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
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
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
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
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’
‘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
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!