NCSM 2010 — Day One

I decided against the typical liveblog fragments here. I took some time, instead, to synthesize the major events and themes of NCSM (for math supervisors) and NCTM (for math teachers) so they’ll be more useful to me later. If you’d like me to elaborate on anything I cut short, just let me know in the comments. This delay has also given me time to request supplements from presenters (slidedecks, works cited, handouts) and link them here.

Sessions Reviewed:

  • Charting a Course with Professional Learning: Coaching to Promote Mathematics Education Leaders. Nan Dempsey.
  • Ignite NCSM! Ten Speakers Light up the Room with Fresh Ideas in Mathematics. Various.
  • Using Video Clubs as a Vehicle to Link Instruction and Student Learning. Jim King, Nicole Bannister.

The Norms Are The Same

I’m adjusting to new naming conventions at this conference. The term “teacher” refers to (variously) a teacher supervisor, a math coach, or, more traditionally, a teacher of math students. I have found it extremely useful to simply stop caring about the difference.

For instance:

We are learners and everyone in our community is a learner. We’re excited to be here learning. This is what has kept us strong.

Would you attribute that quote to a) a teacher of students, b) a teacher of teachers, or c) who cares – it’s awesome!

That was how the first speaker opened up. She then listed the three norms of her session:

Take care of yourself. Take care of each other. Share your gifts.

See earlier comment about the pointlessness of attribution.

The Norms Are Different

My favorite sessions today addressed the question: how do you talk to teachers about their teaching?

If you asked me that question before NCSM, after having blogged for four years (fairly) openly about my practice, I would have answered “you just talk about it!” This kind of well-intentioned-bull-in-a-chinashop approach was implicitly frowned upon by everybody. One of my table buddies even clucked over the discussion question, “what would you have done differently with that lesson?”

“You don’t ask teachers that question,” he said. Everyone else nodded.

I saw this again in the session on video clubs, where the norms were explicit and intense. You do not simply throw some teachers in a room and a video on the wall and tell them to talk about it.


  1. A university adviser helps two teachers select and crop a clip.
  2. Thirty teachers gather and eat food. Camaraderie is key.
  3. A facilitator prefaces the clip. What is the math? What might be hard about teaching it? What might be hard about learning it?
  4. The group watches the clip.
  5. The group discusses the clip.

And when you’re discussing the clip, make sure your comments are respectful of the teacher but also of the students. Do not evaluate the teacher or the lesson. Evaluate instead what the students understand. Always cite evidence from the video.

Comments of the form “I would have done [x].” are discouraged whereas comments like “I noticed [x] and I wonder if doing [y] would have resulted in [z].” are tolerated. Barely. Just watch yourself, okay?

The norms are printed and distributed to everybody. The speakers noted how uncomfortable everyone becomes whenever a newcomer joins the group and starts tromping all over this shared code. Imagine someone who doesn’t understand that the library is a place where silence is an expectation.

A large part of me wants to urge teachers to just get over all of this, to convince them this job is too difficult and too important, that we all have too much to learn to get hung up on our feelings. But check it out: the club has been running for seven years; there is little turnover; it has only grown; and its teachers are becoming huge and powerful. All of this recommends staying (at least a little) hung up on feelings.

My mind wandered, as it does twelve times a session here, to a) the internet and b) the lack of equity for teachers who can’t attend that video club and c) how (a) could render (b) totally insignificant.

NCSM Ignite!

You had one hundred people in the room and eighty people trying to get in. The speakers had to give up their chairs and sit on the floor.

Clearly, this is a crowd-pleaser, and something you ought to think about for your own conference. (Huge props to CMC-North, my regional math conference, for picking up the format for their next conference.) The investment is negligible and the upside is huge.

Brief recaps follow. All the talks are available (or will be soon) here.

