Help some Minnesotans think something through, won’t you?

I spent some time on a conference call today as part of my duties as VP of math for MCTM. On the line were (mostly) elementary teachers and coaches. The fundamental problem at hand was beautifully stated by a participant:

If we want to grow wonderful, fabulous teachers, we have to make it easy for them to stay connected.

As the conversation proceeded, I found myself asking How does having organizations that are fixed in their physical location make sense in fostering these connections?

Several teachers described the kinds of connections and resources they would like to have access to, but that they do not (and hence why they are reaching out to MCTM and to the state department of education). These include (in no particular order):

  1. Both occasional synchronous and ongoing asynchronous communication among teachers and policy and content experts;
  2. Concrete resources for helping teachers move from a textbook-focused classroom to a standards-based classroom (especially a Minnesota standards-based classroom; we are not a Common Core state);
  3. A place to ask about something that happened in the classroom today and to get help with what to do tomorrow as a result;
  4. A way of promoting and organizing useful resources and filtering out the junk;
  5. A place to have longer conversations about bigger issues such as children’s long-term development of place value concepts or current research and curricular innovations relating to subtraction; and
  6. Video of classrooms in action—there seems to be a real hunger for seeing over reading classroom scenarios.

As I listened and thought about my own teaching, I became less and less convinced that a centralized resource is the answer to these needs. Indeed, the only need related to our particular state is number 2 above. But all of those other needs (and many of the general ideas underlying number 2) can be met by folks who have never set foot in our state.

I have built my own version of this support system online. Here’s how:

Blogs. Writing my own and reading those of others has generated tons of useful ideas for every aspect of my work. Just today, I took something from Chris Hunter’s blog to use with my College Algebra students, and I adapted Fawn Nguyen’s Google Form for my standards-based grading reassessment in all of my courses.

Twitter. Pretty much everyone whose blog I regularly read I also follow on Twitter. The reverse is not true, so Twitter expands my network. In the past week, I put out a general request with organizing my students’ reassessment requests and got reminded of Fawn’s system.

Also I have had several back-and-forth conversations with teachers on a range of topics. For example, I replied to the following…

Twitter facilitates a lovely combination of asynchronous resource-hunting and synchronous problem-solving. It can also be a tremendous time sink, so time management skills are essential.

Email. Back to asynchronous communication. Email for me remains a medium for having extended private conversations. I am not a fan of listservs, mailing lists or email conversations that attempt to involve more than about three people.

Experience. Having spent a couple of years in this space, I have developed a working knowledge of what’s available. I know who to ask about what’s happening at middle school, who to ask/read/recommend on assessment issues. I know who will give me a new perspective on social media use. I know who to talk to for questions about college teaching.

All of this reinforces the idea-for me-that the role MCTM could play in meeting this request from our members isn’t so much creating a space for interaction, as it could be facilitating teachers’ entry into this much larger space that already exists.

I have no idea what that would look like either, though.

How say, math-o-blog-o-Twitter-sphere?

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6 responses to “Help some Minnesotans think something through, won’t you?

  1. The mathoblogotwittersphere can seem incredibly large to newbies. Find a way to start small. Offer in person training on how to get there. Then maybe ask for blogs shared in district/in state. Maybe start a district/state blog challenge. Or have them choose from a suggested list to follow on twitter and just lurk (watch) for a while. Then they can blog about it for their local group.
    It’s just like walking into any large room of people: start with a small group, follow the conversation until you’re ready to jump in, then jump in. Stay if the conversation is engaging or move to a new group if it isn’t. If you’re shy, you just wait a little longer before you jump in.

  2. The engaging as a professional aspect of teaching is the part that they seem to be calling for. I like what you have laid out as part of your own system but I feel that for some teachers who are not going to take the time to do all of those things outside of the classroom (for varying reasons).

