This week at TMCNYC18, I had a very brief conversation with Michael Pershan. It was literally 4 minutes long. While short, it spurred some pretty deep thoughts for me…and a dream. (If you know Michael personally, or read his writing, then you know it is not uncommon for him to blow your mind.)
In the spirit of teacher math ed conferences, we talked about the nature of these growing set of gatherings. They’re everywhere nowadays, big and small. We, teachers, go to a designated location — usually by plane or car, but not always — stay in the area for a few days, learn, network, and collaborate. Sometimes we have breakthroughs, sometimes we struggle to find a session to connect with.
Though all of these professional experiences at the conferences, we naturally adopt the city and its many local communities as our own. We interact with locals, enjoy their local food and attractions, plan group outings, create memories, bond. Whether it is mathematically or socially, we generally take away a lot from being immersed in the host city.
But what do we give back? What’s left after we leave? What remains after we use the community for our own needs?
It’s a simple idea that I hadn’t thought about until Michael and I chatted this week. Perhaps inspired by our localized TMCNYC experience, we talked about why giving back the local communities (even if the conference itself is local) that we occupy for multiple days would be a worthwhile thing. How can we have a positive impact on the host city after we leave it? While it is unconventional, considering the exceptional amount of mathematical energy that exists at these conferences coupled with the fact that we’re all in the field of education, organizing such a contribution seems fitting. So why not? Let’s change the narrative about who benefits from these conferences. It need not be only us. These conferences afford us a great opportunity to acknowledge the privilege we have as math educators and use it to positively affect a local community in a very unique way: to leave a host city better than we found it mathematically.
But how? What would such a contribution to a host city look like?
We didn’t get this far. Remember that I said it was a four-minute conversation? AND that it was a dream? That said, I sort of imagine that this “contribution” would be integrated into the conference itself, like a session or series of sessions. Those folks who attend the session(s) would go out into a local community. Or not. Maybe the local community comes to the conference, like a panel discussion. Maybe we invite students. Maybe a small group of local attendees tackles some of the logistics and planning before the conference starts. Math on a Stick comes to mind. These all seem like really big ideas. Maybe too big, I don’t know.
What I do know that there are so many thoughtful and creative math educators out there (if you’re reading this, that means you) who attend these conferences. And I know that they would be about this life. They would want to give back. They have ideas.
After I shared sidewalk math (here and here) as a My Favorite on day 1 of TMCNYC, Michael suggested that that could be an example of a thing we use to give back to a host city. We could hook up with a local who knows a deserving (possibly underserved) community and then go tag up part of the neighborhood with sidewalk math. Someone at the conference called it guerrilla math. It seems very, very doable. And one that would present a local neighborhood with a cool, useful mathematical exploration AFTER we leave. Having been lucky enough to attend three math ed conferences this year, two of which were local, I’m going to hold myself to proposing this session at a conference in the near future.
Thanks Michael for helping me dream.