Carl's Teaching Blog

A place to talk about teaching and learning

Tag: MTBoS30 (Page 1 of 6)

How it feels to give an ignite talk

This spring I gave a talk at the NCSM ignite session and here it is!  Below the video is how it felt through the process of making this talk happening.

Before the talk:

Going into the talk I was as rattled as I had ever been about doing anything.  I’ll give you a taste.  Here is an unedited snippet from my journal on the morning of the talk:

This talk is going to be fine.  I am in a safe space.  I am going to do my best, and the people are going to be appreciative.  It will look like I tried hard, and that is what matters.  It’s not my job to be perfect, I am trying to be as faithful as possible to the information and I will do that by delivering the presentation to the best of my ability.

Sounds a little like Stuart Smalley, right? Well don’t judge me until you’re in the same situation. These affirmations were what I needed to get out of the door and to the bus station to make it to Boston on time.  I had also just woken up from a pretty sleepless night.  The safe space imagery helped me shake off the late night/early morning visions of me messing up on the talk and every one looking at me like I tripped in the middle of a dance battle.  Sharing something with nearly 100 people is pretty scary, even if I regularly present information to nearly 100 students for a lot longer than 5 minutes.


In the conference room waiting to talk, there is a little bit of gallows humor, but not really a lot of fear.  As you see more and more people going up and giving their talks, starting with Annie and Max, you realize that the fears that you have about the talks and their outcomes really don’t matter because the audience is the most wonderful audience in the world.  It is as warm and accepting as the crowd at a summer camp talent show, or the shows around the holidays when all the little kids make everyone watch them sing by the mantle.  You wouldn’t believe it if you were in the room but the energy is amazingly supportive.  EVERYONE IS THERE TO SUPPORT YOU!

Getting up to talk your mind goes completely blank.  I whispered to Suzanne “I forgot everything.” who comforted me by saying.  “Everybody does, it’ll come back.”  She was kind of right.  I remembered through the talk what happened, but I don’t remember any of it now.  I think I got the laughs I wanted, there was conversation when I wanted, and people were quiet and thought when I wanted.  I finished with not only a weight off my shoulders but still slightly burdened by the mistakes I might have made.  “I didn’t plug twitter!”

A Little While After:

Once the talk has finished and the adrenaline is gone, the experience of the talk really inspires you.  When I finished running a Tough Mudder I remember getting injured and having to limp the last 20 miles to the finish line.  So much of that race was filled with dread and disdain, but once I crossed the finish line and met the rest of my team I couldn’t help but feel anything but pride and gratitude.  With the Ignite talk there was a similar feeling.  It was great to finish, and while people may nitpick pronunciations and powerpoint slides as they watch the video again, there was still nothing like being in front of such a large group of supportive people who wanted you to do well, and wanted to learn from what you had to say.

My talk:

So I have two videos below.  The first is cell phone footage of my self talking, the second is the video of the slides behind me.  Sync them up at the same time and it will feel like you were there!

Cell phone video of me talking:

Video of the slides (start this at :07):

The Powerpoint file of the slides for my talk is below, and you can also set this in motion by starting the slide show on the second slide.  It will run through the entire talk automatically:

Quick and Dirty Version

The whole idea of the talk is that there are a lot of changes that are hampered because certain people have what is called “competing commitments.”  These commitments compete against the change that you want to happen.  The example that I gave was that I wanted students to change and become better problem solvers, but I am committed to preventing students from having to struggle for long periods of time.  Unless I deal with my issue, I am never going to make that change happen. This talk is proposing that until we as a math community deal with all the collective commitments we are going to see numerous efforts to change, efforts with great promise and potential, fall flat because we are committed to keep things the same.  On an individual level, this change process could take place by examining what outcomes you assume these commitments are supposed to prevent like a scientist experimenting with a hypothesis.  Does it really make sense for me to always avoid students from struggling?  What if I experiemented with a lesson plan of “struggle” problems from a reputable source, like the Math forum?  Perhaps trying this experiment would be enough to stop my allegiance to that unproductive commitment.

Make sense?

I’m curious what kind of Changes, Fears/Commitments, Assumptions and Experiments the blogosphere has, so if you can think through this, please leave your thoughts at this link:

Here is the book that inspired the talk:

How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation by Robert Kegan et al.
How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation
by Robert Kegan et al.

