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Topic: Rainforest Algebra vs Seaworthiness
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Lynn Fisher

Posts: 16
Registered: 12/6/04
Rainforest Algebra vs Seaworthiness
Posted: Jun 20, 1997 1:56 PM
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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 is-quite 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 15-20%
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 Math-Phobic teachers.

I love Algebra, I love rigor, yet nonetheless I love the rainforest. I'd
venture that most of us general practitioners tread a super-wide 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

The posts on this list, although sometimes taking extreme positions, have
given me a lot of food for thought and have spurred me into re-thinking 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 A-list. 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 Math-Phobics 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 post-secondary 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

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