Snow Daze

Most of the snow is already almost gone; hard to believe that just a week ago some of us were still snowed in. The big blizzard (winter storms don’t deserve first names) dropped three feet of snow in about a day and a half here in Maryland. I’m originally from Minnesota and even I’d never seen anything like it.

Hood College after the storm, with a little forced perspective

Hood College after the storm, with just a little forced perspective

Of course, we missed a few days of school. The storm started Friday afternoon, so everything shut down in anticipation. The public schools didn’t start back up for more than a week, though mercifully we only missed three days of class. And now we’re all trying to get back some momentum for a semester that had only barely started when it crashed and burned.

Missing class due to snow is almost an inevitability here. We get snow, but infrequently enough that there aren’t enough trucks and plows in the area to deal with a big storm. One of my classes wasn’t dramatically affected, since we had enough room in our calculus schedule to comfortably recover. But I’m also teaching a weekly evening algebra class for middle grades teachers in our master’s program, and we missed one of those. Since we’d also been out for Martin Luther King Jr. Day the previous week, that meant a three week gap between the first and second day of class. Which was a bit of a problem.

I’ve taught courses for middle grades teachers before, so I’m familiar with this population of students, but it takes a little while to get back into their particular groove. These students are adults with jobs and families. They’re sometimes less comfortable thinking very abstractly or generalizing from examples. And they have enough distance from their original school experience that they’re not used to the kind of…let’s say humbling experiences that studying mathematics can provide. Also, these students come from a very mixed background – I have everything from applied mathematicians who’ve never taught to English teachers who’ve never studied math. In short: this could be a challenging group.

I briefly thought about trying to hold some kind of online class on Monday. The technology issues alone seemed insurmountable – trying to do something new on Blackboard always seems to take three times as long as it should – and that combined with my students’ issues with childcare (and my general snowday malaise) made me decide against it. I asked them to read a few sections of the book, attempt all the activities, and we’d see each other the following week.

A few hours before class, I checked the results of the survey I’d posted on how well they’d grasped what they’d read, and it was grim. This chapter covered a bit of elementary combinatorics and introduced the binomial theorem, so I figured they might get bogged down in notation, but it seemed worse than that. I got the feeling a lot of them gave up shortly after opening the book. Needless to say, we’re behind schedule now.

If (and when) this happens again, I’ll take the time to at least post some kind of pencast or video. I had no reason to expect that these students had the experience to tackle a reading like this effectively and just assumed they could handle it with some gentle encouragement. I need to give these students more coaching in how to do a pre-class reading like this. They need to know that it’s ok to not understand portions of the book, and to skip over details if they feel they need to.

Hopefully Monday will go more smoothly, but I hate having to come from behind like this. And snow’s already back in the forecast for next week!

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