Fiction, Fun and Fractions – Paul Kates

Today I’m recommending some holiday gift books for youngsters in late primary school through to high school — books that weave together, as the title of this post suggests, fiction, fun and fractions.  Each book finds its own way to free math from the classroom and bring it into the richer world of life and imagination to let children see and explore some of the magic, surprise and beauty in mathematics. It is my hope that some of the anxiety children may have about math will be replaced with fun and wonder.

Number Devil: a Mathematical Adventure  by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, 264 pages.

Robert, a boy of 12, is visited in his dreams by a cheeky devil who likes to talk about mathematics, which is not one of Robert’s favorite subjects at all. But Robert begins to like his imaginary discussions with his nightly visitor and comes to understand more of the mathematics he has seen before in class.  Over 12 nights of dreaming the devil shows Robert a wide range of mathematics topics (e.g. fractions, Fibonacci numbers, primes, series, etc) each explained in simple and engaging ways. And that is the goal of the book: putting fun and math together.

The Man Who Counted: A Collection of Mathematical Adventures by Malba Tahan, 256 pages.

This is a book that can be read aloud to a young child or read alone by anyone who enjoys an Arabian Nights fable. Thirty-four bite-sized episodes in the life of Beremiz Samir, The Man Who Counted, charm you with their elegance in both story and mathematical expression. Each episode presents an opportunity for the wise and learned Beremiz to call upon his mathematical ability to help someone in need or outwit troublemakers. The very young will enjoy the adventures alone until they are old enough to take interest in the simple, engaging puzzles embedded in the heart of each story, for this is a book to be read more than once.

The Math Olympian by Richard Hoshino, 482 pages.

This book is aimed at students from middle school to high school. Students who like math will learn a lot about problem solving to help them in their studies and maybe inspire them to enter the world of mathematics outside the confines of school. The book is constructed around five contest-level math questions. In trying to solve the questions, the main character, Bethany, passes on her mentors’ advice about how to understand mathematics. But the book is more than a very good primer about problem solving and math contests.

Students who don’t like math will be drawn into the story if they have a friend like Bethany, someone who does enjoy math. Bethany is excited about problem solving.  She puts her heart into doing the thing she loves and dreams about, becoming a Math Olympian. At the same time, Bethany is growing through her teen years like all her friends. The book is Bethany’s story, told in her own voice, about a struggle that many teens will find overlaps their own stories in different ways.

Letters to a Young Mathematician by Ian Stewart, 224 pages.

In a series of 21 fictitious letters to Meg, Professor Stewart addresses questions about the nature of mathematics and mathematicians, and how to succeed in an academic career in university mathematics, from undergrad to tenure. With humour, common sense and insight the book answers many questions of interest and concern to students:

  • Why do math?
  • How do I learn math?
  • How do I create math?
  • How do I teach math?

My reason for including this book is to help students who are moving from high school to university and need to know how they can do well in their new, more challenging environment. The first half of the book is meant for them.

I hope you find something in this book list to interest a youngster who likes to be read stories or an older child who may or may not be too keen on math.  I hope the readers find the charm, delight and passion in these books that I see.

P.S. Allow me to add a book list site named Mathematical Fiction you may not have heard of that caters to works of fiction about mathematics and mathematicians.

Learning to Learn – Paul Kates

person studyingNew undergraduates are already successful students when they arrive at university.  They come with learning habits developed over a decade’s time at school where “work harder” is a commonly followed injunction for improvement or to remedy declining achievement.

But learning at a university is more challenging than high school.  Students face increasing rigour combined with more and denser material all at a quicker pace.  Can students at university work smarter, making better use of their limited time? Continue reading Learning to Learn – Paul Kates

Wrapping to Uncover Learning – Monica Vesely

Many of us have likely heard the term wrapper or cognitive wrapper used when discussing ways to help our students in becoming more independent and self-aware learners. In particular, this term comes up when discussing assessment as a learning opportunity. So what exactly is a cognitive wrapper and how can it be used to aid learning?

In brief, a cognitive wrapper is a tool to guide students before, during or after a teaching and learning event to help them identify their own approaches to the teaching and learning event and what aspects of their behavior are productive and which aspects are not. It encourages students to purposefully examine what they can and should change so as to improve the teaching and learning experience. Wrappers are a structured way to guide students through a reflective process that increases their self-awareness and leads to a modification of behavior through self-regulation.

Continue reading Wrapping to Uncover Learning – Monica Vesely

A Day of Cultivating Curiosity in Teaching and Learning

What drives curiosity in our classrooms? Can curiosity be fostered or taught? These were just a few of the questions on the table at the University of Waterloo Teaching and Learning Conference on April 27. Our ninth annual conference, this year’s event brought together over 320 participants from across all Faculties at Waterloo and neighbouring universities to explore the role curiosity plays in teaching and learning. University of Waterloo’s President and Vice-Chancellor, Feridun Hamdullahpur, opened the conference with a territory acknowledgment and shared personal reflections on teaching and learning that highlighted the connections between this year’s conference theme, Cultivating Curiosity in Teaching and Learning, and last year’s conference, Learning from Challenge and Failure.

