Reflecting on #MTBoS, NCTM, and NCSM

Tracy Zager’s post about NCTM/NCSM got me thinking about our professional affiliations. Full disclosure: I have worked on staff at NCTM in the past, which means, if you have ever been employed anywhere you know that you are all of a sudden privy to all the good and the bad of your employer. Currently I am on the board of NCSM and am so lucky to be involved with dedicated people who bring us the NCSM conference and the leader-focused resources we all need to impact teaching and student achievement, including the recent position paper on Equity and Social Justice.
My loyalty to the NCTM organization runs deep. Although I can’t tell you exactly why, I will try to narrow the list down.
1) NCTM has made the reforms in education that all in the #MTBoS desire possible. In the era of the Math Wars, NCTM shouldered the burden of defending a more “humane” way of teaching mathematics, publishing the P&S years before the summary volume of research really made the case in a consolidated volume. They continue to take that heat on a national level in some circles. They made YOU possible, or at least the climate that produced all of us a possibility.

2)There is SO MUCH in the NCTM’s archive of resources. The Math Forum staff has their work cut out for them sorting it out and organizing it, let alone updating it to edit for inclusive language and the like. A shoutout to Beth, Sarah, Ann, Dave, Patrick, Al, Mike, Julia, Chonda, Sarah, and other staff I didn’t know or have forgotten, and countless other volunteers who have worked on behalf of the council to create these materials, for their years of work. This doesn’t even include the staff that supported the educators over the years.

3) NCTM continued to hold annual conferences when funding ran out in many districts and attendance fell dramatically. The tradition was upheld in those years so that no one else had to figure out how to start one up later. The staff that has supported conferences is still in place and they make it happen.

4) NCTM board members and staff members sit on MANY boards and committees that represent mathematics education in the general education field and in the political arenas. Being located near the nation’s capitol makes this work possible.

5) NCTM provides a voice for ALL math teachers and continues to do so even in cases when some (a majority perhaps?) of teachers BELIEVE that *telling* is better teaching. You’ll see that voice in certain journal articles and some published works. You’ll also see it in some of the older resources that still get HUGE traction in American classrooms. There are 419,000 math teachers in the US, and that is only at the secondary and middle level. Do the math. That’s a lot of people.

6) NCTM offers a “seasoned” view of math and math education. I once compared #MTBoS to trendy craft beers and NCTM to fine aged wine, or something like that. The key idea is that each resource serves a different purpose. #MTBoS can be nimble and quick to adopt new ideas while NCTM has a 100+ year history of creating, and enduring, trends. Don’t make them the same organization. Don’t make either of them the same as the CCSSM. Over time, cooperation, but still the independence from each other, serves the community of teachers. DIVERSITY is strength, people!!

Caveat – yes, NCTM can be stodgy and slow to move. It can seem unresponsive to its members and to the general community of math teachers. But much like the recent town hall meetings taking place that are pulling the passive voters and non-voters out of the woodwork, engaging with the organization creates the organization that you want. If you don’t join and you don’t participate, NCTM can only guess what your needs are. Odds are they’ll get it wrong. The #MTBoS crew approached Diane and made the case for ShadowCon, for GameNight, and the like. Matt supports it now. What movement could you start to make the organization your own? But first, join. They are waiting for you. They have been waiting for you.

About #MTBoS: When I first connected with #MTBoS in Denver in 2012, none of the resources mentioned in the opening paragraph existed yet. I am sure that the ideas were already brewing, and the support of the community emboldened the authors to take a risk. In particular I remember Christopher Danielson’s thoughts as he contemplated writing the CCSS Math for Parents for Dummies book. I remember when Dan first put his Three Acts out for public comments. At first it was a gimmicky take on a task à la Smith, Stein, and Silver: include video and go. But over the years this grew, as Dan made his point clearer, and it became A THING, a thing that now has a life of its own. And in its iterations through various authors and the extension to Graham Fletcher’s elementary branch, it is a quality resource. I remember when the #MTBoS group was such a tight “club” that it felt like a “mean girls” club. You didn’t intend to exclude others, but the mutual admiration within the core group at that time was blooming in the way a young romance does – there was no time for others. I am happy to see some members reflecting on that past because I don’t feel the same vibe anymore. I LOVE that they are welcoming others!

April 17, 2017 at 10:57 pm 13 comments

Gender leaks in the STEM pipeline

Or, this entry could also be called “Women just say, ‘Screw it. I don’t need this.’ ”

This morning I noticed an article posted by a friend and I stopped and read it because the basic premise interested me. Isn’t that the way all Facebook surfing goes? The article is gender-neutral in its writing, but it still made me think of the article posted by WME (Women in Mathematics Education) as part of a Call for a Collective Action study group of math ed leadership groups focused on equity and social justice issues. The report described a study that showed that one bad experience with a class or a course instructor can turn someone away from a discipline for good. The intention was to implicate poor teaching practices in early undergraduate education, but it also made me think about the March reading. In that article, the conclusion is that women undergraduates in Calculus 1 are 1.5 times more likely to leave a STEM career because they do not want to continue in calculus. Of course this decision closes an entire line of careers to those students who leave the course sequence, and as a result it exacerbates the situation where there are more men in STEM fields than than there are women.

