Tuesday, July 19, 2016

#TMC16 Recap

I certainly didn’t need another TMC conference to remind myself of the power and specialness of the #MTBoS, but it didn’t hurt either. I think that this year, I needed the professional rejuvenation of seeing everyone in person just a bit more than usual after a difficult year. So my first and foremost task in this blog post is to convey my gratitude to everyone at the conference who made time for me to vent, invited me out to dinner, came to and participated in my session, gave me amazing advice, and was a source of support. It’s amazingly powerful to have a common starting point with a group of people, to pick up where we left off, either from last year, at other conferences, or Internet conversations. There’s no need to explain, to get our bearings, to wade through small talk and establish common ground and trust – these people get me, we’re on the same team, and it’s effin’ going places. There were so many friends with whom I didn’t have a chance to reconnect, unfortunately, but huge shout outs to @davidwees, @park_star, @jaz_math, @MrJanesMath, @AlexOverwijk, @normabgordon, @JamiDanielle, and @crstn85 for helping me unpack the challenges of this year and get excited about the year to come.

Even though the power of the TMC for me is in the relationships, not the workshops, I have to give huge props to @davidwees for completely challenging my notions of professional development for teachers. I have always been of the camp that the less structure, the better, and that our work together should be about discussing best practices, research, and ideas. Let individual teachers determine how to tweak and interpret these ideas for their particular classrooms, on which they are the experts. It turns out, tightly structured practice with specific strategies, seeing and debriefing them from different angles, and trying to do them yourself while getting feedback is pretty damn powerful. I can’t do a three-day morning session justice here, but check out the materials available about two of their instructional routines here, and I really hope that there are videos available for people who were not able to attend since this is really the kind of thing that needs to be experienced to be understood.

On a meta level, I was surprised by how much practice and feedback we (who were mostly very experienced teachers) needed to get halfway decent at a single routine. We saw it demonstrated several times and debriefed these examples, which is generally as good as it gets in PD. But once we tried implementing it ourselves, new issues and questions surfaced and were addressed. David’s focus on improving teaching practice, not individual teachers, was instrumental here to allow us to be vulnerable and know that we were working together to learn how to do something new and not to be judged (either positively or negatively) by our colleagues. Going to internalize the heck out of this and bring this thinking to my work with other teachers in my department and in the PD that I lead.

I feel like I learned several key points about instructional routines themselves from David and his awesome colleagues (yay Jasper and Kaitlin!):
  • Having a good routine frees us to dig deep into the learning, which is extremely counterintuitive for me as my tendency was to assume that structure is limiting and restricting. Nope! Having good guidelines (which can certainly be tweaked for tasks that would benefit from that) means that our cognitive energy is directed solely at learning and the intellectual work at hand rather than trying to figure out expectations and how that learning should proceed. The routine allows students to do more challenging work. It is nothing like the mindless-recipe-following that I imagined.
  • A quick pace and keeping the focus on what we can learn about patterns/shortcuts/whatever the purpose of the routine is makes the activity engaging and mediates students’ relationship with math in a way that honors their thinking, but pushes them to go deeper, see connections, and understand other methods and representations. This allows all students, not just those who intuitively know how to learn math, to access the learning.
  • A routine is not the time to teach something new. Its purpose is to explore students’ thinking, bring out and connect their ideas, and help them represent and synthesize key mathematical ideas. I can certainly “teach” something in a more traditional sense after the routine, but genuinely focusing it on student thinking keeps it engaging and powerful.

Finally (longest blog post everrrrrrr, bless you if you’ve stuck with me for this long), I loved David’s suggestion of using instructional routines as a focal point for lesson study rather than the traditional use of lesson study to develop a content topic. Different teachers working together can develop different lessons around the same instructional routine and then observe each other, give feedback, and improve the routine in their work together, improving their teaching along the way and creating programmatic change, not change on the individual level.

I am planning on working out my own instructional routines for doing guided and open investigations (similar to Exeter problems and Interactive Math Program tasks) since these form the backbone of my class, but could see separate routines being developed for Open Middle problems (paging @math8_teacher), Would You Rather, Estimation180, or Which One Doesn’t Belong. Contemplate then Calculate was basically created with @fawnpnguyen’s VisualPatterns in mind and it feels like @ddmeyer has already created a 3Act routine, so those two are all set. Any others?

I am super, super, super excited about this as creating routines is something that I think I’m decent at (as opposed to creating creative problems/lessons, which I’m absolutely not) and it’s something that can fundamentally improve our practice in a way that sharing one-off “clever lessons” doesn’t (thanks Dylan… such a valuable point). I’ve already committed our department to doing lesson study this year, and we’re in the midst of building a new program and integrating a number of teachers new to the school so this couldn’t have come at a better time. If there are other teachers out there who would like to give feedback on my ideas or collaborate on creating and tweaking instructional routines around guided/open investigations, I would love to hear from you.

So there you have it… my #1TMCthing is to develop two instructional routines and get as many people as I can to collaborate and give me feedback. Ready, set, go!


  1. If you didn't have a chance to see the Connecting Representations (http://math.newvisions.org/instructional-activities?course=All&unit=All&type=Connecting+Representations) activity, it's another very tight instructional routine that you can leverage from the same creators as Contemplate then Calculate.

    1. Awesome - thanks for the reminder. I wasn't able to go to the flex session so will definitely check out the links.

  2. Would love to learn more about instructional routine once you've unpacked : )

  3. Hi Anna,

    What a lovely reflection, thank you.

    One point to make with respect to: "A routine is not the time to teach something new"; actually you can teach new ideas with a routine, depending on the task selected and the routine chosen. As an example, during my enactment of Connecting Representations, one participant reflected that he "finally understands subtracting directed numbers" as a result of being a participant in the routine.

    That being said, it is also important to leverage what kids already know to deepen their understanding and Contemplate then Calculate is really well suited to this.