At the NCTM Research Session in New Orleans, I was part of a panel discussion organized by Lani Horn (@tchmathculture) titled Colleagues 2.0: The MathTwitterBlogoSphere and Mathematics Teachers’ Professional Learning. You can read the whole session proposal if you’re interested. I want to quickly introduce the other six folks on the panel in the order in which they spoke, using the descriptions from the proposal, then share my portion of the presentation in some detail, as it serves as a bit of history about this awesome group of which I am a part.
- Lani Horn facilitated the session. Her research focuses on mathematics teacher communities and professional learning, and she focused the discussion on longstanding issues at this cross section in the novel context of social media.
- Ashli Black (@Mythagon) was a young teacher in search of greater professional engagement, which she found through reading other math teachers’ blogs. There, she has found research articles and lesson ideas that have helped her refine her own ideas about teaching.
- Hedge (@approx_normal) was one of about 8 teachers who taught AP Statistics in her entire state. Although she tried building collaborations with them, she found little traction. Finally a friend told her that Twitter was the best “math department” she’d ever been a part of. Ever since, she has blogged and collaborated with many teachers online.
- Justin Lanier (@j_lanier) is a teacher who blogs to reflect on his practice and whose social media presence helps to build the mathematical literacy of teachers and students by sharing the diverse mathematical resources that can be found on the internet.
- José Vilson (@TheJLV) teaches in a large urban district and is a prolific and widely-read blogger who focuses on mathematics pedagogy, race, and educational leadership. His work is featured on a number of online outlets. (He didn’t actually get to join us in person, but Lani talked about his work and some of the issues on which he is active.)
- Nicole Bannister (@CUMATMathDrB) is a teacher educator at a large university who has begun to experiment with using social media to solve the “two-worlds” problem, the divide between student teaching placements and university coursework.
Then there’s me: “Annie Fetter (@MFAnnie) works for a well-known online site dedicated to providing professional resources for mathematics teachers. This site was one of the first to attempt to cultivate online teacher community.”
Since I got to go last on the panel, my piece was somewhat of a retrospective of “How did we get to this place that these educators are in right now, and what part might the Math Forum have played in all that?” As senior member of the panel, I feel the historical perspective was an appropriate task.
In the late 1980s, I was part of an NSF-funded project at Swarthmore College called The Visual Geometry Project. In addition to writing some engaging and perpetually-on-sale-in-the-Key-Curriculum-Press-catalog workbooks and computer-animated videotapes exploring three-dimensional geometry, we were also the group who wrote the first version of the The Geometer’s Sketchpad software (which, by the way, made its public debut at the NCTM Conference in New Orleans in 1991).
While working on this project, one of the programmers said to me one day, somewhat incredulously, “You don’t have email??” So he gave me my first email address, on the Computer Science department’s system, and I became immersed in the world of usenet newsgroups (now Google Groups) about bicycles, motorcycles, cooking, homebrewing, and other fascinating topics. (Disclaimer: No grant-funded time was spent pursuing these non-grant-related topics of interest.)
As the VGP grant wound down, we considered possible next steps. None of us wanted to get real jobs, so we figured we had to write another grant. We thought that this Internet thing might be useful for geometry educators, so we wrote a grant focusing on the development of a site on the Internet devoted to geometry and geometry education.
Note that this is before the advent of the World Wide Web, so communication was done via email and newsgroups, and resources were shared via FTP and Gopher. But we could sense that this Internet thing could become an incredibly valuable resource for educators, so we wanted to build an electronic database of resources so that when teachers got access to the Internet, they would have somewhere professionally useful to go.
We also claimed that we would develop a community of users of the database. Teaching is a very isolating experience, and time was that you would come to a conference such as NCTM, meet all sorts of great people and be exposed to great ideas, and then go home, back to your little cinder block box, and tough it out by yourself until next time. But with the Internet, it could be like having access to great people and great resources all the time, without having to leave your school or house (or even take off your bunny slippers!).
We started building this database and developing the discussion groups, and we figured that maybe we should hire someone who knew something about teacher professional development. So in 1993, we hired Steve Weimar to help run workshops to teach teachers how to use these new tools and resources. We held Saturday workshops at Swarthmore for local teachers and week-long summer institutes for a more national (and international) audience. We also helped local teachers get connected by giving them dial-up accounts at Swarthmore, coming to their school or house to configure their computer, and even, in one case, running phone wires up the outside of a school building so they could have a connection in their computer lab.
That third item in our grant proposal might need a bit of explaining. Basically we thought we were going to write a web browser. We didn’t know it was a web browser (there was no web, after all). We just thought of it as a smarter way to interact with newgroups and FTP and Gopher archives. It would allow math to look like math, and make things easy to search out and get, and would use hypertext. Sounds great, doesn’t it?
In mid-1993, the first version of Mosaic came out. Mosaic was the first popular “web browser”. We downloaded it and thought, ah, um, okay…I guess we don’t have to do that part of the project any more! We shifted all our energies to developing our “database” and our community. We wrote our first web pages in 1994 in a hotel room during the NCTM Annual Conference in Indianapolis.
In 1995 we wrote a grant to expand and continue The Geometry Forum. The grant was nicely focused and specific as you can tell from its title: Mathematics Education and the World Wide Web.
In 1996 we changed our name to the Math Forum and came up with a new logo. We were also cited in a white paper that described what we were doing – and continue to do! (And which very much captures the potential of the Internet.)
To this day, we’ve continued to expand our “electronic database containing a great deal of useful information on geometry and all its aspects [and other parts of math!]” and to cultivate online community in many forms. As math teachers (both new and old) increasingly turn to the Internet and the web for professional purposes (in addition to the personal purposes they’ve been using it for), we’re still a destination they’ll want to visit.
We’re active on Facebook and Twitter, we have a number of newsgroups and community discussion areas, and, as you know since you are reading this, we’re blogging.
We were each supposed to end our brief presentation (I talk fast, so it was sort of brief when I did it live and in person) with some lingering questions we have about using the MathTwitterBlogoSphere for our own growth and development. I don’t remember what I actually said at the time, but I’m thinking it was something about wondering in what ways the Math Forum can continue to support and contribute to this growing community. I’ve enjoyed being part of the development of what really was the first social network for math teachers, and I’m looking forward to being a part of whatever happens next.