This post is written by Peter DeCraene, the 2020-2021 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’ve been teaching math and computer science for 31 years, from fourth grade to twelfth grade; I even spent a half day with a kindergarten class that wanted to know about negative numbers. (I am very grateful for early childhood educators!) For the last 23 years, I’ve been teaching at Evanston Township High School, just north of Chicago. (It’s a great day to be a Wildkit!) Now that my children are grown, my wife and I thought that working in Washington, DC, would be an interesting and challenging experience. I serve as the webmaster for the Metropolitan Math Club of Chicago, which has been around for over 100 years and is where the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) started. In class, I love watching my students connect ideas, learn from mistakes, and collaborate and generate new thinking; I always learn something from them.
How has using primary sources changed your teaching?
Using primary sources helps put the mathematics in context for students. Linking an idea to a particular point in history or a specific location gives students who might not otherwise find math enjoyable a new and curious entry point into the subject. Primary sources also provide stories, and most students will pay close attention when I start a lesson with “Let me tell you a story.…”
What prompted you to apply to be an Einstein Fellow?
I first heard about the Einstein Fellowship at an NCTM Conference about twenty years ago, and thought that it sounded like a fantastic opportunity to learn and have an impact beyond my normal sphere. At that time, my sphere included my small children, and it would have been very difficult to make the move to Washington, DC. Since then, I’ve continued to learn by attending and speaking at conferences, and by being active in leadership at my school and in some professional organizations. But the idea of applying for this Fellowship and taking a year to really go outside my comfort zone and learn something completely new kept wiggling around in the back of my brain. In the last few years, that wiggling became more of a strong tug, and I’m very excited to really stretch my thinking, and take what I learn and experience back to my school and classroom.
What are your goals for your year as an Einstein Fellow?
I want to soak in as much learning as I can! I’m looking forward to connecting with my new colleagues at the Library and in the Fellowship, exploring the collections, and gaining new perspectives that I can later share with my students and colleagues at home.
What advice would you give to teachers who want to use primary sources in classroom activities given the push to meet standards and insure success on standardized tests?
A friend and colleague remarked a while ago that fast food chains succeed because you always know what you’re going to get when you go there, no matter where you are in the country. But the food is never as good as if you go to a restaurant where the staff are allowed to experiment and think broadly and deeply about the menu. If we focus only on standards and testing, we’re missing opportunities to enrich our students’ (and our own) experiences, understanding, and enjoyment of our subjects. Using primary sources is one way of illustrating concepts and making ideas come alive so students leave our classes feeling not only full, but also satisfied and wanting to come back.
To learn more about Peter and the program that brought him to the Library, check out this press release.