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Rainforest Algebra vs Seaworthiness
Posted:
Jun 20, 1997 1:56 PM


From Sen.Byrd's speech, quoted by Dave Slomer
>Recently Marianne Jennings, a professor at Arizona State University found >that her teenage daughter could not solve a mathematical equation. This was >all the more puzzling because her daughter was getting an A in algebra. >Curious about the disparity, Jennings took a look at her daughter's Algebra >textbook, euphemistically titled, 'Secondary Math: >An Integrated Approach: Focus on Algebra.' Here it isquite a handsome cover >on the book. After reviewing it, Jennings dubbed it 'Rain Forest Algebra.'
I'm a high school teacher in a geographically huge (well, about as huge as things can get here) rural district in Vermont. Finally, after making up almost a week of snow days, I've found time to do more than lurk on this list; I've read, reflected , and, in the case of Senator Byrd's speech, chuckled at length. I've taught AP Calculus (AB) for 10 years to 1520% of our Senior Class (from 12 to 22 students), and have a 96% success rate for students scoring 3 or higher on the AP exam. (All of my students take the exam.) In the summer, I work with the mathematically precocious for Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. I also teach an Education course at a nearby college for MathPhobic teachers.
I love Algebra, I love rigor, yet nonetheless I love the rainforest. I'd venture that most of us general practitioners tread a superwide middle ground, using just about anything from posters to proof in order to reach a wide variety of students and to give them the background for a variety of futures.
The posts on this list, although sometimes taking extreme positions, have given me a lot of food for thought and have spurred me into rethinking the decisions I make about what's important for my students. That can't be bad, but I've seen the harm done by teachers who adopt one extreme or the other. For example, from the reform camp, middle school students, cooperatively grouped and armed with pocket calculators have designed and built "Marsville", a simulated colony on a hostile planet. This project made the newspapers and the principal's Alist. It was "interdisciplinary" (the buzzword that will get you far in my district, these days), interactive, and children were apparently happy and working hard on something. If you ask them later, though, to add 1/2 and 1/3, it's a good bet that you'll get 2/5 for an answer...
On the other hand, the otherwise capable and intelligent teachers that I work with in my MathPhobics course invariably describe their math teachers as from the "my way or the highway" camp. In order to pass their math courses they had to miserably memorize patterns of symbols that held no concrete meaning for them. They never understood. They hated it, and now they're role models for generations of elementary and secondary students. No wonder they're so quick to jump on the "Marsville" ship.
My point is that the best teaching combines (1) high expectations with (2) the means to reach them. Yes, yes, yes, make sure my students know Algebra and the notions of proof. But even postsecondary teachers need to understand how elusive true comprehension is, and should see it as their job to not only present information to students, but to figure out how to make it make sense to as many students as possible. (A reference to diversity, yet no "Diversity panel" has reviewed this post.)
In all seriousness,
Lynn "Don Quixote" Fisher
Woodstock Union High School Woodstock, VT



