On Success

I have spent more time lately pondering ways I hope to improve in subsequent semesters. Since my improvement list seems to be countably infinite, I thought it would  be good for my psyche to also come up with things that went really well this semester. So here are my Top 5.

1. I learned more names than ever.

After some conversations on Twitter in early January, I made the goal of learning as many student names as possible this semester. I started with the mini-goal of learning 100% of student names in my Calculus II course (enrollment: about 30). It took a couple of weeks, but I managed it! I think that it made a big difference & I’m going to challenge myself to learn 100% of next semester’s student names.

2. I tried something new & adapted to its challenges.

I implemented a standards-based approach in my Calculus II section. While there were a few speed-bumps, overall I thought it was successful. I am still formulating who I am & who I want to be as an educator, and I think my SBG approach is more aligned with my pedagogical goals than other things I have done in the past. I am also pleased that my students were willing to embark on the challenge with me and that we were able to have some honest reflection about the process of teaching & learning, outside of the context of our Calculus II content.

3. I worked to develop a coach mentality.
I have had many conversations with students about how it isn’t good for them to tie their emotional well-being to their performance on a math test. I really don’t want them to feel badly about themselves if they do badly on an exam. Instead, I want their exam grade to reflect their understanding of the material and I want them to take that information & use it to help their learning process. (Part of what SBG allowed me to do was make more clear what exactly a learning target is & what it means to master a concept.) I think I did a better job offering my students support and guidance than in the past.

Also, I think I was better at taking my own advice. While I don’t want them to be emotionally upset about their mathematical performance, I struggle with rating my skills as an educator as a function of student exam grades.  This is not a good idea! The point for all of us in my classroom should be to work toward gradual improvement over time & if we’re doing that, we need to be less harsh to ourselves. I think planting the idea “You are the coach & your role is not to score the points for the players during the game” in my own head helped me deal with class performance stress better.

4. I worked toward inspiring curiosity about math, outside of any particular course topic.
About once a week I took about ten minutes of class time to introduce cool/interesting/bizarre math ideas to my students. Several students became great question-askers: They came up with really thought-provoking questions. And I tried to bite my tongue and not provide the answers.

Some of the things we talked about were: the Banach-Tarski paradox; the Cantor set; the Hilbert Hotel; the Numberphile video (about the sum of all positive numbers being -1/12); and a crazy Slinky video showing in slow-motion what happens when you drop a Slinky.

These things were not necessarily related to what we were covering in class. But one of the things I feel it’s my job to do is inspire wonder & show how mathematics is really beautiful. I give myself an “A” for this task this semester.

5. Success with ongoing lactation
I am a nursing mom of a 9-month-old. Maintaining lactation while working full-time is a serious challenge. It’s exhausting. It takes a lot of time I could be doing other things. It takes extra calories (I’m always starving!). It required me to overcome humiliation on several occasions when people used keys to enter into my locked, private office — without first knocking — to find me pumping at my desk. (I cried every time.) It also took countless hours in front of my kitchen sink washing parts and bottles, getting ready for the cycle again tomorrow. And I honestly cannot recall the last time I slept more than three hours in a row (but it was more than 11-months ago).

A student of mine wrote me a really lovely letter last week. One of the things she mentioned was that I had inspired her with how I have balanced my work life and my family life so well, and she hopes to be just as successful at it in the years to come. (The letter is in my top desk drawer and really meant a lot to me.) It was really satisfying to be appreciated in this way, especially since I struggle with feeling imbalanced between work & family, and I regularly ponder giving up my career entirely just to have more time with my kids.

But it’s students like her that remind me that I cannot leave this career path because I feel somehow responsible for displaying that it is possible to be a mom-wife-mathematician-professor and enjoy life at the same time. I did not have enough role models like this when I was on the student side of the desk & I want to help change the demographics in that direction.


On Improvement

Our semester is rapidly winding up. I have about eight more course meetings to tell my students the things I want them to know before our Final Exams. Just as they are starting to reflect on the material we covered this semester, I am also reflecting on the things we covered this semester & all the things I want to do better next time.

Things I want to improve:

  • I need to break apart some of my “Calculus II” learning standards. I didn’t have a complete list at the start of this term, and I realize now I wish I had made them smaller than I did. (I had been afraid of having too many, so I overcompensated.)
  • I need to come up with a good “Missed Exam” policy. Since I switched to standards-based grading, I’ve focused on the current value of a student’s score. As such, some students have missed (skipped?) entire exams and have wanted to make up the exams on a later date. This has been extremely difficult on my side of things, since it usually means writing an entirely different test for them, grading it at a different time, etc. I am philosophically stuck with what to do. On the one hand, I want a policy that says “You must take the exam on the specified date, unless truly unforeseeable circumstances beyond your control occur.” On the other hand, if my idea is their grade ought to reflect their mastery of course material, and not “mastery of this topic with a deadline of Wednesday,” I am not sure how to implement such a policy.
  • I need to come up with a good “Schedule of Expectations.” Some students have been consistently behind the course, in terms of what problems they are able to solve. To help students in the future, I think it would be good to have some kind of date-to-learning-target function that tells them, “You should master this learning target before this date.”
  • I need to make grading quickly a bigger priority. I know I have gotten behind schedule on various assignments this semester. This is always an issue. Things pop up, kids get sick, cars need maintenance, and somehow “grading assignments by the next class period” is one of the first things I let go of when life gets hectic. I want to hold myself to a higher standard about returning work quickly.
  • I need to have on hand problems for re-assessment, so if a student wants to re-assess a particular topic I don’t have to think up new problems on the fly.
  • I’ve implemented something I’m calling “Madness Mondays” in Calculus II. I’ve been taking class time to talk about mathematical things that aren’t directly related to what we’re talking about in class. For example, today I spent a while talking about the Hilbert Hotel. I’ve really enjoyed this part of the week. I have been impressed by the curiosity of my students. I’ve also been really pleased about how great they are at asking interesting questions. I think that talking to them about this random assortment of topics has helped them get away from the idea that “the point of math class is to solve problems and get the right answer.” Instead, I hope they now see that one major point of math class is to get them to think about mathematical ideas, outside of the context of any particular homework problem. But what I want to do is formulate a complete list of topics for Madness Monday, from which I can pull ideas in subsequent semesters.
  • I want to learn ALL of my students’ names. I’ve always struggled with this. I made this a priority this semester, and I have learned a higher percentage of names this term than ever previously. But I’d really like to get better & learn all of their names.

The above isn’t a complete list. I always think of dozens of things I want to do better, so this is only a start.

The last thing I want to do better is I need to be less hard on myself. I think I am probably my worst critic. Often times I walk out of class kicking myself for messing up a problem, or for not explaining something the best way, or for not spending enough time on this or that, or … At the end of the day (semester?), I wish I could give myself a break. My goal should be gradual improvement over time, not 100% perfection in every class on every day in every semester and with every student.