Teacher Training: Q&A with Francis "Skip" Fennell
Q:How has education for pre-service mathematics teachers changed in recent years?
A:It has been in the acknowledgement that teachers need to have depth in the field in which they are teaching. However, the actual mathematical background of the middle/junior high and early childhood/elementary teacher is still suspect. ... There is a need to link content or mathematics learned at the collegiate level to the mathematics taught at the preK-12 level.
The inclusion of practicum experiences in school-based settings throughout the preparation of the teacher [is another change]. Such experiences now begin during the candidate's initial education course and may include a full year [of] student teaching.
Q:How do teacher/student relationships and their attitudes toward math affect how well students learn?
A:Math gets a bad rap here. You know, the "nerd subject." We see such stereotypes everyday. ... Why don't we ever say things like, "Hey, you wanna make money? Do math. Wanna be an accountant, actuary, architect (and these are only the "A" occupations), you need to know math." Everyone should know mathematics.
All of this, of course, starts with the teacher. Most students like math [early on, but] research indicates that negative attitudes first appear in the later years of elementary school, intensify during the middle school years and may lead to the development of math anxiety. Schools must find ways to communicate the value of mathematics.
... Such an initiative, while the responsibility of the school, must include students, teachers, families and the business community.
Q:What kinds of professional development are math teachers seeking today?
A:Ongoing professional development is critical. The challenge here ... is not just taking more math. It's taking math that is related to [what] they teach each day. Additional professional development topics include the use of technology and techniques and strategies for [teaching special needs] students.
It must also be recognized that ... beginning teachers are apprentices. ... We lose far too many teachers early in their careers and, interestingly, such losses are rarely due to the mathematical inadequacies of the teacher. More prevalent reasons for an early exit ... include classroom management, delivery of instruction and other teachingrelated issues. Mentoring programs ... are a necessary component of the professional development of the beginning teacher.
Districts and local teacher education programs [need to develop partnerships] with the goal of retaining and energizing teachers at every level.
Q:What hiring and professional development practices for K-12 math educators would you change if you could?
A:I would seek certification for elementary mathematics specialists and hire them to mentor teachers [and] provide building leadership at the elementary school level. At a time when reading/language arts may literally "eat up" an entire morning of each day, math needs leaders, time and emphasis [in] elementary schools. I would probably push hard for middle school teacher certification [currently available in less than 20 states]. Many districts teach algebra I (or higher) in middle schools, [and only well-prepared] teachers [should] teach this beginning step into formal mathematics study.
I would also attempt to slow the race to calculus at the high school level. I would rather leave calculus to the ... college level and opt for a deep understanding of algebra, geometry, data analysis and probability at the high school level.
[Regarding] professional development, [I want to see] the demise of the one-shot-wonder workshop. The expert from afar breezes in, does his/her gig and the teachers are left to link what was said and done to a long-term plan regarding professional development. Ongoing, focused professional development is the best chance we have at supporting and retaining mathematics teachers.
Francis Fennell, a former K-8 teacher, principal and supervisor of instruction, is now a professor of education at Western Maryland College and president of the Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators.
States of Our Union Online
Researching state history has traditionally meant finding the right local library with the right book. The National Endowment for the Humanities envisions a new reality: an online encyclopedia for each state and U.S. territory. This new breed of reference book would "raise awareness of the importance of geographical roots and foster pride of place," says William Ferris, former chairman of NEH.
So far, 16 states, plus Washington D.C. and Guam, have been awarded NEH grants totaling $731,000 for the initial project planning stages. Their model is The Handbook of Texas, a print reference to the state's people, places and events that was put online in 1999 and expanded to include 24,600 entries.
Although other states are creating content from scratch, the Texas project shows the possibilities of such a project. Managing Editor Doug Barnett says that two teachers are developing lesson plans, curriculum alignment tools and a student guide to site navigation. Audio-visual materials are being added.
Barnett would eventually like all teachers to share their Texas history lesson plans online. He also hopes to start a cross-generational dialogue between site visitors. Another benefit to the online format? "It turns the world into a collective body of fact-checkers," Barnett laughs, adding that more than 400 (mostly minor) corrections have been made since it's been online.
Exploring Informal Science Instruction
Why do science museums, zoos and aquariums motivate kids? According to a new project funded by the National Science Foundation, the answer runs far deeper than field-trip fun.
The Exploratorium, a museum of science, art and human perception in San Francisco, is teaming with the University of California at Santa Cruz and King's College London to open the Center for Informal Learning and Schools this summer. CILS will explore the integration of informal and formal science learning.
Because informal settings provide access to real scientists doing science, explains Acting Director Bronwyn Bevan, they can impact science education reform. Through research on site and at other informal science centers, CILS will explore the design of effective field trip and professional development programs. (Bevan notes that 31 percent of all intensive professional development for elementary school science is done in science centers.) This fall, teachers interested in pursuing informal science learning studies can apply through CILS.
"What we sometimes consider the best of informal learning ... can also exist in the best of formal classrooms," Bevan says, citing children learning together as an example. CILS hopes to discover what these factors reveal about effective learning, curriculum and classroom design.
Student Writings Hot off the Press
At Clarkstown North High School in New City, N.Y., students know what it feels like to see their writing in print. "They publish like crazy," says Chris Potter, a writing program teacher at the 1,300-student school. Hundreds of students see their work in outside publications each year. But their latest project is even more exciting.
Thanks to the Weekly Reader Press, a new partnership between Weekly Reader Corp. and iUniverse, an e-publishing company, the budding authors have published their work as a professional trade paperback, called Are We There Yet?: Poetry That's Tired of Riding in the Back Seat.
During her 15-year tenure, Potter says she has seen a growing emphasis on publishing students' work. She has noticed more student publications and more bylines in magazines from students in her region. "It absolutely legitimizes" their writing, Potter says.
Lynn Zingraf, general manager of iUniverse author services, says, "We hope this program inspires a new generation of authors." And besides the pride that comes from publication, the program can be used as a school fundraiser. Initial publishing fees are $75 to $110 (with a inimum purchase of 25 books), and books are ready in four weeks.