What makes a good Maths teacher?

I have been pondering the characteristics of a good Maths teacher a lot over the past two years. Along with a number of my colleagues in LIT Tipperary I have been working on a concurrent teacher Education degree for future Maths and Geography teachers. As the co-ordinator of the Maths stream of the degree, I have spent many an hour over that time, pondering and discussing with many of my own colleagues, and academics in other institutions, the characteristics of a good Maths teacher. My own very strongly held view is that the most important quality is a love or a passion for the subject. With this as the starting point, then everything else is possible.  Another quality that is crucial in my view, is an ability to nurture an inquisitiveness about Maths.  Often, when you speak to people with a love of Maths, or even those who don’t hate the subject!, they will refer to a specific teacher.  We should never underestimate the impact that we as Maths teachers have on our students both positively and negatively.  For me this was certainly the case with my secondary school Maths teacher.  She helped to send me on a path that has provided me with a variety of very satisfying careers, which has culminated so far in allowing me to do a job that I love.

Over the course of the development of the degree I have had many empassioned arguments (or discussions as I prefer to call them) as to what the focus of the Maths stream of a Teacher Education degree should be – Maths content vs. methodology.  For me, it goes without saying that Maths teachers should be comfortable with the topics that they are teaching, and I also believe that Maths teachers should be pushed in their own Maths ability as they study to become a Maths teacher.   But where the disagreement has often occurred has been the level of the Maths content that should or shouldn’t be included.  Over the years I have come across many people who have been very comfortable in their own Maths ability but who, in my humble opinion, haven’t been particularly good at imparting that knowledge.   Having an understanding of the topics is not enough – you really need to de-construct the topic and look beyond it to investigate connections between topics and different ways to approach the topics when you are teaching them.  For me, having an understanding of where people struggle with topics is very important, as is approaching topics from different angles, to allow more people to connect with the subject matter.   What do you think?

Time to say goodbye …

image from http://godzgurlz.com/content/time-say-goodbye

Today was my 12 year old’s last day in Primary school.  The occasion was marked with a graduation mass which gave us parents a last chance to go into the school.  As I looked at my son and his friends I was reminded of the first time we went in to school for their nativity play in Junior Infants.  There was great excitement as little boys sought out their mammies and daddies and settled once they saw them.  There wasn’t the same need for reassurance today but I still got the thumbs up just to let me know that my presence was noted :-)

It’s hard to believe that 8 years have passed since he first started in school, and yet, now here we are, finished and facing a whole new world of secondary school.  Today was an emotional day for many parents, this one included, and when one of the boys sang ‘Time to Say Goodbye’ there was a tear or two shed.

Following this with a rendition of ‘The Graduation Song’ sung by all the boys was enough to send us all searching for the tissues!!

There is a real sense of anticipation in the boys.  They’re ready to move on and yet there is a hesitance in saying goodbye.  Most of them have been together all the way through primary school and they have become a very tightly knit group.  Next year will bring changes in that dynamic as they end up in different schools and different classes within the same school.  My wish for them all, as they move into the next phase, is that the strong friendships that they have forged will withstand the changes.

The Housekeeper + The Professor

Last Saturday, due to an unexpected change in plans I took the opportunity to read “The Housekeepr and The Professor” in one sitting.  To say that I loved the book doesn’t even come close to describing how much I enjoyed it.  To be honest, I think the enjoyment came in part from abdicating all responsibility on Saturday and reading the book from cover to cover.  It’s been a long time since I’ve done that and it felt great :-) It has to be said though, that most of the enjoyment came from the telling of such a beautiful, simple story in a way that resonated with me on so many levels.

At first glance, the story was one I was probably guaranteed to love as the Professor in question was a Maths professor who had a passion for numbers and the interconnections between them.  As someone who has thought in numbers all my life it was comforting to read that others do that too, and that I’m not completely barmy!!  I even learned some things about interconnections between numbers (such as: that perfect numbers are numbers for which the sum of their positive divisors (excluding the number itself) equals the number – 6, 28 and 496 are the first 3 perfect numbers).  The interspersing of these facts throughout the story was certainly a factor in my enjoyment of the book.

In case I’ve turned you off the book with all this talk of Maths, this story is about so much more than the Maths.  You can’t help but connect with the professor, who, as a result of a car accident, could remember everything before the accident but only had an 80 minute memory after the accident. For a number of years prior to her death, my grandmother suffered from a form of dementia, which meant that her long term memory was fine. but her short term memory deteriorated to a point where she couldn’t remember something that had happened 10 minutes before.  We were lucky that she remembered all of us, so that gave her a sense of comfort as the deterioration continued.  It was difficult to see her go through the various stages of her illness and the real fear that she felt as she lost her grasp on the present.  Reading the story of the professor and his coping mechanisms brought back many memories.  It also brought to mind some of the moments of light relief we had when she said things she really shouldn’t have.  I must admit, we did wonder if she didn’t sometimes use the fact of the deterioration of her mind, to say things that she had been thinking all along!

