As someone who loves to learn, I've always enjoyed and looked forward to going to conferences.
I've been fortunate to attend numerous NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) and NCSM (National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics) annual conferences with my colleagues. There's something about having the opportunity to choose the sessions I want to hear more about, listen to speakers whose books and articles I've read, and having the time to speak casually about math and education during more than a thirty minute lunch with my colleagues, that is refreshing.
While I enjoy the bonding experience each year, I started to find that while the conference location would change, my conference routine did not. Each year I found the majority, if not all, of my conversations and interactions were amongst the people I came with from my school, and the sessions I attended were only the big names I knew in education. Even when I was brave enough to venture off into a conference session alone, I always had a meeting spot planned immediately afterwards with my colleagues. I didn't want to be that person walking alone in the hallway, and was definitely not one to strike up a conversation with a stranger. All of this seemed normal to me, and until last year I would have said I was getting the most I could out of the conference experience.
This past year, however, my participation in #MTBoS (the MathTwitterBlogosphere) in the lead up to the 2015 annual NCTM conference in Boston, completely flipped my conference experience on its head. Trust me, when I first started tweeting and heard of the #MTBoS, it sounded out there, cryptic, and vague. However, I came to find it truly is one of the most amazing, tangible, and diverse math communities out there. I needed no directions or membership: I just started tweeting about the math I was doing, learning, and teaching with the hashtag #MTBoS, and the conversations began. Leading up to the NCTM conference in Boston, I had virtually learned math and shared ideas with a group of colleagues from around the world. I could not wait to meet these people face to face. I even had a countdown to the conference going on my digital calendar -- I literally could not wait.
When I arrived at the conference, it honestly felt like a family reunion. A perfect blend of my colleagues from school and my virtual math community. There was no awkward small talk or nervousness about walking up to someone I had never met in person before. It was, instead, hugs all around. I found myself looking through the program and seeking out sessions from people within the #MTBoS and I even ventured into the vendor area, which I have completely avoided in years past, to seek out the #MTBoS booth.
At this conference, learning became a new social experience for me. We had meals together, went for runs along the Freedom Trail, tweeted from sessions, presented together, and sometimes just sat in the hallway. All the while talking, doing, and learning math.
I left last spring invigorated and wishing everyone could have a conference experience like I'd had. Needless to say this summer, when I was asked to be on the 2017 NCTM San Antonio Annual Planning Committee, I was beyond excited. I was even more excited when I arrived in San Antonio for our first planning meeting to hear Matt Larson, NCTM president-elect, and Sarah Bush, program committee chair, talk enthusiastically about enhancing the conference experience by building a larger, more inclusive math community through an intersection between NCTM and the #MTBoS.
To push these innovations forward, we organized into small working subgroups that will plan the event. As if it couldn't get any better, in my subgroup (Social Media and Marketing), I get to work with Andrew Stadel, Carl Oliver, and Christina Tondevold, with the support of NCTM, to create the kind of amazing conference experience I had for any and all attendees. A conference experience where those who attend individually, as part of a team, for the first time or the twentieth time, feel like a part of a larger math community. An experience that starts before participants arrive, becomes an integral piece to the learning that happens during the conference, continues well after they leave, and expands beyond their immediate network of math teachers.
Of course, being part of a larger community, our committee knows we cannot possibly do this work alone. We have created this brief Conference Experience Form to get input from everyone in our education community to help enhance future NCTM conference experiences.
I am beyond ecstatic to have the opportunity to connect with even more educators at future conferences because, for me, it truly is the people at the conference that make my experience invaluable. And it's the culture of social learning that makes us all feel like family.
Have you had similar conference experiences due to your expanded professional learning community on social media? Let us know in the comments below.
Kristin Gray is a National Board Certified fifth grade math teacher at Richard A. Shields Elementary School in the Cape Henlopen School District in Lewes, Delaware and a Teaching Channel Laureate. During her 19 years in education, she has taught 5th–8th grade math, as well as spent two years as a K-5 Math Specialist. She feels fortunate to be involved with Illustrative Mathematics and Teaching Channel on projects developing math tasks, facilitating professional development, and blogging about these experiences. She is always excited to share her love of teaching at conferences such as NCTM, NCSM, ISTE, as well as on her blog. Follow her on Twitter: @MathMinds.