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The title of this post is the tagline for Twitter Math Camp (Yes, that’s a thing). What people love about this conference is that the presenters are typically classroom teachers, sharing their best practices. There is real power in hearing about something from a colleague who actually does it successfully.

During the conference, I had numerous conversations with people who talked about their disdain for those outside experts who come in with their theory and crazy ideas and tell us how to teach. There was always an uncomfortable pause when I would divulge that in my regular role, I’m one of those guys. As a consultant, I’m often that outside person coming in to help teachers grow. Fortunately, I’m rarely offended by exchanges like that, because I often said the same thing while I was teaching.

I’d like to make a case for what I do, because there’s power in consulting done effectively. I’ll reframe what I do to give some unsolicited formative feedback to TMC presenters, if I may.

As a consultant, I have time that classroom teachers don’t have to research. I read a lot about education (Books, journals, blogs) so I learn about the theory (and curriculum and standards). When I do workshops, I do my best to connect the theory (and curriculum and standards) to practice . It’s not always possible, and sometimes I deliberately leave it to teachers to make their own connections to their own practice in their own unique situations. Sometimes that drives them nuts. When I quote experts in my sessions, I tend to start with the bloggers who are actually using the strategies I share. Then I go sarcastically to the “real experts”, which are the people who are not teaching, but write books. Both kinds of experts are valuable.

I do demo lessons and lesson studies with teachers. I’m in classrooms a great deal. Sometimes I try things that fail. I’m open about that. Sometimes I try things that work. I’m open about that, too. I rarely  ask teachers to try things I haven’t tried with success myself. I never ask teachers to try things that I’m skeptical about working.

I went to some really good sessions put on by classroom teachers at TMC. Andy Pethan showed a stats activity that totally engaged me. We had to draft an Ultimate Frisbee team based on a set of statistics that we could analyze how we saw fit. Then he used a simulator that he built to have our teams compete. I loved it. I want another crack at that simulator. Defence has to win championships, even in a sport I know nothing about.

Update: In the comments below, Andy provides this link to the code for his simulator. Now I can get my second crack at it!  https://sites.google.com/a/byron.k12.mn.us/stats/projects/ultimate-frisbee-draft/simulator.

Keep your eye on Andy. This guy needed an engaging activity and wrote one, including coding his own Ultimate Frisbee simulator. That’s a cool skill set. He’s going to do neat stuff.

Ultimate-Frisbee1

So finally, here’s my formative feedback for TMC presenters. The practices you shared were fantastic. Very few of you connected those practices to theory (and to curriculum and standards). What you did would have been even better if you took just a few minutes to tie it all together. In your presentations, get all consultanty. Just keep that part short.

What impressed me most was the age of some of the presenters. These are young teachers who are not afraid to share their craft with others. That bodes well for the future of education.

Featured Comments

Andy

I wish it were easier to have more flexible roles for education leaders — teach for part of the year, consult / develop software / write curriculum for the other part — so more of us became well rounded with theory, development, and daily teaching practice.

Dan

I’d like more theory also, but I don’t need someone to stand up and tell us that their lesson is an example of embodied cognition or to cite von Glasersfeld or whatever. What I need to know is where they’re coming from. What they look for in a good lesson. What makes a good lesson good for them. What would make their good lesson bad. That’s the kind of theory I need – a personal, theoretical framework.

I am just home from Twitter Math Camp (yes, that’s a thing). I’d like to share an overview, aimed more at people from Canada who don’t know what this is than for the people who were actually there.

Twitter Math Camp bills itself as “Professional Development By Teachers, For Teachers.” Last week, 150 teachers, mostly from the US attended a 4 day conference in Jenks, Oklahoma. The venue was the Math/Science building of the Jenks High School campus (yes, you read that right. It’s a campus, complete with a planetarium!). By my count, I was 1 of  6 Canadians and I met one fellow from Britain. I think the rest were Americans. The vast majority of the attendees communicate with each other regularly through Twitter and blogs. Demand for this conference was high. The organizers limited it to 150 and there was a waiting list.

What makes that demand extraordinary to me is that this conference occurs during the summer holidays and most (69%) of the attendees pay their own way. There is no registration fee to attend the conference. Attendees pay travel, hotel and meal costs. The mean age of attendees is 37 and the median is 35.

