Saturday, March 28, 2020

Putting Humanity First

When you unfortunately need to go to a friend’s funeral, you also have to figure out how to get there.  You need to make arrangements for hotel stay, travel, find out exactly when and where the services will be.  Maybe travel won’t go to plan, and there are things you can rightly complain about. But the main reason why you go to the funeral is for your friend you lost. It’s about the celebration of life, not the travel details.

At present, we have a lot on our plates. Converting an in-person class to online/virtual format is a huge task, and all the more challenging under the weight and stress of a crisis. But in the big picture how we deliver our content online is like the travel details to attend a friend's funeral. We have a lot of huge issues now that we never had to deal with before.

Lots of things don’t compute right now, since coronavirus arrived. I don't have a lot of answers. I do have some thoughts. Our whole world, our daily lives, even potentially our very own health and the health of loved ones are threatened. We are witnessing leaders call for trading lives to save the Dow Jones average. We are hearing reports of healthcare workers on the front lines, without proper equipment and support. Family businesses are going out of business. We are also seeing racism against Asians and Asian Americans.

In light of this, going on with business as usual with our teaching is for me something I am struggling with. I know this is a personal viewpoint. Some may need to dive into the details of a class to cope and distract. I get that, and I’m not arguing against what others are doing in this same situation.  What I am saying is that I personally can’t just sit back and say nothing or just teach my spring quarter class just like I did the last time. The world has changed, and so have I. In April, May and possibly beyond, we’ll be in the midst of toughest part of the first wave of the coronavirus. You can’t just ignore all the bodies in the corner, while going on about integration by parts without acknowledging what’s happening.

At the same time, we can’t lose sight of the goals of our classes. We still need to educate. Students still need to learn and build up for their lives and careers.  I’m not advocating for not teaching content either.

The world has far too many damaging, false dichotomies. Choosing between lives and the economy is the latest, terribly inhuman example. Others suggest we must choose between skills and conceptual understanding. Some suggest, falsely, that the choice is between helping underrepresented students or white students, as if kindness and inclusion is like pie. False dichotomies are red flags. It signals an agenda, bias, lazy thinking, or unwillingness to dig into the details of a complex issue.

The question for me at least is whether we will choose to be responsible to each other and ourselves and behave like grown ups.  Responsible adults study the data and evidence, and get on with solving problems in this new normal.

Specific to education, teachers can inspire and attend to basic skills, as well as ask students in earnest, “How are you doing?” Teachers can be flexible with lessons because the news we all just received is truly bad. Teachers can keep the door open, create space in class and in office hours (even virtually), check in on students, and show their own humanity, reasoning, and maturity in the face of a global crisis.  We are all scared. We all feel a range of emotions, and none of us have it all figured out or know what the future holds.

I’m teaching integral calculus online starting in about a week, and I plan to create spaces to build some community and have time set aside for us to discuss the global pandemic and how students are dealing with it. We (students and instructors) all have smart things we can share that will help others, and we can teach and learn to be better to one another. I'll also spend a lot of time developing an assessment plan that is standards based/mastery based, so that the stress of testing is taken off. The focus should be on learning (as always and even more important now).  That in a nutshell is how I'll try to be a responsible adult in my role as a math instructor. I teach students first and foremost, with Math as the context.

Yes, we can teach the usual things, all the while putting humanity first.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Thoughts On Human-Centered Virtual Teaching (Coronavirus)

My head is still spinning. We're living through the start of a global pandemic. I've had to do so much at home and work to prepare, that's it's been tough to even get enough sleep and take care of myself. Or fold that giant pile of laundry that's been sitting in the corner for days.

On to teaching... I've read many posts on twitter, in email, and articles about what to do to go virtual with our teaching. These discussions are great, and I've already learned a lot. People are stepping up and sharing really useful, real-world advice.  In this post I'm going to focus on one aspect of all this. I call it human-centered teaching.

