Fear, Worries and TMC

This is a cross post from Re-Learning to Teach, Justin Aion’s blog.  Justin was my co-conspirator on yesterday’s PD Bingo post.

Disclaimer: This post ended up being MUCH longer than I had intended it to be. I can be a bit verbose and so I will understand if it is too long for people to read. If so, I would ask you to skip to the bottom to see 4 of the lessons I learned from my experience.

I have a confession to make.

I am scared to be back to school.  I don’t mean nervous or worried.  I mean petrified.

This is a version of the same feeling I have had at the start of every school year since I started teaching in the fall of 2004, but it has been getting worse and worse and I finally need to talk it through and, in the process, talk about the things that I’m doing to calm myself.

I am not scared of the students, although the first week of school is always my least favorite.  I will never claim to be an amazing teacher, but I am MUCH better once my expectations have been established and I’ve been able to consistently enforce them for a while.  I know that to many of my colleagues, my methods can seem strict and rigid, but time has demonstrated their efficacy.

I am scared of the changing educational landscape.  Every year that I return to work, it seems as though someone has read a few journal articles over the summer and whatever the latest buzzwords happen to be will suddenly be sprouting all over the school and becoming the focus of the professional development.  I am not a fan of fad-based educational theory and, while the new ideas may be sound and research-based, when you try an entirely new approach each year, it becomes a fad.  Teachers are never given enough time for proper training on the new tools and indeed, don’t feel that training is important because there is no confidence that they will be using the same tools the following year.

In addition to this, new evaluation criteria in Pennsylvania state that teachers will be scored only PARTLY on what they do, with a large chunk of their evaluations coming from general performance of the school.

These are my fears but I’ve already talked too long about them and I can feel my blood pressure rising. What I want to talk about is what I discovered this year that I hope will help me and, if you’re reading this, you.  Please note that this is a description of the sessions in which I participated and does not accurately or adequately reflect the level of energy, camaraderie or excitement exhibited by myself or the participants.  This was, far and above, without a doubt, the single greatest professional experience of my life.  It was also in the top 10 of greatest social experiences of my life.

On July 24th, a large collection of math teachers began to gather in Philadelphia.  We came from all over the country, and beyond, with several member hailing from as far as Hawaii and England.  Many of these teachers have a heavy presence in the Math-Twitter-BlogoSphere (MTBoS) with their own blogs on teaching, or lead frequent discussions about math education on Twitter.  We gathered to discuss one thing: How to be the best math teachers we could be.

Twitter Math Camp 2013 was the second installation of what I desperately hope will be an annual conference.  Every piece of professional development was designed by teachers, presented by teachers and attended by teachers.  I will give a brief synopsis of the sessions that I attended but please note that my ramblings will not give them even the remote semblance of justice.

On the morning of July 25th, 107 people gathered in the Paul Peck Alumni Center on the campus of Drexel University. We discussed briefly the schedule for the day and then broke up until subject areas with middle school teachers attending a different session than Algebra 1 teachers and statistics teachers in a different place than Geometry, etc.  There was no attendance taken and teachers attended the session that they felt would most benefit them.

I attended the Middle School session lead by the team of Julie Reulbach (@jreulbach) and Fawn Nguyen (@fawnpnguyen), both brilliant educators in their own right, but the combination of the two, with two different styles of communication and educational philosophy was some glorious to behold.  As a group, we did icebreakers, discussed various methods of instruction, goals for our classrooms and shared our ideas for student engagement and success.

After lunch, there was a brief session of “My Favorite” where teachers volunteered to stand in front of the group and talk about the favorite thing that they use in class.  No one tried to push any methods on anyone, simply present their ideas in an open and meaningful way.

Following that, Max Ray (@maxmathforum) of the Drexel Math Forum talked about the activity of “I Notice, I Wonder.”  This is a strategy similar to that of the KWL charts that have been so popular in the past few years.  Students are asked to list everything they notice about a picture, problem, etc. with ample wait time given. Then they are asked to list everything that they wonder about that same picture of problem.  There are no wrong answers, but after doing it enough, students develop a sense of which questions are rich and interesting.

We then broke into small, teacher-lead presentation sessions and were given the option of which we wanted to attend.  The first session I chose was Problem Posing in Mathematics presented by Glenn Waddell, Jr. (@gwaddellnvhs).  This was a presentation of the ideas in the book “The Art of Problem Posing” and was a discussion of changing the way that we ask questions and present material in class so as to take a basic problem like “2x+3=5″ and develop it into a rich ocean of valuable information.  Glenn’s presentation turned my worldview on it’s head and changed the way I will be teaching this year more than anything else I saw.

The next session I attended was Using Mistake to Inspire Teaching presented by Michael Pershan (@mpershan).  Michael spoke about the importance of examining the mistakes that students make and using those mistakes as a way to modify our teaching to better serve our population.  It’s not just what mistakes they make, but why they make them that we need to examine.  We need to know if the errors are calculation, carelessness or conceptual in nature as each one has a different solution.

On the morning of the 26th, we again broke into our subject areas. This time the discussion was about problem solving and the kinds of questions that we ask of our students.  Specifically NOT asking what answer they got, but asking them to explain how they came to that answer. Their thought process, especially in the middle level grades, is almost more important than the answer.  It can help to direct our instruction in paths that we had not previously considered.

