Sunday, November 22, 2015

Prunes and Cowboy Boots: Tales from NCTM Nashville

I've been home from Nashville for 2 days and trying to somehow simultaneously process all the awesomeness I just experienced and entertain family that is in town for the holidays....not an easy task so far. After packing up the in-law's van this morning and eating about 15 candy canes (it's the holidays, isn't it?), I'm hoping a little writing will do the trick. 

Nashville or Bust! 
This year has been my toughest yet teaching, without a doubt. I have been facing that typical year 4/5 burnout- taking on a huge number of responsibilities while trying to juggle being a newlywed and have a personal life. The balance between doing what's good for my students every minute of every day and doing what's good for my own life and's been a tough one to try to strike. In addition to all of that, I've had a heck of a fall personally. I sliced the top part of my finger off about 4 days before the school year started trying to be an iron chef and not use a hand guard on my mandolin slicer. We've been battling puppy cancer with our (way too spoiled) rescue mutt since September- and seem to be on the other side of it right now, thankfully.  We've had other personal trials we never saw coming and all of this has such a huge impact on life in the classroom. You don't get an "off" day in teaching and when you have one, it just makes you feel guilty that you're letting the kids down. I needed some time away from the classroom to get some perspective back, to reflect, and to immersed in a group of people who understand all too well the challenges I'm facing. I'd been looking forward to NCTM Regionals as that opportunity and it was that, for sure. 

Side Note: If you've felt this way, I highly recommend this blog post by Vicki Davis. We definitely all walk wounded in teaching....gotta stay in the game. 

Prunes? Why Would You Put That in a Blog Title?
Andrew Stadel (Divisible by 3) told a wonderful story in the opening session about how advice is taken best when it is timely. Or more precisely, how another exhausted parent at a playground solved his toddler's constipation issues by telling him how they'd gone through the same issue and the answer was PRUNES! If someone had told them this advice at their baby shower or months before, it wouldn't have carried or the same weight or perhaps might have been forgotten completely.  I think about it like this: In high school, I read the book The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Or should I say I skimmed "it"....."it" being the Sparknotes. It didn't resonate with me; I didn't have the life experience to be able to connect with it. In my senior year of college, I was assigned it again and was dreading it. I was also right in the middle of a breakup of the cliche big college relationship....cue the timely part. I didn't even know if I think the book was all that "good", but it was the right book at the right time for me and it helped shape my experience at that point in my life. It was my "prunes" when I was holding the constipated toddler in the middle of the playground. 

I felt that familiar feeling of resonance in Nashville....a recognition that this was the right advice at the right time for me. I am feeling re-energized not only by the presentations I heard (most of which were great), but by the people I met. I was ready to hear these things and meet these people and I'm so thankful that I had the opportunity. 

What Did I Walk Away from Nashville With?

  • Formative Assessment I got to attend the pre-conference workshop on formative assessment and left with tons of research-based ideas on how to involve my kids more in peer and self assessment and also with a new lens on the amount of grading I'm doing. I'm going to start incorporating way more self-graded or ungraded assignments which I can leave feedback on without muddling it with a grade at the top. I teach honors kids. If it's an A, they file it away. If it's not an A, they hide it in hopes no one else sees it. Either way, I spend hours grading and wind up finding papers on the floor or in the recycling bin.....frustrating to say the least. Get rid of the grade and they need to fish for the comments and the feedback more. So simple, but filled with so much power.
  • Modeling I love modeling's my bread and butter as a STEM teacher. While It might not be a new idea to me, I definitely left with a host of new ideas for every course (including Calculus! Yay!). A huge thank you to Brian Shay (@mrbrianshay), Brett Doudican (Coordinated Achievement), and Robert Kaplinsky ( for inspiring modeling sessions. 
  • Blended & Flipped Learning I've been doing blended learning for two years in my reach-model classroom, piloting it for our district. I've proven that the reach model works for the right kiddo- one who is self-motivated and takes the time to do their work outside of class. I learned that I really am towards the forefront of thinking on much of this stuff (which is nice validation), but I had the chance to really push my thinking further with great colleagues. One session in particular that I attended examined how people are using flipped models, examining the difference between videos that are purely instructive vs. videos that still drive student thinking using the ideas from Principles to Action. Yes, the videos replace the lecture. But in particular, we discussed using the video as a driving factor the conversation the next day. The video does not need to answer questions- it needs to generate them. So small, but so powerful. Thank you to Jeremy Strayer from Middle Tennessee State University for having such a productive conversation in his session. I also attended the packed session on flipping AP Calculus with Joel Evans and left feeling like my dive into flipped AP Calc (which I promised my class we'd start after Thanksgiving) won't be as scary as I thought. 
  • Networking I finally got to meet a lot of the people whom I've been following for a long time and who have inspired a lot of my to have my little math teacher celebrity moments. Getting to chat with so many of MTBoS colleagues who have supported me without ever meeting me was amazing.  And my final math teacher celebrity moment- finding out Kate Nowak (Function of Time) and I had the same graduate advisor. My graduate experience shaped so much of who I am as a wonder I find inspiration from someone who worked closely with the same people I did. 
  • FREE STUFF!! I won a copy of Principles to Action and have already highlighted the crap out of it. I ate about 37 tootsie rolls and 113 mints from vendor booths. I signed up for copious amounts of free resources from NASA. I got a brain stress ball from Gizmos when I told them I was part of a grant. I got a student sized whiteboard (because I don't already have 30 of these in my classroom....). And I heard lots of great country music in our time outside the conference. 
My Favorite "Overheard at NCTM Nashville" Moments
Pretty sure this was Robert Kaplinsky right before his session started to a participant talking about fear of things not working
"If everything always works in your classroom, you're not innovating enough" 
An awesome lens for viewing flipped instruction, when people were asking questions too specific about "videos"
"It's not about the videos, it's about the pedagogy." 
God Bless Puckett's Nashville
"Mac and cheese is the vegetable of the day"
A participant asked Kate Nowak how to do a particular problem she'd offered to us as a challenge. Her response was the perfect teacher answer. 
"It's pretty satisfying and magical when you figure it out, so I don't want to steal that from you by telling you."

So to NCTM, all the conference attendees, my coworkers who tolerated my crankiness on the traffic-filled drive home, and the city of Nashville, I say: Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!  

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