  1. I went first and did a five-minute rendition of The Dan Meyer Experience, which is wearing on me. I need to learn something new here or move on. Thankfully, I have a lot of reading on my nightstand about multimedia, problem-solving, and math education
  2. Nora Ramirez, President of TODOS, stacked some great aphorisms side by side and filled in the mortar. Love this: “Disequilibrium is a sign of new learning.”
  3. Brian Lawler, Professor of Math Education at CSU San Marcos, said, “As humans we are all mathematical, so why are so few of us deemed proficient in math?” He suggested the idea of mathematics as a tool of oppression and, man, I’m tutoring a neighbor in second-year algebra lately, a class that’s farther from her aspirations to radiology than archery, and there we are, learning to add rational expressions, pushing cryptic symbols around, and it’s hard not to find Lawler’s argument compelling.
  4. Cathy Seeley, former President of NCTM, asked why we don’t teach teachers the same way we tell them to teach students. She asked teacher educators to walk their talk.
  5. Patrick Callahan, co-director of the California Math Project, brought down his fists of fury on Algebra, opening with a reference to Swift, leading into his own modest proposal: “teach more geometry; teach less algebra.” He noted that three out of four California students fail Algebra yet we’re pushing more students at a younger age into a subject that fewer teachers know how to teach. When these Ignite talks go online, do not miss Callahan’s.
  6. Sherry Fraser, author of the Interactive Mathematics Program, reviewed the 31-year history of IMP (a curriculum that the parents in my community ran out of town at the end of a pitchfork the year before I arrived, just by the way). She showed old video interviews of the first group and then, using LinkedIn and Facebook, updated us on their status. (They’re doing awesome, in case you missed where that was going.) Loved the bit from the kid who went on to win Best Original Screenplay at Tribeca recently: “When you’re fast, you can play any sport; when you know math, you can do anything.” Say word.
  7. Steve Leinwand, principal research analyst at AIR, presented “The Gospel According to Steve,” which is beyond my powers of summarization. Mostly. The five pillars of his gospel are a) dignity, b) transparency, c) collaboration, d) quality, and e) accountability. His elaboration, though, is out of my range. Check the video.
  8. Steve Rasmussen, co-founder Key Curriculum Press, jumped up on a table and dumped out a huge sack of change. He then jumped on another table and poured out much less change mixed in with quite a few bills. He noted that the first table was waiting for instructions while the second one had already begun counting, and tied that observation to our current model of math homework which he called “repetitive routines based on trivial operations.” He said, “Boredom is more damaging to math attainment than minor discontinuities in standards and sequence.”
  9. Nick Jackiw, inventor of Sketchpad, gave a talk on the history of geometry that didn’t conform to the medium or length of the Ignite format but no one seemed to mind because he’s Nick Jackiw, inventor of Sketchpad.

Gratuitous iPad Review

  • The lack of wireless at both conferences is confounding.
  • The Notepad app is really great. If it synced somewhere in the cloud, it’d be perfect. (Not that I have any access to the cloud right now.)
  • About the same time the laptop users are scavenging for outlets, I’m at 78% battery.
  • I loaded all my conference PDFs into GoodReader, which meant I could (smugly) bypass the entire conference bag experience.
  • iPad Keyboard Proficiency Update: my notes are gibberish. I can fly fairly quickly on the iPad but the auto-correct function either needs more training or it’s a joke. Some of the corrections (or lack thereof) are just bizarre. (How do you not know that “teacjer” is going for “teacher?” How?!)
  • Bulleted lists and HTML, more generally, are a chore on the iPad.
I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. I am having a difficult time wrapping my mind around the norms. Especially “Do not evaluate the teacher or the lesson.” Why? What are the drawbacks? What are the benefits of doing it their way? They have to be there as you say the club has been running for seven years.

    Is this list of shared norms available somewhere?

  2. Jackie,
    I’m trying very hard to find the exact words to answer your question as I am an math instructional coach. Like we try to do with students we want to give teachers direct and specific feedback that is not evaluative. Conversations do following the when you did (A) I noticed (B). B is usually evidence of student behavior, etc. The focus is more on student learning/understanding than the teacher’s method of getting there. We all have our strengths/weaknesses in our teaching. The goal is to move students forward. Does it matter how we get them there? (I still struggle with this at times as my personal approach varies greatly with many of the teachers I coach). It is an administrators job to evaluate teachers. Coaches are there to support and move teachers forward.

    I have been so moved by the blogs/tweets from this incredible and thoughtful community of educators. It is very unique. Not all teachers are as open to talking about something they take very personal.

