February 8, 2016

A Weekend at NCTM Headquarters

A couple months ago I received an email from Matt Larson, NCTM President-Elect, inviting me to join the Classroom Resource Development Team for a working weekend. While I had decided after working the conference circuit a bit last year that I really don't like flying places just for a weekend, and this meeting was in February - always a tricky time to fly out of Boston - I couldn't say no to a personal email from the NCTM President (elect or otherwise!). And so I found myself flying to Virginia this past Thursday, still not entirely sure what I was getting myself into.

NCTM is located in Reston, VA. It's a cute little town very convenient to the airport and the Hyatt we stayed at is right in town so I had a wide variety of options for breakfast before our 10:00 start on Friday. I appreciated that start time since I'd gotten in rather late and then my school district called me at 5:30 am (snow day) and 5:45 am (snow day for my daughter too). We met in the hotel lobby to share cabs at 9:45 and it was easy for me to find the group because Max was among them! Headquarters was also a short ride from the hotel. We were welcomed with a place mat full of NCTM goodies! I had a moment of thinking "I'd rather have cheaper membership fees than get all this stuff" but I'm sure they were leftovers from conferences and I volunteered to work on curriculum for three days, the pile of freebies was appreciated.

We started the day as you'd expect - introductions, explanation of a bunch of acronyms, explanation of our goal. Walking in I only knew Max, but Janet and I quickly realized that we're teacher twins! We teach the same classes and both have weird allergies. The rest of the team was great too, what's not to like about a room full of math educators willing to spend their weekend working on resources? We were the CRDT-H: the Curriculum Resource Development Team for high school and that's supervised by the CRC: Classroom Resources Committee. There were five CRC members in attendance, a few people who had joined the CRDT over the summer, a few of us (myself included) who were at our first CRDT meeting and a few NCTM staff members. That made 14 of us total and many of us are in the classroom. We got to use the fancy board room and also had free range of the rest of headquarters. I took full advantage of perks like constant access to snacks and hot chocolate, and the ability to wander around during breaks to observe all sorts of cool math objects.

Our goal for the weekend was to write and edit ARC's: Activities with Rigor and Coherence. Over the summer they took a couple illuminations activities and expanded on them to create arcs of 3-4 lessons that linked together. We were going to edit those and then write more. The new part of the NCTM website that will house these is set to go up before the annual conference in April and there will be a few sessions showcasing this new resource (you should totally attend at least the one in your grade band!). We jumped right into brainstorming topics for the ARC's we'd write this weekend. Specifically we needed topics that teachers have a hard time teaching conceptually and/or don't have many good resources for. We ended up choosing absolute value, triangle congruence via transformations, regressions and graphing trig functions. Then it was time to divide and conquer.
A conversation under the photos of the NCTM board.

Pretty much the entire rest of the weekend we got to work at our own pace and in our own space. We'd check in as a whole group at certain points of the day (like when lunch arrived, they fed us well!) to discuss sticking points and think big picture. Saturday afternoon we traded topics and reviewed each other's progress. Otherwise I discussed with my partner/team or stuck earbuds in my ears and wrote! I started out reviewing a task they started over the summer - Laws of Sines and Cosines - because I've taught the illuminations versions of those lessons for several years. Then I joined the pair working on absolute value and I'm really excited about what we came up with there.

I experienced an interesting back and forth over the weekend between "Wow! I'm writing at NCTM! There are so many resources!" and "Wow! This really is all done by volunteers!" At one point I wanted access to an article from the middle school journal (which I don't subscribe to) and someone went to go get it from the archives. Instant access to any article from NCTM ever? Way cool! We were encouraged to include tech with our lessons and I was really enjoying the opportunity to design an applet that would do exactly what I wanted without having to program it myself. NCTM perk! Then I found out that the person designing the applet would be another volunteer on the team. Volunteer labor! I started out editing because they aren't sending the lessons out to anyone for copy editing. There was a template so all the lessons would have the same information attached and the template had changed since the summer (new things always go through many iterations) but other than that structure it was up to us to make sure that it sounded professional and consistent. We did have some student sheets in google docs that a graphic designer would turn into uniformly formatted pdfs but otherwise we were both writers and editors. Did I mention the hot chocolate? NCTM perk! (This teacher is really easy to please.)

