Well I did it. I went to Twitter Math Camp 2017 (TMC17) in Atlanta, Georgia, USA.
I found out about TMC last year, when Tracy Zager mentioned me in her keynote at TMC16, effectively yanking me right into the thick of it. I could see that this was one of the things that cemented together the people of the MTBoS and I really wanted to feel first hand what it was like.
And somehow I managed to do it. I applied for a Learning and Teaching Development Grant from my University, available to me because I am part of the Adelaide Education Academy, and submitted a couple of proposals for sessions at TMC. Everything was accepted and I was able to go. Some of the process of organising the money and the travel was a bit arduous, with more red tape than I was expecting in order to make it happen, not to mention the close to 70 hours of travel time involved and the longest time I have ever spent away from my wife since we were married. But it really was totally worth it to have this (possibly once in a lifetime) experience.
I really do want to reflect on why I think it was worthwhile, but I’m having trouble doing that right now. So at the moment, I will simply describe what I actually did at TMC, diary style.
I left home early Tuesday morning and spent about 35 hours in taxis and airports and aeroplanes to arrive in Atlanta airport on Tuesday night (there’s some mind-boggling timezone maths in there if you want to figure it out). I consider this journey to be part of TMC because I spent a large amount of the time crocheting corals to be used in the triplet of morning sessions I would be running with with Megan Schmidt, called Mathematical Yarns. I also made a timetable and chose what sessions and activities I would go to across the five days I would be in Atlanta.
Tuesday night I was launched right into TMC when I shared a taxi to the hotel with Annie and Greta, with some pretty intense discussion of finite geometry along the way (not sure what the taxi driver thought of us!). When I checked into the hotel I didn’t even make it to my room for several hours because there was a crowd of people hanging out in the lobby/bar and I stayed to meet and talk with them (and to give out Tim Tams and Mint Slices).
On Wednesday, I went out on a tour of some of the sights of Atlanta with a small group of other TMC attendees: Megan, Henri and Andria. Megan, Henri and I went to the Civil Rights Museum and learned about the history of the struggle to gain rights for black people and immigrants, including the work of Dr Martin Luther King. This was extremely powerful. We wandered around the Olympic Park and ate in the CNN building food court. Megan and I went to the World of Coke, which was way more fascinating than I had imagined it would be. The innovations in marketing were quite amazing and mildly scary. Also worth noting this pro tip: thongs are not appropriate footwear for the sticky floor of the tasting room! Lastly Megan, Henri, Andria and I went to the Atlanta Aquarium, which was also way more fascinating than I imagined it would be, which is *really* saying something because I had pretty high standard of imagined fascination to meet! Whale sharks! Belugas! Sea turtles! Sea otters! Dolphins! Sea lions! Between and among all this, we discussed maths and teaching and how our lives intersect with that. Oh, and I also saw a bumblebee for the first time.
On Wednesday night, I went to the registration evening in one of the hotel ballrooms, and spent the night talking and playing games with even more people, and giving out Tim Tams to the crowd. Also my roommate Andrew arrived, though I didn’t see much of him until the next day!
On Thursday, the program of sessions began at the School which was hosting TMC. We started bright and early with the newbies session. I was late to this (because I had met Megan to do some last planning and smoothie breakfast along with Stephen), so all I heard about was how to use Twitter. I have a suspicion that before this there was advice about surviving your first TMC, which would have been nice, but it’s my own fault for being late. Then we had an opening session with the official welcome and those of us giving morning sessions each doing a one minute pitch to the crowd about what we were going to do. The one Megan and I were doing was called “Mathematical Yarns” and our pitch was literal because I threw corals into the crowd (though not far because corals are not known for their aerodynamic properties). Then off we went to actually give the first of our three sessions. How our morning sessions went deserves a whole blog post of its own, which I’ll do later. Spoiler: it was wonderful!
At lunch time, food trucks came to the School and we lined up in the sun to get something to eat together in the Dining Hall. Of course I also pulled out a game to play with people. After lunch we went into “My Favourites”. This is where anyone can go on the list to present for 5 to 10 minutes on something they like about a resource, a teaching strategy or anything at all really. Today I was particularly impressed by Sam‘s description of the “math joy bell” to make mathematical joy audible in his classroom.
Then we had the first keynote, which was by Grace Chen. It was about how teaching is political because it intersects with stories about who gets to do things or have things or be things. She was immensely brave and honest telling us about her own story and the stories of her parents and grandparents. I was particularly struck by her comments on the power of listening to someone’s story how they tell it, rather than how others tell it to us.