When we teach in person, it's easier to get to know your students, mentor during office hours, run into students on campus and have a conversation. All these things are part of the package of student-centered instruction and being on campus, and many of these things are harder or nonexistent or must be recreated in different way in online settings. I have not figured this all out by any stretch. I don't think it's something we should feel bad about, and I know over time we will develop and figure some of this out.

I'm on quarter system, so we actually start spring term in early April. But even if we were on semesters I'd do the same thing I'm going to mention.  On the first virtual meeting day, I have two main goals. One is to meet and set virtual class norms (e.g. everyone turns on video, raising hands, muting), and practice using the technology. All of this is new, so we're going to need to get comfortable with our new normal routines.

The second goal is to open up a space for students to share some of their thoughts and feelings and make human connections with their classmates and me. This is the most important thing, in my opinion, to accomplish on day 1 (and keep going). The context surrounding us is a global pandemic. Millions will get sick, and globally many will die or lose someone close. This is hard stuff, and it's desperately real. Students who are young and just at the beginning of their adult lives are dealing with the uncertainty and turmoil of an enormous natural disaster, all the while going through the disruption of having to move home and be separated from their friends. In light of this, it's even more important to try and create a team spirit in our classes.

How will I try to do this? I plan to set aside class time for students to share their thoughts on the coronavirus pandemic. One specific strategy I used to get people to participate online (zoom conference calls) is to use a google doc with a 3xN table (N= number of students +1).  Here's a hypothetical example:

Students pick a row and are paired with another student with the same number.  I give them a pronpt, and they type at the same time, while I observe and make comments. (Using this strategy also needs to be normed.)

Further, I plan to create a chat space on Canvas for discussion strategies for how to study, self care, random questions or comments. I'll send out regular emails to keep the door open for students, and invite students to virtual office hours (or 1-1 meetings) to discuss math, learning, be a mentor, just be there to listen. I'm sure I'll have to adapt and add more things, but these are my initial plans to setup a framework for human interaction.

Another important mindset I'll focus on is keeping a healthy perspective for myself. We are not trying to recreate our in-person classes. Almost all of us are going online for the first time. Trying to cover everything just like before and in the same way is not going to happen. My focus will be on being present in each moment, trying my best, and working to improve each and everyday (Shokunin Spirit).

Lastly, I'd like to mention that we should be gentle on ourselves. We all going through a lot, and we should allow ourselves to be human, to make mistakes or not have the "best" class session. What truly matters is that we care and our students know we care about them. If it doesn't go like we planned, it's ok.

That's my initial plan for implementing human-centered virtual teaching. Sending positive thoughts. Stay safe and healthy!

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Draft Plans for Running a Virtual Class

Let me frame this post first with some initial thoughts... Sometimes life throws us all a curveball. Coronavirus is here, and CDC and others have warned us that major disruptions are coming. This is a very serious situation with a lot of levels, nuances, emotions, and sadly tragedy. People have and will suffer, and first and foremost I am wishing you all the best and hope you can stay strong and safe.

Some basic things I'm doing now to help keep my students and myself safe:
  1. Inform my students about what they can do.
  2. I bring cleaning supplies to class daily to clean desks.
  3. I also bring tissues and will bring hand sanitizer when it's in stock again.
  4. I've adjusted my attendance policy, and am asking students to stay home if they feel sick.
School closure is a strategy used in country for social distancing. This is used to flatten the epidemic curve to slow spread, provide necessary time and capacity for medical care, and a necessary part of battling a disease to keep people safe.  I'm for whatever keeps us the safest.

What this means is many of us may have to teach virtual classes. I'm on quarter system, and we are wrapping up winter term. Spring term starts at the end of March, and that could be when things change significantly. People on semester system might need to switch in the middle of the term, so that brings its own set of issues.   