When we met to check in after lunch we would also discuss what roll out will look like. How will this be different? How will it engage members? New ideas cropped up throughout the weekend. I left imagining this roll out in the ideal situation. I have no idea what will actually happen but here's my dream:

  • There's a section of NCTM's website that is easily searchable and sortable dedicated to this project. It is divided into three categories: proposed topics, topics in development, classroom ready ARC's. 
  • That lesson on laws of sines and cosines that we finished editing will go in the classroom ready section. It's completely written, there are student sheets and teacher guides and the tech is fully operational. Underneath a lesson overview there will be a space for comments. Specifically we will encourage teachers who taught the lesson to answer the reflection questions, and to link their relevant resources. Since I teach this to honors precalculus juniors (as opposed to other schools who might do this lesson with on level sophomores in geometry) I have created a student sheet without all the scaffolding and provided hint cards for students to use as needed. In the comment section I would link to my blog post or google doc so that other teachers could see a diverse set of ways to implement the lesson.
  • The lesson we started on absolute value is going to be awesome, but there wasn't enough time to finish it. The applet is a paper sketch. Half the student sheets exist. Lots of the teacher guide is written. Someone could use the ideas we have but they'd have to do some work, it's not at the "read, print, teach" stage. Kathy had the brilliant idea to put it up anyway, which is awesome for a few reasons. One, it's still workable, there's no reason to keep the ideas to ourselves just because they don't look perfect yet. Two, NCTM is a community, why not ask them to contribute? If we put up an outline, an infographic and whatever materials we have ready the community can comment just like on a complete lessons with what they tried in their own classroom. If another volunteer really wanted to make my dream applet, they could! Three, the thing I think NCTM is lacking the most is transparency. The invite to this team arrived in my inbox out of the blue. To counteract this, we recorded a couple audio clips of our group discussing the lesson. One clip is what we're most excited about. The other is a sticking point where I couldn't decide if I had too many ideas in one lesson. Listening to that conversation gives people access to our process - we were a group of teachers discussing lesson planning. You (hopefully get to) have those conversations with teachers at your school. It makes the process a little more human.
  • We brainstormed some topics on the first morning and just went with them. It would be great to get more input from a wider audience. What are you searching for? What do you have a small activity for but need a bigger lesson/unit idea to make it connect? Tell us! That way next time there's a team meeting we'll be writing for the community.
  • And of course, the big question, where will the paywall be? It looks like Illuminations is entirely accessible to everyone, so maybe this will be the same? I definitely think "anyone can view but only members can comment" is not the way to go, I really don't like that model because it restricts the conversation. If I can read something I should be able to contribute to the conversation (and even as an NCTM member it's a pain to sign in!). I can imagine a situation where phases 0 and 1 (proposal and development) are open to the public and phase 2 (complete ARC) has a few free teasers and the rest you can access some parts (basically the stuff that was in phase 1) and you need to be a member to download/view the full student sheets and teacher guide. We also discussed access to this part of NCTM being something that a district could buy, which would be a great model. Yes, it's great to have free resources, but there's something to be said for quality control. Sure the work was done by volunteers, but it only worked because they flew us all to VA for the weekend so we could work together. The ARC's we wrote this weekend were higher quality than anything I would write for my classroom and therefore higher quality than anything that's going up on this blog. Having access to those NCTM perks makes a difference and if we do it right, I think it's a difference worth paying for.
 We didn't spend the entire weekend working, there was time in the evening for conversations, great food, gelato, and shopping, or in Max and my case, coloring while other people were shopping. I'm very thankful for the snow day today - it would have been exhausting to teach a full week after working and traveling all weekend. But I'm also thankful I had the opportunity to be a part of this team.


  1. Really cool weekend meeting you and working with you!

  2. Can't think of two more qualified and capable and fun and thoughtful and inventive and energetic folks to be there doing the work you did! Thanks!

  3. Hi teacher twin! It was so much fun working with you and the group last weekend. I wish you were coming to the Annual Conference this year so we could hang out and do some awesome math collaboration again!