who are teaching it has decided to organize math karaoke night for her students and the idea is that if they do it they can get 4-6% extra credit on their final. She has asked the other two instructors to participate. I dislike the idea. On the other hand, I do not want my students to be disadvantaged because I don't like the concept. So, although I don't like extra credit at all, I would like to come up with something that would put my students on equal footing with the others. Any ideas? Thanks.

Friday, March 21, 2008

So long

If I don't write things when they happen I forget. There has been so much going on this semester, but I'm having hard time putting it all together. This week was a spring break that I intended to spend catching up on all the things that I have neglected, but I spent it on two things: writing a grant for master of science program for secondary teachers and filing my taxes. The former is, I hope, out of my hands (but then again I thought the same on Wednesday night and spent all day yesterday working on it), and the latter is still waiting for me as both online programs I tried got hung up on MI state taxes. And I didn't even want to live there :)

Anyway, I want to say a few things about my classes. Mark says that the only one I ever talk about is my 1010 class. That's the intermediate algebra, started with 195 students, stabilized at about 150. It's actually really hard to tell because, despite all my efforts they don't show up. I use the clickers to take attendance that is worth 5% of their grade. I get about 100-115 students, and never more than that (except on the exam day). I give quizzes that are worth 15% of their grade. I get 115 students show up on the quiz days as well. I started alternating between in class quizzes and online quizzes. My favorite day was when I reminded them in class that the quiz is online, twice. 115 were present, 95 took the quiz. And! They have between 3pm on day and 9am the following day to take it. I really am not sure how else I could encourage them to be there. Maybe it's not important that they're there. Except my last exam average was 62%! It is entirely possible that I can't write an exam, but that'll be another post. Although ....

Random thought: It is extremely hard to find whiskey barrels in Utah.

... I wouldn't want to imply that most of the students don't care. There are many who work really hard, and do really well. But many are all too happy to keep a grudge, text during class, sleep or just chat, and to be one of 150 hoping I'll never know them. Many I don't. But many I do. It was really funny to watch them freak out when I started calling people by their names especially the ones who sit in the back and don't talk. Anyhow, the theory for low passing rate in these classes is that they don't come to class. I don't believe so. The reason is that they are so huge. If these kids could learn in this kind of an environment then probably wouldn't need to be here. The department's problems are clear though: we don't have enough money to teach smaller sections. We have about 400-500 students a semester. If you want a decent sized classrooms you'd need what, about 20 sections? We have 3! Apparently we can't afford any more than that. What can we do to make these students more successful? Trying to get them more involved in the actual class, having them work on the problems on their own and getting an instant feedback and awareness of how everyone else is doing (the clickers) makes it a more engaging atmosphere, and I am convinced it helps them (and many said as much, even if only that they are not afraid of being wrong) but it also means I am behind. Now I am worried that I will not cover all the material that they would need before they can be successful in college algebra class. I'm all about them knowing something well, but we do have a departmental final and I'm worried they'll do badly. Argh.

Anyway, some teacher ladies are meeting for drinks. Yeah, I know, kinda early, it must be the Utah thing.