One of the possible confounding variables that the study mentioned, but downplayed, was the quality of instruction in the Calculus 1 courses studied, but that variable lingered with me. I was a language major in college so there were few science and math courses on my schedule, but as a college-bound high schooler, I had plenty. My Geometry teacher was seemingly more interested in high school girls than in teaching them. A class wholly based on proofs, Mr. T required that you memorize HIS (or more likely the textbook’s) two-column proofs and then regurgitate them exactly on the test. I saw, and still see, no meaning or value in what we were doing in the coursework. I did well enough, but retained nothing but vague memories of the meanings of symbols and some sense of logical thinking. Let me emphasize that the logical thinking part did in no way come from Mr. T – his delivery was routine and uninspired. I was in my thirties before I rediscovered joy in geometry and in my forties before I saw value in the act of proving. What a shame! If our class had been creative and exploratory with opportunities for an ebb and a flow of learning, I might have elected a STEM career, as I do have a natural interest in STEM fields.

But more importantly, the classroom I described that might have suited my interests likely does not match a typical college Calculus 1 classroom. Have we lost students from the STEM careers because we create uninspired classroom environments? Competitive classrooms? “Weeder” classes? What makes the instructor “poor” in the Higher Ed study? Was it a mistake to overlook the impact of course instructor quality in the WME study? What is quality instruction anyway? Does everyone even agree what that is?

Finally, and probably more importantly, the Higher Ed article puts the onus on the university STEM departments to be more mindful of staffing and quality of instruction, so as not to lose students in those majors. On the other hand, the WME selected article on a similar topic puts the onus on the WOMEN to change, citing their lack of confidence as the reason for dropping out of the course sequence. “Their lack.” I know that does not actively point a finger, but it certainly implies that if women would just change, there would not be a problem at all. Call it a microaggression if you’d like. Recall again that the gender-neutral article does not call on students to change.

In the end, I took all of the advanced mathematics on my transcript after I turned 30. It was a Pre-Calc instructor at a NOVA community college who required us to learn the TI-83 who turned it all around for me. The multiple representations of functions knitted it all together and I was able to find meaning. (More on that in another post… ) Was it my fault or the high school’s fault that I dropped out of STEM fields? I don’t know. For me it’s water under the bridge because now I am focused on improving education in STEM fields and I AM TAKING NAMES!

What class (or professor) kept you in (or out) of a STEM field?

April 14, 2017 at 6:11 pm 4 comments

Submitting a Conference Proposal

Rejection stings. Really. It hurts more than simply avoiding issues altogether. Then again, each rejection is easier to take than the last one, so it stands to reason that the more you submit proposals, the easier it is to be rejected!

My first submission to a conference was to NCTM in 2004 and I got in. I had no business presenting at a national conference but I gamely set out to Philadelphia to share one of my favorite units for incorporating tangrams and geometry into an algebra unit. I woke up early on Saturday morning and did my first ever professional development in the 8 am slot at the secondary location. I know now that only dedicated intrepid souls attend that session and I am eternally grateful to those 40 or so souls who made my day that April morning.

But, yes, rejection followed. I have been rejected by PME-NA, AMTE, NCSM, and NCTM. But I have also been accepted by PME, NCTM, NCSM, but not AMTE (career goals!). And I have also realized that rejection is not a rejection of ME, but of THAT topic in THAT program, something I learned while on the 2017 NCSM program committee. Maybe the timing was wrong for my topic or my description wasn’t enough information. Maybe there was something that I didn’t yet understand.

Here is my advice for putting together proposals for NCSM, NCTM, or even for your state conference. These points may be different from those made by Robert and Dan here,  and 14 of their friends here, but if it gives you the boost in confidence you need to take the leap, make it so. (If you do get accepted, be sure to follow up with Dan’s presentation advice here.)

