Log in

DanZ's Journal
[Most Recent Entries] [Calendar View] [Friends]

Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in DanZ's LiveJournal:

[ << Previous 20 ]
Saturday, April 30th, 2011
8:16 pm
Arcadia on Broadway
Today, I went to the Broadway production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. It was amazing!

You should take this in context. I am a huge theatre nut (enough so that I write it with the British spelling), so I am very picky about my performances, and I am also a snob that likes to talk about how much better Chicago theatre is over Broadway. And yet... this was an awesome production.

I've seen Arcadia done once before, at the Court Theatre in Chicago, and I've experienced it in countless playreadings. The play is remarkably dense. Like Shakespeare, in a good performance the actors are giving you the cues to understand what is happening and to elucidate the text. (Hence, playreadings often fail as new readers get confused over what is happening.) In this performance, the actors were astoundingly clear about the events. Septimus perfectly (and hilariously) demonstrated his inner interpretation of events, allowing the audience to understand the true events of the gazebo and Chater and so forth early on, so we had brainpower for the rest. Pauses were marvelously inserted for double entendres to hit home. Through body language and tone and, well, everything, the whole play just fit together and made sense even for someone new to the text.

The set was beautiful and huge, the perfect manor, with lots of room for the characters to move around. And if that tortoise wasn't real, he was automated, which was pretty remarkable. The blocking was outstanding and invigorating, with several wonderful scenes. There's no complicated technology here but there's lots of complicated action, and aside from some lighting troubles they did it perfectly.

However, the true beauty of the play was that the actors spoke to each other and created real characters from their roles. At the Court Theatre performance, the actors were wooden; they often talked to the audience, and their purpose seemed to be to help us understand Stoppard's philosophical points. Here, the actors created big, believable characters. Both Bernard and Hannah make a lot more sense to me now, and I feel like I understand who they are. Lady Croom was a laugh riot. Even Jellaby stood out. (Chater, good but weaker, has enough character written in to work well regardless.) In all of Stoppard's philosophy, they didn't forget about the characters, comedy, and conflict, and that made all the difference.

So there we are! I have finally seen a Broadway play that I really liked, and aside from its effect on my wallet, that was basically a perfect play.

It plays through June 21, and you should go if you can!
Saturday, February 5th, 2011
10:43 am
Local vs. Global
It seems that the best local intentions often lead to poor global outcomes.

Consider, for example, US taxes. There are often tax breaks that seem like a good idea at the time, but which multiply to create large global expenses of time and money. The IRS' Taxpayer Advocate Service reports that individuals and businesses spend about 6.1 billion hours per year complying with filing requirements in the tax code, not counting dealing with audits. The IRS spent $163 billion to ensure compliance with the tax code in 2008, 11% of revenue from taxes. A multitude of local actions (tax breaks for people in need or for sending kids to college or to encourage clean energy or to encourage ethanol or whatnot) that generally seemed reasonable have either become outdated or generally combined into a huge burden to maintain the system.

Or consider a corporation. In order to manage their huge systems, corporations often institute practices that seem locally like a good idea but have negative global implications. This might be tight control of information (that causes global inefficiencies when unexpected parties need access), or it might be budget design (for example, managers might be afraid that if they underspend their budget they'll get smaller budgets in future years), etc. Gallup has a nice piece of this. Those in universities will recognize these kinds of flaws quickly, especially given how different parts of a university often are each their own little fiefdom.

In making decisions, it is critical to remember the local vs. global divide and to take both perspectives into account. For me, having mostly worked with small organizations, the issue hasn't arisen; but as organizations get larger, it will be important to keep in mind.
Sunday, October 31st, 2010
4:15 pm
Connie Willis' New Books, Blackout and All Clear
Last night, I finished All Clear, the follow-up to Blackout, which together comprise one very long new book from Connie Willis that had to be split in two. The premise of these books --- and several others that she has written --- is that time travel has been invented sometime in the mid-2000s and historians from Oxford use it to travel back in time and study events and times from our past. It's a fantastic device, because we get people from the future who have a relatively contemporary viewpoint immersed in the past and studying it from our perspective. Typically the historians get trapped there and chaos ensues as usual, but the real highlight is the incredibly well-researched history that immerses you in the past better than just about any other books I've read. (In other words, this is exactly one of the things I think science fiction is great for.)

