MCTM 2017 Reflections

I feel so much better. I love the MCTM conference. MCTM (Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics) holds their annual conference in Duluth every year, and the timing is perfect. We’re so close to summer, but with a little bit less than 2 months, we’re actually not. I get tired this time of year, but after MCTM I always feel rejuvenated and ready to end the year strong. If you want to just dive in, here is where many of the resources from the conference are housed. 

Here are my big take-aways. My descriptions are not necessarily the session titles – they’re my recollection of what I took from the session.

Mike Wallus – On making PLCs effective and engaging reluctant colleagues

Mike Wallus is an excellent human being. Really sincere and never fails to make a positive impact on me, no matter how grumpy I may begin the conversation. He directs all work toward productivity – acknowledging, but never admiring the problems.

He encouraged us to think about 3 big questions whenever we’re planning our work. Upon first seeing them, I thought, “well duh”, but then I also thought of how often I fail to answer them, and realized it was an excellent reminder. I’m going to make a little poster of these to put above my desk as a daily reminder.

Let’s say I’m teaching students to find the surface area of a 3D solid. Upon reflection, I would consider mastery that students can…

  • Identify congruent faces, (if there are any).
  • Identify the number of and shapes of all faces.
  • Are able to connect nets to solids and describe when a net will and will not successfully construct a solid.
  • Identify any side length in the solid.
  • Calculate the area of any polygon, or describe a method to do so.
  • Show that surface area is the sum of the areas of the faces.

That’s actually a lot of stuff. I might even revise it further as I’m working with students, and I’m not going to revise it down. If I just have students find the surface area of a prism and a pyramid – if they can mechanically do that – is that enough? I would argue no. So how am I going to assess and identify when students actually know all of these things? It’s worth laying this out for each learning target. I bet 10 minutes of thinking and writing for each target could do it. That’s not unreasonable when I might spend 2-3 days on each target. And I know that while I have a vague idea of what I want in my head, having written out thoughtful answers to these 3 questions would be helpful for me as I plan. I’ll do that for current learning targets tonight.

Another big take-away from Mike’s talk was about the language we use. We are all guilty of talking in universal and permanent terms.

“[All of] our students just can’t do this.”

“It’s too hard for them.”

“We’ll never get there.”

This is really different from statements like:

“My students can’t do this yet.”

“These 15 students are struggling with this concept right now.”

“We haven’t yet gotten where we want to be.”

Finally, Mike showcased an important reality. For teachers who are reluctant to try something new or change their methods, a common excuse is that while that strategy may have worked in your classroom, it won’t work in mine. Mike suggested this:

I wonder how we can do this more often.

Part of conferences is just being with people you like and trying fun things

Next up for me was something I’d been really excited about: making a hyperbolic plane out of balloons. I want to do this with my students, but figured I would need to do it myself first and I knew I would likely find at least one person to join me at MCTM. That person, who is just absolutely fabulous, was Liz Lehtola (@LizLehtola)

I recently (two weeks or so ago) found Vi Hart’s papers on balloon twisting and math and have been having a whee of a time playing with balloons and polyhedra. Liz and I were in the networking lounge chatting with some other excellent folk (@veganmathbeagle, @breurbreur, @lekim1120) and playing with balloons. It made me extraordinarily happy and apparently fed into Megan’s history of watching me get overly excited about math.

Ryota Matsuura – The best MN has to offer

If you’re unfamiliar with this man, you are missing out. I’ve gone to his sessions every single time I’ve been in Duluth and have never been disappointed. He teaches in my hometown at St Olaf college, and man are they lucky to have him. I hope his students know that. Ryota’s sessions are ridiculous successful because of 4 things:

  1. He always gets us doing math.
  2. The problems are excellent and usable in classrooms immediately.
  3. He is transparent about the teacher moves connected to those problems.
  4. We have FUN.

This year was no different. My favorite of the two problem he offered goes something like this:

There are wolves and there are sheep. If a single wolf is closest to a sheep, it will eat the sheep. If two wolves, who are closest to the sheep, are equidistant from the sheep, the sheep is safe. (Ryota acknowledged there were very compliant wolves.) So where is the sheep safe?

Ryota then gave us 3 questions to chew on. (I’m paraphrasing here)

  1. If there are 3 wolves, where is the sheep safe?
  2. If there are 4 wolves, (forming a quadrilateral) where is the sheep safe? If it’s a rectangle? Parallelogram? Trapezoid?
  3. Is there a way to place an infinite number of sheep such that the sheep will never be safe?

