Wow – what an amazing experience #TMC17 was. Including the Desmos pre-conference, it was 4.5 days of cultivating relationships, strengthening friendships, learning from peers, sharing my own experiences, socializing during meals and games, and soaking in a positive experience. And yet…a debate broke out on twitter that was marked by very strong feelings from two different camps. The short story is that Dan Meyer suggested (through tweets and a blog post) that it is time to retire the #MTBoS name and start using the hashtag #iteachmath instead. The response from many in #MTBoS was swift and unrelenting. And some of us mostly stayed on the sidelines, trying to process just what #MTBoS means to us.
I don’t have any answers yet, but I do have some thoughts. First, one thing that I think may have gotten lost is that both sides are really coming at this from a positive place. Maybe it’s naïve of me to believe that, but it’s also important to me that I believe that. It’s not just that I hate conflict (though that’s true), but more that I need to believe that as educators, we are people who care about our kids and our craft.
The #MTBoS does not have any membership application or member fees or anything official. It is (as Peg Cagle said this morning at breakfast) an organization where one joins by participating. Participating could be through writing blogs, through tweeting, through reading blogs, or even by lurking on Twitter. People who were otherwise introverted and reluctant to reach out in real life at conferences, or who were in small or isolated schools and school districts, found a home in this virtual community. It grew and became a family, a network, a web of relationships. And as it grew, it took on a life of its own. Its members, many of whom identify as introverts, found an avenue to become leaders in math education, and found a community that they could love and call home.
At the beginning of my teaching career, oh, how I wish I had found #MTBoS, but it was several years before Twitter came along, and the only blogging I knew about was on LiveJournal, mostly by people much younger than I was who used it as a personal (but public) diary. I taught in a small school, was one of only two math teachers at most in the high school, and lapped up the opportunities I had to attend the CMC-North conferences in Asilomar every year, and the NCTM Annual conferences when I could get the funding. But I was mostly in a bubble. When I heard a few people talk about Twitter and math education almost ten years ago, I just wasn’t sold. I mean – what can be said in 140 characters? How could that be at all meaningful? And who has the time to read and write blogs?
In April 2015, I somehow got around to joining Twitter for real. I knew about a few people, and knew a few others, and eventually found a small group that I felt comfortable following, reading tweets, and reading their blogs. By the time NCTM 2016 came around, I had an idea of what #MTBoS was, and sort of felt like maybe I was on the verge of belonging. To a degree, it seemed like an exclusive group, not intentionally perhaps, but a group that was close and had developed great bonds with each other, and I wondered if I would really fit in.
And so that brings me back to the two sides of the debate. On one hand, there are many, many math educators who either don’t know about #MTBoS, don’t see the value in #MTBoS, or don’t feel invited to participate in #MTBoS. I know that they would of course be encouraged to “join” and would be welcomed with open arms, but they don’t know that. It has been said that #MTBoS wants to increase its diversity, especially in terms of people of color and in terms of more elementary school level teachers. These are necessary goals, and worthwhile goals, and something that we really need to figure out as a community if we want #MTBoS to best serve all students. However, I don’t think that changing the name is the answer. Are there possible issues with the name? Sure – it’s yet another piece of jargon that can make the group seem exclusive, it isn’t intuitive what it means, it gives the impression that a teacher needs to be active in Twitter or blogging in order to join. That isn’t the biggest obstacle, though. Changing the name is less important than tweaking the culture. Mind you, I don’t have the answer to how to change the culture – I just think that that’s the question that we have to be asking right now.
If the organization was starting over, maybe it would have made sense to use the #iteachmath hashtag, but the #MTBoS is a part of the identity of this group now. A decision to change something so fundamental to the group’s identity can feel very much like a betrayal, and can seem divisive to those who have developed a tie to this hashtag that is completely tied to the blogs, the tweets, and the bloggers and tweeps.
I don’t have an answer to this, but I think I may have identified (largely by listening to very wise members of #MTBoS over the last few days, especially Anna Blinstein, Sam Shah and Peg Cagle this morning over breakfast.) the two main issues that arose in this debate.
- How can we create an atmosphere within our community where non-members, especially elementary school math teachers and teachers of color, feel welcomed and don’t feel like outsiders?
- How can we reach that goal while preserving the tightly knit community and the parts of its identity that are so important to members of #MTBOS?
I don’t pretend to have the answers by any means to either of these two questions. I just want to be sure that, like in math class, we are addressing the problem that is being asked, and not solving a problem that doesn’t exist.
I would ask your thoughts in the comments, but the conversation has largely been hashed out on twitter, and I suspect it will continue for a while.