And yet, I've never had such a difficult relationship with one of Willis' books, simultaneously immersed (so it was very hard to put down) while also deeply frustrated with it. Hence, I'm motivated to record my thoughts and, if anyone else has read the book (which is split into two volumes but really is one book) to see if discussion arises. I also do want to recommend the book, but I feel that you should know what you're getting into.

This entry will avoid any specific spoilers, although it may hint at the resolution or meaning of the book. No promises on the comments.

Read on for the review...Collapse )
Saturday, March 27th, 2010
10:51 pm
Teaching as Leadership: Making Students Love Learning
With so much of my thought devoted to Learning Unlimited, I spend a great deal of time considering LU's fundamental question: how can you make students love learning?

The Teach for America book Teaching as Leadership answers that you cannot do it without also providing students with concrete, difficult goals that students must achieve. They quote Karen Fierst, whom they refer to as an "effective teacher:"

I have found that a child's self-perception and motivation are so intertwined with academic achievement that it is nearly impossible to address either one exclusively. For a student to make significant academic gains, they must internalize the desire to grow and develop the confidence to take academic risks. However, in order for a student to develop that intrinsic motivation and self-confidence, they must experience some success with academics.

In other words, the LU model of "expose students to cool things" may not be enough if they don't have that additional feeling of achieving something hard and feeling the thrill of that achievement. I recognize this now in my Splash classes: I present my topic as very difficult but something we will overcome together, and they feel like they have done so when we finish. That pride builds into their love of learning (I hope). Perhaps building a lasting love of learning is impossible without the feeling of this kind of achievement.

If so, it is an interesting lesson to remember, and one to take to the rest of LU's classes and teachers.
10:45 pm
Teaching as Leadership: Leadership
Note: This is part of a series of posts about the book by Steven Farr from Teach for America called Teaching as Leadership. I plan to write my thoughts as I work my way through. I am currently on page 37.

The unusual thing about this Teach for America book is that very little of it, at first glance, is about teaching strategies. I posted earlier about how much of successful teaching I believe comes from non-curricular decisions, such as many of the strategies identified by Doug Lemov in his observations of highly-effective teachers. His observations focused on techniques the teacher can use to keep a good handle on the class itself: how to give instructions that students will listen to, how to structure things so that students are thinking about their work, and so forth. I was intrigued by how little he seems to speak of the curriculum itself and how much he speaks of the structure of the classroom. (I emphasize that I think this is a very reasonable choice when discussing teaching.)

Yet Teach for America goes even further with their philosophy. They're not speaking about specific methods in the classroom at all, even as they present this book as a handbook for teachers. They are talking about leadership qualities and global strategies that they have found to be common to outstanding teachers. I am in the middle of their first technique, "set big goals," and for a mathematician it's quite nice: begin from a first principle ("I want students to achieve measurable goal x"), work relentlessly to achieve that goal, and it will follow essentially regardless of the specifics of your in-classroom practice. At least, that is the impression the book is giving me so far!

(The fundamental idea they force you to grapple with is if you are truly setting big goals; if you are failing to do so for any student then the first principles no longer hold. You have to ask: are your goals measurable? Do you truly believe that your students can achieve the goals you are setting? Do you believe that all of your students can achieve the goals? The book offers one remarkable story after another to emphasize that, indeed, you have to believe that every student can achieve amazing results.)

Perhaps the most interesting part of the read for me is that I have found myself reflecting not just on my teaching practices, but also on my leadership practices. I've been thinking about how to make my leadership of LU more effective in light of the advice in the book. This is a text that is so much about leadership that you almost have to remind yourself that it's also about teaching. (It really does place everything in the classroom, but they are not kidding when they called it Teaching as Leadership.) It has already changed my perspective on goal-setting in LU. That I can draw these kinds of insights from the book speaks a great deal to the truths herein.

So far, I'm loving it. It's a very provocative read. But I have to ask: are their six points really enough? Did they encounter teachers who set these goals and then didn't succeed? I can see why every remarkable teacher would need to have these six points, but are they good enough as a starting point or do you need other things --- other first principles, or specific classroom techniques, or something else that they didn't notice --- to succeed?
10:22 pm
Reading Teaching as Leadership
I have started reading the book Teaching as Leadership from Steven Farr at Teach for America, and it is deeply insightful. Based on the study of their many teachers over the decades, they have identified what they believe to be the six major factors that the really outstanding teachers share. Their standards are high: they are looking to measure teachers who produce two or three years of academic growth (as measured largely by state standardized tests) in students from deeply underserved backgrounds who are many years behind their peers. They profile these truly amazing teachers to demonstrate that it is possible, that a teacher can truly pull someone up from being far behind to being ahead --- and being confident that they can succeed. It is, as I'm sure the authors intend, deeply inspiring.

