Multicultural maths

The one thing I said to my boss as we were planning my teaching load for the year was ‘I really don’t mind what I do, as long as I’m not running round all over the place doing little bits of everything’.

Hmmmm. Something seems to have gone awry there.

Do you know, in 11 years in this job, I really haven’t done the same thing two years running. Even when I taught the Aboriginal Training Program for e or 4 years running, it was pretty much the same cohort year after year, so I couldn’t repeat things for fear of hearing a chorus of ‘but we done that last year!’

So, funnily enough, I was hired on the basis of my numeracy and mathematical background (scientist by trade). Yet I haven’t had my own stand-alone maths class for years now. So imagine my surprise when all my bits-and-pieces this year are all numeracy/maths (so far….things may change and probably will).

And yet…..I mentioned this to a colleague who said ‘well it must be nice and easy doing the same thing all the time then. Less prep?’

Which made me near fall over laughing.

You see, I have classes supporting construction students in the prison. And then stand alone maths classes in women’s and in men’s. Entirely different needs, wants and environments. Then I teach two Migrant Education maths classes. A whole ‘nother kettle of fish! I’m having fun bringing stories of maths from all over the world into these classes.

For instance, did you know that the first known evidence of humans using maths comes in the form of notched bones from 35,000 years ago in what is now Swaziland ( The ‘Lebombo bone)? And similar bones that are thought to be much more sophisticated calculation tools have been dated to about 20,000 years ago, in what is now the Democratic (ha!) Republic of Congo (Ishango bone).

Or……that different countries use different symbols for the decimal point (most commonly, the comma). Here’s a pretty map:

Then there’s maths for lab operations. Serious stuff.

Oh, and study skills and maths for Enrolled Nursing.

It’s enough to keep me on my toes!

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Doing time

Started work properly at the prison today. The facility and any people involved shall remain nameless, to protect the innocent, and otherwise. This is a public site after all, not that I expect anyone much reads it.

Last week I went in on the first day of the Construction course, with ‘R’, the VET teacher. As a ‘literacy and numeracy support’ teacher, I really like to go in on the first day of a course and introduce myself, as a normal and expected part of that course – just another teacher. Usually I frame it as ‘study support’, if ‘literacy and numeracy’ may seem threatening (as in, people may be embarrassed or unwilling to admit to wanting/needing help with these). Having said that, it is usually only the case in terms of literacy; people are usually quite willing to put their hand up to admit numeracy gaps and ask for help in this area.

I’m glad ‘R’ and I organised this, as a few days later it became apparent that the guys would like some help. Full credit to ‘R’ and the rapport he establishes really quickly with this cohort, that they were happy to put up their hands and ask for help. Not always easy in the blokey, ‘saving face’ culture in the prison.

This was in fact the first issue that faced me in teaching. (OK, the second. The first being having to arrive at work at 8am not yet fully caffeinated. These darn early-morning tradies!). So, after the belt, shoes, keys off and scanned, in through the metal detector doors, wand scanning and hand biometrics, and the seemingly endless succession of doors, I was ready to teach.

It’s a pretty good set-up in there, with a classroom area off from the good-sized workshop. On advice from R, who has been running these courses a while now, we offered the maths help as an option to whoever wanted it. There were 4 takers to start with, the rest opting to get straight into the workshop.

I started with asking the guys what they had been doing in terms of calcs (ie calculations, maybe a more user-friendly term than ‘maths’). It seemed most had been doing areas and perimeters, and there was a fair bit of confusion between the two. This is a very common area of confusion. Perhaps it’s because of how its taught in schools? Perhaps because of reliance on remembering procedures rather than understanding concepts. Luckily, I could see the remains of R’s explanation, showing area as blocks of square metres, exactly the concept I try and get across.

I would have preferred just to stick with areas, but when some of the guys started talking about adding the sides, it was time to try and clear up the confusion between area and perimeter. At this point, a couple of the guys had really lost interest in my whiteboard explanations and were ploughing ahead in the workbook.