It was organized like conferences tend to be organized (Keynotes, breakouts, flex sessions), but it felt very different from any conference I have attended before. Keeping it small made it feel more intimate. That the attendees had preexisting relationships made it feel less like a conference, and more like a district PD day. A unique component of this conference is daily “My Favorites” sessions with the whole group together. Teachers get up and share something they do. They are short (5-10 minutes) and diverse in their nature. We saw technology, pedagogy, math, motivation, classroom management strategies and many more.

One of the strengths of TMC is that most of the sessions are conducted by classroom teachers. They have credibility because they are doing the work they are talking about. There were some coaches and consultants presenting (I was one of them). The keynotes were big names (Steve Leinwand, Dan Meyer and Eli Luberoff). As far as I know, they all appeared free, and covered their own expenses. Since no one paid a penny in registration fees, I don’t know where money to pay these speakers would have come from.

Certain things about this conference intrigued me.

  • I didn’t see one person walk out of a session. That’s unheard of at conferences. Is it because these sessions were so much better? Is it because people knew each other before and were therefore better able to select sessions that would appeal to them? Is it because of the community feeling and not wanting to offend friends?
  • People spent the 4 days together. At a big conference, you may hang out with one or two people, but you don’t connect on this level. At TMC, people learned together all day, and then hung out all evening. Some people didn’t quit doing math. There were spontaneous post-conference math sessions at the hotel every evening.
  • I was surprised that at 44, I fit right in. I thought this would be a conference full of 25 year-olds. Regardless of age, everyone was super nice to each other. No one sat alone long at breakfast, or walked too far without someone asking if he could join.
  • The organizers must have spent an incredible amount of time putting it all together. It ran like clockwork. There were shuttles, tech support, and social events. They organized hotels and transportation. They did all this on their own time, much of it happening in advance of the conference, while they were teaching.
  • It was hard to meet everyone. I did my best, and I met a lot of them, but I missed many people, including several I really wanted to meet. I think I had conversations of varying lengths with over 80 of the 150. I desperately wanted to meet the Sam Shah and Kate Nowak, both of whom were instrumental in getting me tweeting and blogging. I met Sam the first night, and Kate showed up in the same morning session I chose, so I got those two out of the way early. After that, I really enjoyed hanging out the hotel and conference venue and chatting with people.
  • I’m not sure I’m as funny in America as in Canada. Some of my best stuff didn’t get laughs during my session. I was pretty nervous. I did a session on formative assessment strategies. Being nervous while presenting is unusual for me. Part of those nerves stemmed from feeling like most of what I was sharing was learned from the people who were sitting in the room. Part of it stemmed from feeling like an outsider. I Tweet a ton, but this conference is billed as PD for Teachers, By Teachers, and I’m currently not a teacher. I didn’t want to sound like one of those annoying experts. More people showed up than I expected, and that added to the nerves. I followed Steve Leinwand’s fiery keynote. The feedback I got after my session was complementary and enthusiastic, which is what we do at TMC. We support each other. I want another shot. I can do better. Next year.

I’m so glad I went. I now have faces and conversations to go with the names of many of the people I communicate with regularly. I had so many conversations I really enjoyed, and not all were about math teaching. I feel like I’m a bigger part of that community now.

 

 

 

My AAC Work

My last post reflecting on my two and a half years at Alberta Assessment Consortium was too much about feelings and not enough about number crunching. Here are some numbers reflective of what I did.

Travel

  • Total distance driven = 39 126 km
  • Total distance flown = 13 962 km
  • Nights in hotels = 97 (48 this school year alone)

Far too many of the drives this winter looked like this:

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With all that driving, my 160 GB iPod and its 7824 songs was my best friend.

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  • Most of the time I play it on shuffle mode, all songs in the queue.
  • The top 25 most played is a diverse list including Adele, Biz Markie, Edwin Sharpe, Pitbull, Gwen Stefani, Leonard Cohen, Project Jan & Project Jenny, Shaggy, Mumford & Sons, Band of Horses.
  • The most played song (81 plays) was Whale of a Tale by Danny Michel.
  • On shuffle, a lot of songs end up coming up that I’m not in the mood for.
  • The most skipped song (50 skips) was something called April Showers by Sugarland. I wonder why it’s on my iPod.
  • High on both lists are Hate Me by Blue October (39 plays, 37 skips) and A- Punk by Vampire Weekend (37 plays and 37 skips)
  • I worked my way through all the Freakonomics podcasts from start to finish.