I've read about 30 pages so far and already found it to be really thought-provoking. I'd like to post my thoughts as I read, and you can expect posts to help me clarify my own thoughts and perhaps start some interesting discussions on teaching.

Meanwhile, for those who are interested, here are their six principles:

  1. Set big goals,

  2. Invest students and their families,

  3. Plan purposefully,

  4. Execute effectively,

  5. Continuously increase effectiveness, and

  6. Work relentlessly.

More on the book as I continue reading. (Indeed, look for two more posts shortly.)
Monday, March 22nd, 2010
12:57 pm
Teaching Note: Using an Unrelated Problem
So much of a student's learning is unrelated to the things we think about when we think about teaching. Lesson plan, the flow of topics, the questions we ask students, how clearly things are explained, these are all important. But so much of a class also depends on each student's mental state, and I think much of a teacher's success comes down to how well they are able to control their students' mental states. Do you bring the energy of a room up when you enter it? Do you command attention when you speak? Does the way you talk help keep others awake? This may help you be a much better teacher.

However, there are other tricks, tricks of the human body and how we react to various stimuli, that we can also use. For example, a New York Times article recently discussed how Doug Lemov is coming up with a list of techniques teacher use, such as standing still when giving instructions, because it draws more attention to you. But I suspect that much more effective than this is Indeed, equally important as the actual content of a class is achieving intellectual engagement for the students, for example through(*) some degree of student participation: I certainly found that, whenever I asked or answered a question in class, I immediately became more awake and followed the lecture much more clearly. Perhaps it was just a little shot of adrenaline by body got from speaking in front of others; regardless, that biological response enabled me to be a better learner. [Additional clarification: So suppose that you think you've lost the class presenting some math. How do you get back the students who have lost it/are falling asleep/are no longer paying attention?]

All of which brings me to an idea that I've only just now put into words.

I was reading an excerpt from a book called The Calculus of Friendship (and the book itself, from the excerpt, seems much better than the title implies) in which they stated the closed form for the Fibonacci numbers:

F_n = [(1 + sqrt(5))^n - (1 - sqrt(5))^n]/(2^n * sqrt(5))

My first, split-second reaction to this formula was: huh? That's not it...

Then, of course a moment later, I realized that it is in fact identical to the formula I am used to:

F_n = [((1 + sqrt(5))/2)^n] - ((1 - sqrt(5))/2)^n]/sqrt(5).

(This formula makes more sense when you substitute phi = (1 + sqrt(5))/2 and phihat = (1 - sqrt(5))/2.)

I thought to myself afterwards about how I would help students follow a derivation of this closed form. Sometimes, students get lost in the derivation and the symbols become meaningless to them as you go forwards. Perhaps there's a way to re-engage them and to get them to consider the formula anew?

Well, one possibility would be to state one version of the formula, prove the other version, and say, "wait a minute, are these two the same?" Of course all the students will see that they are quite quickly and will thus re-engage with the formula, losing the mental block they had already put up against it when they got lost. Now if you launch into a review of what just happened, having just had a victory over the formula, they are more likely to stick with you lead your dear students once more unto the breach.

These kinds of careful coordination of classroom flow are something I haven't mastered yet, but now that I think consciously about them, perhaps I can structure my questions to students more carefully to keep them with me throughout.

(*) I originally wrote something I didn't mean, so I have changed the text and added a clarification to try to fix what I meant.
Sunday, March 21st, 2010
7:55 pm
Education Thoughts: Variety and Choice Yields Engagement
I have recently begun doing a great deal of deep thinking about education and what worked in my own education, spurred on, of course, by my work, but also by listening to fascinating TED talks while driving to Binghamton and back to Boston. (Incidentally, if you want to support a fledgling but awesome nonprofit but you don't have the financial resources to donate, consider leaving a substantive comment on that blog post to kickstart our discussion. It always looks better if there's actually a discussion after I try to start one!)

