Help! I need to teach my course online and I’ve never done this before

By: Yvonne Lai, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Ray Levy, Mathematical Association of America

This is cross-posted in MathValues and Abbe Herzig has written a companion post. Additional resources and future meetings are also available here:

In times of crisis we need community. With schools, colleges and universities mandating online teaching and learning in response to COVID-19, often with only a week of preparation time, people are scrambling for resources and information. Dr. Ray Levy, aås Deputy Executive Director of the MAA, asked an online group whether they would like a Zoom space to discuss online learning. With only 12 hours of notice, Dr. Jeneva Clark helped co-facilitate, and 36 people gathered. The next day, with only a few hours of notice Dr. Abbe Herzig and Dr. Yvonne Lai joined as co-facilitators, and 86 people gathered. Below is some of what we learned in the second meeting.
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Teaching math in prison

By: Kristin Pfabe, Nebraska Wesleyan University

“I am sad this class is going to be over,” said one student. “What am I going to do with myself?” asked another during the last week of an Intermediate Algebra class that I taught last summer at the Lincoln Correctional Center (LCC) with Meggan Hass, then a University of Nebraska graduate student.

Meggan and I were sad, too. It’s not often that we hear these types of comments from students, but as I have learned, the unexpected can happen when one teaches in prison.

Here is my story.

It started with a visit by Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, to Nebraska Wesleyan University, where I work. Stevenson is a lawyer who defends incarcerated individuals, many of whom are on death row. In his talk, he urged us to:

“Get proximate. Get uncomfortable. Change the narrative. Have hope.”

I was sold. In the coming months, I put in a request to adjust my Spring 2018 sabbatical.

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Who are our students?

By: Edwin O’Shea, James Madison University

In Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Reverend Ames testifies that each person in his flock has “a kind of incandescence in them… quick, and avid, and resourceful. To see this aspect of life is a privilege of the ministry which is seldom mentioned.” I think this is a privilege of the educator too. But our flock’s life cycle, the fourteen weeks from the cradle of the first day syllabus to the grave of the final grade, has a different rhythm to that of a liturgical calendar.

In a semester where I have over 100 students, witnessing each student’s luminosity is challenging, and by the time I get to know even half of them the semester is likely to be halfway through. So I ask my students to help me to see them. I ask what their values are, to tell me about the work they’ve done and are about to do, and to share their hopes and aspirations as people.  I ask them about the concrete challenges that they might face as the semester progresses and what they wish previous mathematics teachers understood about them.

I do this because understanding my students holistically aids in my support­ of each student individually and can cultivate active learning communities. I do this because if the semester gets rough on my end ­— it invariably does — I have a wealth of prior empathy and insight to fall back on so that my students succeed in their goals. I do this because knowing only their placement scores and/or GPAs is not enough! There’s also a body of research supporting that when students’ values are affirmed in STEM [i], they are more likely to succeed in that course and continue as a STEM major.

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The Future of Enrichment: Math Contests or Math Circles?

by Doug O’Roark

Executive Director, Math Circles of Chicago

The New York Times recently published an article entitled “The Right Answer? 8,186,699,633,530,061 (An Abacus Makes It Look Almost Easy)”. Its lead photograph features over 100 children seated at desks, facing forward, working individually. This is yet another in a long series of public relations disasters for mathematics. This depiction of mathematics is nothing new, and I most suspect readers experienced no cognitive dissonance in seeing mathematics represented this way.


Traditional Forms of Math Enrichment — and the Problem with Contests

Mathematicians collaborate to explore exciting open-ended questions. Unfortunately, this may be the world’s best kept secret. The problem? We have two major gateways to participation in the community of mathematics: the classroom and the contest. The classroom, of course, is universally familiar, and innumerable efforts have been made to improve the student experience in the classroom.

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Posted in K-12 Education, Mathematics Education Research, Outreach, Student Experiences | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The Dysfunction of Functions in Abstract Algebra

Kathleen Melhuish & Kristen Lew
Texas State University

“[Functions] are completely different, which is what makes this course so challenging.” – Abstract Algebra Student

Functions are hard for students, even students in abstract algebra courses. Even if students have seen the definition and worked with examples of real functions throughout high school and college, their understanding might be stretched to a breaking point when it comes to ideas like homomorphisms on groups or rings. Fundamentally, we might know students don’t understand functions, but the extent to which they don’t understand functions goes deeper than we might think. In this blogpost, we will share some insights from our projects on key places where students’ idea of function can be detrimental to learning concepts of abstract algebra, and what we as instructors might be able to do about this.

