Post Conference Excitement vs. Follow Through

Here we are, a week and a half after the NCTM annual meeting/conference in San Francisco, and how has it changed my teaching? How does a conference change your teaching practice? I don’t know about other teachers, but I feel a great sense of urgency after a conference to implement all sorts of new ideas and changes to how I teach and what I teach and how I interact with students and … well, it’s exhausting, isn’t it? Exhausting, and once you have a moment to reflect, overwhelming.

It’s been over 10 years since I last attended an NCTM annual meeting, but I do attend the California Math Council annual conferences for Northern California every December at Asilomar, near Monterey. For almost every one of the 15 years that I’ve been teaching, I’ve gone to Asilomar, and seen numerous inspirational and thought provoking speakers, and have spoken there a couple of times in the past myself. After a couple of years, though, I realized that I had to make a plan for myself of what to do with everything that I learned. So here’s what I try to take away from every conference: next week, next month, next year. What’s one thing I can use next week? What’s one thing I can use next month? What’s one thing I can use next year?

And here’s what I came away with from this year’s NCTM conference.

Next Week: Empower Students

My takeaway for next week (which was last week) was based on Robert Kaplinsky’s amazing talk (which should be posted later this week at Specifically, I came back to my school and gave a short presentation at our weekly staff meeting in which I went over his themes of student empowerment, and our role as teachers to differentiate between types of leadership that we exhibit: power vs. influence. If we operate from a position of power, we fear students taking our power from us, we hoard that power, and we work within a context of “me vs. the students”. Instead, if we focus on how we can use influence through example and empowerment, we work with our students, we build them up, and we develop a context of “all of us together” as we move through the class to accomplish our goals.

Power vs Influence

I can’t do this talk justice, but I can share with you the image that was burned into my mind due to it’s juxtaposition of such contrasting figures.

Next Month: Continue to Encourage Math Fights

One of my themes for this last year (and something I hope to speak about more at Asilomar this coming year) has been increasing student discussion in class, and so I attended many talks and presentations around this idea. Getting students to talk about math is an effective way to help them learn to develop and defend their ideas, as well as to accept and listen to other students’ ideas. Embracing these differences, and talking through them, is only possible when the classroom is a truly safe place. I attended a talk by Kathleen Strange who discussed the importance of creating that safe place in the context of a Growth Mindset as referenced by many great leaders in Math Education. (For a good introduction, check out Stanford Math Education professor Jo Boaler’s writings and her website for more information).

Fixed vs Growth Mindset

One of the most important things to do to create this safe space is to have a place where (as Cathy Seeley said in another talk) “…mistakes are expected, inspected, and respected”. The process of discussing “mistakes” is so much more important than correcting them. Accepting mistakes keeps the conversation going, which keeps the thinking happening. Correcting mistakes ends the conversation, and ends the thinking. So, I’m looking at ways to continue to improve the classroom environment more explicitly over the next couple of months, and have some more reading and research and discussion and experimentation to do along the way.

Next Year: Implement/Formalize Standards Based Grading:

One of the other presentations I attended was by Michael Manganello and Matthew Grinwis about standards based grading. Because of the variable credit system in place in my school, we already have the framework for standards based grading, and actually have a de facto version somewhat in place. However, we haven’t really formalized it. But to understand where I’m going with this, I should explain a little bit about our credit system.

As with many schools, we are on a semester system, and a typical class is worth 5.0 credits per semester. However, we separate the credit a student receives from their grade. For example, suppose you have two students. One student does very well (A level work) for the first half of the semester, and then does very little or poor work (F level work) the second half of the semester. A second student works hard but receives average (C level) grades for the entire semester.  In a traditional system, both students receive a C and 5.0 credits, but that tells a very false story, doesn’t it? In our system, the first student receives an A, but 2.5 credits, and the second student receives a C and 5 credits. It’s not perfect, but it tells a much different story. That first student will need to make up those 2.5 credits at some point.

What I will be working on this summer is going through each semester of class content and breaking it down into up to 10 distinct standards that can be assessed. Each of these standards should be worth generally between 0.5 credits and 1.0 credits, depending on what is involved in each standard. Because I teach in an independent school, we are not bound to the Common Core standards, although they are, in my opinion, a good reference point to use. However, this also will let me prioritize and focus my curriculum for my Algebra, Geometry, and Pre-Calculus classes.

So, there you have it – what I took away from this conference to use in the future. What else did I take away? Some new friends, some faces of friends from Twitter that traveled, some awesome Desmos swag available in the Desmos store, and a lot of reminders that, while I still have plenty to learn, I’m on the right track and doing a lot of the right things as a math teacher. Next step – will I get a proposal together in time to speak (or debate) at NCTM next year. If you want to fight with me over what the value of 0^0 should be, or if the order of operations is arbitrary and should be changed, or something else, let me know (via Twitter: @Ethan_MidPen or email:





One thought on “Post Conference Excitement vs. Follow Through

  1. This is good. I am excited to pick up some of the talks that I missed. Standards based grading is fun, especially when it’s not just tied to quizzes or tests. Those things are just pieces of evidence like projects or portfolios or loud answers blurted out in class.


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