For the past two years I have seen 13 students, four times a week. They arrived as newbies in Yr7, I arrived as a newbie teacher. We grew up together in School 21.
I would have spent more time working 1:1 with opinion-forming students who sometimes disrupted the dynamic. Overall however, it was an unbridled joy to work with the group, and I look forward very much to seeing them about the school.
Another heart-warming Parkrun with students from school. I ran with Abdul (24 minutes), encouraging him to push on through a stitch, which he nobly did for the majority of the run. Esther ran with the girls, and tried to explain to them what a PHD was. Heather coached Yasir, and other runners supported us all through our struggles.
Parkrun is an oustanding thing for students to get involved in:
Achievable (5km is accessible for all – nothing wrong with walking)
Minimal admin from teachers – students just turn up and run!
Inspired by the work of Julian Beever (whose work I learnt about at the Chicago Lab Summer School), we spent 6 weeks understanding how to use our knowledge of trigonometry, similar triangles and three-dimensional thinking to make pavement art.
A year later, I look back on this project as a turning point with this class – earning their trust and respect. Although some of the mathematical learning was insecure and needed to be revised, we came together as a group and thought hard about how to apply abstract concepts to tangible products.
On a swelteringly hot day in the final week of school, I took my coaching group out of London for the day, to Epping Forest. (There is evidence of human history in the forest from 2,7000 years ago. It is the size of 3,300 football pitches. There are 50,000 ancient trees. Henry VIII hunted here. The ponds dotted around were born of bomb craters from WW2).
Understand why people use green spaces, by conducting a questionnaire
Interacting with members of the public is always great. Especially when they are from a different walk of life – the old lady who had walked in the Forest every day for 50 years…
Have fun outdoors!
Once the kids got past their fear of dogpoo and bugs, finished playing games about who fancies who, then the beauty of their environment flourished. Climbing trees, throwing a ball about, excitedly watching birds, running to stroke a dog…
Spread kindness in the forest, by picking up litter
We became detectives, imagining the past life of the wrapper/can/condom that we were picking up. Who had dropped it? Why?
By far the highlight (for me at least – the students’ highlight was lunch) was ploughing through the forest, navigating our way to Connaught Water by our shadows alone. Jaydan constantly checked that his shadow was behind and to the left, as Sophie had told us to do. We dived off the path, over streams, under branches, through bushes. Great teamwork, helping each other through difficult patches. Finally shades of blue spotted through the trees, and we emerged, joyous, on the lakeside.
Edit: wisdom from Kate on how to deal with negativity
(Kids are strange beasts: those who were most vocally against the idea of tramping around a forest told me two days later that it was the highlight of their two years with the coaching group…)
Go bold on games, when tiredness is an issue
Everyone is experiencing the same rain/hills/tiredness. There are two types of people. Drains only are interested in talking about the problems, focussing on the bad stuff. Nobody likes to be around a drain. Radiators focus on the good things, they recognise that some things are difficult but they think of solutions
Completely ignore negativity
Quiet words with ringleaders
All good advice for any groupwork. Somehow it becomes more amplified when outdoors. Just as students struggle to transfer learning from science to maths, teachers struggle to transfer techniques from the classroom to the forest?
I spent an enjoyable if busy week thinking with a bunch of prospective A level students about Infinity. We chose the topic of the endless because it is not explicitly A level content, but is beautiful, important, broad and relatively accessible.
The problems we gave the students were challenging, probably slightly too much so. At the beginning of the week they were struggling to cope, but by the end we had noticed a significant improvement in problem-solving skills. Students were able to stick with a problem for more time (2.5 hrs on the second day, on one problem, was maybe too much of an ask), and were more comfortable collaborating with each other.
I noticed (as did other teachers) a shift in my teacher personna. No longer requiring to behaviour-manage (or maybe that is wishful thinking – a few were misusing their phones for example), I was able to focus more on the mathematical concepts.
There are two types of problem-solving. The sniffing dog follows his nose, working forwards (sometimes haphazardly), doing what he can do, until a pattern forms. The wise elephant thinks carefully about what she wants to achieve, and then works backwards from this. The students picked up this language from the week, and agreed that excellent problem-solvers were able to use a synthesis of the two approaches
All maths teachers descended into an afternoon session for the Festival of Problems. We used some outstanding questions (from Westminster School, curated by Kings Maths School), and had a grand time. If the questions are good enough, then minimal structures are needed.
Feedback from students:
Long open problem-solving sessions were amazing (contrary to my perception that the students were burnt out by the end of it, most of them said they loved being able to spend so much time on one thing).
Don’t ask us to read chapters on things we haven’t learnt about yet (almost all said this)
Introduce more practical hands-on sessions
A few pics of the week:
We had an entire floor to work with, which was amazing.
After spending the the week at School 21, KS and I took the remaining students (large rate of attrition in the buyer’s market of sixth forms) to Cambridge, to present what they have thought about to professional mathematicians (or, my friends and brother all who studied Part 3 and mostly are in the middle of PHDs). Tabitha, from Underground Maths, then led a problem-solving session, on this problem about the difference of two squares.
The students presented on:
A problem I grappled with
A story that resonated with me
A question for my audience
Tabitha would carefully listen to a group, before adding optional questions – “I have an idea. You don’t need to follow it, but you could”
Look before you leap. Too often I jump straight in, possibly repeating thoughts the students have already have, or derailing their thought process.
Nina did not know how to use a calculator, one of the students (much to their amazement), had to teach her.
Professional mathematics is not about calculation. Constantly remind students about this
Several of the PHD students had to struggle to understand the ideas being spoken about. “Wait, what even is an infinite fraction?” one asked.
Everyone, when meeting new Maths for the first time, struggles.
“It feels like it will be finite, because it is not very wiggly” said Tom.
Professional mathematicians use intuition much more than students. Nurture intuition more explicitly.
The session was the highlight of the week, because the professional Mathematicians were instinctively and continually asking excellent questions and providing incredible explanations. All students were hooked.
A reinforcement in the belief that content knowledge should never be underestimated…
One student had never eaten a raspberry. Another had never seen a tennis court. Several spoke about Hogwarts.
Do not forget the “side”-effects of trips to contrasting places.