How Do You Make A MTBOS?

I don’t have any answers here. I can only do my best to articulate the question.

The collection of tweeting and blogging math teachers we call the Math Twitter Blogosphere confuses me.

Look at this place.

  • It has a welcoming committee that organizes challenges to help new members find their feet. It also pairs volunteer newcomers with volunteer mentors. (Shout out to my mentee Lisa Garcia.)
  • It comprises thousands of blogs and Twitter accounts. Two weekly gazettes exist just to summarize the activity. (That first link is, without exception, the most valuable post of whatever week it’s published.)
  • It organizes weekly webinars with speakers and topics running across every spectrum.
  • It organizes an annual in-person conference, which sold out in two weeks last year and in eight hours this year.
  • 2016 Feb 12. It has maintained a physical booth presence at three of the last four National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ conferences, staffed round-the-clock by volunteers.

It bears saying again: these are all volunteer efforts and self-organized.

Someone has to help me. Does the same organization and activity exist in other content areas?

If not, then why not? Each of the efforts above boasts some talented contributors – shout outs to Lisa Henry, Julie Reulbach, Sam Shah, Raymond Johnson, Tina Cardone, and the communities they lead – but I find it hard to believe similarly talented people don’t exist in other content areas. If you had to go back in time and bet that one group of teacher bloggers would break out in these amazing spasms of collaboration, admit that math teachers wouldn’t have been your first or second guess.

So how did this happen?

I don’t get it. I love it but I don’t get it.

2016 Feb 11. Helpful data? Googling “[x] teaching blog,” I find in millions of results:

160211_1

  • Math: 33.9.
  • English: 115
  • Science: 129
  • History: 73.1
  • Art: 88.9
  • Language: 91.3
  • Social Studies: 53.8

Quality, not quantity.

Featured Tweets

Featured Comments

Claire:

I think of all the disciplines, math teachers are frustrated most with status quo. Personally, I want to change my practice, but on my own have struggled figuring out how to teach differently than I was taught. I don’t have a blog of my own (yet) but have grown so much by blogs I’ve found via Pinterest, Twitter, and google searches.

Brett Parker:

I think that curriculum is a huge part. Almost all secondary math curricula include the same topics. There is much greater variation in what states and districts require for social studies or even science. Different required texts for English classes.

Nathan Kraft:

In my own district, I found it hard to find anyone with much of a passion for trying new things…those who truly wish to invest the time for self-improvement. I sometimes wonder if some of my math colleagues even really like math. I certainly don’t get that vibe from the science teachers or the English teachers. Perhaps that is why I was drawn to this community. It is out of necessity in order to find those who are equally passionate.

Henri Picciotto:

But after a very few years, the group collapsed. Traffic stopped in the edWeb community, and the in-person meeting which had peaked at about 20+ people gradually shrank.

I think the fact that edWeb was a closed community, with formal membership was a fatal mistake. MTBoS is totally open.

About 
I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. More here.

36 Comments

  1. Reply
    As a new instructional coach, I’ve been searching for the same for my non-math colleagues. There are some great blogs out there, but nothing with the camaraderie, collaboration or organization to parallel #MTBoS. I think that curriculum is a huge part. Almost all secondary math curricula include the same topics. There is much greater variation in what states and districts require for social studies or even science. Different required texts for English classes. Math is a universal language and a near universal curriculum. You may consider polynomials algebra 1 or algebra 2 or math 3, but the content is pretty consistent. If anyone finds something half as good as MTBoS I’m all ears.
  2. Reply

    One part traditionalism, one part standardized (roughly) curriculum, and one part student anxiety. You’ve got the teacher in the small high school with no one to talk to, the teacher working in a department full of people near retirement, and the Algebra 1 teacher who lives and dies by standardized test scores all looking for something, anything, that could make them more successful. The internet was a natural outlet.

    Is there a correlation between the type of person who teaches math and the type who is more inclined to trust the internet? No idea.

