Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"The organism moves towards health" — reflections on TMC14

Everybody is writing blog posts about feeling like a fraud after an amazing experience at Twitter Math Camp 2014. Impostor syndrome. I feel like a fraud too, at least, most of the time, but I am trying to practice refraining from my conditioned habits of reacting automatically and giving in in response to that defense mechanism. I am practicing not-reacting. I am trying to notice the positive energy that is there and to just allow it. I am trying to allow myself to experience myself as a competent, good-enough teacher I have respect for and want to continue to be.
me practicing accepting myself as a competent,
good-enough teacher, seen here
with supportive tweeps & a giant margarita

What worked in the Group Work Working Group session was setting up a structure to sustain that positive energy of presence. Having learned how to do that is a huge gift I have given myself over the past 25 years of dharma practice. It's a "gift" that comes from working very hard at being present and practicing every day, rain or shine, whether I feel like it or not, whether I do it well or do it badly. I follow the three teachings my teacher Natalie Goldberg learned from her teacher Katagiri Roshi: Continue under all circumstances. Don't be tossed away. Make positive effort for the good. I have done that in my practice every single day for over 25 years. It's the one thing I know in my feet that I am good at.
starting with restorative classroom circles

So I decided to bring THAT to Twitter Math Camp this year.

The structure works because it is a structure for teaching and sustaining presence — learning to be present with an open heart. I have dharma sisters and brothers all over the world, but when we practice together online, we practice asynchronously — each of us on our own, in our own lives, in our own homes. When we come together using the asynchronous forum of online communication, we maintain that same structure of presence. Write when you write. Read when you read. Listen when you listen.

No comment.

using the Talking Points structure; no comment
"No comment" is the most important part of the structure, and the hardest part to implement online in a forum like Twitter, which is designed to support comments. "No comment" is about allow there to be space for everyone. It is about all being present together authentically and about staying present with whatever arises. THAT is the thing that most adolescents don't get exposed to in their lives, and it is the thing that can make the greatest possible difference in the quality of their experience — both in the math classroom and everywhere else in their lives.

Most people in our culture don't have a lot of experience in being present and staying present. It takes an enormous amount of energy to learn how to stay present and not flinch. But do that with anything you love and you will have a magical experience. Do that with math, and you'll unlock the treasures of your amazing human mind. But being present with others in a big open space is hard. At first it can be scary. It's very naked. That is why the structure of "no comment" is so important. It helps to create a shared space of emotional safety. It gets everybody focused on their own stuff and supports dropping the "act" you bring to most in-person interactions. That's why it's good to do so right from the start. It's about reframing our conditioned habits of personality.

Very quickly, the timed structure and the practice of "no comment" makes the practice of presence very freeing. You begin to relax into that big open space. You become curious. Your defenses soften. You begin to notice the interesting patterns of your own mind. Best self and worst self. Curious self and bored self. Zen mind and monkey mind. Defense mechanisms, such as snark.

collaborative mathematics
using the Talking Points structure; no comment
The practice of "no comment" creates a space in which the authentic thoughts of your own amazing human mind can arise and step forward. And we honor that process by persisting in not-commenting as we continue.

Natalie describes this process as stepping forward with your own mind.

Once you get a taste for being present, you'll naturally begin to crave it more. That is something I count on in my classroom management practice. Fred always said, "The organism moves towards health." That is one of his greatest teachings for me. "The organism moves towards health" means that, in the process of growing up, we all fall away from the naturally sane and healthy patterns of our organism. "Fight or flight" is a falling away from the natural discharge cycle of "rest and digest" we experienced as infants. When you're hungry, you eat. When you're tired, you sleep. Fred said there is a deeper wisdom inside us that is always available for us to tap back into. It's like an underground stream that is part of our psychological and emotional water table. When we practice being present through structures like Talking Points or meditation or writing practice, it feels like a homecoming — a homecoming to a natural state that is healthy and inquisitive and curious to see what will happen next. It is a natural reconnection with our own inner growth mindset that is our birthright — not some artificial fantasy state we impose on students from without by telling them to have one.

assigning competence after group work & 
observation; still no comment
A growth mindset is just the psyche's way of attuning to the fundamental idea that our organism moves naturally in the direction of health if we will let it — if we can get out of its way and allow it to unfold as it needs to. Allowing means learning to refrain from interfering with that natural movement, and so we use structures that make it manageable for ordinary human beings like us to access the extraordinary ocean of intellectual and creative possibility that is mathematics.

Ten minutes at a time is about what I can muster, I have learned over the years.
Kate test-driving a geometry task using the
Talking Points structure; still no comment
In my experience teaching meditation and writing practice and other structures that cultivate presence, I have found it is about what most people can handle. Ten minutes of Talking Points, no comment — GO. Ten minutes of writing practice — keep your hand moving, no comment, GO. Ten minutes of mathematical conversation, no comment, GO. Learning how to be present with the big, scary openness of not-knowing is no small thing. That is why we zone out, check our phones a hundred times an hour, play video games, watch TV, assault-eat, numb out, zone out, distract ourselves. We all crave the real stuff, but connecting with it feels like sticking a butter knife into the electrical socket. So we break it into more manageable chunks. We set a limit for ourselves and dive in for a limited period. We practice being present for ten minutes at a time. And then we give ourselves and our students a break. It helps us build our tolerance for the intensity of presence and it builds our courage to come back and try it again the next time.

Natalie says that monkey mind is the guardian at the gate, protecting the treasures of our heart and strengthening us for the challenge of opening ourselves to presence and to Big Mind. The structure of "no comment" makes it feel safe for us to touch in to that fire at the center of our being. It helps us to close the gap between what we THINK we've been doing and what we have ACTUALLY done. For me, it's about strengthening students' courage to open their hearts to contact with their amazing mathematical minds — with what my friend Max Ray of The Math Forum at Drexel calls their "mathematical imaginations." We math teachers know the secret that everyone has this mathematical imagination. Our greatest challenge is to get students to trust that they have it too and can access it safely and reliably.


Read Taming Your Gremlin by Rick Carson.


  1. I feel strange commenting on this practice of "No comment" but I just have to tell you how much I appreciated this. I think that the talking points structure was my number one take-away from TMC. What I appreciate most of all about it is that it gives equal weight to each voice and allows the hearing of voices that might otherwise be silent. This resonates with me because I tend to be a silent voice in many circumstances. So I wonder about my silent students and what they are thinking and feeling. It bothers me that the tone of my classroom is often steered by two or three dominant voices. This no-comments turn-taking structure gives all students equal power in the creation of class culture. On a completely separate note, I love this phrase "I am trying to allow myself to experience myself as a competent, good-enough teacher I have respect for and want to continue to be." I'm going to write that down and post it somewhere I can see it every day.

  2. MaryAnn, Thanks so much for speaking up about your experience with this practice! It makes me very happy to think that this structure might actually create a space for the silent voices to be heard. Thanks also for your courageous participation in our session. I can't wait to read more of your blog posts this year!

    - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

  3. Wow. Just wow. I want to re-read this post every day for a month.

    I've been reading a book called Invisible Children by James Pye, which speaks directly to MaryAnn's wondering about the silent students in her classroom, and the dynamics which create the classroom in which many students are silent. Not being at TMC this year, I don't know what the Talking Points structure is - I've looked at your documents on the wiki but it's still not completely clear - can you enlighten me?

    Thanks again for this wonderful post - Wendy (@wmukluk)