Sunday, September 27, 2009

Getting the word out on GeoGebra

Maria Droujkova has done some great work putting together some Elluminate sessions on Math 2.0... and she has more to come. On Saturday the 26th she had Markus Hohenwarter, the father of GeoGebra and the chief developer Michael Borcherds on for an hour discussing the past, present and future of GeoGebra. She recorded the session and it's available online.
What surprises me is that I still run in to teachers that have never heard of GeoGebra -- here you have free, open-source math software that almost any computer can run, it's multi-lingual, it's being used worldwide at all levels and has thousands of lesson plans and activities available on its wiki. And yet today I spoke to two Masters students who had never heard of it.
In Ontario, it's problematic since we (well, public and Catholic schools) have software purchased for them by the province and that set includes Geometer's Sketchpad. Now, GSP is an extraordinary program and we owe a great deal to Key Curriculum Press and Nick Jackiw but the development and growth of GeoGebra is a reflection of our brave new world -- collaboration on a global scale, the harnessing of our energies to support people we will never meet. What I do in my classroom can be given (instantaneously) to a classroom in Thailand, Kenya or Uruguay... and vice versa.
So how do we spread the word more effectively? How do we ensure that every preservice and practising teacher knows not only of its existence but also the community already formed?
And, most importantly, how can we port it on to an iPhone? :)
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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Coaching

As I mentioned in an earlier blog I was at the September meeting of the Math Forum; the theme for the meeting was coaching.
There was considerable disapproval of the term coaching; that it set up a hierarchy of ability or skill, that it brought up visions of movie-football coaches berating their athletes. The word facilitator was proposed as something more appropriate. But what a banal, uninspiring word.
I however suggested that coach was the right word -- so long as we envisioned it as an Olympic-level coach. An Olympic coach works with athletes that already have considerable ability; there's not a hierarchy, in fact, the athlete has the spotlight, the fame, the medals. The coach of an Olympian is a specialist; he doesn't focus on every football position but emphasizes one activity at considerable depth. It's not that the coach is the better athlete, it's that the coach has the knowledge and skill to help the athlete reach great competency and the background to be credible. The coach knows how to communicate, to decide the right next step, to plan the process to get the athlete to the next level. He sees the big picture; it's not just the athleticism but the diet, the lifestyle, the mental attitude. He knows when to use the soft touch and when to put his foot down.
It's certainly what I hope I achieve when working at PCMI - these are already good teachers who are looking to improve. It's a challenging role, and as much sleep as I miss or stress I endure I do enjoy it. There's not so much an opportunity at my school, where there's neither time nor appreciation for such a process.

Respect. It's not what you think...

I'm an occasional participant at the Math Forum at the Fields Institute in Toronto. It's a meeting of folks interested in math education research held monthly; I'd get there more but academic and other responsibilities often overlap. Even today I was supposed to be at school for Homecoming but it's been a year since I made it and the topic, on teacher-coaching, was well worth it.
At lunch, I sat myself amongst some folks I didn't know and the conversations ranged wildly. At one point, the conversation turned to how teachers had lost the respect of the public, that it was different in the past, and so on. Blame was placed on the former provincial government for taken an aggressive and demeaning approach to teachers. And I'm certainly not denying there is some truth in that effect that government had on the perception of our professionalism. But there's more to it than that.
The woman who initiated the conversation gave the example of a parent who had called her with a question. The teacher was quite offended that the parent said that his son "Chris doesn't believe you're helping him enough." Now, she even corrected herself when she changed the word "believe" from "think" and how she then explained what extra help options were available to Chris. I didn't get a chance to add to the conversation because another tablemate (thankfully) quickly changed the topic to the pronunciation of certain Swahili words.
This teacher seems to be mistaking respect with obeisance-- she seemed indignant; the parent had no right to ask her a question about the instruction in or out of her classroom. I even think the parent phrased the question respectfully; the teacher could have quoted the parent with "I don't think you're helping Chris enough" but the teacher was specific in how she remembered the conversation, the parent was already placing the responsibility for the misinformation on the student.
Our classrooms, our instruction, our approach, our philosophy should not only be clear and open with our parents but also open to being questioned -- the wonderful thing about the age of communication is the opening of discussion. And not just discussion -- the simple distribution of information on homework, assignments, testsextra help times. I still remember a time when you would go to the doctors and take their direction without questioning. Not nowadays -- there are other perspectives, updates in the field that an interested participant may bring to the table.
I know some of my parents aren't happy with my approach to mathematics teaching. They want pat formulas & algorithms that will help them help their kids at home; they don't want to see their children struggle with hard problems or not know all the answers when they used to in previous classes. They want to see worksheets and pages of questions like they remember. They want marks to be added up and averaged. And I understand their concerns and I'm always happy to take time out to explain the hows and whys of my choices in our classroom. Their questioning is not dis-respectful; in fact, I think it's part of their parental responsibility to question if they have concerns.
What is disrespectful is not supporting the teacher outside the school. Like a couple with shared custody, we have to work as a team and can't be disparaging of the other, even if we don't necessarily agree with them. It's not always easy to share custody but it is possible.

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