MfA Summer Think Reflections


For two and a half days this week, I took part in the Math for America’s Summer Think conference. The experience was unforgettable on many levels.

Last summer, after having returned from Twitter Math Camp (which MfA funded), MfA asked me about possibly helping plan a summer conference with them for this summer. My initial reaction was Heck, yeah, let’s do this! A MfA summer conference! Woohoo! 

Reality set in on October 28. I received an email from MfA about starting the planning process. I had forgotten all about my enthusiastic reply back in July about making the conference a reality.  It was at that moment when I realized that I had no idea how to plan a conference.

I started putting out blasts trying to recruit people to help me plan. With a community of teachers like we have at MfA, it didn’t take long get lots of replies from those looking to get involved. While the average teacher wants to their summer to have nothing to do with school, the community at MfA is not full of average teachers. I knew there would be lots of interest. But 20 teachers can’t plan a conference for 75 teachers. MfA provided tons(!) of guidance, but one of the biggest hurdles was finding a core group of teachers to do the work that comes with the actual planning. Once Courtney, Matt, Carl, Diana, and Sony stood out from the crowd, it was all downhill from there.

After much deliberation, we landed on a theme of Big Ideas In and Out of the Classroom. Then came the call for proposals and ordering swag. We then sifted through proposals. (We received so many!) Next, we finalized the workshops and confirmed with facilitators. We developed a conference website and wiki. The last meaningful order of business was opening registration and watching the seats fill up with eager teachers. More here.

I must say that throughout this process, without the trust and backing of MfA (Leah and Courtney specifically) and the team I mentioned above, the conference would have only been a lofty idea that was brought up last summer after TMC. I would have never learned how to lead in this new, exciting way. I would have never learned so much about so many people. I would have never written these reflections.

For that, I’m deeply grateful.

So although I was a conference organizer, before the conference started I had full intentions of being an in-depth participant. That was always a primary goal. I wanted to be part of the conference just like everyone else, to learn and connect with others. Luckily for me, that’s exactly what happened.


Day 1 – Tuesday, July 11

  • The day begins with the planning committee making final preparations before attendees start arriving at 9am. Surprisingly, it’s not as hectic as I thought it would be. That’s all MfA right there.
  • At 9:30 we went with an icebreaker that Matt and I experienced at TMC16. It was tight spacing, but Matt pulled it off marvelously.
  • After Courtney formally welcomed everyone to the conference, I thought I would try having the attendees pass a Token of Appreciation throughout the conference. I kicked the process off by giving it to Leah from MfA for the oodles and oodles of support she gave the planning committee over last several months. Here’s a secret: this was probably the largest group of adults I had ever spoken in front of, no matter how briefly. Being rather introverted, I was deathly nervous.
  • I introduced our first featured speaker, Patrick Honner. Being a personal role model of mine, without hesitation I invited him to speak several months back. His talk centers on how he thinks about big ideas in and out of the classroom and how it has impacted his teaching. He kills it and frames the entire conference beautifully. Notes.
  • My first session is also with Patrick. It’s a follow-up to his opening talk. He provides a more detailed outline for thinking about big ideas, a template of sorts that he himself uses. I can get fairly disorganized when I begin thinking massive shifts in my teaching, so his session was exactly what I needed. Notes and handouts.
  • While randomly speaking to someone during lunch, I learn about Costa Rica’s national uniform policy and how any teacher can discipline any student at any time anywhere in the country. Mind blown.
  • The afternoon was my extended length session, what we called the “Deep Dive” session. It was focused on Design Thinking and how it can be used as an alternative means of assessment. The facilitator is great. After a while, I remember that she gave an MT^2 talk on her work with Design Challenges. After some struggles, I realize at the end of the session the goal for me is to leverage these challenges to open the door to the content I will be teaching – not to teach content outright. If I can keep that in mind, it’ll help me plan. Notes.
  • Before mingling at happy hour in the MfA lounge, I touch base with Marvin and his Designing and Teaching Scaffolds Deep Dive.  I really wanted to attend this one, but couldn’t so I pick his brain for 10 minutes about his approach to scaffolding. (The other session I loved was Winning Hearts and Minds.) Small but big takeaways: 1) scaffolding must be separate from the content and 2) I must always remember to gradually remove the scaffolding. He had a brief video of scaffolding being built (and taken down) around the Capital in Washington D.C. that hit home with me.