  3. Reply
    I think of all the disciplines, math teachers are frustrated most with status quo. Personally, I want to change my practice, but on my own have struggled figuring out how to teach differently than I was taught. I don’t have a blog of my own (yet) but have grown so much by blogs I’ve found via Pinterest, Twitter, and google searches.

    My guess is that I’m not the only one wanting to change and needing to find help on the Internet because of a lack of support at my school site.

  4. Reply
    I wonder if math teachers may typically be some of the more traditional teachers in all of the content areas. In my own district, I found it hard to find anyone with much of a passion for trying new things…those who truly wish to invest the time for self-improvement. I sometimes wonder if some of my math colleagues even really like math. I certainly don’t get that vibe from the science teachers or the English teachers. Perhaps that is why I was drawn to this community. It is out of necessity in order to find those who are equally passionate.
  5. Reply

    I feel like that out of all content areas, math has the most room for creative innovations to deepen understanding. There are endless ways to explore concepts, and their interconnections. Each new permutation and combination is a light-bulb moment. This leads to more curriculum creation, and amazingly high levels of engagement. There are only so many strategies one can adopt in teaching language or geography.

    IMHO, there are two more subjects/disciples/content-areas that have the kind of characteristics that math has. Computer Science and arts. I think a CS community for teachers is going to explode in coming years, aided by all the stuff made by the tech community. Arts also has endless depth and exploration – I wonder what it would take for teachers to come together on the web for that.

    All that said, having very closely try to understand MTBoS from an outsider perspective, I think there are other things that made it tick. Some of them are:
    – The early innovators, including yourself, took to the web to talk about ideas actively, and actively sought a community. You folks were also masters or masters-in-the-making at math; it’s hard to believe that a few great science teachers organically start writing thoughtful reflections on their life in blogposts. This really helped solidify grounds for a critical mass later. The people really mattered.
    – Several of you have had a love for math for decades, and many even went to college / grad-school to study math. Your love for your discipline is a strong indicator of why you care. Teachers generally have mixed backgrounds in college.
    – The universal-ness of math. I know it’s been written about, but this can’t be stated enough.

    What you have going is VERY VERY special, and it should be a case study for education worldwide.

  6. Reply

    Thanks for the feedback so far. I have added comments from Brett, Claire, and Nathan to the body of the post.

    I’m compelled by the idea that math teacher bloggers need their blogging community more because the teaching gap is wider in math education than other disciplines. I have no idea if that last assertion is true, though.

    All of this is made even more interesting by my Google tally of blogs across disciplines. It seems the MTBOS has a much smaller Google footprint than any other core subject. See the body of the post for that update.

  7. Reply

    Not quite an answer to your question, but relevant:

    Some years ago, I gave a talk at the California Math Council meeting in Asilomar, on teacher collaboration. It was packed, and went really well, but a recurring question from attendees was: “what can I do if my colleagues don’t want to collaborate?” That planted a seed in my mind: we need an online collaboration space for math teachers.

    With Carlos C and others I set up a group on edWeb, called Escape from the Textbook! It grew rapidly to about 400 online members. We had a successful conference in SF (sold out: 100 people, speakers were Jo Boaler and Paul Zeitz, plus many teacher-led sessions.) We held quarterly or so meetings in the Bay Area. (The mtbosBA meeting format was inherited from that.) There was a bit of sharing and collaboration in the edWeb community.

    But after a very few years, the group collapsed. Traffic stopped in the edWeb community, and the in-person meeting which had peaked at about 20+ people gradually shrank.

    I think the fact that edWeb was a closed community, with formal membership was a fatal mistake. MTBoS is totally open.

    Also Twitter is probably a better format for communicating. You miss some messages? So be it. Most Escapees relied on e-mail to keep in touch with the group. Those messages sat in inboxes until they were dealt with. As if we didn’t have enough e-mail…

    There’s also a critical mass issue: MTBoS is probably more robust because it’s so large. People can drown in their school work for a few months, but the group keeps going, and when they re-emerge, it’s still there.

