by Lisa Moody Breslin photography by Walter P. Calahan
Skip Fennell lives his love for mathematics. He teaches, mentors, writes, launches national programs and joins teams to create children’s television shows with the hopes that as many people as possible- especially youths – will see math, use math and appreciate math everyday.
With numerous honors and awards in his wake, Fennell (formally known as Dr. Francis Fennell) has a 39-year career at Western Maryland/McDaniel College and served a two-year term as President of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. He currently directs the Elementary Mathematics Specialists and Teacher Leaders Project (www.mathspecialists.org).
Fennell earned his bachelor’s degree from Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania and a master’s from Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania before receiving a Ph.D. from The Pennsylvania State University. He and his wife, Anita, live in Westminster.
Before the Elementary Mathematics Specialists and Teacher Leaders project, what were your top three concerns about how mathematics unfolded in classrooms? I wanted all students to be engaged in the mathematics are they are learning and see and experience mathematics in real life contexts – for example, math at the zoo, sports math, whatever. Every day, students should talk about the mathematics they are learning. My concerns continue about this, as well as the need for mathematics teachers at every level, PreK-12, to be supported in their teaching of mathematics.
AND, I am so done with comments, particularly by adults, along the lines of “I was never good at math either…” Hey Mom/Dad, this isn’t about you – it’s about your child and OUR future.
Your original dreams with the project (aka mission)? I have written a lot about this topic – the need for elementary mathematics specialists. We need school-based mathematics leaders. My first initiative in this area occurred very early in my years as a member of the Education Department at Western Maryland/McDaniel College. The Developing Elementary Mathematics Enthusiasts (DEME) Project involved the college and the Carroll County Public Schools. My work in support of such enthusiasts/specialists continues to this day.
How have those dreams manifested – three examples that how dreams/goals are being met? Our Project’s Clearinghouse/website has attracted way over 500,000 visitors. School districts, state departments, and anyone associated with the important role of mathematics specialists/leaders know of our Project and often seek our assistance. Work with our regionally-based math specialist partners, which include Baltimore County, Carroll County, Frederick County, Howard County and Washington County math specialists/leaders continually keep us abreast of issues such leaders face and must address. Their work defines the ongoing efforts of our project team, which includes Jon Wray (HCPSS) and Beth Kobett (Stevenson University) and myself, and more recently Barb Swartz (McDaniel College). Our “response” has included a number of published peer-reviewed manuscripts, and books, including, most recently, The Formative 5 (Corwin and NCTM, 2017).
Have there been any flops along the way (that you are willing to share)? Many flops – and they continue… but I have become more reflective – age helps. I still get manuscripts (for publication) rejected – but less frequently; some editors seem to hate what I/we have written; there continues to be some level of poorly phrased (and stated) interpretations of educational policy which impact my/our work – but, again, less so.
Other flops include decisions I made that I wish I had more time to ponder. Several of the policy “fumbles” were within experiences working with the National Science Foundation, serving as chair of the United States National Commission for Mathematics Instruction, serving as a member and task force chair of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel (2006-2008), serving as the President of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (2006-2008), and other leadership roles I have had, where comments/reactions/reflections are an everyday demand.
What are your top two peeves (professional and personal – two each)? Professional: Those who trivialize the efforts of classroom teachers and lack respect for the impact teachers provide as they guide and shape the future – 180+ days a year. Professional arrogance bothers me too – the inability to understand, and accept the contributions of others. Our work, our research, our attempts to make a difference must be inclusive and collaborative.
Personal peeves? I am not a patient person. Which sometimes/often gets me in trouble!
Peg + Cat and/or Odd Squad- what are your favorite memories linked to the creation of these award-winning animation series? Actually, how I got involved is a funny, triangulated story. It started with a cold call from the creators of Peg + CAT, Billy Aronson and Jen Oxley. They asked me to review a manuscript (book) and draft scripts and I rejected such involvement – I was too busy doing other “stuff” (including writing mathematics standards and textbooks, conducting my own research, etc.). They persisted! And, I gave in. I served as the math content contact for the show, their website, related online games, etc. I continue to stay involved with Peg + CAT as requested. See: http://pbskids.org/peg/about/credits. I truly loved this venture and continue to hear from Billy and Jen and monitor the adventures of Peg + CAT.
My role with Odd Squad came about because of the earlier Peg + CAT experiences. I did not do as much reviewing for Odd Squad as I did for Peg + CAT, where I reviewed all scripts, materials, etc. Both projects were different, fun. I also served on the PBS Board for their mathematics endeavors. As you may know both shows are highly rated and have received Emmy Awards.
Serving on the Advisory Board for DreamBox Learning is another project that I have been involved in for some time. This K-8 online mathematics program has received many accolades as an exemplary example of blended learning.
Who or what inspires you the most right now? Working with younger colleagues, enabling others. I like to help behind the scenes. I enjoy getting things and people started and then stepping aside. I think it’s important to be there for colleagues. I respond to emails! People tell me that I enable and nurture others. I am not sure that’s accurate, but if so, I’ll take it.
I continually monitor and anticipate policy issues in my field and in education in general. I am involved with several projects right now that are policy-related – in both mathematics education (nationally and internationally) and teacher education.
I love hearing from and reading about the many levels of success that my former students, colleagues, and math leader friends have experienced and are experiencing. This ranges from personal and family growth to professional accomplishments.
How do you love to unwind? Running – pathetic as it is (I am now pretty slow), I am still out there. My dear friends and McDaniel College colleagues Sam Case, Dave Herlocker, and Sam Alspach started me on this path that includes nine marathons, approx. 30 half marathons, and many other races of shorter distances. Frank Schaeffer, current President of the Westminster Road Runners Club, and I have been running together on Sundays since he literally told me we were doing a marathon together in 1995.
Watching my grandchildren play field hockey, lacrosse, soccer, baseball, basketball, and tennis; and helping them with math (when asked).
Watching the O’s, Ravens, McDaniel College sports, Reading, although my wife would say I am reading less (she’s probably right)
A couple of beers and a crab cake or burger at Maggie’s.
I love the beach – almost any beach, but family trips to Ocean City, Bethany Beach and Rehoboth Beach are special to me.
Oh, and some friends at the Westminster Y are amazingly supportive in my quest to become a somewhat marginal Pickleball player.
When you were growing up did you ever pretend to be someone or something else? If yes, what or whom? When I was growing up in the Philadelphia area, I just figured I would play baseball for the Phillies. My coach claimed I was the best 3rd baseman in the league. To this day, I remember his confidence in my ability, which, frankly, was limited – good field, no hit. As it turned out, I was a much better soccer player.
What do you hope your legacy will be? Professionally: As a teacher/professor/educator/coach who established high standards, and as someone who was always willing to provide the support necessary for my students and colleagues, I hope to be remembered as one who cares deeply about the teaching and learning of mathematics, particularly of elementary-aged students and as someone who continued to think hard and take action related to the preparation and ongoing professional learning of teachers. On a personal level, I hope to be remembered as a good spouse, father, grandfather, and someone who truly values the importance of family.
I am struck with how lucky I am. I have made my share of miss-steps along the way, but I have been able to “dust myself off” and try again. For a variety of reasons, I developed, early on in my professional career, a strong work ethic that has served me well. My friend, colleague and past president of McDaniel, Joan Develin-Coley, and I often joke that we just outworked everyone else.