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What math professors and k-12 teachers think of each other

By Michael Pershan, St. Ann’s School


What do primary/secondary math educators think of the teaching that happens in colleges? And — the other way around — what do mathematics professors think of primary and secondary math teaching?

I’m nearing my tenth year as a primary and secondary classroom math teacher, and every once in a while I end up in a conversation with a graduate student or professor who suggests (politely, almost always!) that math education before college is fundamentally broken. A few weeks ago, a mathematician told me that PhDs are needed to help redeem secondary teaching from its “sins.” Once, at the summer camp where I teach, a young graduate student told me that there is simply no real math happening in American schools.

Well — I disagree! But how widespread is that view? And why does it exist?

The flipside phenomenon is also interesting. When a mathematician criticizes primary/secondary math education, primary/secondary educators sometimes lash back. Often we point our collective finger at pure lecture. Primary/secondary educators tend to think of pure lecture as uniquely ineffective. It gives the teacher no knowledge of whether students understand the material, and students no chance to practice new ideas in class. It is rarely used in primary/secondary math classes. Still, pure lecture was the main teaching mode in my own college classes, across subjects. We therefore bristle at mathematicians critiquing our work; “Let those without pedagogical sin throw the first stone!” I’ve even said this before, or something not far from it.

I have heard this “anti-lecture” critique expressed by some primary/secondary educators, but I wonder how widely held this view is. Is it held even by some math professors? And, in general, do primary and secondary educators tend to see flaws in the way math is taught in colleges?

In short, I wanted to better understand how mathematics professors and educators of younger students relate to each other’s teaching.

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Posted in Communication, Graduate Education, K-12 Education | 5 Comments

Action is the antidote to despair

By: Steven Klee, Seattle University

After my day-to-day interactions with students, one of my favorite things about teaching is talking with other teachers.  There is no shortage of amazing teachers who are working hard to make their classes better and improve student learning.  Likewise, there are plenty of opportunities to find inspiration in our colleagues’ work, ranging from attending talks at conferences to simply getting coffee with coworkers to talk about how our classes are going.

A few years ago, I realized that the proportion of inspiring ideas that turned into measurable change in my classroom was essentially zero.  As I thought more about this, I realized that I was the biggest hurdle to this change.  There was a little voice in the back of my head with a constant and emphatic message: No. I can’t do that, and here are fifteen reasons why.

I know I’m not the only one who hears this voice.  Of course, the reason we have these thoughts is that they are often true.  No two people experience teaching in the same way. We have different personalities, different styles, and allow for organized chaos in different ways.  As a community, it is easy for us to despair in the challenges we face in our teaching.

Joan Baez said, “Action is the antidote to despair.” At the end of the day we are all mathematicians and we have been trained in solving problems.  To be apathetic in the face of the challenges put before us is antithetical to our training as problem solvers. And teaching, particularly teaching well, should be viewed as a problem that desperately needs to be solved.  Like many real-world problems, the problem (“What does it mean to teach well?”) is not clearly defined.  The data is messy. There is not one single correct answer.

In the rest of this post, I would like to discuss some methods for moving beyond the little voice that says “no” and changing your teaching without reinventing the proverbial wheel.  And, as with many real-world problems, I will not answer the question at hand (“What does it mean to teach well?”) and instead I will address a different question – How do I teach better?

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Is there a switch for “making sense” ?

By Elena Galaktionova

Elena Galaktionova sent us this article shortly before she passed away earlier this year.