A bit about some of my relevant background. Many of us have not taught online. I haven't, at least not a fully online class. I have taught hybrid online here and there, and have run faculty development workshops using zoom and a couple other tools.  Tools like zoom are going to make this easier, and I think the tech is there to make this work well enough. 

I'm sharing my own draft plans via google slides (linked HERE and embedded below). These are my draft thoughts on how to organize class via a simple framework, which others might find useful as a starting point.  I'll update this regularly as things develop. I know there are much more experienced people on this issue, so find and share resources you have.

At the bare minimum, an instructor can give lectures via zoom at the scheduled class time, and setup office hours via zoom. I personally will do much more, since I use IBL methods, but I think it's worth sharing that switching to virtual is not that scary, and certainly worth it given the situation.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Summer 4-Day IBL Workshops 2020

AIBL is offering a range of IBL Workshops in 2020. This post is about one of the types. Other types of workshops will be posted here soon. 

Our "classic" IBL Workshop is a 4-day summer intensive workshop. We've been running these since 2006, and have developed these over time to make them as good as we can. A summer intensive workshop is one of the best ways to get started with IBL or sharpen up your IBL skills. Our main target audiences are math instructors at 2-year, 4-year, other graduate degree granting institutions. We especially encourage faculty in the early stages of their career to attend one of our workshops. Community college math instructors are also welcome, and I want to point this out specifically. 

Why attend a workshop? The main benefit is that it supercharges your teaching. You get to work with experienced facilitators and join a community of math instructors going through the same type of transition to active, student-centered teaching. It's fun, you make new friends and colleagues, and you could teach in ways that transforms the learning experience for your students. 

Our motto is People First Professional Development. We don't have specific curricula or a set model of IBL. We work with individuals and put at the center of our work you, the participant, and your students. We work from that starting point to help instructors find a good solution within the IBL framework.

Workshops are funded generously by the National Science Foundation (NSF DUE 1525058). Most of the cost of attending is paid for by the grant. Participants are responsible for paying the registration fee, some meals, and travel costs. Early-career faculty (e.g. postdocs, new instructors, assistant professors) are eligible for travel scholarships of up to $500. We work with you and your department to figure out how to get you there.

The LA Workshop is June 16-19, 2020 at the Staybridges Suites in Torrance, CA.
The DC Workshop is at the MAA Carriage House, Washington DC, June 23-26, 2020.

For those who cannot travel, we are planning a virtual IBL Workshop in July. More details are forthcoming. We realize that not everyone can travel and that work travel increases significantly our carbon footprint. We are working hard to develop and provide "next gen," sustainable professional development.

More details about traveling workshops and workshops for courses for future elementary teachers are coming soon.  Hope to see you at a workshop this year!


Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Interview: Professor Matthew Boelkins, Grand Valley State University and Active Calculus

Hi everyone! A massive thanks to Professor Matthew Boelkins, Grand Valley State University, for taking the time to share some info about his project, Active Calculus.  -SY

1. Please tell us about yourself.
I've had the good fortune to serve on the math faculty at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, MI, for more than 20 years.  I'm also one of the two editors-in-chief of PRIMUS (Problems, Resources, and Issues in Mathematics Undergraduate Studies), and have held that position for 5 years, following 5 years as associate editor.  My interests span a wide range of undergraduate teaching and learning of mathematics, but much of my recent creative energy has been focused on developing textbooks that encourage active learning.

2. Briefly describe “Active Calculus”? How much does it cost to the student?
Active Calculus (there are both single and multivariable texts; I'm the lead author of the single variable one, and will focus on that in my responses) is a free, open-source textbook designed for a standard calculus sequence taught from an active learning perspective.  Rather than lots of worked examples, most of the text is structured around activities for students that are designed to be completed before or during class, the latter with encouragement and feedback from peers and instructor.  Interested people can learn more at

3. What are some of the reasons why you decided to write “Active Calculus?”
There were two main reasons.  First, I read an article in MAA FOCUS about the \$21M home built by the author of a popular calculus textbook.  I figured that if the author had earned that much in royalties, the publisher had likely made \$210M.  It was no longer tenable for me to ask my students to pay \$150 for a textbook that had ideas in it that had been well understood by humankind for decades, even centuries.  I wanted to write something that would be free for them.

