An Improbable Run at the Rosenthal Prize
In early December, I found out that my submission had been selected as the winner of the 2019 Rosenthal Prize for Inspiration and Innovation in Math Teaching. At the time, I had zero reference point to understand what that meant, but have since experienced first hand the hospitality of the international math education community. This post is not a summary of the winning submission; that detailed lesson plan has been posted on the MoMath website. Here, I want to take the time to reflect aloud on how this whole thing happened–a process, I think, might be of value for math teachers. I’ve attempted to distill my take-aways into four categories, but, in actuality, they still exist (for me) as a tangled heap composed of equal parts disbelief, gratitude, and empowerment to pursue the next challenge.
No one expects to win. I submitted an entry to the contest to challenge me, as a sort of back-burner project that nicely complimented my day job. The idea had lived on this very blog for years, and Rosenthal gave me the chance to improve it dramatically. Sure, there were moments when I mused on the insane proposition of winning, but mine was a lesson about probability so to have such dreams would have been irresponsible. The contest also allowed me to work with other teachers toward a common goal. I had found similar exploits incredibly rewarding (especially initiating and sustaining an annual math fair in my home school division), and this was no different.
Lessons don’t exist in vacuums. This was an intriguing challenge, because I wasn’t planning a lesson for a specific set of students; I was asked to plan a lesson that was so packed with potential that many other teachers from many other contexts could find value. It is not intended as a set of sequential steps for success, but focused around anticipations and provocations that might emerge from a wide range of class dynamics.
No one teaches alone. This award granted me a brief platform to talk to my wider community about mathematics education. In the media, I consistently (and intentionally) used plural pronouns when asked to give a glimpse into our everyday pursuit of student success. This is something I cherish very much. I have been surrounded by incredible students and colleagues throughout my career, and it is much too simple to attribute this lesson to me alone. This serves as evidence that collaboration remains a key piece to teacher and student success–much more potent than any artificial accountability measures could ever calculate.
This is who we are. Lastly (and most importantly), teachers give. It is in our DNA. This is, simply, a very public example of the work we do in designing high-yield opportunities for our students to grow. Teachers fervently and relentlessly pursue the understanding of those we’ve been entrusted to impact. That remains, and will always remain, the bottom line for me.
I’ve been afforded the opportunity to work with numerous teachers in their contexts throughout my career. Over the years, I have witnessed what I have come to call a “Yard Sale Mentality”. This is where teachers think that their practice is entirely mundane, and feel shame in any suggestion to the contrary. It would feel weird (and vulnerable) to strew their practice on their front lawn and let the neighbours sift through it; it is an all-too-common under-exaggeration of worth. The result is a cloistering into separate rooms along neatly organized hallways with each teacher working parallel to, instead of in collaboration with, one another. If my experience with the Rosenthal Prize has taught me anything, it is to redouble my efforts to amplify the good work of teachers with collaborative projects as I continue on whatever trajectory my career takes next. Nothing is keeping you from doing the same, and the 2020 Rosenthal Prize may be a start. After all, this year’s winning lesson came from modest beginnings: a spark of imagination, a productive collaboration, and an invitation from a colleague.
Consider this your invitation.