Day 2 – Wednesday, July 12

  • The day begins with John Ewing, the president of Math for America. He does a bunch of major things around the country around mathematics and education – and we were really fortunate for him to be able to speak to us. His talk about changing the conversation around education in America. He sees three trends in education today: teaching is viewed differently by the public than by teachers (like the double deficit model for teaching), our distrust with institutions (including schools), and our irrational belief in big data (like value added models). I feel awe-struck because in his talk he includes a quote from the post that Courtney and I wrote for MfA’s Teacher Voices. During lunch, he even comes up and personally thanks us for helping organize the conference. Unexpectedly, I think his talk inspired the direction I take my after-school commitment next year. Notes.
  • The first session of the day was the second part of the Deep Dive on Design Challenges. To start,  we move all the tables together for an opening reflection on the work we started yesterday. It helped frame the day and I really liked this. I could tell she was attuned to our struggles yesterday. I shared that I embraced the struggle from yesterday, but because I had nothing tangible yet I feared that I would forget all about Design Challenges after leaving the Summer Think. I also added that Design Challenges remind me of creating flow, a term explored in my current book Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. After running through a protocol to explore our ideas further (mine was periodic functions since I was horrible in modeling them last year), we jump into storyboarding our Design Challenge. Mine was based on the tides and water damage to a house, but someone else presented one on tides when to best visit a beach, which I like much more. The jury is still out on the future of Design Challenges in my class, but I am in a much better place than I was yesterday.
  • After lunch, the Problem Solving Partners is up next. It opens with a great icebreaker: put your three favorite numbers on your name tag and share why you chose them with your partner. We learn about some norms for partnerships, similar to the group norms that I’ve always wanted to implement, but never really have. We go through three different protocols for problem solving with pairs of students, which were all very practical. I especially liked the Concept Attainment Protocol. In general, I was intrigued because I don’t think I’ve ever thought about using a protocol with students (they’re just something we use at teacher PDs). There is definitely stuff from this session that I’m using next year. Also, she mentioned a book where she got the problems; I should ask her about it. Handouts and notes.
  • The last formalized session of the day was Paper Folding with Gary Rubinstein. I know of Gary’s work, but I’ve never sat in one of his sessions. I’m glad I did! We used paper folding to solve quadratic equations. This is so fascinating. I definitely plan to use this next year in my mathematics elective, if not in algebra 2. He even has paper folding video tutorials. Handouts.
  • To close the day we took part in an Open Spaces session, which was powerful. The topic of the group I joined was segregation in NYC schools but branched off to talk about racism, bias, and what we can do as teachers to better the situation. The conversation was passionate and deliberate.


