Takeaways from #NCTM14

Nothing is rejuvenating like spending a few days with like-minded people. I feel incredibly fortunate that I was able to speak with many innovative, passionate, and engaging math educators.

And… there’s more to it than that. Obviously, the people who are able to attend NCTM either have districts who are willing to foot part of the bill, received some kind of grant, or paid their own way. That is, the attendees are not representative of the larger math education population. But it seemed that I talked to two kinds of people: those who were content being there and those who were super hungry to connect.

I teach at a super small private school. We have about 220 kids in 6th – 12th grade. I don’t hear bullshit acronyms like “KWLM” – literally “kids we love the most” when talking about children who have not had success at school. I don’t hear kids being called “low” or “high.” I don’t hear these false classifications of children that have nothing to do with how they learn. Even a casual label like “lazy” is describing a behavior, not a person. I encourage you, if you hear a child being called by a label, call them on their shit. It can be awkward, but it can’t be a practice that continues or ignored.

End rant. Here’s a collection of takeaways I had.

The sessions by Christopher Danielson and Michael Serra respectively were the only two where I actually had to think mathematically. I think that it’s such a rich experience for math teachers to be able to be back in a learning environment with novel material. Students do it every day.

What I loved about Danielson’s presentation is that he didn’t know where it would lead: when students come up with their own classification system of hexagons, he doesn’t have a pre-defined notion of what we would create (unless he’s already come up with every possible way to classify his set of 14 or so hexagons.)

Michael Serra had created inquiry based materials which can be found here. We worked together in groups on some of his pre-created materials. I highly endorse the donut polygon problem set.

Recurring theme: Few people have a clear vision of what to do with technology in the classroom. I heard so many stories of computers, iPads, smart boards and other gadgets being stuck in storage because they were being used improperly or didn’t foster student learning (or both).

This was the first year I went to a talk on math and social justice. Rochelle Gutierrez’s sessions focused on the “unearned privilege” that those who can do math have in society. Math typically is heralded as the highest form of intelligence, and presents a high barrier to some. I really dug her point that “math needs people” as a converse to the traditional “everyone needs math.”

People I met put up with a lot of pressing questions. I don’t know how no one told me to shut the hell up all weekend. When asked about your craft, you people are much less defensive than I think I would be.

Steven Leinwand gave the sermon of the week. Among other items, he mentioned the “devastating impact of teacher isolation”; how standards and assessments are the bookends – necessary but not sufficient; and plugged the new Practice to Action text. I’m still confused why Practice to Action isn’t a free text, supported by NCTM, the Dept of Ed or some other professional organization. If the document is so important, why not put it in the hands of everyone? Maybe I’m naïve here.

“Don’t read off your slides. Don’t read off your slides. Stop it. Don’t read off your slides.” – me talking to myself and about half of the presenters.

Dan Meyer had a great presentation on lessons we can take from how video games are structured. He’s got a summary here. But what I really took away was a line at the end of his presentation. He pointed out that so many people are vying for kids’ attention: video game developers, shoe creators, wanna-be teen celebrities, musicians, etc. etc. etc. But what teachers are given (by law no less) is a captive audience. Students are “forced” to be with us for 180 days out of the year, and it’s a time that should be treasured and honored. It’s a time to innovate and connect kids with mathematical thinking instead of mechanical procedures.

I couldn’t have been more grateful for everyone who stopped by for my presentation. I was literally in the hallway grabbing anyone who looked at my sign in an act of shameless self-promotion. It was my first one, and I didn’t really feel nervous – it seemed like all who attended really wanted me to succeed.

I think that’s the vibe that should be supported by NCTM: we want you to be a badass and you can do that here at our conferences. Other than that, I’m still not sure why people come.


3 thoughts on “Takeaways from #NCTM14

  1. Such a strong set of reflections here, Brandon. I love the questions. Why do people come? Why isn’t Principles to Actions being put in everyone’s hands? Why do people read 90% of their talk off their slides? Why did two presentations in 3 days have you thinking mathematically?

    You know what question you neither asked nor answered? Why did YOU go?

    It was really useful for me to read your reflection about my session. I have some reactions that I’ll think over and get back to you about. All good—don’t worry.

  2. “Why did YOU go?”

    Trying to turn the tables hmmm? I would expect nothing less.

    Because it’s there I think. There’s a place where people are going to talk about math education, so I should probably be there. It’s like a crude thermostat for how people around the country are thinking. That said, I don’t think I would have gone if I wasn’t presenting. That’s probably an ego thing, coupled with the high cost of entry.

    Follow up with me on your reactions. I’m always curious what other folks’ experiences are like at big megaevents like this one.

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