  8. Reply

    With the new science standards (NGSS) a grassroots community is beginning to form thanks to the efforts of Tricia Shelton and others. http://www.ngssblogs.com/ and #ngssblogs are some access points. Bear in mind that this project has been working for a year or so so it is not nearly as developed as MTBoS.

  9. Reply

    Thanks to #MTBoS I was inspired to finally launch my own blog after 21 years of teaching. The support and encouragement of the community is incredible and I am so thankful for the opportunity to grow my PLN every day.

  10. Reply

    Part of it for me is the intersection between wanting to be creative/relevant to the students’ lives and having to teach seemingly boring/irrelevant things (if you stick to most textbooks). I feel like in many other subject areas it’s easier (at least without being contrived) to integrate things like multiculturalism or current events, whereas when I need to teach simplifying radicals…I just need to teach that and my textbook has twenty lame examples.

    But as a thinking educator I want to find ways of engaging my students more critically… Since our textbooks offer little guidance, most of us were taught in a rote manner, and it’s sometimes a stretch to find a meaningful and engaging context for our topics, we as math teachers are forced to turn to this amazing hive mind for support and ideas and have in turn created a positive feedback loop that has moved many of us from the doldrums of bad books and how we were taught into something that truly excites us and our students.

  11. Reply

    I’m totally novice. I enrolled in 2016 blogging initiative. For me it’s an amazing things that math teacher make a community. For knowing the why, perhaps we could think about how it was started. I don’t know. I started following you, Dan, and then via your blogroll I discovered more people with similar ideas. And then, I discovered the MTBoS. Perhaps historical people like you can tell us how it started. And perhaps we could understand so.

    Personally, I *need* MTBoS and MTBoS-friendly initiatives, like 3-acts compilations, Estimatiojn 180 and so. These things give us a light of how to teach differently. And you (plural) give it *practically* not theorically, like a tons of books and articles do.

    I teach in small community with a lack of initiative and it’s promising see breathing new airs…. MTBoS is almost the only alternative source I have.

    Thanks a lot, all of you, involved in MTBoS community.

  12. Reply

    So many of these comments, especially Nathan’s, capture how I feel as well. I’ve been teaching for 18 years and still absolutely love mathematics and teaching. I haven’t felt this love from some (okay – most) of my math colleagues. The MTBoS has helped me find others who still share this love, or passion. I’m not sure if I’m yet a true member of the MTBoS, but I’ve benefited immensely from exploring (and trying) many of the ideas on the MTBoS. I wouldn’t have tried standards-based grading or speed-dating, for instance, if I hadn’t read about them here. SBG was huge for me – a missing piece that made a better teacher.

  13. Reply

    I think you’re missing the most important part of #MTBoS collaboration as opposed to IRL collaboration. In the #MTBoS, I can always find the people who are open to collaborating with me about what *I* am interested in *when* I’m interested in it.

    The fact that we are a worldwide asynchronously connected community means that I don’t have to wait for a conference or a miracle in order to have deep collaboration. I can just toss my question, thought, or idea out there and find whoever is looking for me too.

    – Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

  14. Reply

    I’m a total novice, new to teaching and new to MTBOS, but I love it. I agree with Nathan — I struggle to find other teachers in my real life world that are energized and experimental. I like taking risks in the classroom and developing flexibility, and the MTBOS is FULL OF THAT. I owe a great deal to this community of math teachers, my algebra classroom thrives because of them.

  15. Reply

    The #MTBoS never fails to give me the encouragement to “stay the course” in teaching content that:

    1) I’m passionate about
    2) Textbooks generally drain the passion from
    3) The masses often teach traditionally (from said textbooks)

    When I began teaching, I resented that I was handed an obsolete textbook as my “curriculum”. I’m talking a photo of a kid with a plaid butterfly collar shirt, typing on a huge typewriter, and word problems to accompany this photo. THAT kind of obsolete. I HAD to learn how to create my own resources, and at the time, I was a “lone nut” for taking the time to do that.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fW8amMCVAJQ

    Thanks to the internet, the #MTBoS is a bunch of “lone nuts” who have decided to dance together virtually and shape one another’s practices in our own “movement”.