Foreword by Cornelius Pillen

Elena Galaktionova received her first introduction to mathematics from her favorite middle school teacher in Minsk, Belarus, her hometown. After she had finished her education at the Belarusian State University she went on to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Her area of research was representation theory. She taught mathematics for many years at the University of South Alabama, after some earlier stints at the Alabama School of Math and Science and the School of Computing at USA. In Mobile, Alabama, she was one of the organizers and teachers of the Mobile Mathematics Circle. The Circle has been going strong for 20 years. Later she recruited local teachers and a middle school principal to participate as a team at an AIM workshop on Math Teacher Circles.  Upon return to Mobile she founded the Mobile Math Teachers’ Circle.  Twice she gave presentations at the Circle on the Road conferences. Her work with local middle schools and her interests in home schooling were motivated by her love for mathematics. She cared deeply about math education. Sadly, Elena passed away earlier this year after a long battle with cancer.

In all my classes I try to teach reasoning, writing and problem-solving skills.  I noticed that if a class is heavy on computations and dense in content, such as Calculus, the result of this effort is barely noticeable if at all.  I recall a memorable moment in a multi-variable calculus class.  The topic was optimization. My students knew just fine how to use the Lagrange multiplier method given a function and a constraint, thank you much.  But it turned out they were helpless in the face of even the simplest application  problems.  Some of these students were studying Calculus with me for almost three semesters and their grades were good and I tried so hard to teach them what matters in mathematics the most.   I remember a chilling realization at the moment, that we — the students and I —  wasted three semesters.

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Pre-Service Mathematics for Elementary (and Secondary) Teachers: a third essential element

by Paul Goldenberg and Al Cuoco

Content is essential; so are strategies and craft for teaching; but there’s more. It’s often said that “many elementary teachers don’t really know the content; the content they ‘know’ they don’t really understand; often they don’t realize that there is anything to understand.”

However true that characterization of elementary teachers is, we think it’s a distraction. There is no kindergarten teacher anywhere who doesn’t know how to count and add and subtract, which is most of what her children will encounter during the year. And if the teacher isn’t sure of the name of some particular geometric shape, that’s way down in the noise of what will matter for teaching. Lack of mathematical information—even a lack of understanding of why particular algorithms work—is not the biggest roadblock in the earliest grades. The remedy might involve more courses in mathematics, especially mathematics they will teach, but we think that the key issue is not more but different, even for secondary teachers.

As we see it, what hurts elementary mathematics teaching most—and hurts secondary teaching as well—is some of the ways in which teachers know “too much” math without a tempering sense of what the mathematical enterprise is and what not to teach. We will give two examples, one from fourth grade and one from first year algebra, to illustrate what we mean.

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Posted in Classroom Practices, Mathematics teacher preparation | Tagged | 2 Comments

Some thoughts about epsilon and delta

By Ben Blum-Smith, Contributing Editor

The calculus has a very special place in the 20th century’s traditional course of mathematical study. It is a sort of fulcrum: both the summit toward which the whole secondary curriculum strives, and the fundamental prerequisite for a wide swath of collegiate and graduate work, both in mathematics itself and in its applications to the sciences, economics, engineering, etc.[1] At its heart is the notion of the limit, described in 1935 by T. A. A. Broadbent as the critical turning point:

The first encounter with a limit marks the dividing line between the elementary and the advanced parts of a school course. Here we have not a new manipulation of old operations, but a new operation; not a new trick, but a new idea.[2]

Humanity’s own collective understanding of this “new idea” was hard-earned. The great length of the historical journey toward the modern definition in terms of \epsilon and \delta mirrors the well-known difficulty students have with it. Although it is the foundation of calculus, it is common to push the difficulty of this definition off from a first calculus course onto real analysis. Indeed, mathematicians have been discussing the appropriate place for the full rigors of this definition in the calculus curriculum for over 100 years.[3]

There is also a rich vein in the mathematics education research literature studying students’ engagement with the \epsilon\delta definition. Researchers have examined student difficulties coming from its multiple nested quantifiers[4] as well as its great distance from the less formal notions of limit with which students typically enter its study,[5] and have also made an effort to chart the paths they take toward a full understanding.[6]

This blog post is a contribution to this conversation, analyzing in detail three learners’ difficulties with \epsilon and \delta.[7] If there is a take-home message, it is to respect the profound subtlety of this definition and the complexity of the landscape through which students need to move as they learn to work with it.

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Posted in Faculty Experiences, Mathematics Education Research, Student Experiences | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments