Posted by: rdkpickle | 08.28.2012

i also want you to learn…

Today I worked to make my syllabi a little less horrible. I looked back at last year’s and felt like I couldn’t actually see myself or the spirit of my classroom anywhere in the words on the paper. I know that’s hard to capture in a static document, but I wanted the things I truly value to be a little more explicit in the first handout they will ever get from me.

The course description is what it is (not written by me, an artifact of the school’s making) and the class procedures and other odds and ends were mostly unchanged (although I changed the wording so it was directed at the reader – “you should…”) I did spend some serious time rethinking and reworking the grade breakdown (“how the sausage is made” @tieandjeans), hopefully for the better… but the biggest change was creating some bloat in the middle of the syllabus by waxing poetic about what I really want students to learn in my class.

I also hope that you learn:

  • Problem solving techniques – I don’t just want this class to be “I show, you do.” Instead, I want you to develop an arsenal of reasoning skills that allow you to tackle new and challenging problems on your own. Expect to be active class participants, working hard to engage with the material on your own terms. “There is no one way” – and I want you to experience the thrill of pushing through frustration and discovering your own path to a solution.
  • To take intellectual risks and be mathematically fearless – Part of thinking like a mathematician is learning how to be comfortable in a state of confusion. I highly value the entire process of exploring a new topic or problem, not just the final answer. Doing math is messy – you may wander some paths that don’t lead you anywhere, but confidently sharing and analyzing mathematical missteps is an important part of the process. Don’t be afraid to be wrong!
  • To work collaboratively – Exploring and understanding math does not happen in isolation. Working with others and talking about math can help “unstick you” when you are stuck, or allow you to reach greater depths of understanding as you are forced to clearly explain your own ideas. All of us have different working styles, but I hope you push yourself to engage with your classmates in the learning process.
  • To make connections – Math is not just a series of isolated skills. Math is deeply connected to the world around us, and by talking about, writing about, and using technology to explore mathematical ideas, I hope you begin to make some of those connections.
  • To be curious – The topics that we will be exploring in class are only the beginning. Some of my favorite moments in class begin with the words “what if…” I hope that you will push yourself to think beyond what is expected and take ownership of your mathematical growth this year. You may find that your interest is sparked by a particular topic or concept, and I hope you run with it – your unique insights can expand the horizons of what is possible for us this year.

So this is where my brain is. I (think I) know what I want my classroom to look like this year… let’s go!



  1. Gah, Rachel, you’re AMAZING.

    • no, YOU ARE! I am behind on my gap year reading and finding myself wondering when you leave for school. Are you excited? Nervous? Ready? I so hope that you will make the time to visit and keep in touch… although I know I shouldn’t worry, because you’re so connected to FHS in so many ways. Let’s meet and learn from each other sometime soon. 🙂

      • This is awesome. It is funny and insightful that you understand your students this well. It is not ‘understood’ what your curriculum’s intentions are; this is not a ‘given’. Taking the time to show your students what you really want to do is vital.
        What I would love to suggest is to restate these purposes as often as possible, not just on your syllabus. If you post these in the classroom that would be great, but maybe focus on one each day or each week; read it aloud with your goals, purpose, or instructions on each day’s work. If these are your true intentions, it is a great idea to reiterate them early and often.
        Also, I LOVE the idea of letting your students take you on the journey of learning, because you’re right; I teach, you learn is exhausting after a while. By giving the students the right to ponder will invite them to be more of a participative member in the learning process.
        The pressure to ‘know’ is a very stressful part of teaching math. It is frustrating to not know. The worst part of taking standardized tests when I was in grammar school (as early as 2nd or 3rd grade) was thinking that I was supposed to know all the answers, and anything less was embarrassing. Don’t give up and don’t be afraid to be wrong, as long as your effort is your best. Giving the opportunity for partial credit based on creative effort or showing that you learned something thus far must be part of the grading process.
        Last, as I am a teacher candidate, everyone emphasizes to connect math to the world around students. Make it interactive and relevant, they say. Sure, that is a great idea, but how? I have barely a few ideas on how to do this, such as introducing fascinating jobs that involve math. How can you make math more relatable to students? Thank you for your blog post as it is inspirational, clever, and helpful!

  2. When do I get to be in your class? =)

  3. Thank you very much for this. I struggle to get these ideas and expectations through to my students, but never thought to be explicit about them up front. Even if I had, I’m not sure I could have written them better than you have. Well done!

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