“It is nothing short of a miracle that modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry.”-Albert Einstein
My students leave my class better prepared for their life ahead than when they entered. Though they may never again use the various theorems and equations I help them understand, their improved communication and logical reasoning skills will be something that sets them apart from their peers in the years to come. The question I often ask in my classroom is the question students seem to struggle with the most, “Why?” When students first enter my classroom, questioning their answers with a simple “Why?” is sometimes taken personally. I strive to make sure they understand that in my class answers can be questioned and debated and that disagreeing with an idea is not an attack on the person who put it forward. I have observed that the process of answering the question “Why?” leads students to the same moments of understanding that came to me in high school after doing 30-50 homework problems each night. The by-product of this, and of arguably more long-term importance, is the development of their ability to articulate and communicate difficult concepts and respond nonplussed and naturally to nearly any question thrown at them. This is a skill that does not come naturally to most and it is one that will set them apart in college and their careers that lie ahead. What began as essay questions that I included on tests during my first year as a lateral entry teacher has evolved into this characteristic of my classroom.
I believe in the concept of “wait time,” but it goes beyond allowing a child 30 seconds to answer a question; it means not always giving a direct answer and allowing a student time to struggle with a problem. It is often easier as a teacher to say “Yes,” “No,” “The answer is the square root of 2,” etc… but I feel it is necessary to allow the student the time to figure things out for herself. To facilitate this I try to drop clues and leave breadcrumbs on a path to the answer, if the student is able to overcome the frustration and arrive at the solution, it will stay with them much longer than if I simply gave them the answer.
My room often looks like more like an arts and crafts center than a math classroom. There is student work hanging on the wall; posters demonstrating firework trajectories with letters to the city manager and July 4th proposals attached, responses to a letter from the Department of Health and Social Services asking students to project the spread of an odd disease that has a good portion of Charlotte’s population aimlessly wandering the streets, and sine waves constructed from varying lengths of uncooked spaghetti. In addition there are a few humorous grammar posters and a few old science posters from the late 1960’s. Desks are pulled together into groups when necessary, and two years of grabbing every table that was getting thrown out of another classroom has provided room for students to gather in a group to work on a project, presentation, or poster. Along one wall are a few old iMacs I’ve taken out of storage and tinkered with so they are able to go online and access Google Docs. Despite the computers and my use of a Bluetooth tablet to write notes on the board while walking around the classroom, technology is never the focus; it is used as a tool to enhance learning. I feel this corresponds to the “real world” where most people have a computer at their desk though they probably do not work in a technical field.
I make use of my eclectic background experiences in my classroom; my old DJ turntables are used in a lesson on percent of change. Students calculate the percent a piece of music needs to be sped up or slowed down to match another, then test their calculations on the record players. My years of tinkering with lasers and programming allow students to visualize vectors and polar equations. My biomedical physics days manifest themselves when we model biological systems. Having developed an appreciation of good graphic design there are copies of “The Non-Designer’s Design Book” around the room for students to reference. Time spent studying the physics of Stradivarius violins and remixing/reediting music combine into students shaping waves and hearing the affects of transformations.
I believe in the use of projects and student directed inquiry to drive the learning in my classroom. I am able to link projects to state curriculum and still be open ended enough that students can take off in directions I had not envisioned. I believe such situations make me more of a coach and an advocate and less of what is traditionally viewed as a teacher. This non-traditional method has many benefits, one of which is passive differentiation. Give the student who tends to want to do everything quickly by herself a leadership role where she is forced to delegate and interact with group members instead of simply doing straight math work. Another example is a student who is talented as a writer and researcher but struggles with organization being charged with keeping track of the group’s daily records and materials.
I am passionate about mathematics and physics, and though I emphasize other skills in addition to those mathematical, I am not doing my job if my students leave class without having learned the subject matter. As such I still incorporate traditional assessments and assignments along with those that set my classroom apart. I take advantage of having entered the profession later in life and having used the math I teach in the “real world.” This has made me more capable than most to understand and explain concepts, particularly in the more advanced areas.
I know I want to be in a setting where I can collaborate with peers across subject areas, propose new classes, and allow students to take an active role in the direction of the class. I know that such settings, advanced classes, and cutting edge schools are more than just a break from the classroom management issues of a traditional classroom and indeed are more demanding and time consuming; however I know from experience that those are the problems and demands that drive me as a professional educator and lead me to immediately reply when asked about becoming a teacher “It is the best decision I ever made.”