The major turning points I've identified in my own education are:

  • subscribing to Discover Magazine as a kid;

  • having a mathematician as a father, and, in particular, parents supportive of learning through books, their culture, etc.;

  • attending CTY and, later, Mathcamp, which engaged me in intense learning and, much more importantly, gave me both a community of peers who really cared about learning and great role models to look up to;

  • Mock Trial and what I learned about working on a team, building a complicated argument from many inputs, responding on my feet, and speaking persuasively;

  • Bear Facts (the school paper) and what it taught me about leading a team, doing whatever it takes to get something done, and putting out a good finished product.

Here's the thing: if you ask virtually anyone else who had a really successful education for their own list of major turning points (and if they've thought about it in enough depth to generate a good list), it's almost certain to come out entirely different from my own.

That's why it's so important that any student gets the education that's right for them. I don't mean this in the usual way it's meant --- I don't mean this to talk about "learning styles" or offering a mix of hands-on work with lecture work with whatever --- rather, I mean that every student should get exposed to a huge range of different activities and topics. Sports, academic competitions, math, science, literature, music, art, theater, team projects, scavenger hunts, whatever: try it all. Then, see what each student latches on to --- what they get into, what gets them going --- and allow them to dive into it. Do this and everyone can get the experiences that will drive them to succeed.

This is, I believe, the fundamental way to engage kids and push creativity as well as book learning. Build up the kind of energy and engagement kids need, and the learning of all kinds can follow much more easily through those channels. Try to push too much for one technique or force kids into learning a particular way and the energy and motivation drains out of the system, replaced by often ineffective and artificial stimuli.

This is one reason that I often don't buy into any particular theory on how to improve learning. Implying that students should do any one thing either leaves many students out, or waters down each student's experience to accommodate others. Give choices and variety in learning and activities: students will latch on.

When we start paying closer attention to engaging students and how they become engaged, we'll have much more successful programs. This is how I try to design most of the projects I work on, and it's a big part of why I'm attracted to Learning Unlimited's work.
Friday, February 5th, 2010
1:30 am
E-mail Problems
I seem to be on a posting spree lately, which is surprising since I'm practically not even reading other journals. Yet here's one where I ask LJ for help.

I have, for years, been a devotee of Pine. I like the software: it's quick, very good for a fast typist such as myself, and I'm very quick at saving messages with tab-complete.

Now MIT has upgraded their servers and I find myself using Alpine. Which is great, except that Alpine is compatible with a new IMAP requirement that requires UIDs for messages, which in turn means that when you save a message to that folder, Alpine has to go through *the entire folder* to check that UIDs are assigned correctly. As a result, saving an e-mail to a folder takes a very long time, and my e-mail time has slowed down substantially.

There are two fixes to this. I can either convert my mailboxes from Unix mbox format to either mbx or mix format, or I can switch to a new client such as Gmail. The problem with the former is that I don't know how to do it; with the latter that I don't know how to import my old mail, and would be more reliant on Gmail despite occasional downtime and poor customer service. Does anyone have any thoughts or advice?
Thursday, February 4th, 2010
4:29 am
Theatre Squeee! (At least as much as anyone like me can go "squeee!")
Wikipedia links following up on Slings & Arrows led me to discover that Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen recently starred together in Waiting for Godot.

I've seen Patrick Stewart on stage (as Mark Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, and as a magnificent Prospero in The Tempest), and he's amazing; I know how amazing Ian McKellen is; man, I wish I'd been able to see that show.
3:32 am
Slings & Arrows
A few months ago, gaussjordan loaned me the DVDs for the show Slings & Arrows. It's a show about a Shakespearean theatre in Canada. Each season is about their performance of one show, and the plot of the season (in broad outline) mirrors the plot of the show they're performing. The first season, about Hamlet, involves the death of the theatre's artistic director who then proceeds to haunt his former protege (with whom he had a falling out) who returns to take his place. It features suitable death, madness, and lost love to match Hamlet, and, naturally, has a play within a play, although with rather different outcome from Hamlet itself.

You might imagine that this show might be brilliant, or it might be absurd and unwatchable. Indeed, I watched the first two episodes some time ago and enjoyed it but wasn't blown away. I watched the third yesterday and had the same reaction. And then I watched the fourth today, and couldn't stop until I'd finished the season (fortunately, only six episodes in total). The show reaches brilliance.

