This morning as I was riding the train on my morning commute to the Math Forum office at Drexel in Philly, I took a look at my philosophy paper again and came across this section that describes my experiences of teaching conversational English while living in Dortmund, Germany and later in Barcelona, Spain.

“The Berlitz method is definitely a progressive method. The students come to Berlitz for different reasons but underlying all else is their conscious decision to learn a language. (In my case my students’ choice was American English.) It was the ideal situation for an existentialist-progressive teacher. I was a helper! I was the resource person to provide the information for my students to take if they wanted it. The students were there by choice. The Bertliz method is based on a series of questions and answers using a picture book as a prompt. As the student learns basic questions and answers using only the acquired language, they have a basis for a conversation. It became my belief that if I could get the student to be curious about something enough to spontaneously ask a question then they were on their way to learning English.”

Being trained in the Berlitz method and applying it for 7 years while we lived in Europe had an effect on my classroom approach. I had just one classroom rule for my middle school students. It was:


I had a banner with that one word right next to the clock! Next to the word “Facilitate” I had three smaller banners with a few details:

… means help your teacher.

… means help your classmates.

… means help yourself!

I remember struggling with the idea that public school students were in a situation not of their own choosing. My goal was to create an environment for learning. I was hopeful that my students would choose to learn. I wanted them to make a conscious decision to learn the language of mathematics just like my Berlitz students (most of them adults!) had consciously decided to learn English. I wanted to create situations where the students were asking questions and having mathematical conversations.

At the Math Forum one of our breakthrough ideas in the last couple of years has been to use an activity that we’ve named “Noticing and Wondering.” This activity sets the scene for students to engage in problem solving and mathematical communication. As I think back on my Berlitz training and the environments that I tried so hard to create in my middle school classroom, I see why noticing/wondering seems absolutely perfect to me. I love going into classrooms and using that method with students.

If you find yourself reading this and you are familiar with our Noticing/Wondering idea because of your work with us at the Math Forum, please comment with a short reason why this activity works well with your students.

If you are not familiar with it, you might enjoy reading Marie Hogan’s and my article that was published in the CMC ComMuniCator, the journal of the California Mathematics Council. You can download the PDF here:

I’d love to hear your thoughts after reading it.