The keynote was followed by two afternoon sessions. I went to Max and Malke‘s one about bodyscale maths learning and made some cool things out of rolled-up newspaper and sticky tape. I got talking to people after this session and so was a little late to Megan’s one on the patterns you can find in number spirals, though it was still great to be part of some investigations with the people there, like Christopher, who co-opted several of us into a collaborative effort to investigate quadratics.
At the end of the day there was supposed to be speed dating, but I just wasn’t sure I could cope with meeting any more people that day. In hindsight maybe I should have done it after all, based on the glowing reports I got from others about it. Oh well. It allowed me to have some more quiet conversations. Plus Christopher gave me a signed copy of Which One Doesn’t Belong!
On Thursday night, we all went to a restaurant for the newcomer’s dinner. I had lovely conversations with some great people. The hashtag controversy hikacked the discussion towards the end, but still it turned out ok. After dinner I went back to the hotel and spent most of the night playing games and singing. Later, I got back to my room and prepared for my My Favourites session tomorrow and had a longer chat with Andrew than I’m sure he really wanted before finally falling asleep much earlier in the morning than I had planned!
Early this morning, Andrew and I made a failed attempt to go to get bread (and breakfast) which made us late for My Favourites. One consolation was that I got to see two live squirrels as we drove along, which I have never seen before. We weren’t too late for me to do my My Favourites, which was all about SQWIGLES. It was nice to share something to the whole of TMC that was important to me, even though it was a lot less practiced than I had hoped. (YouTube Video here, if you’re interested.) I was mildly surprised by how much people were interested in it. Of course I very much tried to listen to the rest of the My Favourites, but I was coming down off the thrill/terror of doing my own.
After this it was the second of our three Mathematical Yarns sessions. It was an island of calm and interesting discussion in the wild tumultuous sea that is the rest of TMC.
Lunch today was brought in by the school and so we all sat in the Dining Hall together to eat. There was a true community atmosphere to this that that I really loved. I used my time well in the lunch line by teaching Taylor how to crochet as we walked along, with a couple of other listeners on either side.
After lunch it was another My Favourites. I was particularly impressed with Pam‘s ideas for encouraging students and teachers using each of the five fingers with a meaning, especially the pinkie promise of I will be here with you. Graham Fletcher gave a keynote session about various ideas he learned from the MTBoS, including some interesting estimation challenges. The strongest idea I took from it was that everyone sees things differently – both different students and different teachers – and we need to realise that different is still smart and work together to learn.
After the keynote I did my afternoon session on One Hundred Factorial. I was deliberately late this time because I set up a One Hundred Factorial play space in the Dining Hall in order to bring my participants back to it when I’d finished presenting. I actually left this play space set up for the rest of the weekend and it was very gratifying to see it being used on and off throughout the next several days, even by people who hadn’t been at my session. But I’ll talk about that more in its own blog post.
And then there was one more afternoon session to go. I wandered around aimlessly and found my way into Bob and Scott‘s session about engaging with reluctant colleagues. I think this was something I really needed to be in, even though I had originally planned to go to a different session. (Still I was bummed to find I’d missed Kent’s session on base 8.) The biggest message I took from it was to start with your colleagues’ strengths and ask them to help you as a way of opening discussion.
I had the unexpected pleasure of having a group of people invite me out for dinner because they wanted to talk to me more about One Hundred Factorial. I don’t remember if we actually did talk about it in the end, but it was a wonderful time of fellowship and maths discussion nonetheless. Thanks to Jill, Kent, Jasmine, Ethan and Taylor I will always laugh when the mode is 1.
After dinner it was the second annual Trivia Night. I didn’t have a group pre-organised, so I just wandered in and a table of ladies flagged me down and said I had to join their group. It was loud loud fun. I particularly liked the round of books with numbers in the title. (Though again, the mode was 1.) When trivia was over, I wandered out into the bar/lobby to discover Malke and Max doing some Sierpinski Sponge and some pattern-machine/accordion music, which was fun to be part of. Later I pulled out Home in One Piece and Justin was unreasonably amazed by it. So much so that if I don’t blog about it eventually, I’m sure he’ll kill me. We had some pretty deep discussion along with Taylor until I finally had to call it and stagger back to bed.
Andrew and I were up bright and early again and this time we really did manage to get to Whole Foods, though not without missing a little of My Favourites. I did get to see Bob show us how-old.net, which will attempt to guess your age from a photo and therefore provides a nice set of data to analyse.
Then we had our final Mathematical Yarns session and set up a gallery for everyone else at TMC to peruse our work. I was so grateful to Megan and all our participants for a really lovely time. (But as I said I’ll blog about that separately.)
