Math Teaching / Teaching Issues

New Beginnings

So last semester, I had my first semester off of teaching in maybe 13 years. The last six years or so, I have taken every summer off, but I this is the first time I have been eligible for sabbatical. I expected it to be both relaxing and productive. I’m quite good at organizing and motivating myself to do research and other outside work during the semester and the summer, so I anticipated that this fall would be more of the same.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Apparently, my life is held together by pressure, and without that pressure, I was entirely at a loss as to what to do. Don’t get me wrong, I got things done on my sabbatical project, especially if you are a representative of the university I work for. If you are, then I got tons done. Every day. Wildly productive. But for the rest of you, I struggled the whole time. Even simple tasks became nearly impossible.

So now I am back at work, and I’m both humbled and happy. I taught my first classes this week, and it was fun to prepare them. By the end of the spring semester last year, I felt burned out, and found I wasn’t all that happy teaching. But a break can be an amazing thing, and right now I feel grateful to have the familiarity, rhythm, and challenge of teaching. This semester, I am teaching Patterns and Functions (aka Pre-calculus), Calculus I, and two sections of a course I developed called Math, Art, and Design. Here’s what I’m doing.

  1. Patterns and Functions. We started by doing an exercise where students got into pairs and then determined which of three functions matched a description given in words. I got this from Approximately Normal. That went well, and then we backed up and talked about what a function actually is, giving examples and connecting the definition to the general notion the students had that functions had to do with dependency. Then we did just a couple of the “team graphing” graphs from Study of Change. The point that I made there is how easy the task is when we can clearly name what should be drawn (like “a stick figure”) and how we can use the language we’ll be developing in P+F to be able to name more things clearly, and thus to get better and this task. Perhaps we’ll revisit it later in the semester. Tomorrow we’ll talk about domain, range, and piecewise functions, and we’ll use Des-man from Desmos.
  2. Calculus. We started with simulating the spread of a disease through a dice-rolling lab from Gary De Young. Working through that took even more time than we had, and we’ll be finishing the activity up tomorrow. I wanted to start the semester by giving them a project we can keep working on throughout the semester, and also provide a way to start the course with a context, so that we can come back to it to make the ideas we learn meaningful. On Friday, we will finish that up, and then move into an activity with spreadsheets, because I want to get students using spreadsheets pretty heavily this semester.
  3. Math / Art / Design. This class is weekly and doesn’t start until this upcoming Monday. Unlike in previous years, we are starting by talking about perspective, so we are going to do a tape-drawing activity like this one.

So far, I’m happy. I feel more relaxed. I like my students. My difficulties with sabbatical really did humble me, and allowed me to see that it may not be the best idea in the world to push myself so hard that without the constant pressure I collapse. We’ll see how I do.

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