Slings & Arrows doesn't settle for just one subject. It hits many elements of drama and observes us (humanity) and how we act with great precision and wry wit (not unlike Shakespeare, unsurprisingly). Yet it also shines in how it handles The Theatre, with capital Ts. It asks, quite directly, why theatre is important --- indeed, in its first season, it asks what theatre has on movies, a question that I have always been fascinated with. It asks why Shakespeare is important, and what is, after all, so amazing about him. (Nicely touching, at the same time, with the question about pretending to be someone you're not, and trying to live up to the role of someone who has gone before you.) Everyone involved in this production has such a love for these great works of art and communicates it so well. It got me, really, really well.

For those who are theatre buffs, the show is marvelous. It hits exactly what backstage looks like. The directors and actors are completely right, and you really get to see the process that makes a play work, the evolution of the acting, what good acting is and what bad acting is. But much more than that, it touches on how delicate the interaction can be between a role and your life.

But even if you're not a theatre buff, it is a good, solid show. It is funny, and it is often even witty. It has good drama, interesting characters, and --- needless to say --- very strong acting. The whole production is done with a rather divine style.

Although I really could use those three hours I spent today for other work, I am so happy with my time investment. This one's a winner, and I look forward to the next two seasons.
Saturday, January 2nd, 2010
7:29 am
Gender inequality in mathematics
A paper I'm reading right now featured the following quote with respect to boys' and girls' mathematics performance:

Moreover, the variability of female identification and participation across countries changes over time and is significantly correlated with national indicators of gender inequality (Hyde & Mertz, 2009).

So I looked up Hyde & Mertz, and it is a goldmine. Essentially a direct refutation of both the claims that girls perform on average worse than boys in equal conditions (which I already knew to be successfully refuted) and the claim that boys have higher variation mathematically in their performance than girls (which I did not already know to be successfully refuted), it outlines clearly the current research on the subject, giving a very strong argument that, if faced with equal conditions, girls and boys would perform at parity in mathematics.

Of course, they don't perform equally in mathematics, which then turns into a statement about society. (What kind of a statement --- be it about actual discrimination, unconscious biases, lack of role models, different expectations in school from either teachers or their peer group, or something entirely different --- remains open, of course.)
Tuesday, December 29th, 2009
2:10 pm
Sentences I wasn't expecting to read
I have just finished The Temporal Void, the second book in Peter F. Hamilton's "Void" series, which featured the following rather staggeringly unexpected description of a creature that seems to live in space (mild spoiler warning that is unlikely to affect your enjoyment of the book):

With the sensors able to penetrate the haze of the vacuum wings, the the Skylord was the same as Inigo's dreams had shown them: a long ovoid but not solid, as if vast sheets of crystalline fabric had been folded into a Calabi-Yau manifold topology, with looping curves intersecting one another in eye-twisting complexity.

Ah. Right.

The book (and the series) is actually quite decent. The plot is either dumb or fascinating, depending on how cynical you are: beginning in the first book in this series, The Dreaming Void, we're introduced to a galaxy where humanity has essentially conquered deaths (with "memory crystals" that can be recovered and downloaded into new bodies, and periodic backups that everyone makes) and where some humans have advanced to the stage where they become part of a giant shared virtual intelligence, operating entirely in a post-physical world. In this universe, it is commonly understood that races eventually advance to the post-physical. Discovered at the center of the galaxy is the Void, a huge expanse where essentially nothing can penetrate. But years ago, an astrophysicist named Inigo began receiving dreams out of the Void. These dreams showed him an idyllic world, one where humans can advance to a kind of heaven, seemingly contained within the Void, and he founded a religious movement based on his dreams (that can be shared through mental links created through technology called gaiamotes).

Now the Void is expanding, the Living Dream movement founded by Inigo wants to lead its followers into the Void, and other alien races fear that this action will cause the Void to expand and swallow large portions of the galaxy. The characters, with their highly competing ideologies and goals, are dumped into this conflict. Some want to enter the Void because they see this idyllic setting, and some because they see it as the next level of human evolution to a true post-physical state, while others believe that it will cause great harm to the galaxy and must not be allowed to happen (while still balancing the rights that society grants to Living Dream and others). It is a giant mess.