    Is our dissatisfaction with the “textbook” a major motivator to go online and say, “Help! There’s GOT to be a better way to teach _____!” For me, that answer is a resounding YES.

    Keep dancing, #MTBoS.

  16. Reply

    I am totally intrigued by this question & the theories that get proposed as I am trying to get a local Ottawa teaching community to build an online PLN of blogging & tweeting.

    The #OttSlowChat tag was started by two well-intentioned local administrators.
    https://twitter.com/search?f=tweets&vertical=default&q=%23ottslowchat&src=typd

    But I didn’t think they’d set up an ideal format to attract people in. I asked if I could take over as “host” & they agreed. So now I’m trying to start this weekly slow chat for Ottawa area educators across all boards & subjects & panels. Who knows if it’ll fly … we’re in week 3. But perhaps the responses people have here will help me figure out how to make it work well & be beneficial & engage to the participants.

    Thanks for putting into writing something I’ve often quietly wondered about.

  17. Reply

    Here’s a research article suggesting that one of the primary reasons teachers participate in online communities about teaching is to fulfill social and emotional needs.

    http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ835241.pdf

    It could be that Math teachers have the most to gain socially and emotionally due to a lower than ideal number of relationships in their local environments.

    One may argue that this theory would result in a higher than average number of blogs for math teachers, which would disagree with Dan’s google search bar graph. This isn’t necessarily the case. Maybe Math teachers are less likely to engage socially in any form (including online), but when they do engage online, they find the camaraderie more irresistible because of a previous deficit. This causes them to engage more frequently and more emotionally, which begets real friendships and meaningful collaborations.

    ————————–

    Another factor that almost certainly plays into Math teachers topping the “quality” list when it comes to online engagement is our highly above average technical facility with computers and their language, which are the tools that create online environments.

  18. Reply

    I wonder if the blog footprint is small because of people similar to me: the stalkers?

    While every once in a while (very rarely) I will go hunting on the MTBoS for help on a specific lesson, I read Twitter and the blogs for the camaraderie. I cringe in empathy when people are having a rough day/week/class (“phew…I’m not alone!”) and I cheer when they have that breakthrough (self-administered “See! You can do it!”).

    I do not get anything like this camaraderie from my in-school colleagues. This makes me sad. I’ve tried to get them to engage in a way that is similar to the MTBoS, and I’ve shown them the awesome. They’re not interested, and I can’t force them to be.

    But I do know that I can’t teach very well without knowing that there are equally enthusiastic, passionate people out there. Thank you for the opportunity to say “thank you for saving my sanity” to them.

  19. Reply

    Perhaps one reason for the success of MTBoS is the isolation of innovative math teachers in schools where the dominant culture is, well, the dominant traditionalist culture. There is a significant gap between the professional consensus (e.g. NCTM positions) and the actual practice in most classrooms. Is the same true in other disciplines?

  20. Reply

    I am an #mtbos -er because I finally found a place where I belong. I love math. All of it. The way everything connects, circles back, explains itself, remains an enigma, can be proved, can’t be proved…. And I love teaching math in a way that is fun, tantalizing, fascinating…. You get the idea, I hope. #mtbos -ers “get it” in a way that it is not generally taught. I see teachers – good teachers- slog thru notes, lectures, and explanations. They draw diagrams and exhort students to remember, to make connections, and with only a few exceptions, they are performing CPR on dead bodies. Learning math has to be more than that. There IS more to it than that. I love when I hit that sweet spot in a lesson, when kids are so involved in a discussion or an activity that they forget they are supposed to be “bad at math.” The confidence I see in them as they begin to KNOW… that has come from the confidence I’ve been given to teach true to my heart, and that comes thru the support of all those wonderful other #mtbos -ers who are willing to share good and bad as we have all sought to find great ways to teach a subject of great beauty and bad reputation!

