"There is no one way"

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

On NCTM, Part 2

In Part 1, I discussed my relationship with NCTM, its Standards, and its journals, mostly The Mathematics Teacher. In this post, I discuss NCTM conferences, and compare them with other math teacher gatherings.

NCTM Conferences vs. Local Conferences

I've had much, much better luck attending great sessions at my local Northern California conference in Asilomar (Pacific Grove, CA) than at the NCTM meetings. This could be because it's easier for me to choose the good ones, and attend talks by sure-to-be-good presenters. Or perhaps my preferences align better with NoCal colleagues than they do with people from other areas. Or it could be because there just happen to be more good sessions on average than at NCTM.

One way to make sure I attend something good at NCTM is going to talks by celebrities. I have not regretted attending presentations by Zalman Usiskin, Jo Boaler, Marilyn Burns, Dan Meyer, and other superstars. Obviously, others agree, and those sessions often take place in huge halls.

Speaking of huge halls: there are dozens of booths in the exhibit hall, only a handful of which are of interest to me. One trend seems to be that the major publishers occupy more and more square footage in there, and there are fewer interesting small exhibitors. In any case, walking pointlessly around the exhibit hall, catching the occasional good presentations, and hearing celebrities doesn't seem to be enough of a reason to attend NCTM meetings. Why do I keep going? When I was young and extroverted, I enjoyed meeting people. Now that I'm old and introverted, I mostly enjoy running into people I already know, people I previously met online, and people who like my Web site. 

But really, the main reason I go is as a presenter, assuming my talk is accepted and I can get someone to pay for my travel costs. Over the past three decades or so, I've been a presenter on average about once a year at an NCTM meeting (some years, I spoke at one or more regional meetings, in addition to the national.) I had only two out-and-out disasters. In 1991 in New Orleans, I was scheduled to give a talk on "Logo Tools and Games", but there was no projector. (The tech dimension of conferences has been much improved since then!) In 2009 in DC, I only had three or four people in the audience. I had been scheduled in the last slot, midday Saturday, in the most tourist-enticing city possible, and my topic (Space, an advanced geometry elective) was not of interest to many.

Those experiences were not typical. Usually, a lot of people turn up, they love my session, and I get the feeling that I'm doing something useful for the profession. Still, I don't enjoy speaking at NCTM as much as I do at Asilomar. I have a bit of a fan base in Northern California, so there's a feeling of continuity from year to year. One time my talk overlapped substantially with a talk I had given the previous year, and attendees were irate! The Asilomar conference is a sort of community, and many regular attendees see it that way. For many years, I went to Asilomar with my whole department traveling together in one van. (Yes, it was a small department.) It was the one time of year we'd all be together outside of school, and it helped build our esprit de corps.

A large percentage of good sessions, bonding with my colleagues, feeling part of a broader math teacher community, that's a lot. For me, NCTM conferences do not and cannot fulfill that role.

Even Smaller Meetings

[recycling part of a post from 2015]
In 2008, I gave a talk about teacher collaboration at the Asilomar meeting of the California Math Council. It was well attended, and well received, but more than a few attendees told me that they had no one to collaborate with. They were the only math teacher at their school, or the only one teaching certain courses, or their colleagues had zero interest in this. This led me to the conclusion that there was a need for a way for people to collaborate beyond the walls of their school.

As a result, a couple of years later, I launched Escape from the Textbook!, a sharing and collaboration network for math teachers. The group grew to over 400 members, and for a while used both online and in-person structures to stay in touch. To quote myself:
As middle school and high school math teachers, we find that almost every off-book activity we plan is well received by our students and leads to greater interest and motivation. Freeing ourselves from the constraints of set-in-stone curricula allows us to better respond to the realities of our classrooms, to better tackle situations such as heterogeneous classes, and to better implement cooperative and hands-on learning models.
However pressures of coverage, lack of time, external mandates, and isolation from like-minded teachers can undermine our efforts. 
We helped each other "escape from the textbook, whether for a lesson, a unit, or an entire course." We did this by sharing ideas and resources online, and with quarterly meetings in the Bay Area. The meetings took place on Saturday mornings. The basic format was to split the meetings into two sessions: math, and pedagogy. Various of us volunteered to lead the sessions, which pretty much always turned out well, although attendance fluctuated. My three blog posts about one of the meetings will give you an idea of their mathematical and pedagogical flavor. Proving Pick's Theorem, a page on my Web site, was a result of another meeting.
[end of recycled post] 

Alas, the group gradually slowed down: the online platform we used was not great, and organizing the in-person meeting was a lot of work. At the National NCTM Meeting in Boston (2015, I believe,) I ran into a participant in one of my summer workshops. He took me to the MTBoS (Math Twitter Blogosphere) booth in the exhibit hall. There, someone I knew and someone who knew me teamed up to convince me to join Twitter and the #MTBoS. They succeeded, and I am so glad I listened to them Through that hashtag, I can offer support to math teachers. When I have a little time, I can go online, and answer a specific request for help: does anyone have an approach to proportional thinking? a good way to introduce the Pythagorean theorem? a good lesson on logarithms? Having 42 years in the classroom, K-12, and having developed a fair amount of curriculum, I can often help. (For the above questions: 1 | 2 | 3.) This is something I was never able to do through NCTM.

The MTBoS does not have a lot of in-person meetings. There's a relatively small national gathering in the summer (Twitter Math Camp), which sells out in one day, and occasional local meetings — a handful in the Bay Area in the past few years. For regular local math teacher meetings, I have turned to Math Teacher Circles (MTCs). Those happen more or less once a month, and are organized by teams of mathematicians and math teachers. They offer an opportunity to get together and do math, often off the beaten path, as they usually do not prioritize discussions of pedagogy, or the K-12 curriculum. I have attended them both as presenter and as participant, and they are always fun. Again, this is something NCTM does not offer.

Whither NCTM?

I mentioned MTBoS and MTCs because they fill the needs of math teachers differently from NCTM, and in fact better. NCTM meetings are expensive, with uncertain return. MTBoS and MTCs provide guaranteed high value, at low or no cost, consistently, with no travel required. Both groups have been embraced, somewhat, by NCTM, which offered them ways to engage with the national meetings. That is a good development, but it does not address the deeper problems facing the organization. I cannot pretend I have a way to reverse the decline in membership and the financial woes, but any solution has to address teachers' actual needs, as teachers see them. This might mean fewer conferences, and redirecting resources to very local meetings such as the ones I described above. It might mean more opportunities for teacher-to-teacher sharing online and in the journals. It might mean taking down the wall between the publications and the rest of the Web. It might mean, in short, putting the "teacher" back in NCTM, and having people like myself (non-teachers who want to help teachers) play a support role.

--Henri

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