MSRI 2015 – A national math education conference focusing on developmental ed

This year there was a pretty spectacular conference in the hills of Berkeley California that brought a number of people who are involved in Developmental Math including Deborah Ball, Bill McCallum, Hyman Bass, but mixed among them were some lesser known names including Gregory Larnell, and a scene stealing group of high school math teachers from NYC.

The Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) is a magical place in the hills above the University of Berkeley near the Lawrence Hall of Science.  It’s home to a group of academic researchers who work on their research from the inside of a beautiful complex, largely funded by MFA creator Jim Simons, which plays hosts to a number of national conferences with various focus on a yearly basis.  The annual Critical Issues in Math Education meeting was held in March and had the focus of “developmental mathematics at two- and four-year colleges and universities and the broader dynamic of mathematics remediation that occurs at all levels.”

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Clog: “I’m not asking for a right answer, I’m asking ‘How Do You Know'” #HDYK

So today I uttered my favorite new acronym in class while explaining what groups should be doing.Group work has become the new bane of my existence because I both realize it’s importance, and also recognize the fact that I have not done it well. …yet.  My new favorite acronym, HDYK  (How Do You Know), is hopefully going to help with that, along with new roles and what I learned employing those roles today.

For a number of reasons, I tried to get kids to focus on the process of group work, not necessarily the outcomes.  These were the roles that I suggested in order to get students to focus on listening to each other:

  • Involver – Your job is to make sure that all of your group members are involved in the task.  Ask questions to other members to make sure they have their ideas included.
  • Task master – Keep track of the task that needs to be done and the amount of time required to do it.  Remind people of the work the group needs to finish if it seems people are off task.  Let people know when they are ahead of schedule as well.
  • Summarize and Share – Keep track of everyone’s thoughts and prepare to share all of the thinking with the whole class.  Also be prepared to let others in the group know what is going on if anyone gets lost.

This was a pretty interesting switch on group work (which I totally stole from someone else, but I can’t remember who) and it delivered some success.  It seemed nice to see people flocking to certain roles.  Perhaps next time I will find ways to immerse kids more intensively in these roles.  One thing I may do with would be to have little conferences with the different roles, like ask the Involver to give me a report on the groups functioning or pull out the Summarizers to meet together and share ideas.

The task for this class was also one which I hoped to hear a lot of “How Do You Know” from kids. Each HDYK  was hoping to get kids to justify their response to the following question which could hopefully get us to start thinking about permutations, combinations and other ways of counting:

Dimoni is going to make a new restaurant.  He promised it would be fancy, gluten free, paleo-friendly, vegan, low-carb, high-fiber, seasonally appropriate, locally grown, and tasty.  This left him with the following ingredients.

Sweet Potatoes, Radishes, Carrots, Onions

…and some other stuff.  Given that he has such few ingredients he wanted to make as many dishes as he could using all of these ingredients.  He planned to say he could make 50 different combinations of these items.

Is it possible to make 50 different arrangements of these items?  Work together to detail how to figure out all of the possibilities.

In how many different ways could you describe an arrangement?

When the students were in groups I realized how this could appear like a “What’s the answer” kind of task.  Many kids would come over and say “I got 12, is it right?” To which I would say “How do you know it’s 12?”  Students were supposed to come up with some way to justify that they have whatever answer they have.  Many instead focused on asking me whether or not I could justify their answer as “right.”  After some direction most of the groups got to a place where they felt they could justify the choice and many were saying things like “Yes, our answer is 12, because he shouldn’t be trying to act like radishes and onions is a different arrangement than onions and radishes.”  In the future I think I would replace the word “possible” with “reasonable” to suggest that kids should have a reason for what they say.

It seemed a little more conceptual than some kids were able to latch on to, and with so many people expecting me to guide them, it was really easy for kids to get left out.  I probably should have done a Next time the task will need to be really clearly laid out to show that we are emphasizing the HDYK and not the answer.  My role as facilitator has to be reduced too, perhaps the involver could be the person who is allowed to ask me questions, and can only ask me questions when they have heard from everyone in the group.


Next time I see this group will be on Friday and we will spend that time comparing all of the responses from each of the different groups.

