Professional Learning

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking the past week about exactly how it is that I get better at teaching through an experience like Twitter Math Camp. Much of this has been prompted by David Wees post titled “Learning at Conferences“. David’s suggestions boil down to finding one idea during the conference on it, and go to many sessions on that idea — that any single session is unlikely to make a significant change in your practice. He goes on to suggest that it is well worth the time to skip a few sessions and network with colleagues, real or virtual, at the conference in order to have time to reflect on these ideas.

I think David’s ideas are excellent — at NCTM in Boston this year, I fell into the trap of both trying a little bit of everything, and going to sessions that didn’t challenge my ideas (Dan Meyer or Steve Leinwand are fun, but it’s more of a hoo-rah for their ideas than a paradigm-shifting experience after having seen them a few times). While I made some great new connections and had a ton of fun at that conference, I’m skeptical I learned very much.

I do want to propose two alternative ways in which I think I have learned, in particular from Twitter Math Camp, that don’t fit into what David is talking about. These might only be possible because Twitter Math Camp is a uniquely excellent conference experience, but they’re ideas I want to consider relative to all of my professional learning — blogs, Twitter, a PLC at my school, and anything else.

Building a Vision of Great Teaching
I don’t see great teaching very often. I am not a great teacher. I don’t mean to be a skeptic, but let’s acknowledge that most teaching is not great teaching. And not in some negative all-teachers-are-tenured-and-lazy way, just that we’re all figuring this thing out and it’s a tough place to reach. And it’s often hard to articulate what great teaching looks like. There’s plenty of disagreement on the topic. I was in a school where for awhile I was the only teacher interested in number talks and three-acts, among other things. I was figuring those things out. Over time, what’s happening in the other classrooms down the hall becomes normal, and I’m missing out on opportunities to improve my teaching because I don’t know what would be useful for me to learn.

This was the biggest impact of Twitter Math Camp for me. I came away with some ideas to use in my class, though I’m not sure how well I will implement them. But more than that, I came away with an enormous vision of great teaching — what those teachers do and how they think. I owe more thanks than I can keep track of. From each keynote, to my morning group, to the afternoon sessions, the barbecue and late night and early morning conversations at the hotel, I was lucky to have the ideas and insights of many brilliant teachers in my ear. Sam Shah wrote this morning about how the landscape of math teachers on the internet has changed over the last 8 years, and how different people have developed their own “brand” — being known for their expertise in a specific area. Well, I had a ton of expertise, in all different areas, that I am lucky to be able to have listened to the last few days. Each one pushed me to think in new ways, and kept me hungry to keep getting better at this crazy job we’re all trying to do.

This is a subtle process. There are no huge leaps forward, few immediate changes I will be making because of what I have experienced. But these interactions, over time, will build the teacher I am becoming. I feel this particularly as a young teacher, too often painfully aware of my failings. But if I stay cooped up at my school, in my room, I can convince myself that what I’m doing is alright. I don’t have that vision. And I sell myself, and my students short. So, to every single person I talked to — helped to build my vision of great teaching this week. Thank you.

Getting Better Through Reflection
I try to get better by reflecting on my teaching, but let’s be honest, that’s hard. It takes time, intellectual effort, and a certain expertise to be able to identify what the changes are that I want to make. The second big thing I took away from Twitter Math Camp wasn’t about something new I was going to do, it was about some new ways of thinking about teaching. I heard Alex Overwijk and Mary Bourassa share a completely different approach to teaching, how they went about it, and why they think it works. They gave me a totally new set of tools for thinking about what is working, and what isn’t working, in my teaching. I will be hearing their voices this year when I realize a week after a unit ends that my students have forgotten everything and won’t get a chance to see it again. Ok, I know, I spent six hours in their morning session — but this was a big shift for me. I don’t know if it will cause me to make a change right away, but it gives me a completely new perspective that I am excited to apply.

Lani Horn had a similar influence with her keynote. She spoke about teachers’ professional learning, and her lens shed light on the ways that teacher conversations about teaching affect their learning. I wrote more about my takeaways from her session here — but in just an hour, she gave me three new tools for considering how my conceptions of my teaching interact with my learning about teaching. I can take those ideas and use them to be more reflective this year, and further my growth.

What I’m really talking about here is a paradigm shift. When can a new perspective, or a new framework, or a new lens for looking at teaching change the way I interpret what is happening in my classroom, and help me get better through reflection outside the limitations of that conference? Twitter Math Camp has a uniquely dense lineup of folks who helped me to do this thinking, and it is one of the most important ideas I am taking away.

These are very different perspectives than I took at my first conference, now almost a year and a half ago. Then I was desperately searching for new things — something I could do in class that would work a little better. Those things still exist, and I am hoping to continue accumulating them. But most of my learning happens in the grind of the day to day, and these last few days have made a huge difference in my ability to take that daily grind, pick out what is most important, and know the changes I need to make to get a little bit better tomorrow.

2 thoughts on “Professional Learning

  1. Steven Gnagni

    Hi Dylan,
    I’d like to respond to something you said in the last section. You said you were quite inspired by Alex and Mary’s sessions on their activity-based, sprialled curriculum. I’m wondering why you don’t think you could incorporate some of that into your teaching this year so that the students _don’t_ forget things a week later. (I’m talking about the interleaving part of that.) I know you read Make It Stick this year–why not try to adapt some of that into your work?

    1. dkane47 Post author

      I will definitely be incorporating interleaving — I loved Alex and Mary’s work because it went beyond that, so that standards aren’t taught in units at all, and there is time to go in depth on each standard multiple times over the length of a course. That, to me, sounds awesome, but also at the moment too intimidating to go “all in” on. I think that, while I work to incorporate more interleaving this year, I will also come up short plenty of times due to the pressures and etc of the daily grind. Their talk gave me a really useful lens for looking at that issue.

      Maybe I’m being a bit hard on myself, but getting to see their perspective will (I hope) help me to see those issues more clearly over the course of the year.


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