Cities and Towns Visited For Work

  • 29 Different Cities
  • Most Visited City – Grande Prairie – 30 Days
  • Second Most Visited City – Fort McMurray – 19 Days
  • Closest City Visited – St. Albert (or is Sherwood Park closer?)
  • Farthest City Visited – Toronto, Ontario

Work

School Visits

  • 153 School Visits
  • 42 Unique Schools
  • Grande Prairie Composite was stuck with me the most, at 23 visits.

Coaching Visits

  • 85 Coaching Visits
  • 41 Different Teachers Coached

Workshops/Presentations

  • Total, including full day, half day, and shorter – 93
  • Teachers in workshops – 2017
  • Unique teachers in workshops – A subset of that 2017
  • Workshops in French – 5
  • Most common workshop theme – Formative Assessment, of course.

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Meetings

  • Meetings Attended – 121 (Ug!)

Demo Lessons

  • Total – 43
  • Total Flops – 2

Meals With Keynote Speakers

  • Steve Leinwand – 1 (But it was actually the second time I dined with him)
  • Cathy Lassiter – 1
  • Ruth Sutton – 2
  • Ken O’Conner – 1
  • David Coffey – 1
  • Kathryn Coffey – 1

 

 

My secondment at Alberta Assessment Consortium ends next week. For the past 2.5 years, I have traveled the province conducting a research study in which I worked with math teachers on embedded formative assessment. We also studied the coaching model as a professional learning tool.

As I transition back to my district, I’m reflecting on my time at AAC. I’d like to share with you what I think I took most from this experience.

I could tell you about all the people I met across the province who are doing great things in high school math classrooms, but that would sound trite.

I could tell you about how much I learned about assessment, but I’d have been doing an absolutely terrible job of this work if I didn’t learn a whole lot.

Instead, I want to talk about videos.

When I took the job, I had no idea I would need to make videos as part of the project. The ones I made are posted here. They’re not in the order I made them, but an astute viewer will see my progression. After the first one, we bought new camera equipment because the flip camera wasn’t cutting it. At one point, we had a videographer come in and teach us about cuts, B-roll, transitions, multiple cameras and other tricks. We hired a video “intern”, who made one video for me, and helped me dabble in Adobe. For the most part, though, those videos are all me, and are all iMovie.

The thing is, I had no idea I’d enjoy that creative process so much. Let me tell you how much I enjoyed it.

Last week, I spent a day at a local elementary school filming K-3 students talking about their writing. I hit it with three cameras, one on a boom giving an overhead shot of the students’ work. I recorded an audio track on a separate microphone. I brought a colleague to interview the students so I could focus on filming. I did my best to film it like a pro. In the end, I had more than 90 minutes of footage, filmed from three different angles. This footage is to be used by our video intern under the guidance of future AAC employees to make 30 second snippets to use in workshops and to post on our website.

The thing is, I couldn’t let it go.

Even though I don’t own the footage, and can’t use it myself, I had to make something from it. Knowing full well that no one would ever see it outside our office, I spent hours piecing it all together into something I loved. It’s 15 minutes of young kids talking about feedback. I built in multiple angles. I worked in their funny comments. I worked in their insightful comments. I pieced it all together in a manner that really amuses me. I added transitions and pulled audio tracks from my best track into the clips from the other cameras. I learned how to line that audio up to the students’ lips. It comes in at 15 minutes long, and it’s some of my best work. I’ve revised it twice more after rendering it and showing it to people.

On Friday, I’ll wipe my work laptop clean and pass all my video (including this one) on to the boss on a hard drive. At that point, I won’t even have a copy of this creation any more.

Why did I do all that knowing that very few people would ever see it, and that I couldn’t keep it? Because it reflects the thing I learned most about and really enjoyed doing during this job. Who (other than that Bloom guy) knew that a creative process could be so enjoyable and valuable? That’s a nice thing for a rigid math guy to come to understand.