Just like so many of us (myself included!) these guys were most interested in doing the work that has to be done, and passing the assessment. Fair enough.

Unfortunately they were all working on slightly different things, so the next approach was just to go around and help individually. However, attention spans and patience were such that if these guys didn’t get help immediately, their coping strategies weren’t great. Also, there was one fellah in particular who had some serious misconceptions, and was asking questions. It was pretty apparent quite quickly that this guy wasn’t going to take too well to being told he was wrong – not in front of the others, in any case. In fact, he was pretty convinced he was right, and all my diplomacy skills are being stretched, trying to point out the areas he was getting right, and trying to steer him in the right direction, without telling him he was on the wrong track and causing him to lose face. At the same time as gauging the comfort levels of the others with admitting what they don’t know and accepting help, and juggling everyone wanting help RIGHT NOW.

Sometimes working with 4 people can be more difficult than working with 24 people.

I was actually really glad when one bloke asked if it was ok if we could work 1-1, as the noise of other people talking about their questions was too distracting. This sounded better to me, so the rest went out to the workshop, and I just sat with one person at a time and worked though problems with them.

As expected, most of the guys were much happier to open up and ask questions and admit to areas of misunderstanding etc than in a group situation. In any class, these kind of social dynamics are important. In the prison, understanding this is vital.

As is often the case, one of my roles was just to shut up and listen as people told stories about their negative experiences with maths (especially at school). People need to talk about this. To see where the blocks and barriers come from, before they can move on.

One of the problems I saw was the way this workbook is set out. To his credit, R doesn’t rely on the standard books and paperwork in there. However, he wants the guys to be able to work through all the measurements and calcs. I think this is worthwhile. And I really believe that by the end of the course, the guys will have a huge sense of achievement to see that whole book completed. But, the book needs revamping. It jumps around, and isn’t scaffolded correctly, jumping to really hard questions, before the foundation is laid. I ended up skipping thought the book saying – ok, try this one, now this one, and now I reckon you’re ready to go back and have a crack at this one…(R, if you’re reading this, remind me to talk to you about this. I know it’s hard to change a resource that the team has been using for 1000 years, but I think it’s time!)

We ended up having a few wins, and even a few laughs. Because maths shouldn’t be so damn serious all the time!

Several asked that I was coming back next week, so presumably they saw some benefit out of it and I earned my wages today.

After lunch was my first ever straight-up maths class in the prison. In women’s. To be honest, I wasn’t all that confident of getting ANY takers, and had brought along a book to read, just in case.

So when I turned up, a bunch of women were hanging out chatting (not smoking!). And the correctional officers asked who was signed up for maths….the answer was pretty much a unanimous ‘eff that!’.

Oh dear.

There was one person who had actually signed up, but there was no way she was coming on her own. Eventually she got a mate to come. And somehow they convinced 3 others. Wow, a maths class of 5, I wasn’t expecting this!

I’d had NO idea what to prepare. I didn’t know if they were going to be at the level of ‘what’s this button on the calculator called? or wanting to do year 10 or year 12 or even higher maths.

Luckily I’m quite happy with winging it! (Shhhhhh….no-one mention lesson planning!)

What I had brought in was some practice NAPLAN tests from the ACARA website. Not that I’m a massive NAPLAN fan. However, one thing I know from experience in the women’s prison is that many have children. So I thought going in with the angle of ‘you might want to have a look at the kind of things your kids are doing’ might work. And it did! I took in the years 3, 5, 7 and 9 tests. The ‘kids’ angle is quite a good non-threatening way for people not to have to admit their own numeracy skills are at a primary school level. Instead, they can say they want to see what their kids need to know.

Most actually took the whole set. Something to do back in their cells, they said. Can you bring us more next week, they said. Bring heaps, we’re really bored, they said.

So, a couple worked through the grade 9 test, and a couple worked through the grade 7 test. One in particular was really excited about it (the one who had actually signed up for class, but was reluctant to join in at the start). She was having breakthroughs and epiphanies all over the place, and the others were getting caught up in her enthusiasm too.