Day 3 – Thursday, July 13

  • We started the final day of the conference in our Deep Dives. We started with a neat reflection activity where we wrote our gains, strains, and questions on Post Its and went around the table reading them off one at a time. I would read one, then the person next to me would read one, and so on until it got back to when I would read my second one. That continued until we read all of our notes. We transitioned into the final activity, which was to create a trifold board that would share what we learned in our Deep Dive. This lead to a gallery walk with all the other Deep Dives. During the gallery walk, there was a palpable buzz in the MfA lounge. If I’m honest, at the end of this Deep Dive, I’m am uncertain whether I can see myself doing a design challenge in algebra 2. There are just too many unknowns for me right now. That said, things in my classroom rarely go the way I think they will, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I put one together for periodic functions unit.
  • We all reconvened to close out the conference. Megan Roberts, executive director of MfA, spoke and reminded us all why and how MfA does what it does. She joined MfA a couple years ago, but before that, she led at iZone, an NYCDOE outpost. A few years ago, she and I actually attended “iCamp,” a summer camp sponsored by iZone. Coincidently, during the camp, we got paired up for a design challenge and got to know each other pretty well. It was so special to reconnect with her at MfA and at the Summer Think this week. One big takeaway from her talk: the use of “PD” as noun instead of a verb.
  • After Megan’s remarks, I was asked to put a bow on the conference and close it out. I thanked everyone and briefly shared how the conference came to be and had everyone show some love to all of the workshop facilitators. I shared how hopeful I was that everyone found this conference a worthwhile investment of their well-deserved summer. It was the first one ever, so you just never know. I then went off script and decided to give some unexpected shoutouts to selected people who I met and connected with during the conference. I asked the audience clap once for each shoutout. It was a fun, lighthearted way to throw recognition back onto the attendees. They actually went for it – and I was relieved.
  • MfA graciously provides dumplings for lunch. I hang around and several folks came up and thanked me and commented how awesome the conference was. I couldn’t help but be more and more humbled with every conversation. The MfA team gives each member of the planning team a thank you gift. Just another earmark of this first-class organization. Smiles all around. We throw out some days of when we might be able to come in to review the survey results later this summer.
  • I hang around MfA until I’m the last person from the conference still there. After big events that I find exceptionally meaningful (the last day of school also comes to mind), I like to be the last one to leave. It’s cheesy, but it gives me a unique opportunity to reflect on that particular occasion that will never come again. I talk, mingle, and watch everyone head for the elevators. The planning committee says their goodbyes. Afterward, I sit in the back of the lounge, make of list of post-conference To Dos, and take it all in.



Random groupings

popsicle sticks

I recently had an epiphany. It came from Ilana Seidal Horn.

I was reading her book, Strength in Numbers, and she was addressing status in the classroom. Her definition is status is the perception of students’ academic ability and social desirability. Here’s an excerpt that blew my mind.

Unless we address underlying conceptions of smartness, we risk reverting to the commonly help belief that group work benefits struggling students because smart students help them. As long as we have a simplistic view of some students as smart and others as struggling, we will have status problems in our classroom. Students quickly pick up on assessments of their ability. For example, when teachers arrange collaborative groups to evenly distribute strong, weak, and average students, children will figure out that scheme and rapidly learn which slot they fill….If mathematics is rich enough, the strengths of the different students come into play, rendering the common mixed-ability grouping strategy useless. (p.29)

Truth. Talk about unraveling so many years of my teaching career in one paragraph.

A day later I noticed this tweet from Frank Noschese:

Bam. Just like that I was finished with strategic grouping.

Each seat in the room is assigned a number and every Monday students select a numbered popsicle stick upon entering the room. I’m coining them destiny sticks.

Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 3.14.06 PM

This week, after the first go around with the new approach, I immediately got lots of “this is a great idea” and “I love this!” from the students. Full steam ahead.



My hope for group work…and introverts


Lately I’ve been thinking about group work.

This past spring, I reached a point in a lesson where I wanted students to work together on a few tasks. Prior knowledge was there. Things were accessible. Heterogeneous groups abound. All the standard stuff. There was no reason why the kids shouldn’t have been good to go.

What did they do? They waited for me. They couldn’t get started without me but, even worse, they couldn’t even use one another to get the ball rolling. Despite being more than capable, they wanted me to feed them…again. I say again because this was a fairly common theme all year. It just took this particular lesson for it to hit me.

Realizing this, I didn’t want to lecture them on how I knew that together they could accomplish the tasks I set forth. So I sat on a desk and stared at them. The result was a bunch of concerned faces asking me why I was so quiet. I responded with silent eye contact to each and every one of them. It took a full three minutes of awkwardness before they pieced things together. Oh, he wants us to figure this stuff out. 

In the moment, I was really disappointed with them. I was borderline furious. I overplan my lessons, pour growth mindset into them all year, and live with a low floor and high ceiling. Yet why couldn’t they work together, independent of me?

It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was the culprit. This situation was a direct consequence of me neglecting to develop a culture of interdependency. Now that I think about it, my classes have been like this for years.

Next year I am determined to get out of the way. For everyone’s sake, my students must need me less. I want group work to be the norm. A successful mathematics class is dependent on communication and inquiry – both of these are byproducts of collaboration.

