Hello Twitter…The Power of Social Media for Teachers

So… I’m not exactly a “young pup”. The reality is I’m closer to an “old dog”. Does that mean I can’t still learn new tricks?

Recently while working with a group of sixth grade teachers the topic came around to how we would teach the multiplication of decimals. I checked the text to see how they wanted us to teach the placement of the decimal in the product. As I expected, it was just as I was taught long ago…count the number of places to the right of the decimal point in the factors then start at the right side of the product and move the same number to the left. Simple enough.

Wait a minute! Where’s the understanding for the students in that little procedure? How could they make sense of that? I didn’t like what I was seeing. I needed a better answer for my students, an answer they could make sense of in all situations dealing with decimals.  I’m fairly self-aware when it comes to my abilities and I knew that there were people far smarter than I that I should be getting advice from. These people think on a level that makes my brain hurt. Luckily for me (and anyone in our district) we team with some of these really smart people, so I “bang” out my email and ask for advice from Robert Kaplinsky.

As expected, the answer came very promptly. “Off the top of my head I really don’t know.” Followed up with “Are you on Twitter?”

Twitter? Now I’m not completely in the dark, but Twitter-land is not somewhere I visit nor am I comfortable in. I did know that you “tweet” you don’t “twitter” and I knew there were something called “hashtags”– only because I have children who are 20-somethings and I’ve heard them talk and make jokes about them. My skill level was at DOK zero when it came to Twitter.

My talented friend “asked/pushed” me to send him a tweet with my question and told me he would forward it to the “Math Twitter Blogosphere” (#MTBoS). Alrighty then, whtatever THAT was. Really? at this stage in my life I needed to somehow join the social media revolution? I was just fine living in the Stone Age of communication skills. I was in my own little world but that was okay, they knew me there! Then that small little voice…..Growth Mindset, Growth Mindset….darn you Carol Dweck!!!

So steeled by my resolve for having a growth mindset I began. I set up my account, created myself a “handle” (@coachsievers) and sent my first tweet to @robertkaplinsky with the aforementioned question about decimals. That was at about midnight. Off to bed proud of myself for moving out of the familiar into the uncomfortable. Maybe I wasn’t so old that I couldn’t learn a new trick or two. But what would it yield?

I have no idea when Robert “re-tweeted” my question. Maybe he stays up later than I or maybe he got up earlier.  His “re-tweet” must have given me some sort of instant “street cred” with the MTBoS community because by 6:00 AM I had at least 15 answers or suggestions for my problem! The number and brilliance of people involved in the discussion of my question was fascinating. There were some “heavy hitters” of the math community chiming in. Here were like-minded people trying to help me help my teachers reach their students with some sort of construct that had real meaning, not just a rote recitation of “do this”. As the day went on more people chimed in, brilliant people with idea after idea, some affirming my first thoughts of rounding to whole numbers and estimating, and others providing different ideas. I had struck gold with this community and now I was convinced of the power of Twitter and social media in general.

Years ago while attending the CUE Conference in its very early years, David Thornburg proposed that, in the future, being successful would not be dependent on what knowledge you held in your brain at any given time, but rather your ability to access that knowledge when you needed it for your purpose. My venture into “Twitter-land” has proven his point. I did not have an answer. I had an idea, but needed validation and professional discourse to clarify. Emails and research would have taken me days if not weeks. Twitter made it happen in about 12 hours.

I will forever be grateful for @robertkaplinsky urging me to participate and lending me his credibility to get it started. I am truly humbled by the outpouring of assistance and willingness of some really smart people in the #MTBoS community to help me and my teachers as we try to help our students construct meaning of our mathematics.

So… If you haven’t tried it, jump in and play. You’ll be glad you did.

Disequilibrium

About November of the last school year I knew that I was not connecting with my students mathematically. Carefully constructed lesson plans with objectives, guided practice and independent practice brought the same results and they weren’t acceptable. Somehow the message wasn’t being received. As a class we had a severe need to develop fluency and our number sense was lacking. It would be easy for me to point to my students and accuse them of laziness or blame one of my colleagues for “not laying the foundation” but the truth is I needed a new approach. Somehow I knew that I needed a better way to help my students understand. I was in a serious state of disequilibrium. Thus began my journey to improve my ability to teach mathematics.

That brings me to a second story about my son. To this day he claims to be “no good at math”. I can trace this back to a game his third grade teacher innocently played called “Around the World”. In this game students stand and are challenged to answer a math fact from flash cards. My son never won the game, always beaten by one of two friends who were much faster calculators or better at memorization. I can recall clearly the days they played the game. He was always sad and down on himself. The point being, my son was convinced by that innocent enough game that he was not a math person. Sad fact.

I had attended Singapore Math training the previous summer but really had not taken the “dive”. I could see where number bonds and bar modeling made sense but I hadn’t implemented it. It was time. While seeking new ways to address fluency I came across Sherry Parrish’s book on number talks. I watched her YouTube videos and how she constructed her problem sets. It made perfect sense. Then I attended the NCTM Conference in San Francisco and was re-introduced to Dan Meyer (I had seen him at CUE the year before) and was able to hear Jo Boaler, Graham Fletcher, Robert Kaplinsky and Sherry Parrish speak. It was what I needed to change my approach to mathematics teaching.

I recently asked my son if he was happy with his choice of majors. He responded that he was, but really would have preferred one of the sciences but was sure he couldn’t handle the math. Here is a bright kid who’s path was permanently changed because of math facts. It was like a punch in the gut. How did I not see it? How did I not change it? He did not possess a “growth mindset”, his was definitely a “fixed mindset”. We worked and worked at math but he never enjoyed it and I wasn’t equipped as I am today with the tools and strategies to make it more interesting and understandable. I didn’t understand the damage that timed tests or innocent math games could do to a young mathematician. I didn’t know how to help him and question him and encourage him to have that “growth mindset” with regards to math. He never ventured to take advanced classes in high school and still hates math.

Now my son is very happy and very successful so it is not a tragic story, just one that drives me daily to promote the use of alternative tools to timed tests and math facts games that value speed over understanding and deep mathematical thinking. I encourage talking to students to try to understand their thinking and use what I learn to change and modify my teaching. I make them explain what they did and why. Sometimes I challenge a correct response to develop a sense of belief in themselves. I always ask if anyone had a different way to find an answer. I also try to be “less helpful” not rushing to help students but letting them struggle with a problem. I remain a crusader for talking in the classroom and try to create a sense of wonder and questioning about all learning.