NCSM/NCTM My Favorite

I’m starting to bounce back from conference week. I love it every year and this one was no exception. I’m still processing (and digging out from emails), but there’s one thought I need to share now.

Every year there’s a certain amount of soul searching among the folks in the Math Twitter Blog-o-Sphere (#MTBoS) about our role and relationship to our professional guilds. People talk about conferences and communication and membership and journals and the future. All understandable, and a good conversation to have. I agree with some, disagree with others, enjoy listening in. No sweat. Something Michael Pershan said on Dylan’s blog has stayed with me, however, and made me really uncomfortable:

I’ve started wondering if being in the MTBoS is sort of like being a fan. To be in the MTBoS means that you love Three Acts, Which One Doesn’t Belong, Talking Math With Your Kids, Estimation 180, Problem-Based Stuff, Max Ray-Riek, Tracy Zager, Desmos or something.

To be fair to Michael, the next sentence was:

[Is this a good time to remind you that I’m making stuff up and have no reason to believe ANY of this with much confidence? I think it is.]

Ha! I appreciate that Michael tossed his idea out there so we can think about it. Because if he’s thinking it, others probably are too. And I get where it comes from, I think. Mostly. Maybe? I mean, there’s this “cool kids” thing that happens that I can’t stand. So that’s part. And then there are also the amazing resources made by people in the community, (WODB, visual patterns, #3Actmath, Estimation 180, etc.), which many people use and promote. True.

But for me, the MTBoS is not at all about fandom. It’s a community where people who love teaching math and thinking about teaching math can congregate. It’s a place to find like-minded folks, but also dissent. It’s a place where we can make our ideas better by listening to others, putting our work out there, and asking for feedback. It’s a supportive space where some genuine, deep friendships and collegial relationships are born and maintained. It has norms that matter–openness, inclusiveness, camaraderie–even though nobody is officially moderating for those norms. (That’s amazing, if you think about it.) For me, MTBoS is the only place on the internet where the comments are overwhelmingly constructive, and worth reading. It’s not about any one person or group of people. It’s a community, not a cult of personality.

What’s my evidence? There are so many choices (Twitter Math Camp, Global Math Department, every day online), but my recent focus was #MTBoSGameNight. It’s a zany idea, something a few of us hatched before Boston. The idea was to create a way to meet our online community members face-to-face at the close of NCSM and the kickoff of NCTM. We have no budget, no sponsor, no organizing committee. All I do is organize a few logistics and make a slide inviting anyone who wants to come.

Our first year, we had something like 40-50 people? I don’t know. Our second year, we were over 100. This year, 200-250. Matt Larson, as President of NCTM last year, asked how NCTM could help. He asked how could we make sure people could go both to the MET gala and Game Night? Given that Game Night is something the members want to do, what institutional support do we need? This year, NCTM provided the venue and a cash bar. So appreciated.

The night before Game Night, I was talking to Graham Fletcher in a bar and he asked what he could do. I told him I’d love a clever way to give away door prizes. He texted me the next morning. “Where’s the box of books? I’m on it.” He, Zak Champagne, and Mike Flynn set up a series of estimation challenges about them. Now we needed A/V, so Stenhouse helped out there. I arrived at the space 15 minutes before. It was a brightly lit hotel conference ballroom. Muzak was playing. The bartender was drifting around aimlessly. I thought, “This is not going to work.” Nothing about it felt like a party.

And then the people came. Christopher Danielson put his wonderful mathy playthings on every table. People started introducing themselves to each other. Drinks started flowing and the bartender started grinning.

My friend and fellow Mainer, Sarah Caban, came up to me and told me she had an idea. The game she brought was a Rock, Paper, Scissors tournament. Would it be OK if she explained it to everyone? Of course. She got a gaggle of demonstrators, grabbed the mic, and off she went:

Play escalated quickly:

Until the final, glorious climax:

To me, this is the wonder and worth of MTBoS. Somebody has an idea, other people are game to try it, everyone else has a good attitude, and we make stuff (moments, memories, play, thinking, resources) together. Honestly, I felt such an outpouring of love for all these people at this moment. It was the highlight of my conference week.

I don’t see fandom here. Rock, paper, scissors was Sarah’s brainchild, and it was her first game night. She joined twitter about a year ago. The rock, paper, scissors finalists were not Dan Meyer and Andrew Stadel. They were two women I’d never met before. I hope our winner will remember what it felt like to have all those math teachers at her back, chanting, “Dana! Dana! Dana!” Because to me, that’s what we do every day. We have each other’s backs. We cheer each other on. We share our passion for this work, and our ideas, and our energy.

Sign me up to be a fan of that.