    I hope I helped answer a few of your questions.

  3. AnonEngineeringProf

    April 25, 2010 - 7:51 pm -

    Hmm. I’m curious. Why does Callahan think we should teach more geometry and less algebra?

    As a high school student who loved math, I remember hating geometry. I still think of it as pointless. One person’s personal preferences are hardly a sound basis for educational policy, but I wonder: Why is geometry so important?

    P.S. I guess I can relate to the norms. They sound like variations on “Don’t judge or criticize the person, critique the ideas” and “Constructive comments (that identify how something could be better) often work better than critical comments (that identify something that went wrong)”. Sounds like the norms may be about not alienating people and establishing an atmosphere where people can feel comfortable dissecting what works best.

  4. Sarah Ah. I hadn’t thought of this from the perspective of a math coach (we don’t have them at my school, do they exist in high schools elsewhere?). The only person from whom I do get feedback is my division head/administrator. From that person I do want very specific feedback about me as the teacher.

  5. Dan – Your 5 minute talk was priceless. You did pretty much the same thing during our session, but I was so busy making sure that that my recording devices were working etc. that I “missed” your talk. So it’s nice to have this great 5 minute clip to share!

  6. Honesty, I wish this post were in separate parts. There is too much to reply to, but here is a shot at some of the highlights:

    AnonEngineeringProf: I was at a National Math Panel Forum last Fall and heard something really interesting from one of the researchers. He said that in some very effective schools, they use Geometry to motivate Algebraic thinking. For instance, when you start talking about complements, you logically get to a “what is the measure of this angle here?” moment. When you start with Geometry, which is more concrete, you can give the Algebra a context that it lacks when taught in its abstract own.

    “Cathy Seeley, former President of NCTM, asked why we don’t teach teachers the same way we tell them to teach students.” My answer: Because there is a difference between education and training. This is something that has always bugged me about most teacher professional development. There is a big difference and until PD people understand that, they won’t find effectiveness.

    “how do you talk to teachers about their teaching?” I like the focus on what the students know. Talking about the teaching process itself can devolve into subjective judgments that are not helpful. Also, I believe that almost everyone (teachers included) has a hard time judging themselves. They are simply incapable of seeing what they are doing well and poorly. More importantly, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is how well the students went from not knowing to knowing.

    Anyway, thanks for the summary. Lots of great stuff here.


  7. Regarding the decimal question:

    List C is the only list that would not be in numerical order if the decimals were omitted. If list A or B was used students who ignore the decimals would still likely order the decimals correctly without understanding the true values of the numbers.

  8. Cathy Seeley’s proposed that teachers should be challenged to approach their teaching the way that we ask students to approach their learning: by having to reason, problem-solve, and overcome setbacks. I think the big thing teachers are missing that students (in quality classes) are not is the space to discuss the problem. How many teachers are given this space at their school site?

    Obviously, many teachers have started blogs so that they can do this (which is awesome), but why is the burden on the teacher to do this on their own? I wish we could better set up the duties of a teacher in order to promote this kind of discussion/reflection/problem-solving. Dan, when you write an especially good/relevant post, I forward it along to the rest of my department, but I don’t think they read it. I’ve talked to some teachers about it and they say that they need more balance in their lives, that they don’t want to burn out, that they need to be good parents to their children, and that they don’t have time to read edublogs or current research. On the one hand, I sympathize with their plight because I think it’s real. On the other hand, is it possible to carve out 20 minutes a day 3 times a week to read current research/edublogs? Or, better yet, is it possible to structure this into our job as teachers?

  9. K12 teachers are asked/required to do way too much. I teach community college, and am given way more respect, money, and time for my work.

    It is perfectly reasonable to want balance in one’s life. And who stays online for just 20 minutes? (With you sending them the best of…, it does seem doable. But maybe they subconsciously know that if they let in this trickle, they’ll want more, and then it will be a deluge.)

  10. Yes, you are right. This supports my point. We need to lessen the burden on our teachers. To keep up with professional reading (be it through edublogs, current research, or both), one either gets burnt out, is consumed by their job, or neglects their professional or family duties. None of these options seem sustainable. Perhaps there is a solution I’m missing, though.