My classes started last week. This semester I have only two, which is good because I also have a sabbatical application, a promotion application, and contract renewal this year, along with a large responsibility in committee work. I’m teaching calculus and abstract algebra, both of which are both fun and challenging classes to teach. This semester my calculus class is the largest yet for my institution, which in itself really rocks. But I was unable to find a course assistant, so I’m managing all the work on my own. Thus I’ve tried to organize the heck out of it. I’m having students report on their own work each week and check their own solutions. I’m having them do more work in class that ever, and actually just more work than ever. And I haven’t even given them a textbook. Me and textbooks just don’t get along. I am never satisfied with the textbook for any class, and as a result I generally stop using them by midterms. So I decided to give it up. I’m having the students keep notebooks that are comprehensive and well organized, in part to make up for the lack of textbook. I’m also giving them a weekly handout that describes just what I expect them to know from each week, tied to the course objectives, which I have spelled out in detail, and will expect them to report on their progress toward twice this semester. Too ambitious as always! I’m also having them do weekly “readings” that are sometimes overviews of topics, sometimes “how to” pieces, and sometimes videos of either stripe.
So far the class is great! The energy is really good, and most of the students are talking to each other and participating in discussions. The class energy feels great. For homework I had them work on the “bottle calibration” problem, a favorite of mine since Robin Gottlieb first showed it to me. We had a wonderful discussion and debate in which some people were wrong, but everyone seemed to still feel good about what was happening. That’s one of my favorite kinds of moments to create in class. I’ve been peppering a lot of my class talk and individual conversations with comments about how its great when people disagree, are confused, or don’t know how to do something because that’s the only way we learn. I might give them some reading later in the semester on growth mindsets.
I’m having them ask questions online each week as part of a reading response and class response, and I got a great collection of questions from them and a good sense of their comfort levels — I have a lot feeling comfortable in class but with some nervousness about the material. I think that’s a great place to start and can set us up well for getting that “flow” state. A couple of students have said positive things about the class already. And in my feel-good moment of the week, and probably of the semester, a student of mine from Math, Art, and Design last semester reminded me today that one of the first things she ever said to me was, “You can’t make me like math.” Then she said that it turns out that she does like math now! That feels good, but it also feels even better that I can see her realizing that really does have the power to do math that she thought she was powerless against before. Not everyone can flip themselves around like she has, and it is inspiring to me when it happens. Mind you, I think I have been a good teacher for her, but that shift, it was all her being ferocious and refusing to let go of things she doesn’t understand!