I’m pleased to say Matt and I have institutionalized this event going forward. #MTBoSGameNight will continue to be hosted by NCTM. That may sound like a small thing, but it’s not. From where I sit, the merger with The Math Forum, the emphasis on #MTBoS representation on all NCTM committees, the MTBoS keynote in Nashville, and the support of our fringe events like Game Night and ShadowCon are meaningful. I’m all for pressing NCTM to be what we need it to be. But I’m also all for recognizing the big shifts made over the last few years. Change comes faster within the (unstructured, unregulated) #MTBoS than it can within the (highly structured, institutionalized) NCTM, just by the nature of the beasts. But good change is happening nonetheless.


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14 thoughts on “NCSM/NCTM My Favorite

  1. I loved Game Night for a way to see / meet people in person who I had only spoken to online. The estimation games were just as group building as paper-scissors-rock, too! I also appreciated the quieter times for having individual conversations. In some ways, we needed those moments as much as we needed moments that “felt like a party.” Thanks for pulling it together, Tracy!

    1. Mandy, I’m so glad you came. Great point about the variety. That’s why we had a mix of tables and no music, so there could be some quieter conversations, pure socializing, and also games for people to play together as a way to get to know one another.

  2. But for me, the MTBoS is not at all about fandom.

    Me neither. I guess at this point it’s important to ask some questions.

    1) What does it mean to be a fan?

    [At times in this post I feel like you’re saying that fandom is necessarily passive and non-communal. Fans can be wildly creative and active, and they can also form very strong communities. Source: sports, fan-fic, comics. For a really great read about fans, check out this lovely post.]

    2) What’s wrong with being a fan?

    [Nothing, right? Fan communities can be vibrant, creative, warm spaces. But if your’e part of the Mozart Club, there’s a special sort of relationship between your work and Mozart’s. Perhaps the community advocates for Mozart to be heard more widely. Or they create their own Mozart-esque work. Or they create posters explaining how Mozart’s music works. Or whatever. When I think about math education fan communities, I’m wondering whether MTBoS might look like this. Which raises a third question…]

    3) Why does MTBoS produce “cool kids”?

    [It’s weird, right? Why is this? I’d be curious to know your take.]


    You know that I’m a huge fan of game night, right? I’ve never seen it in person, but I hope to. And I’m glad that NCTM is gobbling up your/our good ideas. I’m not pessimistic about MTBoS, I do think good things are happening all the time. If I’m sounding cranky, well, I should work on that because I’m actually not cranky at all. I do have concerns (no need to rehash them here) but overall I’m pretty enthusiastic about what we’re building.

    (I like to think of myself as a put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is sort of guy. I did a lot of the work to institutionalize GMD — a lot of MTBoSers were unavailable to help on that project — and I’m working on Year 2 of TMC in NYC. There’s other MTBoS stuff I’m working on too. So if you hear me kvetching, well, that’s often me thinking about my next project. Though your criticism is entirely appropriate.)

    1. Michael, I totally I appreciate all the work you’ve done on GMD and TMCNYC, as well as all your other ideas, reflectiveness, and pushback. I hope you know that.

      I think the cool kids thing is human nature. Doesn’t make me dislike it any less. And I think part of what bothers me about it is it takes the focus off the interesting person’s IDEAS and puts it on them as a PERSONALITY. And that’s a shame. Because the ideas are important! For example, I wish everyone knew about Dan’s work around co-developing the question with students and creating intellectual need. They don’t. But wow do they like to talk about how tall he is. Why is that? Human nature.

      But also, I think we do it to ourselves. We don’t adequately resist the natural tendency to talk about past experiences publicly, so they come off as inside jokes or “you had to be there” memories. There can be an in-crowd phenomenon when people play twitter games like #MTBoSschool, which I think made way more people feel left out than it made anyone feel drawn in. I know that wasn’t the intention, and the people playing it are some of the people who have worked the hardest to make this community inclusive, but I believe it was the effect.

      Check out Kim and Linda’s comments below. Important.

      1. I appreciate your comment, especially your take on my third question.

        There’s an interesting tension that you’re pointing out. MTBoS is about relationships. Relationships naturally create pasts, inside jokes, references that people outside that relationship are not privy to.

        And, yet, MTBoS wants to be a public community, one that anyone can join. (Or, the way some people tell it, there is no such thing as joining.)

        [By the way, what sorts of communities are public in this way? You have to register for a political party. And I couldn’t just show up and take communion. Even book clubs: I can’t just show up and join a book club. But you know what community I can just join by showing up? I don’t know if it’s right, but that “fan” thing has some meat on it. Public communities are weird.]

        Making things worse for the MTBoS is that the *work* of the community is public. The only way to hear what really goes on in the cult is, usually, to join the cult. A lot of communities have public and private faces. But MTBoS is tragically denied its private face. The work of MTBoS is always present, but the lifeblood of the MTBoS is necessarily non-public.