    One thing I would love to see is time given in the day (a second prep?) where teachers could log-in to a district-wide/state-wide system where they could meet in small groups to discuss specific topics. I would love to see research being reviewed, newer teachers just having a chat with experienced mentors, topic-specific discussions of the nuances of things like place value development or helping students develop abstraction as the start using variables. Have master teachers be ‘hosts’ (give them training!) to help discussions go smoothly. Maybe even get teacher-trainers from colleges involved to do week-long series on topics based on teacher requests.

    I would have loved such a thing, I just have no idea how to fund it or make it a reality. I figure it would have to encompass multiple districts in order to have enough people on the line during different planning periods. Even if it was just something once a week or twice a week at least it’s more exposure to on-the-ground professional development that most teachers get now.

    These are my dreams. Sorry if it’s a bit of a mind-dump. I’ve been on a few calls lately that have brought together a variety of math ed folks (teachers and consultants and curriculum writers and higher ed, oh my!) to talk about task writing around a specific standard and the conversations are just so awesome. I want to see them all over the place so teachers anywhere can participate in that type of professional interaction.

  3. I generally find ways to evangelize the stuff that matters most to me. If it passes a threshold of personal importance, I HAVE to figure out ways to tell people about it, to scaffold their own experiences with it. My development as a teacher through blogs / twitter / an RSS reader defies that kind of evangelism, for reasons I don’t understand. It seems almost crass to try to lecture about it at a conference. It seems to me a panel discussion would fare little better. There’s a moment when a teacher is professionally frustrated and simultaneously sitting in front of a computer. The teacher then idly starts Googling around, looking for something to scratch that professional itch. THAT’S the moment for the social media conversation.

  4. I feel compelled to comment since I work at the Math Forum, which is a sprawling online space for math learners and educators with a long history (ancient in Internet time, anyway). I haven’t been at the Math Forum that long (5ish years), but colleagues who have been here since the beginning remember literally helping schools wire up their internet connections, teaching people how to log into email accounts, and showing folks how to use the Internet before there were web pages and browsers and stuff (folks here actually invented some of the technology behind early web browsing, because we were so desperate to share math images with other teachers!) The Internet Mathematics Library (http://mathforum.org/library/) was born at a time when search engines worked more like library card catalogues (collections of resources, browseable by hierarchical categories) and less like Google. But it’s interesting that as technology has changed, the needs around online professional collaboration have stayed the same: bringing people from different walks of life together, mixing the concrete and abstract/philosophical, curating the quality from the junk, getting just-in-time help and engaging in larger, longer conversations, and seeing rather than reading.

    It’s an interesting puzzle and challenge for us at the Math Forum to figure out how to keep pace with the Web 2.0 (or 2.1 or 3.0 or whatever number we’re up to) — when suddenly making a good looking website or blog takes like 15 minutes and you don’t need to know html, and more and more math teachers have access to instant feedback and ongoing conversations through blogs and Twitter.

    The main way that I know we are trying to step up and continue to meet the needs you mentioned:
    promoting and organizing useful resources and filtering out the junk — all of our stuff, even if it is at times sprawling and hard to find — is good quality (not counting minimally moderated discussions). So for example, the lessons at Teacher Exchange (http://mathforum.org/te/) are great. The FAQ on Dr. Math and Teacher2Teacher (http://mathforum.org/dr.math/ and http://mathforum.org/t2t/) are high-quality answers and resources. Math Tools, the community-curated digital library of online/technology-based tools has some great stuff in there and isn’t too hard to search/browse: http://mathforum.org/mathtools/

    And then, there’s who we are as people and what we’re into: our jobs are mostly to create classroom resources, opportunities for online and face-to-face collaboration around problem-solving, and deliver professional development. So we try to stay up-to-date on the research, stay in touch with math teachers, students, and teacher educators, and distill what we learn (from others and from experience and yeah, guess and check) into classroom activities, resources, and professional development experiences.