We had a blast playing with these questions, and I really wish I’d known this problem when I’d been dealing with triangle centers. That’s all I’m giving you. Go play.

The Blake Boys & Me

I presented with Chris Robinson (@isomorphic2crob) & Jonathan Osters (@callmejosters), and it was lovely. We had a thoughtful session with lots of good input from the audience and thanks to Chris, we’re doing something newish – having a follow up session on August 17th. YOU SHOULD COME! I’ll write more about this in a different post. Barb summed it up pretty well here:


I don’t know if I can fit this all in here, but I shall try. Nicole Bridge is a superb human being and she pushes me to be a better teacher. Heck, she doesn’t even push, she just makes me want to do better because she’s so lovely. She had two sessions on Saturday about math identity, and they were both absolutely lovely.

In the first session, she unpacked what privilege is, how we form math identities, and how we might start changing math identities that are negative. The biggest take away by far is summed up (rather inelegantly, but the gist is there) in this tweet.

In the second session, she suggested classroom moves we can all use that help disrupt negative math identities and might help our students gain new ones.

She shared 4 (well, 5, but we ran out of time) ideas for how to help students shape positive math identities.

  1. Have students write a mathography. In our discussion afterward, I was most taken by the idea of having students share their mathographies with other students. I haven’t done that before and it’s intriguing to me.

2. Notice and Wonder. If you’re unfamiliar, watch Annie Fetter’s talk. I did like Nicole’s 4 quadrant structure for this. I haven’t done that, but will try it in my classes soon.

notice wonder nicole

3. Which one Doesn’t Belong? 

4. Tablecloth Protocol. I have seen versions of this before, and I really liked Nicole’s set up. Having students work on the activity on their own but giving them the ease of being able to spy on a neighbor and then critiquing each other’s work was a great way to get a conversation going without actually talking. Might get some introverts involved. I do wonder if some students might be afraid of their peers looking over their work, but I think it’s worth trying in the classroom anyhow.

We didn’t get to the 5th activity, but you can read about it on her slides.

I walked away from Nicole’s sessions absolutely glowing. What a lady.

Jose Vilson’s Keynote

I’ll be honest, I sometimes don’t know what to make of Jose – it’s hard to interpret tone on twitter sometimes, but I respect him after having read his book and I have learned so much from (mostly lurking and not contributing a ton) the #educolor community, that I was eager to hear him speak. I first heard him talk at TMC16, and it was good. This keynote, however, was straight up EXCELLENT. Maybe more so for me than other people, and I’m about to get real honest about my teaching and teaching fears. Luckily, there’s almost no chance that anyone is still reading this post, so I probably won’t be revealing too much.

I would summarize his speech as, “Know your students as people, not just robots to be taught math. Give them power to shape their own learning.”

Jose started by laying out what “good” teachers do, and it was clear there was going to be a punchline as he listed off first laudable and then increasingly silly and stereotyped qualities of “good” teachers.

His punchline was basically that if this is the rubric, he’s a bad teacher.

I sat nearly bolt upright as he started listing off things he does that are, when I’m honest with myself, exactly what I do and never admit to my teacher friends. Of course I lesson plan… but not formally. And sometimes I throw the whole thing out because a kid asked a good question. I’ve been terrified for years that someone would find me out. I’m breaking out into a sweat right now as I write this. Maybe I’ll delete it before I post.

I almost NEVER know where stuff is in my classroom. Kids know this and take it with much better humor than they should. If you asked me to see my written out unit plan, I’d hopefully have a smoke bomb in my pocket that I could set off while I sprint in the other direction. I have a general idea of where I want to go and I know what learning targets we’re working on, and I often write tests early in the unit so I have some idea of what I want to get to, but if I plan out every single day in detail then where’s the room for kid’s input?! What if kids get distracted by something really interesting that’s not on the agenda? My geometry students are fascinated by 4D shapes right now, and I want them to have room for that. The 4th dimension is definitely not in the state standards, but darn it, my kids are learning stuff as we discuss them!