  21. Reply

    I would only add that there is a subversive, anti-establishment quality to the MTBoS that I find attractive. By establishment I mean pretty much all the kind of traditional math instruction I received when I was in school, the kind that made me hate math and feel stupid in math class, which by the way is similar to the instruction my children are receiving today. I see the MTBoS as an opposing force.

  22. Reply

    Shout to my mentor, Mr. Dan Meyer, for keeping the inspiration going! Just like our students, there are so many resources out there for us, but now MTBOS puts it right in front of us. My friend can’t believe how much of my time I spend using the search engine to look for ideas I can use. I’m just always looking for something better! Thanks MTBOS and Dan!!!

  23. Reply

    I have an alternate hypothesis.

    There are a variety of different content areas and a variety of different platforms for connecting people across those content areas.

    It looks like, from our rough analysis and from our somewhat insider perspectives, that the math education community on Twitter and Blogs is somewhat more robust than other online communities using the same platforms.

    1. Is it possible that this is not true with other online platforms? For example, could ELA communities exist with greater depth than the equivalent math ed communities on Facebook?

    2. Is it possible that really what we are seeing is natural variation in online communities that tend to segregate around content areas and that when we see the MTBoS seemingly being more successful, we are attempting to explain natural variation using non-causal relationships?

    I wonder if one reason we have such a wide variety in responses to your question is that we are attempting to find a causal relationship where none might exist?

  24. Reply

    David Wees:

    I wonder if one reason we have such a wide variety in responses to your question is that we are attempting to find a causal relationship where none might exist?

    I’m actually very surprised by the narrow range of reasons for participation. Both here and on Twitter, people have cited community, encouragement, and support far above any other reason. The second place finisher – resources – doesn’t seem close to me. Your read is different?

    Is it possible that this is not true with other online platforms? For example, could ELA communities exist with greater depth than the equivalent math ed communities on Facebook?

    Certainly they could. I’d be grateful for examples.

    It’s interesting to me that the #MTBOS isn’t limited to T’s and B’s, though. What began on blogs expanded to Twitter and then to webinar platforms and then to an email newsletter and then to a physical conference.

    I’ll bet we could find a thriving Pinterest community of ELA educators. But could we find them in all of those media?

    Henri:

    Yet another hypothesis: could it be that one contributing factor is the participation of a math ed rock star? Do other disciplines have their Dan Meyer equivalents?

    Perish the thought …

  25. Reply

    Wanted to chime in on “rock stars”. For me, it actually has been critical that we’ve had some major opinion leaders such as Dan, Sam Shah, Kate Nowak, etc. What I get out of the MTBoS is the chance to have a years-long running conversation with some folks, particularly Dan. Those types of conversations can’t happen when you’re just commenting on boards with lots of random teachers, because you spend 80% of the time explaining your philosophical/empirical priors before you get to the matter at hand. With you, I can just skip that, and I can also read your posts and replies without having to ask you where you’re coming from. It’s a million times more interesting and challenging than chatting with folks I don’t know.

  26. Reply

    I’m a bit late to the party, but would like to float the idea that one possible factor in the existence of the MTBoS is that the Math Forum has been around as an online math teacher community since 1992. I’m not an anthropologist or sociologist (though we have one who writes about the Math Forum), but hard to believe there isn’t some connection.

    For those who only know us as folks who tweet and run Ignite events, you might check out this informal history I wrote after participating in a panel convened by Lani Horn: http://mathforum.org/blogs/annie/2014/05/07/the-math-forum-the-original-social-network-for-math-teachers/

  27. Reply

    I wish I knew the 1992 version of the Math Forum. The 2016 version – or at least its “math-teach” sub-forum – is such an angry place and I’m always sadder for having visited. How did that happen?

