Monthly Archives: September 2011

Brooklyn Brainery – “Get into stuff!”

A few weeks ago, walking through my neighborhood, I saw a totally awesome little place called Brooklyn Brainery. (cool name right?) I was intrigued by the painted-on chalkboards and the homemade shelves full of things like Rubiks’ cubes, cook books, paint brushes, and other tools for doing. My focus really locked in when I saw a copy of Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach sitting there. These are my kind of people.

Looking over their about page, I grew completely ecstatic. Have a read.

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Brooklyn Brainery is accessible, community-driven, crowdsourced education.

We host cheap classes on anything and everything. All of our course topics are dreamed up and suggested by you, and our teachers are a group of awesome people from around Brooklyn and the whole city. Anyone can teach–you just need a passion for the topic and a desire to share it with others.

Teaching at the Brainery isn’t about being a world-reknown expert on a topic, it’s just about being excited to help people learn the things you’re already excited about.

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Does that not sound amazing!? If you’ve read this post, for instance, then I shouldn’t have to explain the kind of raw power and bursting potential energy in a room full of interested, self-placed people.

I think they’re very right about what you need to teach, and the decor reminds me, learning can happen anywhere you want to be. I am thrilled by the sharing of knowledge and excitement, so this is obviously right up my alley. I also love that it gives people the tools, community, and motivation that will get them doing things they want to get better at. Here’s a few courses I’m thinking of teaching. Wanna take one?

How to Count | Juggling and Math | Imaginary Numbers | The Game of Diplomacy | Helping your kid do math

For “How to Count” I’m envisioning 3-sessions starting with reimagining numbers in the context of binary arithmetic and elementary delights. The second night, we dig into some great counting problems and explore combinatorics together. We’ll spend our final session expanding our number concept into the “imaginary numbers” and take a close look at sizes of infinity.

Who’s in?

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Personal learning like this is exactly what I was pushing for at Saint Ann’s and is now in place in our high school electives program.

Starting in Algebra 1, students pick one of two offerings for the required sequence, deciding between different approaches to the course content. In Algebra 2, for example, we have an Analytic Geometry course as well as Functions and Abstract Algebra. After this (and potentially during) students may choose from a bevy of electives, like Trig/Analysis, Modern Algebra, Number Theory, Intro Topology, The Complex Plane, and Fractals and Chaos. We even have a Calculus course you can take after Algebra 2. Many of these courses are semester length, which opens up the panoramic view of mathematics for our students to view and take part in.

Most of my classes felt a little flat today, but the students in my Complex Plane class were still bought in. They’ve been seriously digging it each day – I swear we’ve been enjoying multiplication for a week. You might be thinking, “come on! These students chose this class, so obviously they’re going to be more into it than usual.” But that’s exactly the point! These kids are invested and active by design. Math (and just about everything else) feels really good when it connects with your identity and free will. This is what choice is all about, and I’m so happy to be a part of it this year.

I’ll keep you posted. We’ll see how it goes.

Follow @bkbrains on Twitter.

September planets – ten years ago

My dad is a speech and theater teacher, so I grew up around school, but I was first inspired to teach during my AP Physics class. I was constantly surprised and intrigued by the demos and labs, and my algebraic fluency gave me the tools I needed to explore my own questions. In the fall of 2001, my senior year of high school, I was taking an Astronomy/Modern Physics class, and absolutely loving it.

Venus Rise

I was getting deeper into the physics world, reading an academic book outside of class for what may seriously have been the first time, and I was seeing myself more and more as a future teacher. I stopped by a meteor shower viewing at school one night, and once again, I was blown away. This incredible universe was there to be viewed, and I was viewing it. I felt like an astronomer, and I liked that a lot.

I was incredibly fortunate and thankful that my teacher had several telescopes he could lend to students. When he alerted us that it would be a good week to view Mercury, Venus, and probably more, I checked out a small red reflective telescope and took it home. For several nights I carried it out into open grass, laptop in hand, with a program to help me explore the night’s sky. I marveled at the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter. I pored over constellations and the Milky Way.

I remember being extremely tired as a teenager, but I surprised even myself by getting up at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning to go use the telescope. I marched out into dark fields and waited for the first shred of light so I could see Venus and Mercury pop over the horizon just before the Sun washed them from view. It was peaceful and powerful.