Oh, and I had the atlases out as well, and a few were quite happy, in between maths questions, looking things up in the atlases. Good learning tools to have around!

So, I was scheduled in for 2 hours. But seriously, who can do maths for 2 hours straight? After about an hour and a quarter, it was pretty obvious it was time to pull the pin. So I did.

All in all, I think that was quite a successful day.

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quick check in

Oh dear.

Poor little abandoned blog 😦

It’s been a busy term. I’m very much looking forward to having a holiday! There’s been a lot going on in terms of my own teaching, and my own learning – uni, flying, elearning, and a whole bunch more.

Today I’m just checking in because I can. And to do a little bower-birding.

Basically, I came across this guys’s blog and website. and I like it 🙂

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Uni semester not even a week in and already I’m in the thick of things.

Apart from minor run-ins about what constitutes ‘professional communication’ on an online discussion board, it’s going OK. (I’m very much in favour of using a discussion board in the same manner in which I speak – i.e. having a discussion, and if I’d say it at work, then it’s appropriate for uni. Some people don’t see it this way apparently :))

I think I’m finally getting my head around what neoliberalism means, and policy implications for education. So don’t be surprised if you see my shiny new word ‘neoliberalism’ pop up here in the near future.

Cuz that’s what uni’s for, putting fancy words to concepts you already knew 😉

over and out

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Heads up!

And so begins a new uni semester.

On the study table; ESH305 Learning and Society.

Be prepared to hear some semi-conceived rants about the perception of VET (vocational education and training) and TAFE (technical and further education) as being second-rate when compared with mainstream secondary and tertiary education.

I’m a big believer in VET and it makes me cranky when it is devalued and trades are seen as somehow inferior to ‘professional’ work. Seems to me like the people in power, making decisions and controlling budgets, value university education over TAFE, as that is what they have experienced.

There may also be rants about funding and policies. Because there IS enough money out there, I’m sure of it, if only it was being spent in the right places. One size fits all education does not ‘fit all’ and we need to provide alternatives so no-one is marginalised or excluded altogether.

Oh yes, there may well be rants. So, just a heads up 🙂

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playing games

I read this post on edutopia


Firstly, I like the idea of being the ‘school’s Instructional Technology Coach’. How do I get that gig myself? 🙂

Secondly, the part about quizzes and games got me thinking.

One thing I tried towards the end of my Cert I Manufacturing class was a game based loosely on ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire’ style quiz shows. Keep in mind, we’ve got a bunch of 15/16 year old ‘disengaged’ boys. But they’re used to me and my silliness by this stage of the game, and just shake their heads, roll their eyes and say ‘uh-oh, Sarah’s got the giggles again’. Because, let’s be honest, there’s a whole lot about my job that makes me laugh. Otherwise I might cry 🙂

So, my game show was quite improvised and old-school low-tech. Questions on various topics (mostly trades maths calculations, WHS, tools and general trades knowledge and spelling of relevant vocab) were drawn out of a hat. Each person in the ‘hot seat’ had to answer 3 questions correctly to get a chocolate. Yup, bribery and rewards! They had 3 lifelines ‘ask the audience, use an iPad and use a calculator’.

It went OK (mostly, I suspect, due to chocolate bribery system).

The one thing that surprised me was how bad their internet research skills were. Especially considering all of them own and use a smartphone. I thought the ‘use an iPad’ lifeline was pretty much a give-away point. But, no. If I ran that course again (or any course really), I’d do a whole lot more structured stuff around internet research.

Anyway, reading that edutopia post, I was interested in the idea of using to play games or use surveys

So I signed up. And made a little survey. It was actually a bit confusing as to how to launch the survey, but now I think I get it.

So, you can go to this link

(I hope!)
and then press ‘play’. Then you get a game pin number, and you have to enter it at (I kept trying to press the ‘start now’ button and nothing happened – then I opened a new tab at and there I was. The idea being that the teacher has the game window with questions projected at the from of the room, and each participant has a device (laptop, iPad or phone) with which to answer the questions. Then you can see leaderboards and individual scores.