  1. Strands: Read the strands carefully. They are there because the program committee identified a need in the community and chose to highlight these areas of interest. The NCSM Program Strands and  NCTM Program Strands can be found here. There are clues to what is desirable to the program committee just jumping out at you!
  2.  Initiatives: Each organization has a focus area that is easy to find on their website. A quick review of NCTM’s top-sellers list shows what interests your audience.  NCSM has been driving an emphasis on leadership in equitable mathematics through monthly e-newsletter articles all year long. Check out the Call for a Collective Action that has also been driving most of the organizations in mathematics education for over a year now.
  3. History:  Look at last year’s program for clues. Scan for sessions that might relate to the current year’s strands that interest you. Are there proportionally more or fewer sessions? If one strand has significantly fewer sessions than the others, odds are good that fewer were submitted. That is an opportunity for you.
  4. Language: Refine your language. If your session talks about “carrying the one” in addition or if you talk about helping “low kids” and “high kids” in your session, you are sending a message that your content may not be current.  Most materials have re-conceptualized addition to include language about decomposing and recomposing numbers. A hard light on deficit thinking has started chipping away at sorting students and instead there is a focus on what all students can add to the classroom community. These are not just superficial changes in language, but rather important shifts in thinking. Be aware!
  5. Specificity: The easiest proposal to reject is the non-specific do-gooder. Here is an example: “Come to this session to learn more about discourse in the classroom as students engage in productive struggle while learning fractions.” Who is talking? Why is this a meaningful change? Does this presenter know something that I don’t already know? How is productive struggle encouraged? And for NCSM proposals there are additional questions: Are there quick strategies to adopt or would I have to reconfigure our whole curriculum?  Are these strategies that I can present to teachers? Is this scalable to the district level?  How is this different from the simlarly-named session I attended last year?
  6. Criteria: Each conference has a set of reviewers who will read your proposal, evaluate it, and score it. They will read dozens of proposals so make it easy for them to evaluate yours. Read the criteria/rubric for acceptance because it tells you what the organization values. The criteria/rubric for NCSM can be found here. (p.4) and here for NCTM.
  7. Practice: Write three versions of your proposal and share them with a trusted colleague. Refine, revise, and try it with another audience (eg. an administrator, a math supervisor, a colleague of another grade, in the #MTBoS, etc.). In the meantime, submit to local conferences and get really good at presenting!

In summary, try a submission this year. Try again next year. Lather. Rinse Repeat.

April 25, 2017 at 8:59 pm 1 comment

I was thinking…about humanity

I have been home from San Antonio for three days now and I can’t stop thinking about the talk of humanity and humane-ness that I heard from speakers.

I first felt humanity creeping into the conversation about mathematics while sitting in #Shadowcon17 listening to  (minute 52:00) talk about mathematical anthropology. Defined as ” what makes us human,” anthropology is commonly the study of long-dead civilizations, relying only on the artifacts that are left behind. In a sense,ShadowCon3 other artifacts left behind in Geoff’s model of anthropology are worksheets, percentage grades, and grades derived from an arithmetic mean, where you never free yourself from the burden of an early bad grade. But Geoff asks us to focus on artifacts that are contained in the portfolio-like folder that he visited with Cassandra, the high school sophomore who shared her mathematical journey with him. I can come up with a thousand reasons to keep all of those other artifacts, but Geoff made the case that each of those misses the humanity of students.

After Geoff spoke I was better prepared to understand the relevance of Cathy Yenca’s talk about Students Who Hide (minute 0:00). Captured well by @MrsKemper‘s sketches, Cathy  describes the new (and not new) teachers’ feelings about students’ questions about mathematics. Indifferent? Insulted? Inspired? Where are you? I remember making the journey from indifferent to insulted and finally to inspired by students’ questions and all the difference it made in my own practice. Although I admit that questions about attendance, homework, due dates, and schedules still irritate me (Is that another ?).  To admit that students can insult you or that they can inspire you with their questions about mathematics is to make mathematics human.

shared her realization that teachers of other subjects more often have the opportunity to learn about their students’ values through the content they teach: they learn about their students’ humanity. Why don’t mathematics teachers have the same opportunity? Where is the mathematical heart – the explicit effort to humanize math. Where has this been all along?

Humanizing mathematics …

I have books on my shelf that hint at this idea. Mathematics are People, Too; A Place for Zero; Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking; Designing Tessellations: The Secrets of Interlocking Patterns. But  goes farther. The mathematical heart captures the democratization of mathematics, students’ empowerment to be human and to make and to explore conjectures of their own. Just like books can take you on a self-directed journey, mathematics can also create a sense of agency.   (minute 37:00) suggests that this agency can be found in math play.


Bears play. Puppies play. Children play. And mathematicians play. What can be more human than that, @kassiaowedekindPerhaps all of the connections that we struggle to make between mathematics and the arts, literature, and other human endeavors is the result of the desire to humanize mathematics, to reclaim it from its solitary existence in the intellectual field.

Finally I reviewed the storification of the NCSM Ignite session to see if I could find more examples thaNCSM Ignitet express the importance of humanity in mathematics and to see a more humane approach to learning and teaching emerge. Consider the humanity in these talks, this time in tweets.

How much white space on the page do you give for student thinking? bstockus MathEdLeaders #NCSM17

CindyCliche1 children with early math skills overcome problems more easily. Good news: children are natural problem solvers #NCSM17

We can’t assume that “mathematically proficient students” means “mathematically perfect students.” MrsNewell22 #NCSM17

Precise claims can be expressed in imperfect language . (Moschovitz) MrsNewell22 MathEdLeaders #NCSM17

All means All for teachers too – building trust to inspire professional learning with srendon2 at #NCSM17 #ignite 🔥

None of that mattered. he saw a living being who could do mathematics. #ncsm17 TLAMath

Math is the most guilty of telling children their ideas are not worthwhile MFAnnie #NCSM17

Isn’t that the work we want in the classroom? Children listening to each other MFAnnie #NCSM17

Do whatever the hell you want in class…but listen to your student’s ideas. @MFAnnie #NCSM17

April 12, 2017 at 2:50 am 4 comments


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