On the 11th, my last morning with the telescope, my mom and I went out together for a final viewing. If you’re interested, and you look closely, the night’s sky never ceases to amaze. In my week I had seen every planet through that eyepiece, and it seemed almost magical. At school we found out the planes had crashed.

"Let Freedom Rise"

“Let Freedom Rise”

At the time I was rather clueless, or perhaps it was shock. I thought it was some tragic coincidence that these planes had crashed in the same place. I think about 9/11 a lot now, especially living in Brooklyn, with downtown Manhattan visible from my corner. We pass ground zero each time we drive to Manhattan, and from my tenth floor office I can see the Freedom Tower (One World Trade) going up.

These two memories, one magic, one tragic, are forever connected in my mind. I cannot think of one without recalling the other. Today I wanted to share what it felt like to be an astronomer, inspired by the wonders of our universe, faced with the helpless realization I was a high school kid in Saint Louis, and our own little world was trouble enough.

-in remembrance

“We shouldn’t be teaching that!”

I recently read a terrific post by John T. Spencer about personal connections and reading. “Personal insight” is becoming a central goal of my teaching, so the post stirred some thoughts in my head. Is personal connection a reading strategy? Two skeptical teachers say no. They won’t waste their time with it.

John also describes his own experiences getting to know the Founding Fathers. In school he learned mythic tales about superheroes of patriotism, full of great deeds and honor. In college he read Howard Zinn’s counter-narrative, which John realized was merely a “smear campaign.” He was unsatisfied until he read Founding Brothers, which gave him a sense of nuance and paradox as well as personal identification with these historical figures.

It all got me thinking about what should be taught in schools. Reading strategies? Personal connections? Evolution? Creationism? What about our nation’s founding? Which story should we teach? What about Math? Computations? and on and on we go…

Can you guess what I think?

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John recounts this story:

I’m in a staff lounge when a teacher says, “Are we supposed to have them make personal connections?”

“I don’t know. I don’t even think that’s a reading strategy. It’s nice. It’s a great byproduct of reading, but it’s not a strategy.”

“I’m not sure it will be tested. How do you test that? I’m not going to spend my time teaching personal connections when they can’t read as it is.”

“I know. I need kids increasing in fluency. I think all this mumbo jumbo about personal connections is why they’re not reading more.”

Given current legislature and prevailing approaches to school, I can’t blame these teachers for focusing on “increasing fluency.” Obviously, this is something we all want, but I think they have the relationship backwards. Personal connection isn’t a “byproduct” of learning. I could say a lot here, but let me leave it at this: Personal connection is the best way I know to create historians, artists, designers, writers, mathematicians, and experts of all kinds.

This, though, is about what we should teach.

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The way I was taught, the way I see it, teaching History is about doing history – reading, thinking, researching, rethinking, formulating opinions and theses, supporting them, and responding to the criticism of your peers. This is what historians do, and in this way, History class is about making “historian” a part of the student mind and identity. It isn’t about internalizing the correct view of our nation’s founding.

Likewise, teaching Science is about the history and practice of the scientific method. English class should be about making language a central and vital part of your life, the way you speak and communicate, not satisfactorily mastering ______. My Algebra 1 students and I agreed; The product of school isn’t the degree conferred or the facts you can recite. The product of learning is the alteration of your thinking. Can you think like a mathematician? A writer? A scientist? Do you?

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But seriously, should we teach Creationism or Evolution? Isn’t that a hugely important question for curriculum? No. Not really. Let’s teach students the importance of thinking, and let’s help them strengthen their ability to do it. The questions they take on and the results they land upon (for the time being) should be completely their own.

Finally, math. Math class is a place to become mathematicians – wondering, asking, thinking, researching, formulating ideas and questions, sharing solutions and proofs, and responding to the criticism of your peers. This is what mathematical fluency really is – the ability to think like a mathematician.

As John put it, we see “the Founding Fathers as proper nouns, enshrined in ideological monuments, inaccessible to a postmodern man.” We do the same to mathematicians, when in fact, math is now and has always been done by humans like the ones in our classroom. Let’s get busy doing math.

Is a square a rectangle? Which definition should we teach? As my friend Justin told me, “teach the controversy!” Teach thinking.