For me, the real strength of the book came in the relationships between the main characters – the relationships between the housekeeper and the professor, the housekeeper and her son and the professor and her son.  The tenderness and compassion shown by the housekeeper to the professor was beautiful to observe.  On the part of the professor, you got the sense that despite the fact he could not remember her from one day to the next, there was a connection on some level.  It was like he became the father she never knew.  The relationship between the housekeeper and her son was such a strong one and yet you could feel some of the tensions that exist between a mother and her 10 year old son as he starts to get more independent.  To be honest, I’m not sure how much of this is actually in the book, as the last few years in my house have been filled with these same tensions and maybe I just wanted to see them :-)

For me though, the standout relationship in the book was the one between the professor and Root (the nickname he used for the housekeeper’s son).  The connection and loyalty felt by one towards the other really reminded me of the relationship between grandparent and grandchild.  These relationships are so important to both young and old and Ogawa painted it perfectly.  I was lucky enough to have great relationships with my grandparents and my children are also blessed to have great relationships with their grandparents.  In truth, our move out of Dublin when my now 12 year old was almost 2 was in part down to our wish to nurture those relationships.  It’s fascinating to watch the way in which your own parents interact with your children in a way they never did with you.  This is probably due in no small part, to the fact that the responsibility of making the hard decisions is removed from the equation, so that leaves all sides free to enjoy the relationship.  Root’s love of the eccentric old Maths professor really jumped off the page as did the love that the professor had for him.

For me the best books are the ones that leave you wondering in the end.  I have read so many books which have kept me in their grip right to the end, but then, in a bid to tie up all loose ends, they completely ruin the integrity of the book.  There were many relationships in the book that were hinted at but not elaborated on and in that I think Ogawa got it just right.  She focussed on the main characters and let them tell their story.  One of the joys of the book, that struck me after I had finished it, is that, even though I didn’t know the names of the characters, I almost felt like I was in the house with them as they went about their daily routines.

I’ll finish with a word of thanks to Catherine Cronin for her recommendation of this book.

A busman’s holiday

 image from rubberslug.com

I regard my trips to conferences such as the CELT Symposium ‘Writing, Publishing and Communication in Higher Education’ as a busman’s holiday.  I get the chance to attend a great event while keeping an eye on how the event is run.  This can lead to improvements in how the ICT in Education conference is run year on year.  This was my first year attending the CELT symposium and it gave me lots to think about on the drive home, my time to digest the many ideas  that assail me on such a day.

Image from xaraxone.com

What I really loved about the day was the format of the workshop sessions.  The 2 workshops that I attended (‘Using Social Media for Disseminating Research’ and ‘Writing and Designing course materials for open, digital and ‘flipped’ teaching and learning’) were 1 hour and 15 minutes long but the presentations themselves were probably only about 45 minutes.  The remainder of the time was devoted to a discussion, facilitated by the chair of the session, where attendees were encouraged to share their experiences of the topic in question.  I loved the fact that the presenters gave their presentations, but then you got a chance to hear how others were using the ideas, so you got many views, which completely transformed the sessions for me.

image from profesorbaker.com

 Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to go to the Pecha Kucha sessions – a presentation with 20 slides, each of which is shown for 20 seconds.  At #celt12 the Pecha Kucha sessions had 6 presenters in each so it sounds like there was lots to digest in the aftermath.  Mary Loftus (@marloft) gave one of the Pecha Kucha presentations which I was sorry to have missed as I’d love to see how the various slides were knitted together.  Her slideshare can be found here and will give me a few links to investigate over the summer months.

The other thing I loved on the day was the intermingling of plenary and workshops and the variety of plenary sessions in both theme and length.  Getting to hear a variety of people giving their take on the theme of ‘The Written Word – Writing, Publishing and Communication in Higher Education’ from the more theoretical through to the very practical made for a very interesting and inspiring day.

Find your voice

Image from Jem Yoshioka  http://www.flickr.com/photos/jemshed/3855102664/sizes/m/in/photostream/

On the drive home from the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) Annual Symposium in Galway I had time to mull over the key message from the conference and for me it was the importance of finding your own voice.  This really resonated with me as I feel that through this blog and Twitter I am beginning to find my voice. As an amusing aside, I looked at alternatives for ‘reflect’ or ‘mull over’ in a thesaurus for use in this post until the irony struck me and I decided to go with my own voice!

As someone who is relatively new to writing I was looking forward to being inspired and #celt12, The Written Word – Writing, Publishing and Communication in Higher Education, did not disappoint. Many speakers mentioned how crucial it is to find your voice, and to support your students to find their voice, and for me this culminated with Sarah Moore who gave lots of practical advice for writers.  This advice was very timely for me, as I near the end of my first year blogging, so I’ll share Sarah’s writing tips for those who might find it useful.

