Thursday, September 19, 2013

“It’s Time to Blow the Whistle”

By Angie Hodge

I’m three weeks into my Calculus I course, and it’s finally time to blow the whistle! Yay!!!

Why am I so excited about this? Am I serious? Well…

As you may know from our previous posts, Dana and I try a lot of different things in our classrooms to achieve the inquiry and engagement we're after. My “thing”for lack of a better termis collaborative learning or group work, which I currently use in a class of 40 calculus students.

I've even gotten money from our dean to transform one of the traditional classrooms here a University of Nebraska Omaha into one that promotes group work with whiteboards on all the walls and tables with movable chairs. I’ll talk about why this is important and give tips on how to get this sort of funding in a future blog post. For now, though, let’s go back to the whistle.

I’m teaching calculus as a night course this semester. It meets twice a week for two hours and 15 minutes per session. Such lengthy classes allow me to not only try longer conceptual activities, but also pair them with skills practice. Twice weekly classes aren't as conducive as daily ones are to building a community of learners, however. The students only interact with one another twice per week instead of four to five times. That’s a big difference!

Because of the less frequent contact, I was worried that it would take a while to build a meaningful and trusting community in my class. I was wrong. Today, I entered the class 65 minutes before it began. The room was buzzing with math talk!! About 15 out of 40 students were already in class clustered at the front table discussing the homework and take-home quiz. Not only are my students allowed to talk to one another about these assignments, their fellow students are the only humans with whom they may discuss them. That's probably why they were in the room early jabbering about math!

But I still haven’t told you about the whistle.

This “math talk” went on right up until class began. I helped answer questions when I was “needed,” but for the most part students were helping one another. It was clear from their conversation that they were catching on to some important mathematical skills: justifying, questioning, discussing, etc. They did this to such an extent that I had occasion to “blow the whistle.”

About a year ago, when a inquiry-based calculus class of more than 40 students got rather noisy, I jokingly said that I needed a whistle. Over winter break last year, I found an old-school whistle in a drug store near my parents’ small town. I bought it, still not knowing if I would actually use it.

Spring semester started and some of the students who had me for first semester calculus knew I had joked about buying and blowing a whistle. So when the class got working and was talking loudly, I blew the whistle. At first, it’s awkward to blow a whistle in a college class. It works, though!!!

We are like a sports team in my math classes. I may help by showing my students a new skill or leading them to discover it, but they need to practice the skill. They often need to work as a team to discover new strategies or figure out why those strategies work. The students need to be able to talk out loud to do this, so I let them. The only rule is that when the whistle blows, they stop the discussion. I promise not to take up too much time when I blow the whistle to bring the class together as a group, and the time I do take isn't just filled with me talking. I also let students share their ideas. Blowing the whistle is a fast, easy way to transition from gym-like loudness to focused, quiet attention.

I know it’s silly, but try it sometime if you have a large class. Dare to let your students explore their thinking, share their thoughts, and be mathematicians, knowing that one quick blow of the whistle is all it takes for the class to regroup!


April Halcomb said...

This is a fantastic idea. I've always wondered why more teachers don't do this. It's so much nicer to the students than getting worked up and yelling. Plus it saves your voice. ;)

My only question though is how do you make sure they are on the right path when they are working together, and how do you make sure everyone is working together?

Sue VanHattum said...

I would never have thought of blowing a whistle. I do have trouble with getting hoarse, especially on the days I teach 6 1/2 hours (4 for day classes, 2 1/2 for my evening calculus course). I will think about it.

April, you can't know whether they're all on the right path, but more of them are really learning than if the teacher talks most of the time.

Over the years, I've developed an ear for the tenor of social conversation versus math conversation. Tone of voice changes. I mention it and suggest they focus again on math.

Angie Hodge said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments! The short answer to April's question is that I am constantly on the move. I pretend I have eyes on the back of my head and ears like an elepahant! I agee with Sue that tone of voice does change when students get off task. They also get a bit quiter and the expressions on their faces often change. I think your comment is worthy of a full blog post soon on "facilitating group work in large classes."

Josiah K said...

As a student of Dr. Hodge's in her Calculus I class, I can attest to the fact that she has very good hearing :-)
She also does go around to the various tables of 3 or 4 students to check up on us and see how we are doing while group-working on some problem.