Evolution of my teaching and the surprising (to me) influence of Twitter

I was extrodinarily lucky to have an outstanding math teacher in high school.  Mr. Waterman set the bar about as high as it could be set and taught a generation of kids in Omaha about the beauty of math.  I stayed in touch with him after graduation and did as best as I could to approach teaching the same way he did.  He was also incredibly influential in helping me improve in teaching my own kids and provided me with dozens, and probably hundreds, of really helpful ideas for how improve the little videos we do.     With every new topic we cover, the first thing I try to think through is how he would teach it and hope to find an approach that would make him proud.


My first cut at standing in front of a class was in a program at MIT called Interphase.  I taught calculus in this program for 6 years both as an undergraduate and graduate student under the watchful eye of Arthur Mattuck.  He was the hardest of all hard asses when it came to views about teaching and my style didn’t connect with his at all.  And I mean at all. He gave me great feedback nonetheless, and put the fact that he could see that the kids were connecting with me and learning in front of the fact that he didn’t like my teaching style.    I was also lucky to have Mike Keynes, who is now a math professor at American University, teaching with me.  We learned a lot from each other.

In graduate school the teaching program was supervised by Susan Parker, who was and is still, beloved by her students.  She, like Mattuck, had quite a different approach to teaching than I did, but helped me become a much better in the classroom by the time I graduated.  It is always fun to go back and touch base with her when I’m up in Boston.

My two years at the University of Minnesota after graduate school were by far the most fun I’ve had teaching.  I taught a few college courses, but the real fun came from a special program that the University offered for local kids called the University of Minnesota Talented Youth in Mathematics program.  I worked with some sensational kids during the two years I was there.  One, Allison Gilmore, is now a postdoc in math at UCLA.  I’ve stayed in touch with a lot of these “kids” (who are now close to their 30s . . .) and it is so cool to see what they are all doing now.

One thing that was particularly fun with this group was the variety of interests they had in math.  Many, not surprisingly, were math contest kids just like I had been.  Helping them along with the various contest was an absolute blast.  Others were much more interested in pure math and I was able to get them involved in some pretty neat projects.  I did a reading course in Massey’s Algebraic Topology with Allison, for example, and now she does research in low dimensional topology.  Seriously . . . how freaking cool is that!!

Another valuable experience there was working with two other people – Cindy Kaus and Doug Shaw – who joined the faculty there about the same time that I did.  They both had completely different interests in math than I did (Cindy had been an engineer before getting her math PhD, for example) and connected with the kids in ways that were really different than how I did.  There was always something to learn.  Doug’s now at Northern Iowa and Cindy’s just won a Fulbright award and is spending this semester teaching and reseaching math in the Seychelles – fun!

Having left academia in 1999, I haven’t really had any new people to talk math with in a while.  As I said, I got a lot of great feedback from Mr. Waterman when I started doing the math videos on line, but I still felt that I wasn’t doing as good a job as I could.  It was much more difficult than I thought it would be to teach really basic math to my kids.

Somehow or other I stumbled on twitter and ran across an almost overwhelming about of information and ideas about math.  It is actually pretty difficult to sort through all of it, but after a while I found a few voices that really have struck a chord.  One is Patrick Honner who, because of his incredible and infectious love of math, seems very much like a younger version of Mr. Waterman.  Although he teaches high school level courses, I’ve been able to take a few of the ideas that he’s posted about and turn them into fun lessons for the boys.

And then there is Fawn Nguyen.  She teaches middle school in California and has the most creative ideas for teaching math that I’ve ever seen.  Even better, she’s constantly sharing all of her incredible ideas on Twitter and on her various websites.  It is remarkable to me that someone who lives 3000 miles away can have such a positive impact on my teaching, but I guess that’s the power of the internet!

I was thinking about some of her visual methods as I was getting ready to teach my youngest son about adding fractions today.   The approach I’d taken with my older son a few years ago was mainly computational, which is certainly consistent with how I think about the world.  Seeing Fawn’s work since then opened my mind to many new ways of thinking about teaching this material, though, and this morning we made this little video as a starting point about adding fractions:


I’ve been lucky to have so many great colleagues and mentors over the years, and I’m happy with how my own teaching is evolving because of their influence.  I think Mr. Waterman would be happy about the evolution too, and that makes me really happy, too.