Meanwhile, parallel to all this, we are treated to Inigo's dreams, essentially fantasy literature, where a young hero (Edeard) discovers his special telekinetic powers and uses them to try to better the lives of others.

It's science fiction's answer to George R.R. Martin and his much-delayed Song of Ice and Fire series: a massive plot, spanning around fifteen major characters all off in their own corners of the galaxy, interacting as events throw them together and then take them apart again. It even has the equivalent of Daenerys (in the guise of Edeard in Inigo's dreams), with the added twist that humanity dreams Edeard's adventures. Hamilton is an expert at creating compelling mysteries and building an interesting world. He created one of the best alien races I've seen in a science fiction book. It is a shame that he is not that great in other aspects of writing: his characters are mediocre, his pacing is often quite off (his previous series had about three hundred pages of "the mystery is solved, and now the climax resolves itself exactly the way you expect it to"), and sometimes it feels more like his characters do what the plot requires than vice-versa. Yet despite my complaints, I have been enjoying it thoroughly because the plot is so good, and so engrossing; I desperately want to know what happens next. Indeed, I found myself reading this 700-page monstrosity almost to the exclusion of other work, a regrettable situation but one that I missed!

If this sounds appealing to you --- especially if you're a rabid George R.R. Martin fan and unable to cope with the fact that his book isn't done yet --- I'd recommend the books. You should probably start with Pandora's Star, which starts a two-book series in this style; then go on to The Dreaming Void, which starts a three-book series. (The third book is yet to come, but unlike Martin's series, I'm quite certain that it'll be there.) I find Hamilton's views of society to be particularly interesting; while not really spot-on to how people would behave (I believe), I find his group psychology when you can share emotions on the "gaiafield" and have instantaneous connections via the "unisphere" to be absolutely fascinating. There are points where entire cities, or even the whole galactic population, can focus their attention on a single event, a single person, through this technology, and it creates a kind of group psychology that is quite intriguing.

So it's been an interesting read. Not a great book, but a super-entertaining book. And now, hopefully, I have by writing this gotten the book far enough out of my thoughts that I can return to work!
Friday, December 11th, 2009
1:41 am
Free Flight Wifi
In the "you scratch my back, I scratch yours" category --- GoGo in-flight wifi (available on most flights) is offering me a free wifi session for each person to whom I give a free wifi session! (Assuming you haven't used GoGo before.) If you are interested in getting free wifi on your next domestic flight, let me know!
Saturday, December 5th, 2009
2:25 pm
NYT on the Afghanistan Decision
A really fascinating article on the process that the White House used to make the decision to go into Afghanistan. Two thoughts:

1) Having been through long, arduous, difficult strategy decision processes with Learning Unlimited (the nonprofit I am starting), I understand what went into this much better—the difficulties, the openness, the strong disagreements. My own experiences are nowhere close to this kind of major decision, but they give me a much better reference point than I've had in the past. Our decision-making process at LU is working, but we also have a lot of thought to devote to how to do it better.

2) I am so very glad to have a President who goes through this kind of a process to make a decision in the White House. I've often felt that the point of a democracy is not to elect those with similar views to yourself, but to elect people who will be able to process the facts available to them (but not to you) and make a good decision based on those facts. I am very pleased with this process and kind of decision-making.

Best quote from the article:

The reaction at the Pentagon, said one official, was “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” — military slang for an expression of shock.

I have to wonder if the NYT writer didn't realize what that stands for, or if they included it with that phrasing just to be amusing.
Friday, October 2nd, 2009
5:23 pm
Visiting the Bay Area
I've been super-busy and haven't had time for virtually anything. However, I'll be visiting the Bay Area from this coming Tuesday through next Monday, so if you're around and want to get together, let me know.
Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009
4:42 pm
The End of Reading Rainbow
I've written before --- in an entry that, embarrassingly enough, I cannot find --- about how a classroom might be different if students were pursuing reading because they loved reading, rather than because the reading was required for class. It's an interesting question: is it worth sacrificing the exposure to established great literature in order for the potential of having students more engaged in their work? Is it even feasible to teach in such a classroom, where not everyone is reading the same thing?

Well, forget for a moment the question of what we read in class. Let's ask instead: should we even be focused on building a love of reading, or should we just think about making sure kids know how to read in the first place?

