MfA Summer Think Reflections

graphic-for-website

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.

 

bp

Why I’m #MfAProud

#MfAProud

Two years ago I drafted a post entitled “MfA and its Impact on My Career.” I knew at the time that I had a lot to say, but I could only compose one sentence, a thesis of sorts: MfA has spurred my professional growth and connection with like-minded educators. I revisited the draft many times since then with the hopes of publishing it, but never did. In fact, I wasn’t even able to add a second sentence, let alone complete a paragraph. Every time I wanted to, it seemed far too challenging to articulate what MfA meant to my career.

Fast forward to the present. With the start of a new school year, Math for America has outlined a campaign for its corps of teachers to share why they are proud to be a MfA teacher. Given this, the time is ripe for me to finish that initial draft and showcase my relationship with MfA. Besides, I’m long overdue.

I’ve hinted at this proclamation before; other than deciding to become a teacher, MfA is hands-down the best professional decision I’ve ever made.

For many teachers, including myself, MfA is a dream come true. Seriously, I’m still waiting to wake up. When you realize the woefully complex system in which we operate and contrast it with the die-hard passion for teaching that all MfA teachers possess, MfA is a breath of fresh air. I have met MfA teachers that have cried when discussing their relationship with Math for America. I can relate. Math for America changes careers in unforgettable ways.

When I think about it, MfA’s success doesn’t hinge on anything that’s all that extraordinary. They do something simple, really well: honor teachers. Period. Positively impacting teaching and learning in today’s cutthroat educational climate isn’t like brain surgery. MfA figured this out long ago…and it’s the root of my pride in being a Math for America teacher.

On the most fundamental level, they do this by providing community, structure, and a space where teachers can exchange ideas and resources, all the while feeling valued and trusted. MfA’s teacher-organized, teacher-designed, teacher-led workshops have transformed my classroom to a risk-taking laboratory. I’m constantly working with the best STEM educators in New York City and, I would argue, the country. In addition, I’ve been called on to lead colleagues like never before, which has helped me extend the arm, and mission, of MfA to empower my colleagues. I have also been fully funded to attend a conference. I have a paid membership to NCTM. And though nowhere near an expert, I have even been asked to speak at a research-based institute.

I’m also distinctly proud of the little ways I’ve been able to give back to MfA. To contribute to such an outstanding community (the gold standard in teacher development, if you ask me), means so much to me. Over the years, a certain responsibility has surfaced within me to help maintain the integrity of what MfA stands for and help it evolve over time. Best of all, I know that I still have so much more to give.

But, most of all, my pride shines every time I walk out of a MfA workshop at 7:30pm on a school night. During these moments, I am reminded that my job is a top priority, that I make all other professions possible. I am reminded that I am not an island unto myself. I am reminded why I never want to be an administrator. I am reminded that my students’ futures depend on my continuous development. I am reminded that I am a learner first, a teacher second.

I am reminded of why I am a teacher.

 

bp

The video club 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This is the follow up to my post last summer that outlined my anticipation of a research-based, video-based professional development that I was to facilitate with the math department at my school. We coined the name of the PD “The Video Club.” So, with the extended arm of Math for America, I was lent a HD camera, omnidirectional microphone, and a tripod. The goal: analyze, interpret, and get better at responding to student thinking.

Here are some takeaways from the experience:

  • The entire department felt the PD was worthwhile and would love to do it again. Everyone was highly engaged throughout and over 80% of the group felt that this PD helped them gain key insights into student thinking. This was a relief. I believe in and value the work, I just hoped they would also find it worthwhile – which they did. Plus, I’ve never headed an initiative like this before, so I’m glad it was a source of growth…and not utter failure.
  • The department felt that the experience made us more conscious of the words and terms we use with students. For example, the use of the word “cancel” was recognized as something to rethink. We discovered that many students infer, for instance, that the common factors in the numerator and denominator of a fraction “cancel” out, when in fact they are a form of 1. “Cancel” made our students feel as if the factors just disappeared. This is subtle and a direct result of our utilization of the word in class. On a related note, a colleague mentioned that students’ mathematical abilities are a reflection of our teaching and that she witnessed her own shortcomings embedded in their thinking. Interesting.
  • The experience helped us develop better questions – or at least to habitually reassess the quality of questions that we ask our students. Questions should anticipate and clarify student thinking all the while pushing kids to make connections. There were instances where we spent all of 15 minutes debating a 7-second student discussion. This deliberate focus on the details of student thinking allowed us craft questions that addressed very specific areas of student understanding.
  • We realized that the more analysis we did of student thinking via the video club, the more we valued the process of analyzing student thinking. This lead us to create more opportunities for our students to discuss mathematics during class so that, in turn, we could analyze their thinking. This may have been the result of the tangible improvements in our planning and teaching that we made after each of the sessions.
  • Many teachers are mandated to analyze student work. It hit me early in the year that recording student discussions around a task was actually an elevated form of this. We weren’t interpreting written work to get at student thinking. Instead, we were watching and listening to them explain their thoughts, which is a much more sophisticated way of understanding student thinking.
  • This seems somewhat counterintuitive, but I learned a great deal about mathematics. Specifically, I learned more about how mathematical relationships and ideas are viewed through the eyes of my students. For example, I explored why it is so common for students to reference the Pythagorean Theorem when they see a triangle labeled with sides a, b, and c – no matter what the problem is asking. (Our dependency on those arbitrary letters may have something to do with it.) This type of perspective taking has proved to be incredibly powerful when it comes to developing impactful learning opportunities for my kids.
  • I came to embrace the openness of each session. I prepared prompts and questions beforehand, but insights from the team really led the way. Over time, instead of being a “facilitator,” I was just another member of the group who helped push the conversation forward. I learned that the uncertainly involved with this work is a good thing.
  • When I initially dove into this project, I was concerned about the amount of prep time required – especially since we were dealing with video. Anyone who has dealt with video knows that the editing process can be discouraging and straight-up unbearable. I was elated to find out that, from beginning to end, the process requires no editing. Sustainability!
  • Lastly, this experience afforded me an opportunity to lead my colleagues. I was empowered. And I’ve taken on other leadership roles in the building, but for reasons that I cannot seem to pinpoint, this one felt different. It may stem from my own personal belief about how this work provides exceptional hands-on improvement for teachers – and how rare this is.

I’m enthused to continue this work next year. MfA has been an invaluable partner and I’m pleased to know that I have their continued support!

 

bp