Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Surprise from the Neverending Web

Something happened as a result of my writing the previous post which astonishes me in a way I find hard to express. The amazement comes from the fact that my scribbling about mathematics had a significant effect on someone I didn’t even know existed.

This comment from Kristy Flanagan was the first hint:

‘I'm a math teacher exploring Second Life and just wanted you to know that I truly enjoyed this post. It came at a very good time, in fact. My blog features an open letter to you in response to your SL experience.
Feel free to contact me in SL. I'm Kristy Flanagan. I have a math center on EduIsland II and if you visit, I will show you my Bumble Bee project.’

I went to her blog, Math Playground, subtitled ‘Second Life Math’, and read this, addressed to me as an open letter:

‘Have you ever felt it was time to give up on something only to have an encounter that completely reverses your course of action?

You see, I've been struggling recently to find ways that Second Life, my virtual world of choice, can make math more understandable, more engaging, and more relevant to my students. While my SL Logo project seems to meet these goals, I haven’t been able to imagine other math projects that would benefit from or even require a three dimensional virtual learning environment. I began to think that without viable project ideas perhaps Second Life was not worth pursuing as an educational platform.
Then serendipity struck and I was led to your blog. You recently discovered Second Life and have been spending your time there very creatively, learning to build. And in your quest to perfect your building, you, a self-described mathphobe, discovered both the necessity and joy of mathematics.

In your words:

"I now have a different meaning for "second life". In learning how to create objects and to build things in the game, I am being given a second chance in life. I am now devouring mathematical formulae as if they were chocolate cake, and for the first time I’m experiencing the joys of geometry."

"So, I approached creation of objects in Second Life with not one day of education in geometry or trigonometry, and almost no knowledge of other mathematics. Now I eagerly run to Google for the meaning of "chord" and "circle of latitude". I feel the joy of the sun breaking through clouds when I suddenly comprehend some mathematical formula or see how different shapes interact. I’m as happy as a child on a Christmas morning full of new toys."

In my search for the perfect project, I overlooked the play factor in learning and teaching math. You did not come to Second Life to learn trig functions or area formulas. You came to play. And to make your play time as fulfilling and engaging as possible, you needed new math skills. In your quest to build more complex objects, you embraced a subject that had been both irrelevant and difficult for you in the absence of purpose.

I now understand that I need to focus less on projects that will work in Second Life and, instead, apply what I’ve discovered about learning to the teaching of my students now. How can I recreate the positive aspects of Second Life’s educational environment in my own classroom? How can I help my students take charge of their learning, to seek out the information and skills they need, to see its value and relevance? How can I make math more meaningful with the tools that are readily available to me? To help answer those questions, Second Life will be my learning environment and not my students'.

So thank you for coming to Second Life and sharing your experience so eloquently. You have broadened my perspective and renewed my purpose. I'm setting the bar high but just imagine my reward when students "feel the joy of the sun breaking through clouds" or the quiet pleasure when they "devour mathematical formulas as if they were chocolate cake." ‘

The lady, who has given permission for me to use her real name, Colleen King, later wrote to me, ‘Isn't it amazing how such a simple act can lead to an exciting chain of events?’ Nothing could express my own feelings better.

Yesterday I had a tour of Kristy Flanagan’s Math Playground in Second Life.

It was most impressive, especially her Bumble Bee project, which features a bee she has designed and programmed to carry out commands and create forms and patterns of various kinds. I want add that I’ve never met anyone more dedicated to anything than Colleen is to improving the teaching of mathematics. She has that admirable quality of “one pointedness” -- the difference between the penetrating power of a spear and a mallet. While I have flitted from subject to subject, she is able to stay completely focused. That is the difference between a dilettante and a creative professional. It makes me happy to be told that I have had a beneficial effect on such an admirable person.

Yes, I’m sure that if she had taught me arithmetic and more advanced math when I was in school I would have not only learned but loved it. I intend to write more about that soon.

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