In addition, while at the time I began writing (around 2010) I didn't fully know the scholarship that tells us why active learning is better,  I used a lot of active learning in my own teaching and had found my students to be more successful than when I used to lecture.  Having developed a collection of activities for calculus to use in my own teaching, I had the idea to use those as the foundation for the textbook, and that's what led to Active Calculus.  When the Freeman report came out in 2014 (, that provided added motivation for making the text a good one.

4. What is a typical day like in a course using “Active Calculus” when you teach using it? Can you use it with flipped learning or with IBL methods?
For each class meeting, I prepare a written script with estimated times.  In advance of most classes, students complete a "daily prep assignment" that normally consists of a short reading, a preview activity from the text, and 1-2 additional questions; students spend 30-45 minutes completing these, and their work is graded on effort and completeness for 5\% of their semester mark.  Most classes then begin with a "daily prep debrief & discuss" (6-8 minutes) where students check in with one another and see what questions they might want to discuss as a class.

From there, we usually engage in some brief (5-7 minutes) lecture & discussion to build on daily prep and set stage for an activity.  Students then work in groups of 3-4 on an activity from the text for 15-20 minutes, followed by or including some discussion for closure, transition, and new ideas (adding another 5-10 minutes), and then we are on to the next activity for 15-20 minutes.  Often I teach our 4-credit calculus class on a schedule with two 2-hour meetings a week, so we basically rinse and repeat this schedule for a second hour, but without a daily prep assignment to start the 2nd hour.

I've written a blog post that has some more information and detail, including references to key preface sections of the text for students and instructors, as well as a video for students on how to use the text:

I think the text is particularly well-suited to a flipped learning setup:  when I have students complete daily prep assignments, they are doing some key basic learning on their own outside of class.  The in-class activity-driven style also fits with engaging students during class in the some of the most important and demanding work of the course.  Some of my GVSU colleagues have created screencasts that accompany the text, and these would work especially well for a flipped experience:

For IBL practitioners who have worked with that approach using more traditional texts like Stewart or Hughes-Hallett, I think you'd find Active Calculus to be a suitable companion for such a course.

5. What are some of the responses by faculty and students after using “Active Calculus”?
For views of some faculty who have reviewed or used the text, see  I get a lot of email traffic about the text, and many of those responses express gratitude for the text.  Recently, an instructor who is a first-time user this fall sent me a very kind thank-you note: "I wanted to write to say how much I've appreciated Active Calculus.  I was a bit suspect (I've been using Stewart), but I am so impressed with it.  I like the problems, the students working in class, the organization ... it's really quite good.  I'm excited to be teaching this class again.  And thanks for saving our students some money as well."

This fall, I also surveyed Active Calculus users via my email list and Twitter, and in an open comment part of the survey, I got additional feedback such as:

"I appreciate you and your work on this so much. It's really let me teach calculus in the way I want to without having to create the material from scratch. A million thanks."

"The book is well thought out with great examples. When I teach the class, I really feel like I am actively working through the book with the students. One comment our Quantitative & Symbolic Reasoning Center director told me was that students in Active Calculus sections are asking why a concept is true and being stuck on the theory, while students not using AC are asking questions on the algebra and not thinking about the concepts of the course. "

"I really appreciate the structure and the way that the text works. It has been a game changer for my teaching of Single Variable Calculus! Our pre-calc teacher is now using Active Prelude as one of her core texts and we are excited to see how that influences students being prepared for my class."

"I've been using Active Calculus since my first year of teaching AP Calculus AB and I can't imagine using any other curriculum.  I cannot thank you enough for the time and energy that you have put into your work and my hundreds of students over the years thank you as well."

