Hello, reader! If you intend to post a link to this blog on Twitter, be aware that for utterly mysterious reasons, Twitter thinks this blog is spam, and will prevent you from linking to it. Here's a workaround: change the .com in the address to .ca. I call it the "Maple Leaf Loophole." And thanks for sharing!

Monday, July 31, 2017

FAQ: What Can We Change?

We are putting the finishing touches on the Illustrative Mathematics Middle School Curriculum. (For early access to sample units in the pilot, you'll have to share your contact info with us here, but version 1 will be released any day now.) I'm putting together a FAQ for people in our organization so they are prepared for questions we know they will get. This is the second in a series; here's the first one.

Today's Q can come in many forms: "Do I have to do it this way?" "How much freedom is there to change things?" "Can I still use my favorite activities?"

This is an analogy I learned from someone at Louisiana Department of Education, where they are getting impressive results by incentivizing schools to choose well-aligned curricula. If you were to try and cook a new, complicated recipe, you would probably make it as it's written the first few times you make it. You don't know what all the ingredients are for, you don't know the rationale behind all of the instructions, you don't really understand how it works, yet, before you cook it a few times. Once you start to understand the recipe, though, you can make smart choices to modify it to suit your tastes and needs: substitute green beans for eggplant, leave out the almonds, or take it out of the oven a little earlier, for example.

Just like a dish you want to eat is a cohesive whole, people need to think of a curriculum as a coherent, connected, fairly complicated whole, with dependencies. Standards are one thing—they are a statement of what kids should know at the end. A curriculum makes choices, and choices have consequences. We set up pins in October that we knock down in February. After students have a well-designed opportunity to learn a term, idea, or skill in one unit, we believe that they will be able to remember it in a later unit. This is what you want out of a curriculum. You want kids to be able to make connections between ideas.

The starkest example of this is a question we got from one of our pilot schools: "The word slope just shows up in grade 8, unit 3, as if the kids are already supposed to know what it means. This is terrible! What is going on here?" What was going on was, they skipped units 1 and 2, which were about transformations, thinking transformations were less important, and jumped right to the unit called "linear relations." The end of unit 2 takes a transformational approach to understanding the meaning of slope. (We use dilations to understand what it means for polygons to be similar, learn properties of similar figures, and then use slope triangles (similar right triangles with their hypotenuses lying on the same line) to show why we are allowed to refer to the slope of a line.)

Just like a new recipe, you kind of have to teach a coherent curriculum the way it is written for a couple years before you really understand what is in there. Then, you are in a position to understand what it is safe to substitute or rearrange. 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Your Opinion of #MTBoS Has More to Do with You Than It Does with #MTBoS

"Someone's opinion of you has way more to do with them than it does with you." I have a smart mouth and also get upset when other people are upset with me, so I've likely heard this aphorism more than the average person. It's been floating into my head lately, not because I think someone is upset with me (for once) but because of thunderstorms on Twitter over use of a hashtag. I'd like to propose that what someone thinks of MTBoS (Math Twitter Blogosphere) has more to do with them than it does with MTBoS. Consider:

  • a mid-career math teacher who checks out Twitter, finds a hashtag he doesn't understand and conversations under that hashtag he doesn't understand
  • an organizer who has poured immeasurable energy into welcoming first-time attendees to TMC under the banner of MTBoS
  • a popular blogger and speaker who wants his ideas to have a broad and lasting impact on the way mathematics is taught, and has evidence that #MTBoS is a barrier to interested people accessing those ideas
  • an early-career math teacher who figured out what #MTBoS means by asking someone or google and periodically checks out the hashtag for inspiration
  • an early adopter of blogging and twitter who found many friends for life in MTBoS who make up a part of her support network and social circle
  • a math teacher who discovers #MTBoS, tries asking a question on twitter with that hashtag, and gets no response
  • a math teacher who had good results with resources found through MTBoS, but doesn't feel like a member of the club because she doesn't want to start a blog
Here is me anticipating people getting upset and trying to head that off: I'm not trying to characterize any of these as selfishly motivated. All of these archetypes exist only because they want what is best for their students, all of humanity, or both. Also, all of these people's feelings are legitimate, because of course they are, because they are having them, and I'm not suggesting otherwise. Finally, if none of these describe you, I'm sorry and you still matter. This isn't an exhaustive list, it's my musings over breakfast.

My prediction is that #MTBoS isn't going anywhere anytime soon. At least until the current crop of organizers of all things MTBoS retire, or as long as they remain good at generating energy among newcomers. 

My other prediction is that other hashtags will grow and fade in popularity. Easier to interpret hashtags are appealing because there is a lower barrier to entry, but they also tend to get diluted by spammy marketers, and then people stop paying attention to them. One possible explanation for the longevity and strength of #MTBoS as a hashtag is that it's a bit of a secret handshake.

Here is one idea I have: when you use MTBoS not as a hashtag, but in longer form (on a blog post or while speaking), always follow it with "Math Twitter Blogosphere." The way Rachel Ray always said "E-V-O-O extra virgin olive oil." Clue the noobs in. It's a kindness.

I'm looking forward to meeting and learning from new people on whatever hashtag we come up with and maintaining my enthusiasm for MTBoS and all we have accomplished and all of the good work yet to come.