A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to work with Brad Wilson and #MichEd, an effort to connect Michigan teachers and students and highlight the amazing things going on around Michigan schools. If you want to know more about them, head here: http://miched.net/. You can also check out more pictures from his visit by clicking on the picture above.

This experience has, by far, been one of the best I’ve had in the world of education. Brad visited the classroom that I am currently teacher assisting in to highlight what new teachers are bringing into the classroom. The lesson that I taught was a hands-on activity in which students were to create their own hubcaps, focusing on maintaining rotational symmetry. This served as an introduction to the concept, forcing students to use manipulatives in order to understand the ideas behind rotational symmetry. Students used paper plates, angle rulers, and wooden shapes to construct artistic hubcaps that were rotationally symmetric. They learned about what it means to have rotational symmetry, what an angle of rotation was, and the order of rotational symmetry. My students gained so much from this activity. They were having fun, talking about mathematical concepts, and working collaboratively to achieve their goal. (Plus, we got some pretty awesome new decorations for the classroom out of it too.)

The main reason Brad was there, both in my classroom and later in a discussion with other Grand Valley teacher assistants, was to understand what new ideas future teachers were bringing to the table and how we were implementing them in the classroom. One of the main ideas in the lesson that I taught was working with manipulatives. Were they necessary in building an understanding for my students? Why did I choose to use them? I truly believe that students need to construct their own understanding. Too much of mathematics education of the past has focused on teachers spewing out information and hoping students would absorb it. This isn’t how people learn math. That’s not how people learn anything. Instead, we need to be guides in students’ education. Throughout my lesson, students were constructing their own meaning on what rotational symmetry meant. They had guidelines to follow, but were forced to make decisions on how to place shapes in order to maintain the symmetry they desired. Some students split their hubcap into 8 slices and made each slice rotationally symmetric. Some students made 8 slices but made every other slice rotationally symmetric. And they could argue why it worked. The student who made all 8 slices identical only had to rotate their hubcap to the next slice to reach a point of symmetry. The student who skipped slices had to rotate two slices. But, still, they both had rotational symmetry. It’s these ideas that students develop THEMSELVES that are important. I could tell them what rotational symmetry was. I could show them examples. But, that doesn’t teach them how to DO mathematics. They aren’t DOING anything.

During our discussion with Brad, all of us GVSU students discussed how we have seen math change. We’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to be a part of the movement toward better math teaching, and better teaching in general. When we were in school, we were part of the “old” ways. We were set there to absorb information that our teachers spit out. We were sponges. Which also meant that we could wring ourselves out after a test and forget everything we learned. Until college. That’s when it changed for all of us. We had professors and classes that changed almost everything we knew about math education, what DOING math really was. We were using manipulatives for the first time since elementary school. We were constructing pictorial representations. We were explaining our thinking. FOR THE FIRST TIME. As 21-year-old college mathematics majors, we were doing math for the first time. Why? Why didn’t our teachers teach us in the way we were learning now? So much has changed since we learned math that we had to learn it all over again. And, it’s for the better. We’re taking this new idea of doing math into classrooms with us. We’re teaching our students what it means to do math and not just absorb information. We’re teaching them how to be problem-solvers, how to work together. We’re teaching them how to construct their own learning and discover ideas. We’re teaching them how to explain their thinking, develop conceptual understandings, and really DO math.

Brad is creating a podcast with all of the things we talked about over at #MichEd in the near future, so I won’t give everything away. But, we’re focusing on the future and we’re focusing on the students. We’re doing what’s best for them, not what’s easy, and not what our teachers of the past have done. There are so many great teachers in Michigan flooding our schools with great ideas, innovative strategies, and a passion for teaching students. This next generation of Michigan teachers feels the same.