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  February 11, 2002

Tom DeFranco: A Passion for
Teaching and a Passion for Math
By John Wray

Tom DeFranco was playing with a Slinky as he came into a recent calculus class.

Immediately the students' curiosity was aroused. "What," they wondered, "is he doing with that?"

The professor then asked his students to speculate about what this object might be.

Once he had the dialogue going, he put the ends of the Slinky together and told them the Slinky was really a "torus" and that they were going to discover how to find the volume of this doughnut-sha ped object.

Spotlight on Teaching

"First you have to get their attention," says DeFranco. "Then you want to start them thinking about the problem. The Slinky makes it easy for students to visualize this kind of object so that they can understand the mathematical steps they will be taking to find the volume of this object in front of them."

Once concepts like these are understood in concrete form, he says, it is much easier to translate the ideas into mathematical language, and for students to understand what's going on as they manipulate the mathematical symbols.

It is a very valuable thing to be able to visualize mathematical concepts, DeFranco says. You can then move from the concrete to the abstract, without losing sight of what you are thinking about.

"One of the reasons I love teaching so much," he says, "is that it is a dialogue, a mutual process of understanding and communication. That's why I try to encourage teacher-student interaction in my classes. What we need is to engage the students in the process of learning."

This approach was one of the reasons why DeFranco was honored as a University Teaching Fellow in 2001.

Constant Improvement
Students and colleagues alike say that DeFranco's love of mathematics and his passion for teaching are evident in everything he does.

"The thing I like about Tom," says colleague Charles Vinsonhaler, chair of the math department and another Teaching Fellow, "is that he is constantly thinking about teaching and how to make the process better. He is always willing to try new things - even at the risk of failure - to make the student's experience better."

In addition to teaching a calculus class, DeFranco also teaches a voluntary one-credit pedagogy class for graduate students in math. "His pedagogy class is extremely popular and has really helped us to develop better math teachers," says Vinsonhaler.

Former doctoral student and now assistant professor Jean McGivney-Burel le says that DeFranco was a

challenging teacher who always made her stretch.

"What I remember about Tom as a teacher," she says, "is that he asked hard questions and made his students think in new and different ways. He constantly challenged us, but at the same time was always patient and very tolerant. Tom held high expectations for us and supported us in reaching our goals."

McGivney-Burelle says that DeFranco's passion for teaching and his wonderful sense of humor always come through. "I was pleased to be one of the nominators and to join with many of our colleagues in recognizing Tom's extraordinary gifts as a teacher," she says. "He has made and is making such wonderful contributions to improving the preparation of mathematics teachers at all levels."

Kim Santucci is a doctoral student in mathematics education, who studied under DeFranco from the beginning of her bachelor's-master' s program.

"Dr. De Franco is so invested in his students and their success," says Santucci. "He has really shaped who I am as a teacher and has given me such a solid foundation. He is always telling us to reach beyond where we are, to be creative, and to develop new teaching models for use with our own students."

A Culture of Dialogue
DeFranco has been teaching for 30 years, but says he still loves teaching and that he is always learning from his students.

"I believe that effective teaching involves creating a classroom culture in which students feel comfortable asking and answering questions, " he says, "a culture in which they are engaged in the learning process, that is, in doing and discussing mathematics. One way I try to accomplish this is through classroom discourse. This interaction provides an opportunity for meaningful learning to occur in class."

DeFranco received his undergraduate degree from SUNY-New Paltz, an M.S. in mathematics from Seton Hall University, and a Ph.D. in mathematics education from New York University. After college, he taught math at the elementary and secondary levels, then went on to teach math at St. John's University on Staten Island. He took a post in mathematics education at the University of Hartford in 1988 and joined the faculty at UConn in 1991. Currently, he holds a joint appointment as an associate professor in the departments of curriculum and instruction and mathematics.

As director of teacher education in the Neag School of Education, DeFranco also oversees the day-to-day operations of the teacher preparation program. In addition, he teaches methods courses to prepare students to become secondary mathematics teachers and advises doctoral students in the area of mathematics education. But his first love is still teaching math, and so he teaches a calculus course for undergraduate students, as well as a pedagogy class for teaching assistants in the math department.

"If you are really passionate about your subject," DeFranco says, "teaching is a wonderful way to share that passion with both undergraduate and graduate students."

Breaking Down Barriers
A few years back, DeFranco collaborated with Vinsonhaler on a textbook called "Problem Solving" which is currently being used by students in Math 102.

"What we tried to do in that book," says DeFranco, "is to find ways to break down the barriers to understanding mathematical problems. We wanted to show students that math problems need not be terrifying and with the right tools one can approach and solve difficult problems. Our hope was that we could help our students to realize that finding the solution to a mathematical problem can be both an interesting challenge and a great source of joy.

"Of course, these things are not always as easy to achieve as they are to talk about," says DeFranco. "And so we get up each morning trying to think of new ways to improve our teaching methods. After all, that's what makes teaching the most interesting and challenging profession there is."

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