As to what students say, I think that many students find the book different at first, and thus at times frustrating.  They have been trained to expect a book that has lots of fully-worked examples, followed by exercises that are similar to the examples.  Active Calculus is not that way.

Some of the instructors who responded to my survey commented on what students say:

"It's an excellent book. Students and I both really appreciate its clarity and accessibility. Just yesterday I was recommending to a student the very nice "Summary" bits at the end of each section, and they said, "oh, that's exactly what I was looking for.""

"I really like the text and got mostly positive comments from the students on the course evaluations last year.  In the past, the comments were almost all negative or neutral."

"I asked my students and they expressed appreciation for how easy it is to read. Some students also said they wished there were more examples, which gave me an opportunity to remind them why there aren't more examples. :)"

6. How widespread is “Active Calculus”?
One of the challenges of having a text that's free and available online is knowing exactly where it is being used.

I'm aware of at least 17 4-year universities, 2 2-year colleges, and 5 high schools that have formally adopted Active Calculus as their required textbook.  People from at least another 30 institutions have responded to my recent survey to say they are using it fully in their own course, even though the text hasn't been adopted by all of their peers.

Here's the list of adopters I have at present:
California State University, Monterey Bay
Carroll College
Doane University
Dordt University
Lane Community College
Laurentian University (@ St. Lawrence College)
Lebanon Valley College
Lenoir-Rhyne University
Nevada State College
Scottsdale Community College
Sonoma State University
St. Mary's College of Maryland
Texas Lutheran University
The College of Idaho
University of Northern Colorado
Vermont Commons School
Vernon Hills High School
Westfield State University
Westminster College (SLC)
Westmont College
Wyoming Seminary

7. Could this book be used in high school?
Absolutely, and several of them have publicly shared their experiences.  For instance, Dave Sabol of St. Ignatius High School has used AC for several years and writes about corresponding activities he has developed on his blog,  Jim Pardun and Steve Korney of Vernon Hills High School recently presented on their work teaching AP Calulus using AC at the regional NCTM conference in Nashville.

8. What are your future plans for your texts?
The overall goal is to keep making both Active Calculus and Active Prelude to Calculus better.

For Active Calculus, the original text was written in LaTeX and later converted to PreTeXt, which allows the HTML output.  I'm realizing that I haven't yet taken advantage of many of the features PreTeXt offers, such as having better cross-referencing, a better index, and more interactive features.  A first goal is to make revisions to take advantage of those features.  I am also considering adding Sage cells to the text to offer some embedded computation and experimentation for students; having some interactive computational opportunities is a second thing I hope to incorporate in the not distant future.  And a third significant goal is to have some additional exercises, ideally with many of them focused on modeling and applications.

For Active Prelude, this is the first year the text has been public, so I'm waiting on some user feedback to see where to focus energies next.

9. Anything else?
People can learn more at and, and I always appreciate hearing directly from users or people interested in the text by email at boelkinm at gvsu dot edu.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Even Mr. Miyagi Had Student Buy-In Issues Initially (Humor)

Even Mr. Miyagi had student buy-in issues. If you've seen the movie, The Karate Kid, you know these "wax on, wax off" training scenes, which is clearly active, Daniel-san-centered teaching. You wouldn't just want to only watch videos or watch demos, if you need to face real humans in a karate tournament. It seems like avoiding a kick to the head might require more than factual knowledge of what a kick is and knowing about the existence of a block or an avoidance move.

Let's take a look at a key segment, where Daniel doesn't see the point of all his practice, and has a blow up.

When viewing this scene from a teaching point of view, it comes down to Mr. Miyagi not framing and signposting the activities.  "You're doing this to get stronger at ..."  Instead, he assigned Daniel exercises, and did not tell him what these exercises were for. So naturally Daniel was upset, because he could not see the connection to learning karate. Finally, Mr. Miyagi does some student buy-in work, and has Daniel demonstrate that he actually has strengthened his defense abilities. At that point, Daniel made a big step forward in student buy-in, after getting some positive feedback from this teacher.

