Monday, August 31, 2020

Why I'm Interested in Primary Sources

As I was reviewing blog posts and webinars from the Library of Congress, I found a good community builder that might be useful, especially for remote learning.  The activity is called "Hide and Seek", and the example used the picture shown here.  You can find the entire webinar with a couple more activities and a bunch of ideas here.  (Scroll down to the May 27th entry.)

Brainstorming with a colleague, there are also a bunch of number-related questions of various levels we could ask about this picture: How many people are in the picture?  If the buildings shown have stores on the ground floor, and apartments above, how many apartments might be visible in this block?  The photo was taken in New York City around 1900; what was the population of NY at that time and what was the population density?  Could we use this picture to estimate the population density?  These questions are not necessarily the most profound things to ask, but maybe learning to ask questions could be the bigger idea here, rather than just finding the answer to a problem.

Solving problems is something we do quite a bit in math classes, but I (and I know many other teachers) try to incorporate reasoning skills and other practice standards into my lessons.  So I've been thinking quite a bit about how primary sources like this are related to math classes, and at this point, I've come up with a few general categories.  We can use primary sources to ...

  • practice asking math questions (like we did for the picture above)
  • jump into a modeling activity, where students have to solve an ill-defined problem by making and identifying assumptions, defining variables, and practicing an iterative solving process
  • engage students with a story or historical context for the math ideas
  • represent data and interpret data representations (and the biases inherent in those representations)
  • connect math ideas to students' experiences by looking at documents through different lenses: mathematical, historical, personal, or social justice
  • make clear connections between thinking skills they use in other classes and in life and ways of thinking mathematically, like identifying facts versus inferences or asking open versus closed questions
  • spark inquiry-based learning activities.
All of this really excites me.  I don't have lots of details or examples of these uses worked out yet, so that's something I'm going to work out as I continue my research.  I plan to post some ideas here, and hopefully on one of the LoC blogs as well at some point.

Picture Source: Detroit Publishing Co., Publisher. Mulberry Street, New York City. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

A New Adventure

 I had forgotten that I started this blog until recently, when I needed to review some things I had written as part of my application to the Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship.  So now I've started the actual Fellowship, working at the Library of Congress, and thought this would be a good time and place to record some of my thinking and learning.

I first heard about the AEF Program at an NCTM or ICTM annual convention about 15-20 years ago.  Having small children at the time, I thought taking a year off to work in Washington D.C. would not be a good idea right then.  About ten years ago, my wife found herself talking to a former Fellow, and we talked about the possibility of applying, but the timing did not seem right at that point either.

In the last few years, I've started to feel a little stale in my teaching practice.  I was feeling a little constrained in what I could do given the time and curriculum I was working with, and I had been teaching the same classes for several years.  Last October, I was talking with my wife about my feelings, and she suggested I apply for the Einstein Fellowship.  My older son had already graduated college and was out on his own, and my younger son was away at school himself, so the timing seemed good if I did get the appointment.  So now, nine months after submitting the application, here I am, working in the Library of Congress in the Learning and Innovation Office.  Well, not really in a Library building; COVID-19 has me and my colleagues working remotely for now.

And my brain is being stimulated in so many new ways!  I am learning lots of new acronyms (sometimes even the person using the acronym is not sure what it means), meeting some fantastic people who are Fellows working in other agencies or on Capitol Hill, browsing through the LoC's online collections, meeting more new people in the LIO* and beyond, and thinking about how the primary sources available online can help math teachers, and how a math teacher might view some of these sources through the "magic glasses" of math.  The information flood in the last two weeks has been like drinking from a fire hose, but at least the water's been warm.

A black and white picture of a library table surrounded by shelves of books four stories tall
As I browse the Library's online collections, read the articles and blog posts, and watch some recommended webinars, I've found myself deep in several rabbit holes of information.  It's been fantastic!  I already have ideas about some avenues I'd like to research, and articles I'd like to write.  I'll write more about those later.  In the meantime, here's a picture of the Library of Congress when it was still in the Capitol Building.  I think this is the version of the Library that was made of iron, to reduce the risk of losing the collection to fire for a third time.  The LoC is no longer in the Capitol (with somewhere around 200 million items in the collection, there wouldn't be room for the congress-folk), but has three buildings right across the street.  The Jefferson Building is the best known with its marble staircase, amazing murals and sculptures, and the iconic Reading Room.  When the office can return to the building, I'll be somewhere in the Madison Memorial Building or the Adams Building; both are just across the street and connected by tunnels.  (Getting to see the tunnels and the other non-public spaces is really exciting; I hope we can be back in the building soon!)

I'm really glad to have this opportunity, and tremendously grateful that the folks who oversee the AEF Program and the folks who I'll be working with saw something in my application that matched what they were looking for.  I look forward to learning with my fellow Fellows and with my LIO colleagues.  My plan is to post something here regularly about my experiences, and show my work.

Picture Credit: Chase, W. M., photographer. Congressional Library, U.S. Capitol. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.

* LoC is the Library of Congress, and LIO is the Learning and Innovation Office.  This office is part of the CLLE division, but I'll have to look that one up to remember what it means.  See what I mean about acronyms?