Let me know if you can see my survey using the link. Give it a go!

I think I can use this in some of my classes. Seems quite fun and engaging.

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Teaching and Learning

Someone told me early in my teaching career that the best thing we can do as teachers is to learn something new every year. If I’m ever asked for one nugget of wisdom to pass on, that would be it.

My current project is learning to fly. And I’m starting to see that this will never be done and could remain my ‘learn something new every year’ thing for a long, long time.

It’s interesting to reflect on this process of learning, and to look at the style and methods of teaching.

The beginning stages of learning to fly is very much ‘talk and chalk’, ‘sage on the stage’ direct instruction. You have an introductory briefing, lecture style with your flit instructor, then you go fly. The flying part is very much behaviourism.

Basically all the things we’re learning about in uni that are presented as terribly outdated and ‘what not to do’.

Except, it works. And how else are you going to teach this skill? Student-centred discovery style? I don’t think so!

But then you go solo, and from then on, there is a certain amount of trial and error (hopefully not too big an error!) and working stuff out for yourself.

Today I turned up to the aerodrome to do some practice circuits. I’d already had a good look at the weather and ruled out my original plan of practicing manoeuvres in the training area. I still need to be signed out by my instructor when I fly solo and as expected, he quizzed me on the weather conditions, which were not exactly ideal, but well within my capabilities.

“Winds light and variable, from the South East earlier, but it’s swung around to a Nor-Westerly. Light showers of rain, clouds low but OK for circuits”. In the car on the drive to the aerodrome, I’d briefly considered how much the wind was swinging around, and the possibility that I may have to switch runways mid flight. But hadn’t really given it much thought.

Of course, the wind DID end up swinging around again. I was doing left circuits on runway 30 and then air traffic control asked me to change to a right circuit runway 09.

Uh. Sure thing.

I’m looking down at the runways and trying to get a mental picture and I’m still flying a left circuit for 30 and it becomes very apparent I’m not going to be able to work it out, not in mid circuit, not in the brief time I have to make a decision and execute it. I have to speak up.

Somewhat reluctantly and in very non-standard radio phraseology, I say something along the lines of ‘uh….I’m not entirely sure how to manoeuvre for runway zero niner…..’

ATC come back with ‘you’ll have to make able or right turn very soon.’

I look to my right. Big hill. Look to my left… space and I can see the runway.

‘Turning left now’

I remember the heading bug and orient it with the runway. I hear my instructor on the radio telling ATC he’s now taxiing for the same runway.

It’s not pretty, but I manage to line myself up with the right runway, as my brain whirs through theory I’ve learnt about traffic separation and how much space I need to give aircraft taking off on the same runway before I land. It’s going to be tight. Eyes fixed on the other aircraft, flicking occasionally to scan instruments, then the other aircraft is away and I can focus on the end of the runway to land.

After a few more circuits I roll to a full stop. By the time I’ve packed up, my instructor is back. He seems concerned. “Are you OK?” He asks.

‘Uh…..yeah’. I hadn’t given it much thought. ‘I did get a bit muddled with the runway swap – I’ve never done that on my own before and I couldn’t get my head around it. Guess I need to sit down in the safety of my comfy chair and run through a few scenarios in my head so I can get the picture BEFORE I fly’.

He tells me his tip – use the heading bug – ‘yeah, I only worked that out AFTER I asked for help. But, the good news is, I’m no longer daunted to speak up and ask ATC for help if I’m not sure about something.’

My instructor seems pleased enough. He usually gives me a hard time for non-standard radio work, but I guess the idea is that it’s better to speak up than struggle along because you don’t want to appear dumb or because you’re not entirely sure how to properly phrase your question.

Well, that turned into a mighty ramble that May have strayed off the point somewhat. What was my point again?

In other news, that flight gave me closest sighting of a near-perfect whole-circle rainbow, the planets’s gift to pilots.

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