How I Welcome Newcomers to Online Teacher Professional Development (a/k/a the #MTBoS) and How You Can Too

Here is the promise:

There is a community of math educators that meets online at all hours of the day. They trade support and resources and many of the educators who meet there will tell you it is the most indispensable professional development they have ever experienced. If you lack support in your school or district, this community might actually get you through. I’m referring to the the Math Twitterblogosphere, or the #MTBoS, an abbreviation that is as unwieldy and charming as the community it names.

Here is the reality:

Where am I? Who are all these people? Is it rude to just say something to somebody? These conversations look interesting but do I just … jump in?

Here is an ugly bit of unexamined privilege:

Loads of people informed me immediately that, nope, Twitter only works that way if you already have lots of followers, if you’re already in the community, and that it also helps to belong to a demographic that is accustomed to being listened to all the time.

People informed me that their first leap into this teaching community was scary, that getting “shot down” was bad, but bad also was simply getting ignored.

I decided I didn’t want to ignore a tweet from a newcomer to the Math Twitterblogosphere. So about a month ago I wrote up the designs for a Chrome extension and hired a freelancer to build it. The extension highlights tweets from users that meet any criteria I choose.

Here is my “Welcome to the #MTBoS” rule. It highlights tweets from anyone with fewer than 100 tweets, people who are likely new in town, so I can make sure they hear from somebody.

The results have been a blast. I don’t break much of a sweat on these welcome wagon tweets. “Never stop tweeting” is my standard greeting, after a more personal remark. Other times I try to connect newcomers to the resources they’re after. Regardless, people are generally really excited to receive these quick tweets.

That’s someone whose day got made because this little Twitter extension made it easy for me to make sure she didn’t get ignored.

You can make someone’s day too. Loads of these newcomers aren’t following me. Many of them are looking for classroom teachers to follow. Many of them are looking for people who are only a couple of years ahead of them in their careers, not ten or twenty.

You’re welcome to install the same extension, without any warranty, and with only the most meager set of instructions. (If I start hearing that a bunch of you want to install it, I’ll give it a proper download page with a proper set of instructions.)

Hey. Good work, everybody. People are writing dissertations about us. People from outside mathematics education are looking in at us as a model for professional community. This place is special. Let’s keep expanding it – its numbers, its representation, and its heart. This is one idea I had recently. What’s yours?

Mathematical Surprise

I gave a talk at the Wisconsin state math conference earlier this month and this woman was the best part.

I don’t know her name. I’ll call her Jan. Jan is about to testify to the power of surprise.

I asked the crowd to give me three numbers between 1 and 6, numbers you might get from a roll of the dice. They said 2, 3, and 5. Then I asked all of them to evaluate those numbers in this expression.

Most of the crowd started working on that task, but Jan didn’t. She laughed and said, “I teach second grade,” excusing herself.

I encouraged her to show off whatever she remembered from the last time she worked with expressions like this. She scribbled on the notebook in her lap and we managed to evaluate x = 2 in the time we had, but not 3 or 5.

I asked the crowd to call out the result for 2, 3, and 5. They called out 2, 6, and 20, one after the other.

Then I asked the crowd to evaluate those same three numbers in this expression.

Jan tossed her notepad on the desk, a reaction of “no way, no thank you” to the length of that expression. I decided not to press her at that exact moment, because I had a secret everyone in the crowd would come to understand at different times, Jan last of all and perhaps best of all.

I asked for their result for 2.

“0.”

“Okay, what about 3?”

“0.”

“Okay, that’s weird. What about 5?”

“0.”

I played up my surprise, acting like I didn’t know all of those terms would simplify to 0.

That’s when I noticed Jan. Out of the corner of my eye, Jan straighted up in her chair and then picked up her notebook to sort out what just happened.

I wish I had a sharper vocabulary to describe this transformation, as well as more strategies for provoking it. By showing Jan a situation where order arose from apparent disorder, she felt something in the neighborhood of … cognitive conflict? Intellectual need? “Surprise” feels closest.

I don’t know all the words and I don’t know all the strategies, but I know there are few gifts a teacher can give a student more satisfying than helping her transform from “no way, no thank you” to “okay, let’s sort this out.”

Discuss:

  • I don’t think this experience has much to do with Jan’s growth mindset about herself, or mine about her, but I’m willing to be proven wrong. How was this experience distinct (or similar) to a mindset experience?
  • Think about the design of this activity, all of its different permutations, and how each one might have affected Jan. What if, for instance, I had given given the class those three numbers instead of soliciting them from the class? What if I had only solicited one number? What if all three numbers didn’t evaluate to the same number? How would these permutations have affected Jan’s interest in picking up her notebook?

Desmos Now Embedded in Year-End Assessments Across the United States

Amy X. Wang, writing in Quartz:

Enter Desmos, a San Francisco-based company that offers a free online version of TI’s graphing calculator. Users across 146 countries, most of them teachers or students, are currently logging 300,000 hours a day on the platform—and today, Desmos announced a major partnership with testing consortium Smarter Balanced, which administers academic exams in 15 US states. Beginning this spring, students in those areas will use the online tool in math classrooms and on statewide performance assessments.

