In about three weeks, my wife and I are going to be flying to Tulsa, Oklahoma to engage in the Twitter Math Conference, or TMC. This conference is also cumbersome to get to, right in the middle of the country and an expensive venture, although conference registration is free. It is very low on the convenience side of the spectrum. With that in mind, I am far more excited to attend TMC's conference itself than I was for the ISTE conference I'm heading home from. For one, it is a conference with a maximum of 200 attendees. It is put together by math teachers who selfishly want it get better at teaching (this is an assumption, but one I am happy to support). It attracts some of the most progressive and curious math teachers from across the country (and even internationally), putting all of them into the same arena to discuss their passions. It is more about the facilitation of face-
to-face time and conversation than the dissemination of a new idea.
To get back to my question of why I'm so happy with such a supersaturated conference such as ISTE, it's because I tried my very hardest to make it a high fidelity experience. I went to one session and, although I'm sure it was good information, I walked out. I went to another with my colleagues and it was worthwhile, but not everything I had ever hoped for. I've been spoiled with the riches of the edcamp model in which I vote with my feet if a session isn't meeting my needs. Considering that my district paid for me and my colleagues to attend, how could I possibly justify to my boss the money that was spent to get me to Atlanta, the registration for the conference, and the other expenses? After all, I didn't really attend the conference!!! Or so it may seem.
In lieu of attending sessions, I started conversations and butted in on others. Kate Petty and Sergio Villegas, two people I highly respect on twitter and in real life, were sitting around and I basically forced my way into their discussion. In the 15 minutes I spent with them, Kate taught Sergio and me about Gooru, a website I'm eager to explore as a crowd sourced content curation tool that is free for teachers to make their lesson and unit planning more efficient. Sure, I could've attended a session about Gooru and it would have been informative, but it wouldn't have been as authentic as sitting down in a group of three and digging into a rich conversation
The most underrated, and possibly the highest fidelity, pieces of the conference were the poster sessions. They were tucked away, standing room only, and tough to find someone to have a conversation with if you really wanted to get into detail and stay mindful of others' desires to ask questions as well. However, the fidelity was incredible. I had the chance to speak with Melinda Sears, a technology coach in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. We've had discussions on twitter, but nothing beats a real human interaction. She shared how her district and her role are creating a model if teacher-leaders on each campus through an application process. It was a very useful way to think about how we can continue to support teachers by empowering and embracing others on each site.
There are poster sessions, and then there are poster sessions run by students. These young men and women had to be incredibly nervous, knowing that 15,000+ educators were attending this conference and will want to ask them! the experts on their poster! a myriad of questions. I was blown away by Gracie, a 4th grader from Tuscaloosa, who eloquently and professionally explained how her group had created a Xylodrum to help students with disabilities play an instrument that they may have otherwise never been able to. Just listening to her speak almost brought tears of joy and pride to my face, knowing that we should all be encouraging girls to pursue their passions, especially if it is engineering. For more on that, Matt Vaudrey shared a link with a video that is worth watching. Like, stop reading this and go watch it.
Aside from the poster sessions, there was a lot of time spent in the Blogger's Cafe. A little known fact about the big conferences, most of them have a Blogger's Cafe and very seldom are people talking about blogging. Instead, this is where the genuine conversations happen. Whether it is chatting with a startup company like Celly that didn't want to pay for a booth or watching as Sam Patterson brought Wokka, his famed puppet, around to showcase how puppets can enhance the education experiences, I was blown away by the learning that occurred. Someone I was incredibly happy to meet that I haven't had enough online interaction with was Rafranz Davis. She is an inspiring woman who shares her experiences in education and helps us see it through a "women of color" lens. Fitting neither of those descriptors, I truly appreciate everything she does to educate us all on what it is like living as Rafranz, all while contributing valuable math and general teaching pedagogy resources.
As described above, many of the sessions were stuffed. In Eli Luberoff's case, the founder and CEO of Desmos.com, they were turning people away. Instead of fighting the crowd and rolling the dice, I asked to hang out with him. The hangout with Eli was an eye-opener. He is the CEO of a company that is doing impressive things to support math and science teachers, always keeping his ear to the ground and responding to the needs of his users. I would pay for Desmos, but part of the reason why it is so successful is because I don't have to. Eli has made it a point to make his product about the people who use it. Just sitting there and listening to him speak, he does this because he loves it. The money will come because people believe in what his company stands for. During our time together, he was sharing upcoming features that math teachers everywhere are really going to enjoy. Also, when I requested a couple features, he was extremely receptive to them. The main one was the ability to save a graph to my photo library. I even got a sneak peek (along with everyone who attended the session, so I'm not feeling that special) at the new project between Dan and Desmos, the Parking Lot. It is a way to answer the question of why students would want to know about variables and it is awesome. I'm excited to watch Desmos grow with their experiences, just a regular math/tech nerd looking for great things.
Of course, you can't just spend time at the conference. While in Atlanta, I wanted to experience some of what the city had to offer. This is a sidestep from what I've been used to. Finish the conference for the day, fund a bite to eat, then head back to the hotel. This year, I made a point of keeping the conversations going. The first night, the district team I came with had the chance to visit Gladys Knight's Chicken and Waffles. All I can say is GO THERE ANY TIME YOU VISIT ATLANTA! We finished up with dinner and had some good chats, but the night was still young. Some friends were going to Stats, and that's where I got to meet Megan Hayes-Golding, Kristen Fouss, Casey Rutherford, and Eli Luberoff. We didn't get to talk much, but I was so happy to put voices to twitter handles and validate how much I respect them. Right after that, Katie Regan, Michael Matera, Karl Lindgren-Streicher, Victoria Olson, and a few other awesome teachers sat around and just talked shop. Yeah, we talked shop at 10:40 on a Saturday night, at a bar. The big takeaway from that night, aside from the genuine interaction with people I highly respect, was listening to Michael Matera talk about gamification. To try and sum up the spiel wouldn't do it justice, so check out www.mrmatera.com.
The next day, our post-conference experience was spent at Fox Brother's BBQ. Apparently the MARTA system is not a fan of john Stevens, so I got blamed for a broken down train. Twice. Yeah, not cool at all. We ended up making it for dinner, although we were an hour late. No worries, because Victoria, Karl, Bill Selak, Ken Shelton, Kate Petty, Dave Childers, Kristina Peters, and Robert Pronovost were all just hanging out and catching up. It was a delicious dinner, no doubt about it, but the interactions trumped everything else once again. I don't quite understand how twitter can lead to so many quality connections, but it has and I am forever grateful for that. We talked about photography, a little bit of pedagogy, then topped it off with #TearsOfMeat.
Apologies if I didn't include you in this post. This is the danger of including some people that you met at a conference this big. Thank you to Jen Roberts, Diane Main, Joe Wood, Moss Pike, Dennis Grice, Alice Chen, Alice Keeler, Chris Kauter, Diana Neebe, and the others that held good company and put up with me! If I met you and forgot to include you in this, please let me know and I'll add your name. I would like to remember everyone, but my memory is awful. Sorry.