  • Planning – it’s important to plan your writing, the structure, headings, the research question … with the caveat

  • Read a lot – “You can’t dazzle with your writing if you haven’t been dazzled by the writing of others” … with the caveat

  • Know the rules of writing- grammar, syntax etc. … with the caveat

  • Share your work but be prepared for the feedback … with the caveat

  • Show, don’t tell

  • Writing can be hard work and sometimes you need to walk away from it

So from someone who is beginning to find her voice I’ll leave you with one final piece of advice

Reflections on #ictedu

A couple of things struck me during the 24 hours that were the CESI Meet and the ICT in Education conference 2 weeks ago.  Firstly, my lasting impression is that those who came to Thurles for the event like to talk, and in some ways it’s almost an inconvenience having to break off conversations to go to plenary sessions, workshops and presentations as part of a conference.  There are many ways for educators to connect in the 21st century and readers of my blog will be well aware of my love of Twitter as a means of communication.  But what really struck me at the conference is that nothing beats the good old fashioned face to face contact.  The crew at #ictedu were no strangers to twitter, and helped to make it the No. 1 topic across Ireland on Twitter for most of the day, and yet all most wanted to do was talk to the many other educators who made the trip to Tipp that day.  As one of the organisers it was my job to remind people that talks were about to begin and to ensure that people were making their way to them, and yet every time I sensed a mild resentment that I was interrupting.  As I have said on more than one occasion, I think the strength of conferences such as the ICT in Education conference, is the way in which it brings together people across all levels of education, and on the day this was brought back to me very strongly, as I watched people chat about so many aspects of our education system.

The mild resentment was most evident during the morning plenary session when Pam Moran and Ira Socol, ably aided by Conor Galvin and Bernie Goldbach, led us in the most unconventional plenary session that I have been at.  From the start people were encouraged not to make themselves too comfortable as they were bribed down to the front to participate.  It really is amazing how quickly people will move with the lure of a free flash drive :-) Early on in the session people were again encouraged to move around and explore the learning space that the conference centre in LIT Thurles had become.  So began the chat and hence the resentment to cut short that chat as people were encouraged to take their seats again.  It was incredible to watch the energy levels in the room rise so dramatically simply by encouraging people to move around and interact.  Next came the ‘fish bowl’ when some attendees from students (primary through to 3rd level) to teachers found themselves contributing to the discussions that were so much a part of the session.  Now we come to my second lasting impression from the conference – we spend a lot of time looking at different ways of interacting with our students and yet we often revert to the tried and tested when it comes to the format of events such as #ictedu.  I will remain indebted to Pam, Ira, Conor and Bernie for the innovative way in which they led us in the plenary sessions that were such a spark for the many fires that were lit in Thurles on May 19th.  A special word of thanks to Conor for planting the initial seed for an alternative format at the CESI Meet in Portlaoise in February.

My final impression is the importance of the live stream and the backchannel on twitter for events such as #ictedu.  It’s great to be able to draw in people who can’t attend for whatever reason and it’s also crucial for people who are in attendance to ‘discuss’ what is being put to them via the sessions that they attend.

To get a sense of some of the conversations at #ictedu I’ll leave you with some of the tweets from those who were at the conference

and some more from those who followed from afar

I’ll leave the final word to Mark Glynn

I’m on for this – whose with me?

My take away from #ictedu

The question was asked at the end of the ICT in Education conference ‘What will you take away from #ictedu?’.  Over the past two weeks I’ve been pondering this question and I keep coming back to a tweet that was sent during the day by Damien Quinn (@seomraranga)

Judging by the number of retweets on the day, this sentiment seemed to resonate with many. In the aftermath of the conference, I’ve had many a conversation, with my colleagues and others, about so many aspects of our education system, and many of those conversations came back to this tweet.  The reality is that the current generation of learners is coming from a very different place from many of those who are teaching them.  The rate of change in technology has resulted in a generation who are comfortable with technology in a way that is extraordinary to see.  Back in the 70′s when I was in primary school the ‘World Book’ set of Encyclopedias were the fountain of all knowledge and tape recorders were the height of fashion. Now children have ‘Google’ at their fingertips and can capture images, voice clips and so much more using a plethora of devices.

As I was going through school and college, my teachers and lecturers really were the ‘sages on the stage’.  Going through college, lecture notes (all 15-16 foolscap pages taken down in a 50 minute lecture!) were often traded like gold dust, because it really was the only way to cover the material.  Can we say the same now?   Over the past few years I have been struggling with how to teach what I teach because I recognise that I am no longer the ‘sage on the stage’ – rather I am just one voice among many that students have access to.   So the challenge for me is to help students to maximise what they can take from these many voices.  Teaching the way I was taught will not work because so much has changed since I was taught.  So I’m going to finish with another tweet from #ictedu from Sabine McKenna (@sabinemckenna).

The challenge for us all is:  How do we effectively use these new technologies in our teaching to give our students their tomorrow?