This past weekend I traveled to Ewing Township in New Jersey to attend the third annual ECET^2NJPA conference. A bit of alphabet soup, this name. Let’s dissect it – The ECET^2 is for Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers. The NJPA refers to New Jersey and Pennsylvania. I found out about this, I think, through a tweet where we were asked to nominate ourselves or somebody else. Since I was not sure of what the conference would be like, I did not nominate one of my department members (but I will for sure next year!) and I nominated myself. I also pitched a conference session. I modified one that I had presented in summer 2015 at a Pennsylvania Council of Teachers of Mathematics conference. I was flattered to have my proposal accepted, especially since we were told at the conference that about 200 proposals were submitted about 46 were accepted. It turned out that the timing of the conference was terrible for my family. My wife works at a nearby college and they were celebrated their homecoming weekend. A time of much stress and many hours for my wife. We also had committed months ago to traveling to see Brian Wilson perform The Beach Boys’ album Pet Sounds about an hour and a half from our home. So, I left around 5 AM Saturday morning and we had a family friend come and watch our 7 year old all day while I was gone and my wife was working. I drove home Sunday afternoon – essentially right past the town where the concert was – to get the family and turn around to the show. Long story short – both trips were WELL worth it. I won’t use this space to expound on the wonders of Brian Wilson, but I will use it to talk about my tremendous experience at ECET^2NJPA.
First things first – I have mostly been going to math professional events the past few years. I attended an EdCamp last year but in the recent past I have gone to 3 twittermathcamps and the aforementioned PCTM. This year I am going to NCTM in Philadelphia for a day, so this event with educators from different fields – administrators, elementary school teachers, special ed folks – seemed like it would be refreshing. I certainly ended up gravitating toward some math peeps, but it was great to be immersed in wider conversations. I also made a commitment to myself to try and go to some sessions that were not particularly math-y. This commitment is tied to the fact that I recently joined a local leadership program being run for educators. One of the goals of this program is to try and develop a school improvement project and to discuss aspects of leadership ranging from department to school to district. So, I am trying to broaden my horizon a bit and immerse myself in school conversations outside of math curriculum, and pedagogical techniques which is where my heart and mind have been living for some time now.
I will start off with my only complaint about the whole weekend. I am a bit of a holdout when it comes to phone technology. I stand out like a sore thumb at twittermathcamp because I am the only one who does not have sore thumbs from texting. I do not have a smartphone and the devices I brought with me (an iPad and a MacBook Pro) both belong to my school so I am reluctant to load much in the way of applications on them unless they are school related (with a few indulgent exceptions like Spotify). So, when I arrived at the conference there was no printout of the sessions being offered or indications of where they were located. We were all encouraged to have an app called Whovo to navigate this. Submissions of session evaluations were also to be done this way. Again, I recognize that I am a holdout, but it felt odd that I had to make a special request to see to agenda for all the sessions. To the staff’s credit, they printed one up for me right away. So, that is the end of my complaining. Now, on to the praise!
The first session I attended on Saturday morning was focused on effective feedback and was presented by Dr. Stefani Hite and Dr. Christine Miles. We discussed some ideas I was already familiar with but the real takeaway for me was a phrase they used that caught my attention. They talked about what they called ‘Feed Forward’ this is feedback or information to share with students about their work that allows them to move forward to grow. I feel that I do a good job of getting work back quickly and discussing issues with problems together in class. But I realize that most of my feedback in this format is looking backwards over what went wrong, not looking ahead to help prevent future problems or prevent the same problem from arising again. I hope that I can wrap my head around this and give my students constructive feedforward to help them grow.
The second session I attended was run by Baruti Kafele a former principal (in fact he exists in our virtual worlds as PrincipalKafele.com and @principalkafele) His session was called Critical Questions for Inspiring Classroom Excellence. He challenged us to answer the following four questions:
- What is my classroom identity? (Who am I?)
- What is my classroom mission? (What are you about?) – He called this our what
- What is my classroom purpose? (Why do I do this?) – He called this our why
- What is my classroom vision? (Where am I going?)
One of the debates we often have concerns dress code and why we have one (versus why we say we have one – these are rarely the same thing) and he had an interesting story to share that is causing me to think a bit about my stance on this question. He talked about people who wear uniforms. If you see a fireman without his uniform you have no idea who he is and no expectations about him. If you see a chef without her uniform you have no idea who she is and no expectations about her. However, when they are in their uniform you have a set of expectations about how they will perform, about who they are. I am wrestling with where this will go in my mind, but I know that I found it to be a striking conversation. He followed this by telling a story about how his children have expectations of him as dad, his wife has expectations of him as Baruti, we in the room have expectations of him as Principal Kafele. I do want to feel different when I am dad, husband, son, brother, friend, Mr. Doherty…
The next session was a wonderful one run by Manan Shah (@shahlock) and his wife Meredith Valentine. Mann is a college math professor (among other things) and Meredith is a second grade teacher. I was drawn to their session for a number of reasons. I was excited to finally meet Manan in person after interacting with him on twitter for some time. My daughter is in second grade so I wanted to hear some second grade stories, and it was time for some math. They discussed some fantastic math games and strategies for sneaking in some high level math ideas with little ones without burdening them with formal notation and imposing formulas. I am going to share at least one of their ideas with my daughter’s teacher. They talked about having two classmates skip count while walking (or even skipping!) together. Imagine this, one person is walking and counts off every second step out loud because two is her number. She goes step, TWO, step, FOUR, step, SIX, … Her partner has the number three so he goes step, step, THREE, step, step, SIX, step, step, NINE,… What a fun activity to plant ideas about common factors, about least common multiples, about a number of number patterns. What was great was that they never used this formal language, just let kids notice things and ask questions.
Session four was when I was presenting my love song to the MTBoS called Escaping the Tyranny of the Textbook. The theme of the weekend was ‘The Power in the Room’ and I felt that my message of self-sufficiency and the power of the resources of educators on the web sharing resources really fit in. I’m glad that the organizing committee felt the same way.
The last session was by Steve Weber (@curriculumblog) and it was called Building a Culture of Learning. I’m glad I was there and I was moved by Steve and the conversations in the room. I’m following him now on twitter and I expect to get some great nuggets from that.
We also had a series of speakers between sessions and had plenty of time to share ideas and stories not only at the conference, which was hosted on the campus of The College of New Jersey, but there was also a lively get together in the hotel downstairs on Saturday night.
I want to make sure that include a couple of important references and thank you notes here as I sign off. The lead organizer for the event was Barry Saide (@barrykid1) but he will be quick to pass off any credit and share it with the energetic team of coordinators and volunteers. I owe a thanks to the Gates Foundation who help underwrite these events. I arrived Saturday morning around 7:30 AM and left Sunday around 1:30 PM. In between I was treated to five nice meals, snacks in between, and a free room at a nice hotel nearby. Can’t beat that cost! Anyone interested in this organization can start out by checking out the website of the local event – http://www.ecet2njpa.org
Special thanks also to Manan Shah (@shahlock) who I have been interacting with on twitter for some time now but until this past weekend he was a virtual friend. He’s a for-real flesh and blood friend now and it was delightful chatting with him at the conference and at the hotel.