When students take their year-end assessment in 15 states, they’ll see the same free calculator they’ve been using at school and at home the rest of the year. That assessment will more closely reflect what they know, rather than what they were able to express through unfamiliar or costly technology.

USA Today has the reaction quote from Texas Instruments president Peter Balyta:

Peter Balyta, president of TI Education Technology and a former math teacher, defended the purchases, saying a TI calculator “is a one-time investment in a student’s future, taking students through math and science classes from middle school through high school and into college and career.” He said TI’s technology is evolving, but that models like the TI-84 Plus come with “only the features that students need in the classroom, without the many distractions that come with smartphones, tablets and internet access.”

This is interesting. In a world where more and more assessments are delivered digitally (and pre-loaded with digital calculators) the sales pitch for hardware calculators is their lack of features, rather than their abundance.

There is clearly a market today for a calculator that lacks internet access. Around 20% of teachers in my survey said they wouldn’t let students use mobile devices on exams for reasons of “test security” and another 10% cited “distraction.”

Open, interesting questions:

  • Are those figures trending upwards or downwards?
  • Will schools and parents continue to pay Texas Instruments an estimated 50% profit margin for more test security and fewer distractions?
  • How do math coaches and instructional technologists help teachers harness the advantages of the internet while also managing concerns about security and distraction?

2017 May 12. Peter Balyta makes a longer case for hardware calculators, one which won’t surprise anyone who has followed this discussion. He mentions (1) lower cost, (2) fewer distractions, (3) greater test security, (4) more features, and (5) availability on tests.

RIP Malcolm Swan

In trying to explain to family and friends what Malcolm Swan meant to the field of math education, I’ve been putting him in the same category as Michael Jordan – talents that come along once in a generation in disciplines that are as much art as science. In Swan’s case, he designed experiences that endeared students to mathematics, and endeared teachers to students, more effectively than anyone I know. You can pick up his The Language of Functions and Graphs, now thirty years old, and wonder, “What have we been doing all this time?” Swan drew math out of the world and thought out of our students in ways that feel challenging and new even today.

Malcolm was uncommonly humble and generous for someone of his talent. He was willing to spend time and trade ideas with me long before I had anybody’s name to drop, or any name of my own. He was also uncommonly dedicated to the field of math education, writing articles, giving talks, and hosting workshops, and all throughout you knew he believed completely that you too can do what I do, that math education isn’t art or science so much as it’s design. And he believed that design could be taught and learned.

That’s why I’m sad for everyone who knew Malcolm personally, for his family and his colleagues at the Shell Centre, but I’m not as sad for our profession as I thought I would be. Malcolm’s talent was generational and unique, but he did more than any of us could have hoped to explain it. Over his career, he added to our profession in permanent ways far more than his death now subtracts. I know we will still be learning from Malcolm for decades. And throughout those decades, the best day of my week will be any day I get to introduce a new teacher to his work, and pass along his conviction that “you too can do what he did.”

Every Handout from NCTM 2017

tl;dr –

  • There were 740 total sessions at NCTM’s 2017 annual conference. I wrote a script to find and extract the 279 sessions that included handouts, slides, or other attachments. You can also download the entire mess of attachments with a single click. (1.28 GB. Not small.)
  • The process of writing and running that script maps almost perfectly onto the process of mathematical modeling. If the same defective wiring runs through your brain as mine, you’ll understand how that was a total rush.
  • I hope NCTM will make these resources easier to find in the future, especially for non-members.

This is just like mathematical modeling!

I’d been using the same script for this task for the last two years, but NCTM switched website vendors this year and I had to create a new one. On the one hand, accessing handouts from the conference probably shouldn’t be so challenging. On the other, this process is such a fun puzzle for me, and maps almost perfectly onto the process of mathematical modeling.

Here is what I mean. The third step in the modeling cycle is to “perform operations.” I’m not here to tell you that people (old or young) should never perform operations, just that computers are generally much faster at it. When I thought about the task of poking my head into all 740 NCTM session websites and asking, “Hello. Any handouts in here?” I admitted defeat immediately to some software.

So the human’s job is the first two steps: identifying essential variables and describing the relationships between them. Computers are much, much worse at this than humans. That meant looking at cryptic computer chicken-scratch like this and asking, “What do I need to tell the computer so it knows where to look for the session handouts?

If you notice that each session has its own four-digit “id” and that each handout has been tagged with “viewDocument,” you can tell the fast machine where to look.

But the modeling cycle doesn’t end there. Just like you shouldn’t paste the results from your calculator to your answer sheet without thinking about it, you shouldn’t paste the results of the fast machine’s search to your blog without thinking about it. You have to “validate the results,” which in my case meant poking around in different sessions, making sure I hadn’t missed anything, and then revising steps one and two when I realized I had.

I hope NCTM will make these easier to find.

These handouts are basically advertisements for the conference without substituting for attendance. (No prospective attendee will say, “I was this close to attending but then I found out some of the handouts would be online.”) If they’re easier to find, not only will existing attendees be happier but non-attendees will have a nice preview of the intellectual activity they can expect at the conferences, making them more inclined to attend the next year. Nothing but upside!

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