Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Online Networking for Math Educators (or: How to MTBoS)

This article originally appeared in The Oregon Mathematics Teacher (TOMT) in March/April 2016, and is reprinted (with minor edits) by kind permission of TOMT and the Oregon Council of Teachers of Mathematics. The writing of this article was supported by the Writers’ Retreat facilitated by the editors of TOMT and funded by the Oregon Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
Over the course of just four days last August, my math teacher colleagues and I had lively, fun conversations in which we exchanged curriculum and lesson ideas, played math games, shared examples of math in the news, recommended teaching materials, and discussed classroom culture in math class. Several of us talked about ways to teach order of operations and the distributive property. I learned a math version of hangman, and we had a great time playing several rounds. I heard about a fascinating article about the discovery of a fifteenth type of pentagon tiling that covers the plane and a neat online “population mapper” that shows different areas of the United States which have equivalent populations. A teacher shared a National Council of Teachers of Mathematics free lesson on considering percentages and nutrition while picking out food from a McDonald’s menu, and another recommended an excellent (and cheap) whiteboard cleaner. Finally, several of us talked with some experts in math trauma and math classroom culture to try to analyze what steps we could take to improve our students’ experience with and confidence in math.

Wouldn’t you want to have discussions like these with your fellow teachers? You can! Every conversation mentioned in the previous paragraph happened over a few days on Twitter. The network called “MathTwitterBlogosphere” (or MTBoS, sometimes pronounced “mitt-boss”) is open to any teacher who wants to join the online conversation or just listen in. The site exploremtbos.wordpress.com, set up by teacher volunteers, has good advice on how to search for people and resources that interest you. The MathTwitterBlogosphere is a positive, welcoming community of creative math teachers from all over the world who share activities, resources, ideas, feedback, and encouragement. As one participant, Anna Blinstein (@borschtwithanna), summarized, “It's the place for connections, rich discussion & exchange of ideas. People here support, question, and challenge me to be better.” You can find discussions at times that suit you (Tuesday at 9 pm? No problem!), and connect with specialists who have expert knowledge, with teachers who have experience with the same ages, classes, lessons or teaching ideas that you do, or with people who teach math to students older or younger than yours. You can find and solve puzzles and problems that remind you why you love math so much. If more of us in Oregon join the MTBoS, we can use it to share Oregon-based lessons and tasks with each other and coordinate in-person gatherings to share ideas, expertise, support, and professional development.

Among all the social media sites out there, Twitter is uniquely suited to act as both a discussion platform and a set of links to other websites with valuable math teaching content. You can read anyone’s tweets by going to twitter.com/@username (for example, twitter.com/@OregonMath for OCTM’s account), but setting up your own free Twitter account will be far more convenient for browsing, even if you never tweet anything yourself… although I hope you’ll be inspired to do that, too, before long. I recommend setting up an account just for interacting with math educators. If you have or want other Twitter accounts, keep in mind that it will be far easier if each account has a unique email address associated with it (other people on Twitter won’t see it). Most MTBoS participants recommend picking a user name that corresponds somehow to your real name (as you’d introduce yourself to teachers at a conference, for instance, @TracyZager) or is otherwise memorably connected to your personality (like @Veganmathbeagle). Lots of names are taken, so you might need to use a middle initial or add something like “math,” but choose a shorter and easier to say user name when possible, and you may want to avoid special characters like “_” that are harder to access from phones. For your profile (brief autobiographical information), it’s helpful to add an image and identify yourself as a math teacher; consider adding your grade level and geographical location, too. You can change any of these items later.

After you have a Twitter account, you can set up your “timeline” (the tweets you’ll see on your Twitter home page) by following other accounts. To do this, search for a person’s or organization’s name or Twitter user name, click to go to their Twitter page, and click “Follow”. I’d suggest following OCTM (@OregonMath), NCTM (@NCTM), and Explore MTBoS (@ExploreMTBoS) to start. As you follow more accounts, Twitter’s recommendations of other accounts to follow will be increasingly useful.

When you feel ready, retweet some tweets you like, tweet your own ideas and questions, or reply to a tweet in your timeline by clicking on the little left-pointing arrow at the bottom. Accounts mentioned in your tweets or retweets will get notifications, although they won’t always respond. If the first character of a tweet is “@” (as it is for most replies, the tweet shows up in the timelines of only accounts mentioned in the tweet and accounts following both the author and a mentioned account. These tweets are not private, though – in fact, you can see any public account’s replies by clicking on “Tweets & replies” from their Twitter page – and in the MTBoS, at least, it’s considered perfectly fine to join a conversation whether you’re mentioned or not. You can also click on any tweet to see more of the conversation. If someone wants to tell you they especially liked what you had to say, you might get a notification that they “favorited” your tweet (by clicking on the heart).

The last big piece of Twitter know-how you need concerns hashtags (words or phrases starting with “#”). Hashtags are just markers that let people search for tweets about a particular topic or event. They can be used to flag people’s attention: if you add “#mtbos” to a tweet, for instance, people may find it even if they didn’t previously know about your account. At math conferences, people may add a hashtag like “#NCTMAnnual” (for NCTM’s annual conference) to their tweets, so that other people can find them.

Hashtags are also used to mark tweets that are part of “chats,” which are scheduled (and occasionally unscheduled) conversations open to anyone who wants to join. You can read tweets in a chat by entering the hashtag (for instance, #elemchat) as a search term in Twitter. You must click “Live” to see all tweets. Scheduled Twitter chats about math focused on a particular grade level range or subject area include elemmathchat, msmathchat, alg1chat, geomchat, alg2chat, statschat, precalcchat, and calcchat.  Some more general chats are probchat (about complicated problem solving; currently on hiatus), slowmathchat (various topics, with tweets spread out over a week or so; also on hiatus), spedmath (Special Education), edtechmath (educational technology), and the British chat mathstlp (Twitter Lesson Planning). About the last site, co-organizer Jo Morgan (@mathsjem) reports, “It's bloody brilliant. We're working together for the sake of our students. I cannot think of a more effective use of social media.” This comment could really apply to any of the chats listed here!

Chats are an excellent way to introduce yourself to the online math community while learning a lot, but busy chats can be confusing to follow at first. Sometimes people use Storify (storify.com) to save a series of tweets in an organized way, so that people can go back and read the “story” later. Two examples I especially like are storify.com/ColeGailus/scifri-does-math-matter-live-chat and storify.com/TracyZager/multiplying-fractions. You need a free Storify account to make one, but anyone can read a story at a storify link.

If you’re feeling a little panicky at the idea of doing all the things in this article, please remember, take your time and move at the pace that works for you! I’m pretty certain none of the math teachers on Twitter participate because they’re expected to be there or get paid for it; we just do it when we can because it’s fun and valuable. If you do get to the point that you feel comfortable sharing your online contact information, let others know you’re online by adding yourself to the MathTwitterBlogosphere (MTBoS) directory at sites.google.com/site/mtbosdirectory. Let’s get more pins on that map and find each other! I hope to see you there and on Twitter soon!

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