Reflections on the Congress (Michann Thompson, PS 134 Bronx NY, New York NY).

In my application for a travel grant from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), I stated that, through attending the conference, I hoped to interact with experts within the international community of mathematics researchers and educators and be exposed to ideas to bring back to my school for myself, my administration and my colleagues. I also hoped that the experience would help me establish a network of colleagues with whom I can share experiences and exchange ideas in the years to come.
Prior to becoming a teacher, I worked on Wall Street. I hope to use my pre- education experiences to make math relevant to my students. I currently teach math at a hard-to-staff elementary school in the Bronx. I attend graduate courses in education as part of an alternative certification program; however, one year through the program, I have yet to take a single math course!
So the grant to travel to Copenhagen and to be exposed to over 2,300 math educators from all over the world was a unique opportunity. I flew directly to Copenhagen a day before registration and tried to get the lay of the city. My hotel (The Square) was located conveniently right on the Radhuspladsen, near the train station. (It was a very decent, recently built hotel. Small, but nice compared to some of the stories I heard!)

Sunday, I made my way to Copenhagen University and picked up the tickets and programs I would need for the coming week. Initially, I felt it was a little overwhelming and chaotic, but once I found the NCTM room, things seemed fairly organized.
Monday, I ventured out of the city to Lyngby, where the conference was being held on the campus of DTU. The train ride was brief and fairly straightforward, but required a transfer to a bus, which did not go quite as smoothly! I always seemed to arrive when a sea of black ICME-10 bags were converging on one departing bus.
I think the best part of the opening ceremony for many conference goers was the speech given by the mayor of Lyngby. A mathematician himself, he also had a great
sense of humor. It was inspiring to hear him, as well as the Danish Minister of Education speak to kick off the conference – it showed me, as a newcomer, that the conference was important at high levels in our host country.
Another highlight of that first day was the newcomer lunch. Once I had purchased my lunch tickets and navigated the campus to (finally) find the building my group was to meet and eat lunch together in, it was a real success. My group included two men from Norway: one was a math professor going back into the classroom, the other was coming from the classroom to teach at university. Another man was from Los Angeles, and the joke at our table was that he and I were polar opposites. I was a female, elementary math teacher from the east coast teaching in a predominantly minority public school in a poor community. He was a male high school statistics teacher from the west coast teaching in a mostly white private school in a wealthy suburb of Hollywood. I had won a grant to attend the conference; his administrator had required (and funded) his attendance.
After lunch, it was time for the Plenary Lecture, which actually related to my Discussion Group. I sat next to my Hollywood colleague during the plenary. To kick things off, Professor Askey talked about the importance of “getting math right”, to focus on mathematics education and not on training. Being unfamiliar with his writing, I knew only that he was something of a controversial figure. At this session, however, his focus seemed limited to the absence of geometry at higher (high school and college) levels in the United States.
His fellow panelists did not argue his points so much as present their own. I could relate most directly to Prof. Carreira from Portugal, especially her discussion on “math for whom and why?” where she discussed the emergence of what she feels to be a dangerous dichotomy: “soft, accessible” math for all on the one side and a more rigorous standard of challenging mathematics for an elite. Professor Namikaura from Japan seemed willing to join Prof. Askey in bringing geometry back to the higher levels of math education as the foundation needed for exploring advanced mathematical concepts, but aside from his agreement that math provides systematic thinking that is important for all students, I did not get much else from his presentation.
Professor Vithal from South Africa wrapped up the panel discussion. Her argument that math functions as a gatekeeper subject for higher education and future career opportunities really resonated with me. After all, that is partly what led me to my position in the Bronx. Her answer over what she calls the battle for the “soul” of the math curriculum is that no one size will fit all learners. Our goal as educators must be, according to Vithal, to strive for a more contextualized math curriculum for students who see it as an abstract and random required subject to be endured in the elementary years.
Directly following the plenary lecture, my Discussion Group met: “Mathematics education for whom and why? The balance between ‘mathematics education for all’ and
‘for high level mathematical activity’”. Professor Sol Garfunkel opened the discussion with some interesting questions to guide our smaller group discussions: How do we teach those who have traditionally not succeeded in math? How do we encourage late bloomers in mathematics when our education programs are designed hierarchically with one course a pre-requisite to the next? Are we doing a disservice to higher achievers when most government resources are being used to fund remediation programs?
This last question, naturally, was hard for me to approach as a “problem”, since I work from the viewpoint that those I see in need of remediation lack sufficient resources. That is what made the discussions so interesting though, at the same time. We broke into groups based on where we were sitting in the auditorium. My group was a diverse mix: myself teaching in the Bronx, a middle school math teacher from Norway, a Midwestern teacher from a small, middle-class community, an older gentleman who had spent years teaching among immigrant communities in London, and a math coach from a middle- class community in the U.S.
Our group spent most of our time discussing what each of us meant by “diverse” learners. This actually took a couple hours, but the outcome essentially was that those from wealthier, more homogenous communities (the teacher in Norway, the middle- income community teachers) thought of “diversity” in terms of learning ability, whereas the London teacher and I had been speaking of the broader “diversity” in our students and their families to mean in terms of religious, ethnic, linguistic, and racial diversity. What I took from my Discussion Group experience was that working in a more affluent, homogenous community allowed a teacher to focus on issues I would love to consider “problems”! I think it was an eye-opening experience for all participants.

