Conversations with Teachers

It’s been ten days since I finished this summer’s stint working with teachers at VMI (Vermont Mathematics Initiative), enough time to reflect a bit on the experience.  For one week I led the Number Theory team, and the next week I was a member of the “Calculus I for K-8 Teachers” team.  I should explain that these teachers have committed to a three-year program, including six weekends during the school year and two weeks in the summer.  During those times most stay in a hotel near the University of Vermont campus, and spend full days in the classroom and evenings doing homework.    So it’s not a random sample by any means.  Still, there’s a lot of variation in age, school setting, and (perhaps most important) personal mathematical history.

At some point during the process I came across this entry from a blog called “Math Mama Writes…”  What caught my attention was not the “complex instruction” stuff at the beginning, but rather the “Smart in Math” section partway down.  Some of the items Math Mama lists under “people who are good at math…” are implicit or explicit goals of VMI, such as making connections and checking answers for reasonableness.  Many of the teachers I’ve worked with do ask “why?” and, more generally, ask good questions to the benefit of all.

However, they (and we) are still working amid the misconceptions that M.M. lists, namely that “someone who is ‘smart in math’

  • answers questions quickly
  • always gets the right answer
  • doesn’t have to work at it”

Quite a few got this message from their own math teachers; A.’s told her “You’ll never be good in math.”  After relaying this, A. said “That’s why I’m here — to prove her wrong.”  Resilience and persistence:  check.

The conversations that keep coming back to me, though, started with the teacher who said “I have students who come in to kindergarten and can’t count past 3, and I’m expected to bring them up to speed with their classmates in one school year.”  I checked in with other kindergarten teachers, who confirmed this; one said “Some of them think they can count: ‘1, 2, 3, 6, 12, 7,..,’ and they get upset when you tell them there’s an actual order.”  I’ve heard stories of children with no books in their homes, a teacher who had to keep track of which of several homes a child was going to after school each day, and children for whom school lunch is the only reliable meal.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  these teachers face challenges that are in a different league from mine.

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About Priscilla Bremser

Professor of Mathematics Middlebury College
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