At lunch time, I picked a table and slowly made tray after tray of Fairy Bread, which I gave to everyone in the whole room. People were sufficiently impressed with Australia’s favourite children’s party food. I did manage to squeeze in a moment for a quick sandwich, which I have to say was a welcome change to all the aeroplane and takeaway food I’d eaten so far!
After lunch it was My Favourites again. Joey began with a description of his Play With Your Math project, which reminded me a lot of One Hundred Factorial. I particularly liked the focus on making the puzzles very accessible with clear design and few words. I may have gotten nerdsniped by one of his puzzles and not paid too much attention to the other My Favourites sessions after Joey.
The final keynote came next, which was given by Carl Oliver and basically asked us to be brave and vulnerable and to just push send on our blog posts and tweets. There was also some fascinating analysis of when various people first used the hashtag #MTBoS. This made me reflect on what it was that brought me into the #MTBoS and I went trawling my old twitter to see how I had thought about it at the time. It was most interesting to reflect on my persistence with the #MTBoS despite varying levels of engagement at the beginning.
And then, there was one last afternoon session to go to, and I decided to go to Jonathan‘s one on Calculus for Algebra teachers. While I know a lot about calculus, I was interested in the sorts of things the others might like to know and how they responded to the explanations. I was so impressed with Jonthan’s gentle and respectful approach where he listened to the participants’ needs and responded to them gently and respectfully. I got into some quite deep discussions with Nik, which distracted the other participants, which I am very sorry for, everyone!
In the final afternoon timeslot, there were “Flex” sessions, which allowed people to do impromptu sessions on things that came up across the week. Malke and I decided to do one on Bodyscale Prime Climb because we had been itching to play it all week and hadn’t had the chance. To our surprise, eight other people arrived to join in too. We all had a great time walking on the numbers and noticing all sorts of patterns and relationships between the numbers. At the end of the session, I gave Malke my set of giant Prime Climb cards, which was completely worth it just for the expression on her face!
After the end of this session, I was invited out to tea again with a bigger crowd. After they waited for me to talk with my family because I was missing them very very much, we had a lovely conversation about all sorts of things, not least of which was the dangerousness of Australian spiders.
Finally, I made it back to the hotel for Games Night and played Home in One Piece and Flamingoes and Hedgehogs for many hours, plus had some wonderful talk with Max about the process of designing games, until the hotel staff chucked us out of the ballroom. Somewhere in the middle there, John asked me and a few other people (Jasmine, Edmund, Jim) to help make a video for his online Calculus students. We went up to Jim’s room and had a very pleasant conversation about derivatives and integration and problem-solving. It was an honour and a blast to be a part of this.
I got up bright and early and packed up all my stuff so that we could check out of the hotel before the final sessions. I got there nice and early to pack up the coral display and the One Hundred Factorial stuff only to discover people using them, so I just left them there until the last minute! Anyway, I had to go practice for the traditional TMC song, which I was roped into by Julie when she discovered I could sing on Wednesday night.
The final My Favourites was even more wonderful than the rest because so many people did one. I was particularly impressed with Glenn‘s about the power of small changes in the words you use, especially the words you use to name people, like “learner” versus “student”, and something other than “guys”.
After this, we did the TMC song, which was a bit of sustained ridiculousness celebrating the things that happened across the week, written by Sean, Julie, David and several others I shamefully never learned the name of! I really didn’t realise just how much of a public figure I had been at TMC until I saw just how many of the photos I or one of my games was in. (YouTube Video here, if you’re interested.)
And suddenly the offical stuff was over! Lisa announced the date and location of TMC18 (Cleveland, July 21 2018) with the flair of a reality singing competition presenter, and that was it. There were a lot of hugs and “will you be coming next year”s. I got some lovely thank you cards from people, which made me cry completely unexpectedly. I gave away a lot of my stuff to people as souvenirs, including the giant Galaxy to Taylor, the giant Jigoku to Anna and the Dragonistics cards to Bill (which I originally got from Nic Petty) . By this stage I had arranged to wear all 12 of my home-made maths t-shirts, plus the TMC17 one Glenn brought me.
Yet it wasn’t quite over yet. Taylor and Emily invited me out to lunch and we had a most interesting discussion about the nature of MTBoS and TMC and welcomingness and joining in.
And then it really was over. I did try to connect to people who were still in the hotel or airport, but always contrived to miss them. Finally, I was on the first of three planes home and 33 hours later was relieved to run into my beautiful and longsuffering wife’s arms.
So that was what I did at TMC17. Looking back I crammed weeks of stuff into a few short days, and as I said to Megan, it was unreasonably awesome. It is going to take me months to process all of it, so keep an eye out for the various reflections to come. For now, thank you to everyone for welcoming me and making me part of your family for this week and beyond.