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Dr. Rebecca Mitchell – Alpha Chi Induction Speech

Dr. Rebecca Mitchell
Associate Professor of Mathematics
Pine Manor College

Alpha Chi Induction Speech

To the students, faculty, administration, parents, and others here tonight, I am honored to speak with you and to be inducted into Alpha Chi along with some of you. You are all such bright, hard-working, thoughtful people, and I’m happy to be here with you. I have been asked to speak about scholarship, which is defined as “learning, knowledge acquired by study”, so I thought I would tell you a little about my own scholarship path. I will be focusing on 4 themes: passion, curiosity, partnership, and social Justice.

Before I start, I’d like to have us do a little exercise:
Stand up, if you remember a teacher who had an impact on you.
Stay standing, if the memory is specifically about math.
Stand, if you remember a positive experience involving a math teacher.
Stand, if you remember a negative experience involving a math teacher.

Passion. Some of you have been asked to read the article, What Problem will You Own, in your First Year Seminar, an article which recommends that you find something in this world you are passionate about and help make the world a better place by focusing on that one thing. How many of you remember that article? How many of you know the thing you’re passionate about, what problem in this world you want to own? [raise hands/wait]. If you don’t, college is a great environment in which to examine this.

For me, I’d always wanted to be a teacher. When I had to decide which kind, I thought back to my own teachers. Like many/some of you I remembered negative experiences involving my math teachers. While I always did well in mathematics, the way it was taught–teacher gives a procedure, students practice then memorize–didn’t work for me. I wanted to understand and make sense of procedures. I remember having a teacher who read from the book every day, then sat down and painted her nails or read the paper. I asked her why something worked, and she snarled, “because I said so.”

I became a math teacher because I did not want any other students to feel shame in a math class, and I wanted help students understand mathematics and feel confident about their knowledge. This is the problem I own. I am extremely passionate about it, and it drives my scholarship. I read about being a better math teacher; I learn from others with more expertise about teaching and learning. I conduct research on ways to improve the quality of mathematics instruction. I’ll share a bit more about those in a few minutes. So, the advice I’d give is to find something you are passionate about and learn and contribute.

Curiosity. The second component of scholarship that has been important to me is curiosity, as Marilyn Cochran-Smith would say, inquiry as stance. This means consistently looking to learn and grow, asking questions, and valuing the voices and knowledge of others. I started teaching mathematics with really very little understanding of what it meant to teach mathematics well. Instead of just becoming a teacher who phoned it in: lecturing a little, passing out worksheets, blaming my students if they did not understand, I embarked on a voyage of inquiry. I started with grant-writing to get new technology that enabled students to explore (e.g., trigonometric functions through actual sound waves my students created), National Board Certification, doctoral study at Harvard, all in service of being a better teacher for my students and being curious about how to make that happen.

More recently, I was a coder for a project on Mathematical Quality of Instruction, evaluating teacher video with a rubric the group was developing, under the direction of Dr. Heather Hill. I felt like I was learning a lot about good teaching by coding, so I became curious about what actual teachers would get from coding themselves. That curiosity, along with the curiosity of other coders, became two research projects where we led teacher video clubs using the rubric and examined what teachers noticed in their own and others’ teaching and how they changed (several publications and conference presentations grew out of that work).

Last year, as part of the tenure process, I was observed by a highly-respected mathematics professor, Debra Borkovitz, who gave me incredibly useful feedback. Curiosity to learn more after her visit led to me seek out networks on Twitter and via regional associations, collect reading material on Inquiry-Based Instruction (something I want to be better at), and sign-up for a conference in Portland, OR to develop an IBL course this summer. Finally, I’m partnering with Deborah Kronenberg, the theatre program chair on campus, to see if we can combine her ensemble culture framework, ideas from improvisational theatre, to help students enjoy better experiences, build community, and encourage risk-taking and authentic problem-solving in math classes. And I’ve applied for a grant to study the way classroom space can support this work. All of this because I’m curious about ways to better engage students and support their learning.

There are many ways to engage in scholarship, and curiosity about dilemmas in my practice is a good starting point. I still do not feel like I always teach mathematics well, but I am excited about the new things I’m learning. I’m grateful to my students who teach me so much and are so kind and brilliant and who take risks with me.

Partnerships. “In the book, [Pedagogy of the Oppressed], Paolo Freire called traditional pedagogy the banking model of education because it treats the student as an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge. Freire spoke against people who work with those in impoverished communities and act like the only ones with expertise. He encouraged co-creation of knowledge, both parties working in partnership. For me, the best scholarship involves this type of partnership: listening, learning, sharing, and being humble. Since my research mostly involves ways to support instructional improvement for teachers, I could easily go into a school, act like the expert, criticize teachers, collect data, then gain prestige by publishing my study. I’ve been a participant in projects like that, and it left me feeling taken advantage of. Instead, I see my research participants as co-creators of knowledge, as experts in their own right and as partners. I hope to advocate for and empower other teachers and students with my scholarship. I think we all learn more when we learn together and when we are generous with each other.

Social Justice. Finally, the motto of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where I got my doctorate, is “Learn to Change the World”. I love this! I hope that by learning about how to be a better mathematics teacher in partnership with others and by sharing what I learn with others, I will make the world a little better. Math is so important as a tool to make sense of complex problems and have agency over our lives. As Brandon Sanderson, fiction author, wrote, “If we do nothing with the knowledge we gain, then we have wasted our study.” He was mostly referring to how we need to interpret and draw conclusions, rather than just read, but I think it can also mean that our scholarship only really matters if it is shared and used for good.

Why am I engaged in mathematics education scholarship? Because so many people express a belief that they can’t do math, and that’s not ok to me. Because quantitative reasoning: data analysis, logic, posing and solving problems, and intelligently searching for/sifting through information, is so important and empowering. These abilities help people get high-paying jobs, advocate for themselves and their communities, and it supports greater equity. [maybe give the example of mortgage crisis]

As someone who grew up in schools where expectations were low and teachers were not equipped with adequate knowledge and resources to teach well, becoming the kind of teacher who can empower my students is so important to me. It drives my scholarship. I feel honored to be working with you and learning with and from you, you are passionate and curious and collaborative and concerned with issues in your communities and the world as a whole. And you have taken intellectual risks with me, allowed me to try new things, make mistakes and learn, which is kind. And I am honored to have been selected by Pine Manor College to be inducted into Alpha Chi along with you tonight. J