After lunch, we returned for another session of My Favorites followed by a presentation from Karim Kai Ani (@karimkai), founder of Mathalicious (@mathalicious).  He walked us through one of the lessons that was written by him and his team with the goal of finding the mathematics in every day questions that may not readily make one think about math.  The question we examined was “What’s the deal with people dating people of much different ages?” The presentation was lively, in-depth and interesting in a way that I strive to make my classroom.

Later in the afternoon, Elizabeth Stratmore (@cheesemonkeysf) talked with us about how to add “stickiness” to our lessons and reinforced the idea that no matter how great a lesson is, it could ALWAYS be more sticky.

Sadie Estrella (@wahedahbug) demonstrated the Counting Circle activity that she uses in her class every day in order to solidify the number senses of her students.  Students are asked to do simple mathematical calculation in a large group where everyone takes a turn and no one is allowed to use calculators or pencils and paper.  The activity starts with basic addition at the start of the year and moves through money and time, with larger or more complex numbers as the year progresses.  In this way, students are constantly practicing their numeracy in a safe environment where mistakes are valuable and the activity is cooperative.

On Saturday morning, Karim from Mathalicious lead the Grade 8 and Algebra 1 lesson writing session in which he walked us through the process that the Mathalicious team uses for the creation of their product.  As someone who struggles to develop rich and meaningful lessons (because I’m a bit scattered), I found this session immensely valuable and I plan to keep their rubric hanging next to my computer all year.  Karim was kind enough to spend a significant portion of his lunch break continuing the discussion with me as I expressed my concerns about my own lesson development.

After a third My Favorites, Eli Luberoff (@eluberoff), found of Desmos (@Desmos) demonstrated the nearly limitless capabilities of the Desmos online graphing calculator and showed us some of the features that will be rolled out in the months to come.  I cannot adequately express the excitement and energy in the room except to say that it reminded me of the congregation at a tent church revival.  If you are a math teacher and you are not using Desmos.com, you are putting yourself a severe disadvantage.

The next session I attended was Using Games to Promote Mathematical Thinking by Raj Shah (@drrajshah).  He brought a collection of logical games from us to play and lead a discussion about the value of games in the math class to stimulate logical thought as well as extensions such as having students think and write about the strategies they used to play each game.

The final session I attended before forcing myself to return to reality was the planning session for Twitter Math Camp 2014 lead by the rock and base of TMC, Lisa Henry (@lmhenry9).  The conference was such a life-changing experience for me that I felt that this was something I had to be a part of.  We discussed things that we liked, didn’t like, potential for the growth of TMC as well as possible locations for next year.

Much more happened than what I described above. There were sessions that I desperately wanted to attend, but couldn’t because of time restrictions.  There were discussions over breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinks. There was karaoke and a piano bar.  There was twirling of a box of cheerios in the hotel lobby.  There were blog posts and twitter discussions, ideas and illuminations, and laughter until tears fell. I made the mistake of waiting too long to write this post and now fear as though I could not do those things the justice they deserve.  When I say this was the greatest professional experience of my life, I cannot overstate it.  If I have no mentioned someone’s name, I hope they know it wasn’t because they didn’t make an impression or that I didn’t value their words or our discussions.  As you can see, this post is VERY long and I doubt anyone has made it this far, other than my mom.

To be honest, I started this summer thinking that I was about to go into the last year that I would be teaching.  I have been frustrated and angry with so many things that teaching had become something I no longer wished to do.  I didn’t feel as though I could adequately serve my students and still enjoy what I was doing.  This conference connected me with people who I can use as support and as resources and whom I hope will use me the same way.  I am not alone.

What I told to Jami Packer (@jamidanielle) was that I felt as though I have been wandering through the desert and suddenly came over a hill to find 107 swimming pools filled with clean, cool water.  I cannot express my appreciation to Lisa Henry and her team for organizing this conference, to Sean Sweeney (@sweenwsweens) for introducing me to these people and to everyone there for being so warm, open, welcoming and amazing.  I feel as though I will be having valuable discussion with most of them for years to come and will be friends with several for the rest of my life.

Twitter Math Camp is not for everyone, but it is for me.  My fears still exist, but they have changed.  Now, I am scared that I won’t be able to implement all of the things that I want to.  My goal is to add one or two things each year, but I hope that I am able to stick with that instead of falling back into old habits.  I think that with the support of the MTBoS, I will be able to accomplish great things this year.

If you made it this far, or if you just skipped down, below are 4 of the main lessons I learned from TMC.  It is by NO means an exhaustive list, but it’s a start.

Lessons Learned From Twitter Math Camp:

1) Professional Development MUST be teacher driven. Administrators may have their hearts in the right place, but not being in the classroom on a day to day basis, they don’t know what we need.

2) Options MUST be given.  Teachers and administrators agree that the “one size fits all” approach to education doesn’t work and so we must diversify our classroom, but for some reason, that never translates to professional development.

3) Connections MUST be made.  It is vital that teachers talk among themselves inside the school, but in schools where things are difficult for everyone, that can often lead to a downward spiral of complaints and frustration.  Connections must be made with other teachers in different, but similar, situations so that fresh ideas and perspectives can be shared among the faculty.

4) There is no one right way to do anything. We are teachers, not robots.  If a method works for someone, that doesn’t mean it’s the perfect method.  If it doesn’t work for someone, that doesn’t mean it’s terrible.  Each teacher needs to find their own path and it will look different from the paths of those around them, but that doesn’t make it wrong or right.

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