    Some of those areas where we host that professional collaboration and resource sharing are our online PD (http://mathforum.org/pd/), the resources we publish with our Problems of the Week (some of which are free here: http://mathforum.org/pow/teacher/), our Teacher2Teacher Q&A service (online, personal support for classroom teachers from other classroom teachers), our social media presence (http://mathforum.org/community/) and our small but growing collection of classroom videos (ourselves and others: http://mathforum.org/blogs/max/videos-of-doing-and-teaching-math/)

    The issue we find ourselves wondering about in being/creating the kind of internet experience you describe are:
    1) Keeping up with the pace — how do we integrate the fast pace of social media exchange with more deliberate, asynchronous conversations, to provide “just-in-time” communication and a sense of active community, with a commitment to making archives available and taking time to notice and wonder…
    2) Keeping up with the proliferation of online resources for math teachers — it used to be pretty easy to curate the Internet Mathematics Library. Now, as you know, it’s a gargantuan task since there’s a lot of great stuff and a decent amount of junk out there. What standards or processes can be used to help the cream rise to the top? Where do people go looking for resources — is there a role for curated collections in the Google age?
    3) Keeping up with the look and feel of the Internet — how do we make sure good content is easy to find, well-featured, and good looking (especially older content)? How do we help resource collections also be sites of the ongoing conversation you envision? How do we facilitate people navigating from great conversation to great conversation without getting lost? What is the best technology for long-term, asynchronous conversations about math? For short, just-in-time conversations? How do we leverage both? Are they both archivable/worth archiving?

    These are interesting challenges and I’m thrilled that the teachers of Minnesota are hungry for answers and that the math-twitter-blog-o-sphere is there to help them (and me) work on the answers.

  5. As a former Minnesotan and still Vikings fan, I don’t miss the winters, but I long terribly for the autumn colors. Fishing, miss that too.

    1. [Both occasional synchronous and ongoing asynchronous communication...] No doubt emails and Google docs are already established within a school, but very few teachers at my site use Twitter, subscribe to RSS feeds, or blog. As Ashli and Leslie pointed out, either teachers find the whole mathoblogotwittersphere too daunting and/or no time for such. Then the question is not about availability of this type of communication, but more of personal motivation and time management.

    2. [Concrete resources for helping teachers...] Really good resources are out there. These good resources are made even better because mindful and grateful teachers are using them and giving generous but critical feedback. The most important people — the students — are also giving feedback. We are getting this great loop of conversation among creators and users and observers. This takes time. Time away from family and other things we love to do and the extra sleep we could all get. But we’re teachers. Don’t talk to me if you’re an 8-to-5 teacher because you’re an alien. I don’t get you.

    3. [A place to ask about something that happened in the classroom today...] I think Twitter was invented for teachers to do just that. Follow people and follow those they follow. We’re a thriving cult, and #TMC12 was born out of this madness of respect and appreciation for our online colleagues.

    4. [A way of promoting and organizing useful resources and filtering out the junk...] Generous and diligent teachers have live binders and stashes of goodness on their sites, like Tina’s mathemes, Dan’s and Andrew’s 3-Acts, Sam’s and Nathan’s virtual cabinets. Or check out the tabs at Dan Bowdoin’s site.

    5. [A place to have longer conversations...] I’m assuming the teachers who say they have no time for mathoblogotwittersphere are not the same ones who are asking for these longer conversations. :) Your post right here and the comments that follow promote these conversations. And emails can extend this dialogue. We can’t expect too many face-to-face conversations because resources are limited, so we do the next best thing. The trade-offs are flexibility and being able to wear shorts to an online meeting.

    6. [Video of classrooms in action—...] I think the lack of these are due more to issues of getting permission to videotape children.

    Tabitha is my young math hero. And you, and Chris Hunter, share these precious dialogues with your readers. I appreciate that.

  6. I think if a teacher is already interested in expanding their community beyond their school, this website we made this summer is at least one place they could go to learn about this community, stuff we’ve done, and simple ways to get involved:

    http://mathtwitterblogosphere.weebly.com/

    sam shah

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