A few days ago, I thought that a great blow had been struck when I discovered that Reading Rainbow is being canceled. Why? Because no one will fund it: not PBS, not the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, not the Department of Education. The Reading Rainbow partisans in the NPR story linked above say that this is because programs that teach kids how to read are being funded, but not programs that teach kids why to read. Essentially, they decry a change in the focus of education theory and practice. Mathematics is fighting a similar battle right now, and has been for decades. Although I agree on the value of knowing how to read, I tend to believe the why to be just as crucial, as evidenced by the projects I tend to lead in education.

The Reading Rainbow folks go a step farther, saying that the biggest blow was struck by the No Child Left Behind law, because of its focus on testing the procedure of reading but no emphasis in building a desire for reading. It's an interesting thought. In some circles --- those most strapped for resources --- it has certainly had that effect. But why would it affect Reading Rainbow? Because organizations want to devote their resources to where they're most needed, so they match the needs of kids who need to learn how to read, and they follow the prevailing theory about what those kids need.

About a day or two after I heard about Reading Rainbow, I then ran across an article about... teachers giving students choices about their reading in class. Although the report is not unambiguously positive, it points to a backlash in education, one where teachers give students great (almost complete) freedom in choosing their reading for class. It's a provoking read and I recommend it. Then again, it does not mention the socio-economic status of the students at the schools it brings up, so perhaps we are seeing a further segmentation where some kids are told why... but only if they're already good enough at how.

So there it is: systematic funding for a program like Reading Rainbow ends, to be replaced by a small movement for pushing passion. As usual, the debate goes on.
Friday, August 21st, 2009
3:58 am
Zombie Attacks, Foiled By Mathematicians
A delightful NPR story today (now yesterday) on mathematical models of zombie attacks (although hardly the only news story about this). It conveyed a sense of fun in doing mathematics that somehow isn't conveyed by... well, stories about mathematics that seems more "serious." Other amusing observations include that Mathcamp is apparently not the only place where people may have punctuation in their names.

Of course, there's also the original article.

So, I have to think. Mathcamp class?
Tuesday, August 18th, 2009
11:21 pm
Reflections on a Mathcamp
This summer, I visited Mathcamp for two weeks. It was the first time in ten years that I haven't been there for the full five weeks; the first time in thirteen years that I have not been to an academic summer camp for its full duration. In my previous ten summers of Mathcamp, I missed a grand total of two days that I was eligible to attend (for a friend's wedding, clearly worth it!) and attended a day that I was not eligible to attend, thanks to a later flight.

Thoughts on this entity to which I have devoted so much of my life.Collapse )
Friday, May 22nd, 2009
5:44 pm
The Most Rewarding Career?
The battle between choosing a career that pays well and choosing a career that is rewarding for what you do --- "do what you love" --- is so rehashed as to be trite. Because it has entered the pantheon of truisms, of expected conflicts, everyone thinks about it within an established context. It's the "should I pursue a career on Wall Street or should I pursue my passion for writing?" "Should I be a doctor, or should I go into acting like I've always wanted to?" "Should I be a lawyer, or a mathematician?"

Look again at those debates. They're all in highly-respected careers that follow relatively well-established paths. If you are a "smart" person who can get a higher degree or achieve at a high level (even that phrase is biased), then you are expected to do so. You probably won't ever consider another path, and will consider yourself privileged to land a "good" job.

Which brings me to the recent challenge to this mentality from the upcoming New York Times Magazine. Are we so certain that happiness comes from taking a job that most utilizes advanced training? The author claims no. Do we have a duty to pursue such jobs because we are capable? The author doesn't address the question. What he does do is open doors: he might as well be saying, "do not eliminate so many jobs from your horizons; they are removed for a false reason." Context matters; society may have established norms that are not helpful.

I remember talking to a very good professor at the U of I who said that, if not for his career in mathematics, he'd be working with his hands---that's the type of person he is. He's someone who's confident in himself and fiercely willing to be different; are others following academic paths merely because they see it as a great achievement to be there, and not because it is what they want to do?

Our world is very good at implanting subtle assumptions that grow to drive all our decisions. Overcoming that is a major accomplishment. I'm certain that I haven't gotten there yet, but seeing through it to what's best for us is such an important feat that I hope more people are able to do.
[ << Previous 20 ]
Dan's Home Page   About LiveJournal.com