Sunday, September 22, 2013

Department Chairperson

Frank May hired me in 1969 to teach at Evanston Township High School. Frank was my supervisor for the first part of my career, observed my classes, advised me, taught me, encouraged me and was a role model for what mathematics teachers could accomplish.
It would be hard to find two people more different than Frank and I. Frank never raised his voice; I never lowered my voice. I continually tried to find different ways to bring mathematics to students; Frank stood at the board and lectured. Frank was careful and meticulous. No one has ever described me in those terms. Frank May was a master teacher, and I was lucky to have him as my mentor and advisor.
Frank taught me to pay attention to the details. In particular, he taught me to write complete mathematical sentences using equal signs, stating conclusions;. he took care to ensure students understood the underlying reasons for procedures and notation. He taught me the importance of using correct notation as well as language in the classroom. To this day, I can’t bring myself to describe congruent shapes as being equal.
It often strikes me, how much I learned from someone with a dramatically different personality and point of view. Part of it is that I always respected his knowledge, and part of it is that I am uncontrollably drawn to people who love mathematics.
His evaluation meetings after observing my class were more like math lessons than like criticisms of what I had done. It was clear that he had an abiding love for mathematics as well as a deep understanding of the subject and how students learned it. His quiet, soft-spoken manner allowed his beliefs and understandings to gradually sink into my brain without me actually realizing the impact he was having on my teaching.
He had a deep understanding of how topics related to each other and of why some things were difficult for students to understand. I often went to him when I had a difficult topic to teach, and he always started by agreeing with me that it was a difficult topic to teach and then uncovered two or three insights that helped me understand why students had trouble. He never told me what I should do, nor did he tell me what he always did. Instead, he made careful observations about why students found the particular topic difficult and sometimes made a suggestion or two as to what might be done to help them. He then let me figure out how to overcome student difficulties after he shed light on the nature of those difficulties. In short, he used exemplary teaching techniques to teach me how to become a better teacher. He would always check back to see if what I had done had worked better, and again he would offer an insight or two that would help me fine tune my approach, but he never insisted that I do it his way.
   At some point in my career I was asked to teach B.C. Calculus. It had been many years since I studied calculus, and I was not sure I ever really understood series. I touched base with Frank about one thing or another almost every day. He single handedly taught me how to teach Calculus.
School bureaucracy being what it is, Evanston eliminated the position of Department supervisor. Many of his fellow administrators retired or moved to other institutions. Only one went back to full time teaching, Frank.  He could have retired, but he wasn’t ready to stop teaching. He could have taken a supervisory position at a different school. Frank went back to the classroom and taught five classes a day for another ten or so years. I think he looked at the situation and determined what would be best for the students, for the school, and for him, and gracefully took a step down and finished his career doing what he did best: teaching students mathematics.  Of course he did more than that: he continued to mentor many of us even though it was no longer in his job description. He was still the person I went to when I needed math help, and he was still eager to talk math.
While he was a master teacher, he never boasted about his accomplishments, but he came close once. I complemented him on the incredibly high scores of his BC Calculus students one year. He told me that he had had the same group for pre-calc two years in a row and so was able to prepare them appropriately. I often wondered how successful students would have been if they had him for four years, or if they had someone as good as him for four years.

The reason I am writing this now is that Frank May passed away last week at the age of 89. There was no mention of his passing in the front page of The New York Times or The Chicago Tribune, because he was not a famous athlete, entertainer, or politician. All he did was  positively influence thousands of students and hundreds of teachers. Rarely a week passes when I don’t reflect on one of Frank’s insights about how people learn. He is the primary reason I have reverence for the Parallel Postulate, the Distributive Property of Multiplication over Addition, and the Differential. I learned from Frank that one can exhibit enthusiasm in a quiet, dignified manner, that it is not necessary to jump up on tables and throw things across the room to share with students how exciting mathematics is. Let this be one small instance of tribute to a great man. Thank you, Frank, for all you have done for our profession, and therefore for countless people. I am forever grateful for all that you did for me. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

My daughter's good, but don't call her smart!

This story on NPR reminded me -- again -- of how much it bothers me when we call kids smart.  In fact, calling successful kids smart is one of the worst things we can do: to (and for) them, and to (and for) other kids.

Many years ago I decided to stop using the word "smart" to describe my students, on the grounds that the word "smart" is so imprecise, using it is just an excuse for sloppy thinking.  There are a bunch of different ways a student can be "smart":
  • Catches on to new ideas and techniques quickly.
  • Doesn't forget things he or she has learned, even a long time ago.
  • Anticipates consequences and implications of new ideas and issues.
  • Sees generalizations; synthesizes readily.
  • Sees new applications for already-learned facts and skills.
  • Makes few, if any, mistakes in applying already-learned knowledge and skills.
  • Generates new, unusual ideas.
  • Is intellectually playful: likes wordplay, quasi-argumentative banter, hypotheticals.
After a year or two I backed off, but I still use lists like this when I'm writing college and scholarship recommendations: it doesn't help my students if my praise is essentially meaningless.

The NPR story took a different tack.  It compared Western and Asian parents' comments to their children, both when their children are successful, and when their children are unsuccessful.  This ground has been trodden many times -- notably by Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman, in articles and in their awesome book Nurtureshock.  I'll summarize typical comments in the chart below:

Western Parent
Asian Parent
Successful Child
“You’re so smart!”
“You worked so hard!”
Unsuccessful Child
“I wasn’t good at math either!”
“You must work harder!”

There are two major takeaways from an educational-policy perspective:
  • Teaching kids that success is a result of being smart sets them up for failure.  When these kids encounter genuine struggle, they often conclude that they are simply not talented enough to be successful.
  • Teaching kids that success is a result of working hard sets them up for further success, because attributing their success to the only factor that an individual can control (as opposed to talent, luck, and ease of task).
But I'd add a third issue--one that I've encountered with my students and my own child, and especially with talented girls who work hard.  These students are proud of their hard work, and when someone says "You're so smart" or "You're a genius," they don't experience those comments as praise.  Instead, they feel that their hard work has been devalued, because they've just been told, "Look, you're not successful because of anything you chose to do -- you're successful because you were born that way."  (The variation on this that drives my daughter bananas is "Of course you're good at math--your dad's a math teacher"--which is why she never lets me actually teach her math.)

So telling successful kids they're smart is bad for at least five reasons:
  1. It tells successful kids that they shouldn't get credit for their success, because that success isn't due to anything they actually did. So it's insulting.
  2. It sets successful kids up for failure, because it doesn't give them anything to fall back on when they encounter challenging tasks.
  3. It tells unsuccessful kids that they can't do anything to become successful, because the successful kids are the ones who are already smart.  So it's implicitly insulting to unsuccessful kids:  you're not doing well because you're dumb.
  4. It sets unsuccessful kids up for continued failure, because--in this worldview--there's nothing they can do to become smarter.
  5. It's an inexcusably-sloppy way for a teacher to describe a student, because it doesn't say anything about what the student actually does.
So please do recognize your successful students' (and children's) achievements--just don't call them smart.