Clog: “No, I just don’t get any of this, so I’ll just wait”

Seems like one of the side effects of my new emphasis on large scale problems is getting kids caught up when they come in late, weren’t paying attention, or otherwise find themselves lost.  I think tradition trains students to shut down when they are lost, as if the key to getting un-lost will be someone telling you what to do.  Like if you get lost in the choreography of a dance, you need someone to let you know what the next step was, or even to prompt you to look at the previous step, or just to show you the steps so you can follow it.  The “math-as-dance-step” metaphor breaks down once you want a student to do more of the creating themselves.  I mean, I don’t go to someone who is used to dancing ballet and say “Make a routine to this hip hop song” (unless of course I’m the producer of that Julia Stiles movie).  So when I want students to explore all the different ways of solving a complex problem, how is it that I let them know the steps?  Not the algorithmic steps to the specific math problem but the dance steps for thinking about and solving any kind of problem?

Today I tried to get students to work on a counting task from MARS and as they struggled, I wrote on the board the steps from Polya, about how to solve a math problem.  These steps had a lot of meaning for, but I don’t think the kids got it.  Abstracting the problem solving process is not a good thing to do when your kids just had a break down in their problem solving process.  Tomorrow I am going to roll out a whole bunch of problems that various people can have success with, and then afterwards ask them to share, and use that share out to abstract the steps required to solve a problem.  Hopefully if the problem comes from them, they will be more likely to apply it the next time they get to a place where it would have previously felt safe to just “wait.”

Dipping your toes into the #MTBoS

A year ago I wrote my first math related tweet on my way home from the 2014 NCTM conference.  Over the past year I have managed to get pretty involved in the Math Twitter Blog-o-Sphere, and received a lot of benefits along the way.  Here’s how any new person could actually get started based on my experience and also whatever knowledge I’ve picked up along the way.

1.  There’s no shame in lurking.

Many people will disagree with me, but I think lurking is understandable for a certain period of time.  Before I tweeted I have to say I lurked for a while but I really did not get much out of it.

But if you’re going to lurk, do it right!

However, lurking is good when done well and even the most seasoned people need to switch to lurk mode when they get busy. Here are some first steps:

  • Fill up your Twitter and/or Feedly with quality stuff – It is too much work to go google the people you want to keep track of every day.  Make accounts so you can have all the latest happenings on your phone whenever you have down time (it’s better than playing 2048).  Twitter is, well, twitter, but feedly is a way to collect the tweets of lots of people you follow.  Feedly may be for you if you like reading long form, as it creates a personal magazine of all the blogs you follow.
  • Follow conversations – As you transition away from googling things you are interested, start following the conversations of interesting people.  Look to follow the conversations in comments on blogs or along the conversation threads in twitter. You can learn a lot about current issues that you might not have known you cared about, and find more things to follow.
  • Think like an ethnographer, study new things or people you may not have heard of before.  It may help to keep track of what you find by using something like pocket or evernote or, you know, paper.

2. Get off the fence:  Ask Questions!

Once you learn your way around, and want to get your feet wet, it might be hard to know what to say.  So an easy thing to do would be to ask, right?  Odds are you met someone at the conference who you talked to about all this, ask them a question.  Here was my first tweet after the conference.

If you can’t think of anyone to ask a question to, but you have a relevant question, you can always add #MTBoS to the end of your tag and someone can help you.

This is also a good idea for a blog post.  What is an issue that you struggle with?  What questions do you have about it?  Here’s one of my early posts about my struggles with writing proofs.

3.  Answer questions

So now you’ve lurked, you understand the conversations going on, and you feel comfortable asking questions.  You’ve come a long way, and it may be the case that you can help someone.  Now would be a good time to do it.  Remember this is a two way street, and this community only benefits others because people like you are not afraid to share your knowledge and your brilliance.  It can be terrifying to think of yourself as an expert opining on a topic, so don’t.  Think of yourself as a colleague helping out one of their own.

This is also a good idea for a blog post.  You can answer people’s questions explicitly, or just write a post that more or less answers questions that you would have to answer.

4.  Create spaces for conversations

Once you get comfortable on the MTBoS and have had a number of interactions, you may see things things that these other people would want to talk about it.  Well you can create the space for that conversation by writing a tweet or a blog post about the issue.  I can’t guarantee that everyone is going to get a conversation going immediately, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t important and valuable.

What do you think?

I think this 4-step progression is more or less my path to getting involved.  Do you think it will work for you?  Let me know in the comments:

  1. Lurk
  2. Ask Questions
  3. Answer Questions
  4. Create Spaces for Conversation

#MTBoS 10?/30

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