Whooosh, and another semester zooms by

Crikey, I sure haven’t posted!

Some news and reflection:

This last semester in regular Statistics is the first time I have taught a class for the second time. I went back and forth the whole time in my off-the-cuff assessment of whether it was any better. Easier, sure: I definitely was able to use material from last year. But did it take any less time? No. And most important, was I any better at paying attention to the students? There I’m not sure; I really felt, a lot of the time, that I was neglecting the most experienced students while I helped those who were having the most trouble. Or, more generally, that despite getting better as a teacher, there are many ways in which I suck. This is not as self-flagellatory as it sounds (as Walter Brennan used to say, “no brag, just fact”) but rather the continuing realization that this path requires continuing improvement.

All of which is alleviated somewhat by seeing the student work, especially on the semester projects. Everybody can improve, of course, but they were, in general, kind of wonderful.

The project: Pick a phenomenon from US History, 1850 to the present, and document it using US Census data. Then dig deeper, asking and answering some follow-up questions. Bear in mind that we’re using Fathom, so have immediate access to that microdata, that is, gazillions of records of individuals.

A prototypical example is the “great migration” of Blacks from the south to northern cities. First, can you see it in the data? You bet. Look in Mississippi and Illinois in 1900 and 1940 and you’ll see the shift. And because we have the individuals, and their long-form Census data, we can ask, for example, where were you born? You can see clearly that many northern blacks were born in the south, but that the converse is not true. To dig deeper, you might ask, are there any states where this effect is more pronounced? Did Blacks from particular areas tend to migrate to particular parts of the north? Can we see evidence that men moved first and then brought their families? Like that.

One thing I loved about this project is that students approached these claims in different ways. One might look at the proportion of Blacks in the population in the north and south. Another might look only at the blacks, but look at the changing proportion of people who were born in their current state over time. And so on.

Also, it was great (as it was last year) that students got to pick things they were interested in, and follow it up. This year, I deliberately relaxed the rush to the end of the semester, and allocated an extra day in class to working on projects. For two sessions, I had to be away, so my sub and I arranged for me to Skype in. We had “Tim in a box”—my head on a laptop that got passed around so kids could ask questions.

I’m not sure about my SBG approach to the projects, but I think it works OK. I have seven learning goals that apply specifically to projects, but since we really have only this one big one this semester, there is really no chance to reassess. Some thoughts:

  • As it is, the LGs act more as a public list of expectations for the projects. This is good and useful.
  • I think they “count” differently than the more traditional, content-understanding LGs.
  • It’s not obvious how to assess skill and understanding when the thing you demonstrate is different. For example, there’s a Learning Goal that’s essentially about how well your graphics support your argument. If your argument is simple and straightforward, do you get the same 4 for good support that you do if you’ve ingeniously figured out something subtle?
  • It would be even better if students could get feedback on these early, and I graded them harder.
  • I am grateful that these students are basically not grade-grubbers (knock wood).

Enough on that for now. I’m hoping to catch up on my reflecting now that break is here and I can breathe.

Oh, my additional excuses:

  • Kitchen remodel. We’re coming up to the one-year mark. To be fair, we have been cooking in the new space since September (only five months sleeping in friends’ basements, woo-hoo!). But lingering tasks have kept the house a construction zone.
  • Data Games. I have not been reporting at all on my work for that project. Maybe I should.
  • Daughter applying to med school. I had no idea what they had to go through. For us, it meant, among other things, a bunch of writing-energy, editing and commenting on essays. Often with strict (and strange) character limits. I mean, when your daughter says, Dad, can you look at this, it has to be under 2450 characters, you leap into the fray.
  • NaNoWriMo. I won!
  • Deciding to put my hat in the International Schools ring. Still not sure, but it does mean creating, among other things, a Personal Statement. Imagine my pleasure at giving it to the daughter for a read and edit. Great comments and suggestions!
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Tim Erickson

Math-science ed freelancer and sometime math teacher. In 2014–15, at Mills College in Oakland, California.

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