Curiosity is at the heart of inquiry and exploration and is a powerful motivator for learning. It speaks to our innate interest in seeking out novel ideas, and applies well to the learning process our students engage in every day. Curiosity also has real-life consequences—psychological research demonstrates that curiosity is linked to greater well-being (e.g., life satisfaction and expressing gratitude) and can also serve as positive motivation—studies show that curiosity can lead people to ask more questions, explore novel stimuli, and persevere when faced with difficult tasks. Continue reading A Day of Cultivating Curiosity in Teaching and Learning

From crisis to crisis: teaching in challenging times

A stressed out figure with head on desk surrounded by books
Bonhomme Stressed

I don’t know if it’s some kind of confirmation bias as I think about all the people around me, but this past term has seemed much more stressful for many staff, faculty, and students on campus. Including me! Burnout among students and instructors seems more prevalent than in prior terms.

I suspect that it may have something to do with uncertainties and the erosion of rights on every front as we all live through the (very real) simulacrum that is the 45th U.S. President right now, coupled with the ways in which media outlets and social media amplify certain kinds of story.

There are things that happen in the world over which we have no control, but that are part of an increasingly invasive news cycle. Even the weather network seems in constant panic mode with “Alerts” and “Special Statements” that, when opened, say little more than that typical seasonal weather is about to happen.

In the face of events that make the news ticker and get amplified by friends and family, it is often difficult to know what and what not to do in the classroom. Faculty have expressed to me a deep sense of care about how they themselves, and how their students, can best handle daily news of crises. One of the most cited web-based resources out there is a Vanderbilt University guide called Teaching in Times of Crisis. Originally written in 2001, after 9-11, it was updated by Nancy Chick in 2013.

The gist of this well-researched piece is that we should say *something* about a crisis event in class, but we should say it while also referring students (and ourselves I think!) to available resources. I strongly encourage people to spend some time reading this piece; it’s helped a lot of us to address things head-on in classes rather than ignoring the “elephant in the room.” These crises may be local or global — everything from bombings to stories about sexual assault, from school shootings to the removal of same-sex marriage rights.

I wonder, too, whether this is something that is mainly a question for people in social science, environmental or health studies, or arts disciplines, or whether colleagues teaching large first year classes in, say, Engineering or Physics or Math also think about this stuff? In my experience, yes, but it’s not as directly relevant to the topic of the week (as it may well be in my Women’s Studies first-year lecture).

Graduate and Postdoctoral Programming Updates – Jessica Jordao

Fundamenals Microteaching Session
Fundamentals Microteaching Session

During my short time as a Graduate & Postdoctoral Programs at CTE, I have come to realize how outstanding CTE’s graduate and postdoctoral programs really are. Our programs support UWaterloo graduate students and postdocs in their knowledge and skill development as university TAs and current and future instructors. The three programs offered, at no cost to the student, include the Fundamentals of University Teaching and the Certificate of University Teaching for graduate students and the Teaching Development Series for postdoctoral fellows. Continue reading Graduate and Postdoctoral Programming Updates – Jessica Jordao

Course Design Broke my Brain – Crystal Tse

Aaron Silvers Attribution

I took Course Design Fundamentals a few weeks ago, and it broke my brain – in a good way! I have taught before, but this was a great opportunity for me to revisit the course that I’ve been teaching for the past few years from a fresh perspective.

Here are a couple of my take-aways from this workshop that lays out the best practices for course design:

  • Alignment, alignment, alignment – between the intended learning outcomes for your students in the course, the course activities, and the assessment of students’ learning. It was great to have this connection made explicit. However, it was also a jarring experience as some of the concepts I wanted my students to learn were not made explicit in the activities the students engaged in. Time to remedy that!
  • Concept maps for your course are tough to make! I had never created one before for my course and was at a loss at first of how to structure it and what the main concepts I wanted my students to get out of my course. A bit of brainstorming and lots of sticky notes later, I finally fleshed out the main concepts. Two of them were actually not about course content. One was about helping first year students transition to university life (e.g., coping with stress effectively, how to study and take tests). I spend my first lecture telling students about my own experiences as a first year student – that it’s difficult and stressful, but that this stress was temporary and would soon be overcome. I revisit this point by telling stories of my own failures and successes, talking about healthy living, and checking in with students throughout the term. Another way to help with students’ transition is to build community in your classroom so students have support networks they can draw on in times of stress and uncertainty.
  • The other concept was to encourage metacognitive skills (i.e., how to encourage students to reflect and think about their own learning). I do different lecture wrappers (e.g., one minute summaries where students spend a minute writing about the main take-away from the class and what questions they still have that can be addressed in the next class). CTE has a great tipsheet on strategies you can use to encourage self-regulation in students’ learning that can be quick and don’t require a complete overhaul of your course. There are also many evidence-based strategies based on psychological research that can help students study more effectively and engage in more critical thinking.
  • Thinking more about incorporating students’ own experiences into the course in addition to my own perspective. Students come with a wealth of prior knowledge and life experiences that can be drawn on. In the past I have solicited students’ anonymous comments about a topic in the course (especially one that can be particularly controversial or sensitive) prior to class so they are ready for discussion. I’m excited to do this more!


Image provided by Aaron Silvers under the Creative Commons “Attribution” license.