But the conference was not all intense discussion! The happy hour receptions were a little chaotic (it was difficult to find people amid the lines from either side of the canteen area), but a great opportunity for more informal chats with new friends. The only people I really “knew” were those I had met in my Newcomer group. I was lucky in that the Norwegians stuck together, so that by finding one, I usually had a whole group with whom I could lunch or drink. A few of them had sailed from Norway and were staying on their boat, docked halfway between Lyngby and Copenhagen, for the conference.

One of my Norwegian fellow Newcomers was also in my Topic Study Group 14: “Innovative approaches to the teaching of mathematics”. As a new teacher, this was probably the most useful aspect of the ICME conference for me—practical ideas I can take back to my classroom. Some were interesting but provided more of an overview or summary of the speaker’s ideas or experiences: Laurinda Brown started us off on her use of chanting in the classroom, which I initially viewed with some skepticism but came to see the benefit of it as she demonstrated how students can develop their own strategies as the problems become more advanced. Teachers in Spain discussed how the use of drama and cartoons engaged students with learning disabilities but did not provide enough specifics of how this would be incorporated into a larger curriculum. A Japanese professor focused on the prevalence of technology in Japanese classrooms: all classes connect via high-speed access, and all teachers are trained in using computers to deliver instruction. Again, the emphasis was on providing figures on the phenomenon and less on implementing it elsewhere.
Even when not practically useful to me personally, I felt that the Thematic presentations were beneficial for highlighting international differences and similarities in the approaches in use today in mathematics education worldwide. There were, however, two presentations that were particularly fascinating. Marcos Cherinda from Mozambique, who was not scheduled to present, showed us an amazing excerpt of his dissertation “How to bring ethnomathematical research findings in the classroom”. At first, the title convinced me this would be dry and impractical. Just the opposite: Cherinda showed us a slideshow of his use of traditional weaving boards to teach algebraic concepts. Linking the color patterns in weaving to the number patterns developed through algebra, Cherinda demonstrated how the patterns could become gradually more advanced once students were confident that they could identify the patterns. Once that comfort level was established, Cherinda would use incomplete boards to use their own algebraic sense to answer questions, such as “Which color will be on position 7,15 on the weaving board?” Unfortunately, there were no handouts available, and his paper is yet unpublished.
Another presentation that excited me (and has already been shared with my class of fellow graduate students back home in NYC this summer) was titled “Using multi- modal think board to teach mathematics” given by Khoon Yoong Wong of Singapore. His goal is to use representation in math to make abstraction more tangible for mathematics students. He contrasted his forms of representation with those commonly used by students: fingers, pictures, words. I could really relate to that. It’s very discouraging to see 6th graders solving problems with their fingers! I hope to adapt Professor Wong’s think boards for my own students next year. He uses a hexagon shape that allows students to use each sector for each type of required representation to solve a given problem.
I probably should have chosen a different Thematic Afternoon. Mine, “Teachers of mathematics: Recruitment and retention, professional development and identity”, was not really useful to me as a new teacher. There were presentations on student teaching in Japan, the silo approach to professional development, and one interesting talk on the dangers of under-prepared elementary math teachers. I could definitely relate to this last issue . My graduate program (an alternate certification for career changers) does not have any math courses for its elementary teachers; the main reason I was grateful for the opportunity to participate in the ICME-10. I fear I have exceeded my word limit, but hope I have been able to communicate a bit of what my experience was at this, my first, ICME conference. I had a fabulous time, met some fascinating educators, and thoroughly enjoyed my first visit to the city of Copenhagen.

Thank you for providing me with this amazing experience!

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