Recently, I tweeted out a link to Nat Banting’s post on whiteboards. It reminded me that I was going to write a post here about my experiences with them this year. I’ve been trying them out. I’ve done some things well. I’ve learned some things.

IMG_2304

The three things I like most about having students use whiteboards in class, probably in order, are:

  • How their work “pops” off the boards so that I can see it easily. As I circulate, it’s so easy to provide feedback.
  • How comfortable students are working on a dry-erase surface. They are not afraid to try things. They are not afraid to make mistakes.
  • How easy it is to group and pair students to give and receive feedback from peers when their work is on whiteboards.

The things I learned, I learned by making mistakes, and by asking you questions. Here’s one I threw out in the middle of a class in which I was making mistakes. I was having students do questions on the whiteboards, and then copy them into their notebooks. Of course, they hated it. They were doing everything twice. The high school math teacher in me is having a hard time letting go of the mentality that I must write it on the board and they must copy it down, or they haven’t learned it. I still want them to leave my class with something useful and correct written down in their notebooks for future reference. Please don’t judge me for that.

In the middle of that class, I put the call out on Twitter.

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The responses were immediate and helpful. Talk about real-time formative feedback! My pocket was buzzing in the middle of the lesson. You can see all the responses here.

Christopher Danielson (@Trianglemancsd) saw right to the heart of my question and threw back at me, “Also, how much needs to?” That’s really what I was wrestling with.

Consensus was that between none and very little of what is written on whiteboards gets transferred directly elsewhere. This whiteboard work is the learning phase. It’s messy. It’s getting transferred to their brains, honest. One suggestion what to have students take a photograph of their work if they think they will need to look back at it. Frank Noschese (@fnoschese) suggested Lens Mob as a way to create an album they could all send their work to. Jacqueline (@_Cuddlefish_) uses them a lot, and I respect her experience. I wish she blogged (too busy geocaching, I suspect). She tried to convince me to let go of the need to have stuff written down.

So the question, then, becomes what do they do AFTER they have finished the messy learning on the whiteboards? Some teachers go straight into practice. Nat Banting (@NatBanting) and Bowman Dickson (@bowmanimal) talk about having students reflect on their whiteboarding at the end.

One teacher I work with this year helps her students summarize a few key things in a “Student Study Guide” that she provides. Heather Kohn (@heather_kohn) does something similar by giving her students a guided notes page for things that she feels need to be formalized. Of course, there’s always the textbook for future reference.

I’m in the middle of figuring out what I am going to do next year. If I land back in a classroom, I will make sure I end up with a set of mini whiteboards. I may still make kids write some stuff down on paper. Don’t hate me for that.

I’ve been blogging about my experience at the Alberta Mathematics Dialogue last week, in which a group of university mathematics professors offered a critique of the K-12 math program in Alberta. My colleague, Pat, attended as well. Pat has more than 30 years experience as a teacher and consultant in Alberta. She has a BSc (math major), BEd and MEd. As a high school teacher, I can’t pretend to know a whole lot about how young children learn mathematics. Pat, however, is truly an expert in this area. I asked her if she would be willing to share a few words here, and she agreed. What follows are her words.

 

I’ve been an elementary teacher since 1979. It’s a designation I’ve always been proud of, even though it seems the complexity of the work is poorly understood and not always respected. For most of the past 4 years I’ve been out of my classroom, supporting Alberta teachers in the areas of mathematics and assessment. I attended the 2014 Alberta Mathematics Dialogue in Camrose on May 1.

In addition to attending the presentations examining the Alberta K-12 mathematics curriculum, I was able to join a round-table discussion at the end of the day. The presenters from the earlier sessions were there, along with other interested participants. The discussion focused again on the math curriculum – past, present and future – and its impact on mathematics learning in Alberta classrooms.

There was overwhelming agreement among the post-secondary faculty in attendance that the math skills of their students have significantly declined over past 10 or more years. This is not an area I have expertise in, but I’m willing to work under the assumption that they know what they’re talking about, and are not guilty of looking to the past with rose coloured glasses. However, almost no one in the room seemed prepared to question the causes of this perceived decline. It seemed accepted as a truth that changes to the Alberta curriculum caused the problem, and that reversing those changes would fix it.

