Last week I participated in my first Maths Teacher Circle. I just want to do a quick blog post here to record for posterity that I did it and it was excellent. I choose to take the practical approach of just relating what happened.
I had been interested in somehow going to one since I heard about them a while ago, and then the founder of the Aussie Maths Teacher Circles, Michaela Epstein, contacted me through Twitter back in November to ask if I might like to facilitate an activity at an online session in 2021, and of course I said yes. She invited me to a session about mathematical games, and I was so excited to share some of the games I have invented with some interested teachers.
Of course, the closer it got, the more nervous I got. When I heard there would be 40 or so teachers ranging all through primary to secondary to post-school teachers, I was rather intimidated! But Michaela and Alex assured me I would be ok and that what I had planned would work. And they also put up with my scatterbrained discussion of random maths stuff whenever I met with them too. So, feeling a little reassured, but still nervouscited (as Pinkie Pie would say), I dove right in feet first last Wednesday morning.
To start off with, Michaela invited past Maths Teacher Circles participant Samantha to set the scene by sharing what she has gotten out of Maths Teacher Circles in the past. This was a nice way to begin by grounding it in a real teacher’s experience. Then Michaela shared the goals of Maths Teacher Circles, which were exploring maths, strengthening classroom practice, and bringing maths enthusiasts together. I was so glad I had come to a place that resonated with all the things I love. It really matched with the goals of One Hundred Factorial, which is probably why Michaela invited me to present in the first place. This was all a really smart way to begin, because it set the tone for the rest of the session. Even when the housekeeping notes about breakout rooms and whiteboards and chat windows came, it was clear that these were there to support the overall vibe.
Then we had a very quick chat in breakout rooms with a couple of people. We were supposed to talk about Noughts and Crosses too, but we only just made it through the introductions! But honestly I was happy to just have met a couple of friendly faces to help reduce the nervous part of the nervouscieted.
By this time, so much had happened already, yet it had only been a few minutes. And now it was my turn. Michaela introduced me and I was now responsible for the journey of these 45-ish hopeful people. I put up the rules for Which Number Where, and asked everyone to quietly have a read, then ask any questions they might have. People had some very useful questions in the chat and out loud, and I felt we were ready to try it live. I asked for volunteers and described how to play the game Mastermind-style, with one player being the Secret Keeper and the other players asking questions. After a couple more questions, we were ready to break into groups to play.
Michaela put people into groups of fourish, and I popped into about half of them to have a chat. I asked people how they were going and played with them for a bit, seeding a different kind of question than the ones they had been asking so far. I found everyone to be gracious and thoughtful and engaged. Such a thrill to meet such wonderful people and play maths with them. These moments when I was in a small group with people were my favourite parts of the session.
I brought everyone together into the big group to discuss how the game went. I started by asking people if they had a favourite question that was asked. And then people shared any thoughts they had at all about how to use this in a classroom.
Suddenly it seemed my time had run out, so I quickly showed everyone my other two games Digit Disguises and Number Neighbourhoods, and encouraged them to go back to their breakout rooms to keep playing Which Number Where or to try a new game instead. I stayed out in the main room where Michaela made sure I was ready to do a wrap-up when people returned. I very much appreciated being able to think in advance about that part!
One question Michaela asked was why I chose the game I did. I said I chose Which Number Where because it’s about logic, and not any particular maths topic per se. As someone said earlier, it’s about locations rather than numbers per se, which means it’s really about the yes-and-no questions, and about logical arguments and joining information together, and those are skills you use everywhere in maths, which is why I like it so much. Plus I just love to hear how people think and this game gives me a chance to do that.
And then it was time for me to participate in someone else’s activity. Toby and James shared the Multiple Mysteries game and some problem-solving/proving prompts to go with it. I got to play the game with some lovely other people and join in with the play. It really was a lovely thing to just play around with something that someone else shared that they were excited about. I am very grateful to Toby and James for providing such a great game to play and think about, and to the members of my little breakout room who I had such fun with.
After this, it turned out that Michaela had read the time wrong and had cut short my activity the first time! So I got to have a few more minutes! I decided to share Digit Disguises properly, and instead of using breakout rooms, to play a game as a whole room with me as the Secret Keeper. Some brave souls shouted out questions and I wrote the questions and responses on a Word document on the screen. After a few questions, I decided that I would stop people and ask them what they can figure out from the information we have so far. This part was just wonderful. People had multiple different ways of gleaning new information about the numbers and their letter disguises from what we already knew, and quite a few of the participants expressed a satisfying amount of delight at these fascinating new possibilities. It was extremely gratifying to have people so excited about something that I am excited about (and egotistically, satisfying that people liked something I had invented).
At this point, my laptop ran out of battery power and I had to scramble to find the power cord. By the time I came back, things were starting to wrap up, with participants filling out a Padlet with their thoughts. And then it was over. It felt like almost no time at all had passed, which is a good sign that I’ve been deeply engaged.
After all the other participants left, Michaela, Alex, Toby, James and I had a debrief, which was some lovely discussion about how it went and how cool it was to work mathematically with people rather than just present them with stuff, and just some nice discussion about teaching and learning maths with some lovely people. And after that, I couldn’t help but keep working on one of the investigations that Toby and James set me off on, because that’s how I roll and is the sign of a good maths problem.
So that was my first experience of a Maths Teacher Circle. For me, the best part was the chance to think and play together with other teachers. The environment was so safe to just play and talk, and this was very carefully set up by Michaela in the first place, by discussing what was important and how to keep it safe. Being told explicitly that we were allowed to adjust the activities to match the level of the group made us free to play in our own way. And really, everyone was just so gracious and excited and, well, lovely. I am so grateful to have been a part of it.