Last week, we organized a small conference in NYC about teaching math. It felt different to me than any other conference I’ve attended, and I think that I can say a bit about why.
My first conference was NCTM Philly in 2012. This was my second year teaching. I had no idea what do to with myself. I was bopping from session to session, feeling very lost. That was my first time meeting Christopher Danielson, who told me he mostly chose to attend sessions of people he knew and found interesting. (Oh, cool, you can know people in math education.) He dropped me off at Kathleen Cramer’s session and then I snuck into back of Dan Meyer’s talk.
I went back to Philadelphia in 2013 to attend Twitter Math Camp. I remember that I offered sessions for the first time and they sort of sucked, but I mostly remember the people that I met — too many to name. In fact, I’ve embarrassed myself since 2013 for forgetting people that I met in Philadelphia. (I really wish I remembered meeting Lani.) I remember excitement and a sort of exhaustion that comes from making so many connections over so few days.
My last big conference was in Nashville, last fall. It was a wonderful time. I’m in a much better place professionally than in 2012 — I know who I am and what I’m into a lot more. Now these big conferences don’t scare me so much, and I know what to do with myself…or I thought I did, except that I found myself in a corner of a hotel with my laptop, wishing for something else that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
When I got home I tried to identify my feelings. I ranted in a Google Doc. (Thoughts About the Future of NCTM Conferences). I wrote then: “I want NCTM conferences to be places where long-lasting professional relationships are formed. I do not want it to be a place whose primary purpose is for people go to sessions.”
Now, though, I’m wondering if all I wanted was a smaller conference. The little conference we just organized did a lot of the things that I was hoping to get out of the big ones. I met a lot of people who I didn’t know well, I didn’t find it overwhelming, and I didn’t feel lost. I could tell you what I learned, and who I learned it from. I met new people, and can tell you all about them.
The big conferences are big. And these big conferences are going to be overwhelming for the same reason that they’re great. Mush a ton of people together and you’re going to have a chance to begin a lot of conversations you’re unable to finish, expose yourself to many ideas and (if you’re lucky) draw some connections between all of these interactions.
But big conferences shouldn’t be all that we can offer to teachers. These big events can feel overwhelming, the focus on attending sessions can work against having nice, lengthy conversations, and for all the beauty of these conferences they can sort of feel like a zoo.
(And, in case I haven’t been clear, an incredibly vibrant zoo that I am eager to attend!)
The mini-TMC in NYC was entirely different. It was comprehensible. Mid-way through the second day, I noticed that I was calm. That’s not a word I usually associate with these conferences. But I was calm. I knew where I was, who was in the room. We had fewer session offerings — perfect, because I didn’t fret about my choices. Plenty of time in a relatively quiet room to catch up with friends. When I wanted to keep talking about an idea, I didn’t have to use some twitter back channel or find them in Goldcourt 307a or somesuch. Nah, because that person was right there in the room with me.
And then there are logistics. It’s hard to get to a big conference. A lot of us were trying to balance the conference with childcare. Some people could only come for a day or two, others had to leave early or come late. A number of us couldn’t make it to any big conferences because of money or family.
The other amazing thing was that the conference was local. There’s something beautiful about going home at the end of the day. There’s also something beautiful about staying up late into the evening talking teaching. Is professional learning manageable as part of our daily routines, or do we need to break ourselves out of routines to learn? Part of the pleasure of a local conference was that it didn’t feel as if the learning was cataclysmic. It was just learning.
All of this brings to mind a nice line from Stephen King about writing and desks. “It starts with this,” he writes.
“It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”
It felt like our smaller conference was a conference in a corner. Those big things get in the way of our lives, and while they are important they feel to me like a necessary exception to the rule that things go badly when professional commitments dominate our lives.
So, we have to do this again. I’d like to make sure that our NYC meeting happens again in 2017. It wasn’t so hard to put this together, but I understand NYC is weirdly dense with educators. I hope others can put together other small, local conferences to help us restore some variety to professional meetings.