  28. Reply

    I confess, Dan, that as I quickly read your response to Annie it seems that you are saying that the 2016 version of the Math Forum is an angry place and that you’re sad when you visit us. As you might imagine, that hurt my heart.

    As I re-read, I’m thinking that it’s really “math-teach” that is the angry place that makes you sad when you visit it. Or, at least, that’s what I’m hoping.

    The 1992 version (when it was the Geometry Forum) was founded on the idea of offering “an online math education community center.” We have continued that mission for 24 years nows (although, we’ve had a bit of a hiccup since the staff left Drexel on June 30th but all of the legal paperwork we hope will be signed soon. We are so excited to be part of NCTM!).

    One way that we serve the community is to provide places/opportunities for conversations. Math-teach is one of those places. I wonder what might be done so that it isn’t an angry place. Do you or others have ideas?

  29. Reply

    I had a lot of ideas about teaching math better, but very few resources and stumbled onto the MTBOS in a desperate search for lesson plans. I keep returning because when I attempt to implement ideas I’ve found here (however imperfectly) my students respond to it, and I’m watching their attitudes toward math change (slooooowly), and it makes my job way more enjoyable. So that has kept me hungry to learn more and find better lessons and share my own experiences. There’s no way I can go back to the traditional format, and I don’t know near enough to keep teaching this way without all the help I find on the MTBOS.

  30. Reply

    Suzanne:

    As I re-read, I’m thinking that it’s really “math-teach” that is the angry place that makes you sad when you visit it. Or, at least, that’s what I’m hoping.

    Yes, just “math-teach.”

    One way that we serve the community is to provide places/opportunities for conversations. Math-teach is one of those places. I wonder what might be done so that it isn’t an angry place. Do you or others have ideas?

    I’m curious if there is any moderation at all. Is there a code of conduct? Are people just allowed to say anything at all to each other? Here’s a thread at random where people are just hacking away at each other.

    My blog is hardly a perfect forum, but what civility we have here has come as a result of a) promoting helpful commenters, b) nagging unhelpful commenters, c) deleting really unhelpful commenters, d) blocking really, really unhelpful commenters. Math-teach just seems like a free-for-all and I’m wondering if similar efforts have been made to moderate it.

  31. Reply

    Dan, your questions about math-teach prompted quite an internal exchange within the Math Forum staff!

    Yes, our discussion staff have tried valiantly to moderate it since 2007 and have taken many slings and arrows from all sides since then and feel great disappointment in the result. We all feel your pain.

    Here’s a little of the history — math-teach began as nctm-l. As the Math Wars picked up steam, and the Internet world was a much smaller, more focused place, this discussion group has been the home of unpleasant argument ever since. The Math Forum agreed to take over hosting in 1995 I think (which was the year that I attended my first Math Forum Summer Institute! I was still a middle school computer and math teacher at that point. I joined the staff in June, 2000).

    Eventually NCTM was no longer willing to be associated with it and thus, the renaming. It might be significant that such forums are meant to be open, public spaces, and centralized rather than dispersed. For our part we focused on other venues for productive conversation and online math interaction, and other more focused discussion groups were established as well, including
    Ask Dr. Math: http://mathforum.org/dr.math/
    Math Tools: http://mathforum.org/mathtools/
    Teacher2Teacher (T2T): http://mathforum.org/t2t/
    pow-teach: http://mathforum.org/kb/forum.jspa?forumID=375
    ap-stat and ap-calc until they moved over to the College Board site
    professional organizations: http://mathforum.org/kb/forumcategory.jspa?categoryID=17

    In a sense, we have left math-teach as a space for those who want that sort of interaction, hoping to minimize their interest in fouling the other places we do our work.

  32. Reply

    You’ve basically hit my research question =) . . . a tough one for sure! At this point, I think it has to be studied as a collective phenomenon rather than from the perspective of individuals. This collective is by far the most productive and creative body I have ever experienced!

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