Alberta teachers (as well as teachers in many jurisdictions around the world) have been asked to teach math through more of an inquiry approach – teaching math through problem-solving rather than for problem-solving, if you will. Teachers present problems for students to explore, and then help them use this exploration to develop an understanding of math concepts and strategies they need to move their learning forward. Personal strategies for operations are part of the equation, and a mastery of basic facts is still critical. (Even as I try to explain this in a nutshell, I sense the eye-rolling of the masses of critics who see this approach as so much hogwash. Please accept for a moment that I have some serious experience to back up my opinions.)

In my classes I have mathematically talented students who need to be challenged, as well as students whose past experiences have made them fragile, uncooperative, discouraged and hard to motivate. I need to find a way to interest all my students, sometimes almost against their will, in the problems I’m asking them to explore so they can begin to grapple with the ideas that might be useful to solve them. Once students have worked to solve a problem, sometimes unsuccessfully, they are far more likely to be interested in thinking about an approach (mine or another student’s) that might do the trick. I try to give them a need for the math I want them to learn. A hard lesson I’ve learned after many years of teaching math to elementary students: as much as I’d like to, I can’t do the understanding for my students. All I can do is my best to engage them in thinking about what I need them to think about. I have to rely on them to do the hard work of making sense of it.

It is unbelievably complex work, but an inquiry approach in my math classroom helped me and my diverse students function as a mathematics community. Without a doubt, I was a better and more successful math teacher using the current math curriculum, as well as the one before it, than I was using the 1975 mathematics curriculum (which, according to Anna Stokke of the University of Manitoba, was the last excellent math curriculum in Alberta). My students thrived under an inquiry approach.

I’m pretty sure I don’t need to lecture the mathematicians in the crowd about the difference between “correlation” and “cause and effect.” The perceived decline in math abilities is correlated with an enormous number of changes and challenges that have impacted students and teachers in Alberta schools in the past years, and the curriculum is just one of them. I find it fascinating and disturbing that critics, particularly in the media, seem so unwilling to consider the possibility that the task of improving math achievement is far more complex than it might seem at first glance (and, in my opinion, impossible to measure using a single standardized test). An easy fix like making the curriculum more rigorous or traditional or focused on basics almost certainly does not exist.

Recently, when I polled a roomful of university educated adults about their opinion of math as students, about a third of them admitted to having hated it. I fail to see this as evidence of the great success we had back in the “good old days.” Instead of  blindly charging back in that direction, why don’t we take a deep breath, set aside the destructive, combative nature of the current debate, and support the work of our teachers and curriculum developers (who, believe it or not, bring essential skills and expertise to the table) in whatever way we can. The challenges we face are more than failure to memorize times tables. The world we live in is changing at a dizzying rate. Preparing our students to navigate it successfully is the most important work I can imagine.

Around about 4th grade in the early 1980’s, I was walking home from school and saw the new kid in my class following the same path. We got talking and realized that he lived just around the corner from me. The proximity law that governs childhood friendships dictated that Andrew and I would become best friends.

Andrew and I had a lot in common. We were both smart (although too modest to tell people that, until today). We both loved reading trashy horror novels (Stephen King and Dean Koontz were our favourites). As a team, we rocked the junior high debating circuit in Alberta for a couple of years.

Andrew and I grew apart a bit in high school, and then he moved to Ontario. I saw him once in the early 1990’s when I drove across Canada. A year or two later, he showed up at my parents’ house one day when I just happened to be there. Five or six years ago, one of us managed to track down the other, despite Andrew’s aversion to Facebook. We correspond infrequently by email, and occasionally update each other about our families. Last weekend, I got an email from Andrew. He is not a math educator (I think he does government training), but he reads my blog. He sent me this:

JDZ1WDk

Source: http://imgur.com/JDZ1WDk

That’s the thing about curiosity and perplexity in mathematics. You don’t need to be a math teacher to know a good 101qs when you see one. Everybody wonders about things that can be explored mathematically.

I wonder if Justin lost or gained followers when he got arrested.

I wonder if this growth is linear. I wonder if I could have a couple more data points.

I wonder when and if Kim will pass Justin.

I wonder why Andrew knows more about what I do than I know about what he does. I’m a terrible friend.

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