Now, by NO MEANS, am I suggesting that we should not, as teachers, be thorough planners. I am a much better teacher when I do make formal plans, and of course I can always throw them out if need be. I do wonder, however, how the good teachers do it. When I do sit down and write out formal lesson plans, it often takes me an hour per lesson. I teach two different classes, Advanced Algebra and Geometry, every day. That’s 2 hours a day. Which should be fine, because I have 2 hours of prep, right? Except I also need to grade stuff. And talk to parents. And write feedback on student work. And make copies. And ask around for manipulatives. And have one on ones with students. And figure out whether that one kid was skipping and why. And figure out how to differentiate for the kids who are struggling. And analyze assessments so I know who’s where in their current learning. And answer 4 billion emails a day. And hopefully sleep and see my friends and spend time with my boyfriend once a month or so. I know that the more you do stuff, the more efficient you get, but good god, people! When does this formal lesson planning get done?

With my back to the wall, if I had to produce lesson plans, I would offer up the slides I make each day. I mean, that is, essentially, the lesson, but it feels like cheating and I’m sure I’m going to get called to account for it one of these days.

All of this is saying that Jose standing up in front of nearly a thousand teachers and saying he doesn’t follow the mold made me feel 1000% better about my deficiencies. I’ll always work on getting better, but it’s nice to know that I’m not alone and in my boat is someone respected by many and revered in our community as a good teacher.

His talk just got better from there. He called out three excellent people, Kassie Benjamin, Rafranz Davis, and Christopher Danielson, to make note of the excellent work they do. It’s so nice to see deserving people get recognized and have someone name for us what they do that makes them excellent teachers.

Jose then went on to talk about the non-teachers we need to honor and whose voices we should seek out. He brought up Philando Castile, and encouraged us to get to know the EAs, the custodians, the lunch workers in our school. They know our kids. We should be learning from them and not hiding in our classes.

Essentially, his speech boiled down to us seeing our students as humans, not monopolizing knowledge in the classroom, empowering students and letting them see us as human.

It was great. It made me feel better. He gave me things to think about, and did it in a way that was inviting, not shaming.

An excellent end to an excellent conference.

Author: Ms. P

Math Teacher in Minneapolis, MN.

12 thoughts on “MCTM 2017 Reflections”

  1. I’m so inspired by this post. Oh, how I wish I were there. I’m not from Minnesota, but I just may have to make it to Duluth next year! Thank you for giving me so much to think about.


  2. Thanks for your post and spending time with me in Duluth. I can relate! Keep up the awesome work bringing in the playful side if math. Your students are fortunate to have such an eager and thoughtful teacher guiding them.


    1. Thanks, Jess. It was great to spend some time with you. Maybe this summer we can have a repeat and talk Tracy’s book sans balloons.


  3. Thanks for sharing this, Annie. I would love to attend this conference, but Tennessee is too far away from Minnesota. I thank you for sharing your takeaways. This has been a nice addition to my day and is going to help me reflect on beginning planning for the next year. Have a great rest of the year!


    1. It was great to see you at the conference, Megan! I hope you’ll either join us at Macalester or keep me posted on the “math for you”.


    1. Thanks, Michael. 🙂 Perhaps you want to share some tips on how the good teachers do it? Am I totally off my rocker and have my priorities backward? How do you organize your planning?


      1. Who are these so-called good teachers?

        It seems to me that how you plan, more than almost any other part of teaching, has SO much to do with the particulars of your school context. e.g. I’ve sometimes looked at people’s materials and wondered, wait how do you have time for all that prep? Then I learn that they teach 5 sections of geometry or something and they have like 300 students.

        It’ll make sense for a teacher in that sort of context to make a lot of big packets, maybe, in a way that doesn’t make sense for me. (I teach Geometry, Algebra 1, 4th Grade and 3rd Grade math and a grand total of like 70 kids.)

        As it happens, I recently wrote a post that pretty well captures what I’m doing in planning and teaching these days (here). You can see what my notebook looks like before I walk into class, and I usually have a few printed sets of problems/worksheets that I bring into class.

        Jose’s talk — and your reflection — also reminds me of the huge gap between teacher ideals and our day-to-day life. I recently wrote about this (here), including some researchers who pin the constant feelings of teacher guilt to this gap.

        Talk’s like Jose’s are important because they come from teachers. Maybe, if more teachers wrote and spoke about how we manage our teaching life as it is (as opposed as to how we might hope it could be) it would be good for the profession.

        In other words: publish that post! I can’t wait to read it.


  4. Annie, this is a wonderful overview. I’m going to share it with my students this year so they can see why I want them to go next year.

    And lesson planning doesn’t have to look like “lesson plans.” Your slide deck IS lesson planning. If anything, the slides you make for your classes are more authentic lesson *plans* than the lesson plan templates we had you do during teacher ed coursework.


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