        [Or maybe the MTBoS has that same public/private divide, but it’s hidden more carefully. TMC isn’t Twitter, and Twitter has some slight gradations of privacy. And here you and I are in a blog comment, which only like five people will read unless someone shares it on public Twitter.]

        So I think the “cool kids” phenomenon is exacerbated by the *structure* of the MTBoS. As a mostly-public community, relationships and status are necessarily presented to outsiders. This makes it harder to do online what Tina does at conferences, i.e. welcome people to the MTBoS.

        My point — here and in Dylan’s comments — is that the MTBoS is not a generic community. A community (like oatmeal) comes in different flavors. It has structures and norms (as you noted above). It’s more or less public, it’s more or less mission-focused, it has ways of participating that are distinctive.

        Here is often where I get into trouble with Dan. Dan says: be selfish in your communal participation. Don’t do MTBoS out of obligation. In other words, the community will emerge out of the needs of a million math teachers, and they’ll do a better job finding the ideal structures and norms for a supportive community than some subset of MTBoSers trying to steer the iceberg. Just be as open, honest, and kind as possible to outsiders and everything will sort itself out. (At least, that’s what I think he’s saying.)

        But I’m just not sure. So I agitate for creating more MTBoS spaces that are not uber-public. More small conferences (TMCNYC), more non-Twitter spaces (like here), more networks and relationships that aren’t burdened with living out their lives on Main Street.

        (Incidentally, there are a lot of private places being carved out in the MTBoS via various organizations. But they stand all the way to the right on the public/private continuum.)

        In the end, perhaps I’m only selfishly agitating for these things for myself. Because I’m getting tired of Twitter, and a lot of the people who snagged me into this community have stopped blogging, or stopped responding to my blogging. Like Linda, I want to have relationships with smart and thoughtful people who are passionate about teaching and learning. But — at a time in my life when it’s becoming tougher for me to travel to conferences — I’m feeling the need for something more.

  3. Tracy, thank you for mentioning NCTM’s “merger with The Math Forum” as something meaningful. After returning from San Antonio I blogged about “Two of My Favorite Things” pointing out two places folks can access resources AND use the T2T link to start conversations with one or more of the T2T Associates. [] Being able to share those resources, encourage conversations and also facilitate the two Ignites with Twitter Buddies (NCSM’s Wednesday afternoon and NCTM’s Friday evening) were highlights for me to help celebrate the math community.

    We still have a long way to go so that the resources are easily searchable (by a variety of metadata) but Max, Annie, and I think we’re on the right track! In San Antonio we mainly showed the new Math Forum Problems of the Week Resources using this page: but those Resources (now a total 471 results) can also be found when using the “Problems of the Week” filter on this page:

    We feel we’re making progress but there is still much to do as we integrate Math Forum resources within NCTM. On another blogpost that I wrote before San Antonio [] I think this sentence taken from Steve Weimar’s comment on that post sums up our focus, “We want to help make real our collective aspirations and, as you can see from Suzanne’s work here, we want to figure this out together.”


    1. Suzanne, I’m so appreciative of the work you all are doing at NCTM. I know you’re taking the long view and thinking hard about how the two institutions coming together can bridge all sorts of aspects of our community. So wonderful.

      I forgot to mention ignites! Always a conference highlight. And it matters that John Staley and Matt Larson were the MCs!

      I always love being a twitter buddy for those. An adrenaline rush, a way to support the speaker, and I hope a way to connect different populations.

      I always appreciate your perspective and your work.

  4. Your post makes me wish I could go to an NCTM conference in the near future. It has been years since I attended. For a while I stopped following NCTM because it seemed like the organization had stagnated a bit, sold out, changed directions. Not sure how that perception got started, but there it was! Recently I viewed a webinar by an NCTM author (sorry, I can’t remember the name) and was inspired by what I heard. I agree that grassroots is what makes a group, an organization, even a classroom, great! Thanks for making us think. (BTW, I’m reading your book right now and I absolutely love it! I tried to keep up with the Edmodo book study, but I’m finding that there is so much in here that I’ve ha to slow down my reading a lot!)

    1. Hi Elisa,
      So glad to hear you’re thinking about revisiting NCTM. There’s a lot that’s happening there that’s great! And thanks for the kind words about the book. There’s no right way to read it. Your way sounds great. 🙂

  5. This post about NCTM/NCSM got me thinking about our professional affiliations. Full disclosure: I have worked on staff at NCTM in the past, which means, if you have ever been employed anywhere you know that you are all of a sudden privy to all the good and the bad of your employer. Currently I am on the board of NCSM and am so lucky to be involved with dedicated people who bring us the NCSM conference and the leader-focused resources we all need to impact teaching and student achievement.