(Now of course this a movie, and drama is needed. I wouldn't change the movie, nor is this a film critique.)

If we boil things down to their essence, the situation is (a) instructors know what the connections are and the purpose of the work, however (b) students don't always see (or can't see) these connections, since they lack expert insight.  Hence, it's vital for teachers to signpost, "We are learning in this way, because..."

Returning to The Karate Kid, at some point, there has to be authentic meaning to the work. Daniel fully buys in after the "anniversary scene", where it is revealed that Mr. Miyagi had suffered tragedy in his family life, while earning a congressional medal of honor for his military service to the United States. This experience provides much needed perspective for the young man. The next scene is Daniel practicing with intent on his own - a sign of full buy-in.  Game on!

This suggests that buy-in has multiple levels. It's one thing to see why you are doing an exercise. It's another to be fully committed to the path forward. This is where assignments and activities focused on the meaning and value of the work can be useful. This can include but is not limited to the value of problem solving, growth mindset, and inspirational content, where students have an opportunity to learn universal lessons about what their education is for.

Wax on, wax off,
Wax on, wax off...

Friday, September 27, 2019

Cold Calling Pitfalls

This blog post is about cold calling. Randomly calling on students can go well, but it's not so easy as pulling a name and asking, "What's the answer!?"

The pitfalls of basic random cold calling is that it's not an equitable practice in its barebones form. Some issues include (but are not limited to) the following.

  1. Making a mistake in front of the whole class can be stressful. This is a high risk situation.
  2. Not everyone thinks fast, so they may be in the process of figuring something out, and then called on the spot to have the goods, right then and there. 
  3. Thinking fast is not necessarily smart, and thinking slowly is not necessarily not-smart. But having to be quick on your feet biases the definition of smart as having the answer quickly in class on the spot.
  4. Stereotype threat can be triggered. Some students are the only one of their identity in your class. If this student makes a mistake, then the stereotypes could be "validated." 
What can we do?
Randomizing who contributes does have a positive facet. It spreads the chances around. That's good. The key is to do it in an inclusive way.

Here's one example:
Instead of going with something like "What's the answer!?"you can add think-pair-share into the mix.  First, state the question or task, and ask students to think first and the talk to their partner. Then when you select a person at random, the prompt could be, "Share with us what you discussed with your partner." What students share could be a partial answer, a question, a comment, the whole answer, or perhaps asking for another minute to finish their conversation. If framed as a way to generate discussion and engagement, rather than having to be right, this can reduce anxiety and be a more inviting experience.

Riffs: We can think of think-pair-share as the base layer, and add on or adapt layers above it. Instead of randomly calling on a pair, you could visit a few groups and see what they tried. You can usually very quickly find a pair willing to share. Quiet students who have a useful idea can be encouraged to share, and this specific teacher move is where you enact inclusion! The quiet student is invited in by the instructor and is validated for having something worthy of being shared.  

Keeping track of who has shared will then help you spread chances equitably.  This riff works well earlier in the term, as you are developing student buy-in and comfort with talking about and discussing math. It's lower stakes, and doesn't put people on the spot.

Another riff is for classes that include student presentations. Assigning randomly the first chimers is a way to spread who makes the comments. Otherwise, it's the usual people raising their hands again and again. This can be done by selecting two students, then asking everyone to talk to their partner about the presented work. The selected students chime in first. They can ask a question, comment, or give a compliment. Again the contributions are done in a way, where students have time to think, discuss, and prepare remarks. Once the first chimers have made their comments, you can open the floor for further comments.

Cold calling can be warmed up with some additions and tweak. Using a small amount of time, allowing for thinking and talking, and taking perceived judgment off the table, creates an environment where students are less concerned about how they might appear and more focused on the Math.