I’m still finalizing a structure, but thanks to a workshop by Phil Dituri, I have some tentative group norms that I’ll use next year.

  • If you have a question, ask your group before asking me.
  • If someone asks a question, do your best to help that person.
  • It is the responsibility of the group to ensure that each and every person in the group understands the task at hand.
  • If you finish and check your work, you should ask others in your group if they need help.
  • Discuss different answers and try to agree on one. You should be able to explain your group mates’ solutions as if they were your own.
  • No talking to other groups.

It will be challenging to develop these norms with students that may not understand how to work together effectively. There are strategies that will be helpful in the process, but I still may have to start with one or two at the beginning of the year and build on those.

I want my students to value collaboration and learning from one another, but there’s another aspect to this talk of group work that’s worth noting. It’s the societal belief that collaboration is the root of all things great and that everyone must collaborate in the same way. Susan Cain argues against this mantra in her book Quiet and I agree with her. She calls this the New Groupthink because it “…elevates teamwork above all else. It insists that creativity and intellectual achievement come from a gregarious place.”

This line of thinking is a huge disservice to our introverted students. I bring this up because of my own introverted tendencies, like preferring one-on-one conversations over group discussions, enjoying listening more than speaking, and leading in non-traditional ways. The need for some students to think and work in solitude is something I get. It’s how I’m most productive. Reading the book was like uncovering so much of myself.

Studies show that one third to one half of us are introverts. The class I mentioned was full of introverts and they needed a structure to work together. I hope that my system encourages collaboration and interdependency while addressing the needs of all my students, but especially my more introverted ones. My norms won’t be a saving grace since research advocates for other strategies to support introverts – such as small groups, individual think time, and supporting individual passions, all of which I could improve upon. But hopefully my group norms help to celebrate introversion and make it easier for students to rely on one another as opposed to me.



One Step, Crumple, Toss

The other day I did an activity that reminded me of both Kate Nowack’s Solve, Crumple, Toss game and Jon Orr’s Commit & Crumple activity, but it was slightly different.

I grouped students in twos and threes and gave each group one problem on a full sheet of paper. They struggled on a few concepts that we recently tested on, so the problem stemmed from those concepts. Each group completed the first step in their problem. That’s it. After, they crumpled the paper into a ball. After all the groups crumpled, I had them throw the ball at/to another group in the room. The receiving group would uncrumple the paper, check the work that’s already been done (correct it if necessary), and complete the next step in the problem. They then crumpled and tossed the paper to another group. This process continued until every problem was completed.

I like this activity for several reasons:

  • Firstly, students must put focused effort into starting a problem. Teachers, and math teachers specifically, know that the first step of a problem can often make or break a student.
  • Secondly, the bite-size chunks that they work on after each throw make long, multi-step problems easily digestible and accessible. They’re not stuck, sometimes haphazardly, on a single problem for extended periods of time. The students, without even knowing it, scaffold one another.
  • From a problem solving perspective, the idea of emphasizing the completion of one step at a time could be useful. The students themselves must decipher the procedural “steps” of a problem and also relate them to a peer’s work. This may help to develop the skill of breaking down a large problem into a series of smaller ones. I’m not completely sold on my reasoning here, but I feel there’s something meaningful on this front.
  • This activity affords kids the time to analyze and challenge each other’s work. It’s weird, but I’ve noticed, even with other activities, that students are highly engaged when analyzing a peer’s work. Maybe this is because teenagers are so judgemental of each other already, who knows.
  • On the teacher side of things, it’s never a bad thing when an activity gives you the opportunity to walk around and assess all period. It was so helpful to provide loads of individualized feedback to them on concepts they previously struggled with.
  • Lastly: who doesn’t like to throw things?! This was by far the best aspect of the lesson.

I’m still wondering about how things ended. The exit slip did show improved understanding of the concepts, which was good, but the conclusion of the activity could have been stronger. I posted the solutions for each question (they were numbered) and groups checked to see if the problem they ended with arrived at the correct answer. Most did. I also opened up a class discussion about common mistakes that were found as they checked work. That said, there still may be something better I could have done to wrap it up. Hmm.