    My loyalty to the NCTM organization runs deep. Although I can’t tell you exactly why, I will try to narrow the list down.
    1) NCTM has made the reforms in education that all in the #MTBoS desire possible. In the era of the Math Wars, NCTM shouldered the burden of defending a more “humane” way of teaching mathematics, publishing the P&S years before the summary volume of research really made the case in a consolidated volume. They continue to take that heat on a national level in some circles. They made YOU possible, or at least the climate that produced all of us a possibility.

    2)There is SO MUCH in the NCTM’s archive of resources. The Math Forum staff has their work cut out for them sorting it out and organizing it, let alone updating it to edit for inclusive language and the like. A shoutout to Beth, Sarah, Ann, Dave, Patrick, Al, Julia, Chonda, Sarah, and other staff I didn’t know or have forgotten, and countless other volunteers who have worked on behalf of the council to create these materials, for their years of work. This doesn’t even include the staff that supported the educators over the years.

    Check out my blog to read the other four!!

    Caveat – yes, NCTM can be stodgy and slow to move. It can seem unresponsive to its members and to the general community of math teachers. But much like the recent town hall meetings taking place that are pulling the passive voters and non-voters out of the woodwork, engaging with the organization creates the organization that you want. If you don’t join and you don’t participate, NCTM can only guess what your needs are. Odds are they’ll get it wrong. The #MTBoS crew approached Diane and made the case for ShadowCon, for GameNight, and the like. Matt supports it now. What movement could you start to make the organization your own? But first, join. They are waiting for you. They have been waiting for you.

    About #MTBoS: When I first connected with #MTBoS in Denver in 2012, none of the resources mentioned in the opening paragraph existed yet. I am sure that the ideas were already brewing, and the support of the community emboldened the authors to take a risk. In particular I remember Christopher Danielson’s thoughts as he contemplated writing the CCSS Math for Parents for Dummies book. I remember when Dan first put his Three Acts out for public comments. At first it was a gimmicky take on a task à la Smith, Stein, and Silver: include video and go. But over the years this grew, as Dan made his point clearer, and it became A THING, a thing that now has a life of its own. And in its iterations through various authors and the extension to Graham Fletcher’s elementary branch, it is a quality resource. I remember when the #MTBoS group was such a tight “club” that it felt like a “mean girls” club. You didn’t intend to exclude others, but the mutual admiration within the core group at that time was blooming in the way a young romance does – there was no time for others. I am happy to see some members reflecting on that past because I don’t feel the same vibe anymore. I LOVE that they are welcoming others!

    1. I appreciate this comment and your full blogpost so much, Kimberly. Really interesting thoughts.

      I’m loyal too. I actually love the NCSM conference experience a whole lot more, but am sure that NCTM’s vitality is essential to our future as a profession, and want to help.

      I hate hearing about the “mean girls” feel. I wasn’t there in the early days, but it still happens now and then, and I know what you mean. I think we can and should do better.

  6. As a veteran mathematics teacher (K-8) and an NCTM “groupie” and NCTM, NCSM past president, the one thing I still crave is networking with others who share my passion for learning and love of mathematics with teachers who may get the itch to make a difference in their classroom for kids. I am excited about MTBoS taking this on. BUT, in full disclosure the group seems to be a bit clique-ish. I had no idea this event was happening. For the first time in my career of over 40 years I feel like I am back in middle school… and part of the Geek Squad rather than the In crowd. So I challenge you to get the word out (and yes, I am learning to tweet!) to EVERYONE. NCTM is working very hard to be inclusive and I think the MTBoS has the same responsibility. Happy to talk more if anyone is interested.

    1. Linda, I’m sad to hear that it felt/feels clique-ish. I would love to think together about ways to change that. Here’s the invitation that was shared on social media, including by NCTM: How might we reach more people? The tie that binds this group is they communicate online throughout the year, so we figured social media sharing would reach the crowd who shares this interest. If we put the event in the program, for example, I wonder what that would mean? I’m open to that, for sure. But I’m trying to envision it. This event is different in that it’s not a publisher’s sponsored cocktail party with swag and tiny meatballs on a stick. It’s crowd-sourced. So how can we have a crowd-sourced event that’s also not an in-crowd? That’s a genuine question on my part.

      More generally, when you have a subgroup that shares a common language and referents, there’s always a danger of being exclusive. If we work toward inclusion (which I think we should), we need to think about how to develop a two-way relationship with new people. How do new people learn the common language and referents? How do people who already feel comfortable in the group stay open to new ideas and people?

      Thanks so much for your comment. Let’s keep talking.

      1. I wonder if the “clique-ish” perception comes from the fact that the promotion was via various social media streams and many in the math ed community are not as comfortable with social media. It is a catch-22 scenario, #MTBos was born and lives on social media platforms. We are in a time of transition. Many of us are excited and willing to dive right in while others are nervous to dip their toes in. Perhaps those that are comfortable in this environment could reach out to those that are nervous and help them become more comfortable. Each one, reach one.

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