My Thoughts about the Evolution of the #MTBoS: 2015 edition

Twitter Math Camp just ended, and I’m feeling a sense of sadness because I miss my friends already, but that is counterbalanced by renewed invigoration. Although I’m not ready to return to the classroom yet, the reason is because now I have so many things I want to think about and implement, and I need time to sort all of that out.

A Change Was A Brewin’

But while we were all together, something started occurring to me. I do a lot of thinking about this online community, the #MTBoS… who we are, why we came together, why we continue to come together, how are we inviting those who want to join in the fun, what we can do as a collective whole, and what we are doing as a collective whole. For me, this community started 8 years ago, and I’ve seen it grow from a nascent group of bloggers who shared their classroom activities and musings on education and their kids to a much more complex *thingie.* (Yup, I’m awesome at wording, right?!) Two years ago, after TMC13, I wrote:

the main takeaway of the conference was new. It was that we are a powerful force. We are not a loosely connected network of professionals, but we are a growing, tightly-connected network of professionals engaged in something unbelievably awesome. Through this community, we are all – in our own ways – becoming teacher leaders.

Around that time, I saw a lot of cool collaborative *thingies* just starting to bloom and blogged about how frakking awesome that was:

One thing that is now crystal clear to me is that we’re shifting into a new phase. (“We’re” meaning our little math teacher online community.)[…] Now in the past year or year and a half, there has been an explosion of activity. and this explosion seems to center around (a) collaboration and generating things which are (b) not really centered about us and our individual classrooms. We’re thinking bigger than ourselves.

I’m talking the letters to the first year teachers, I’m talking the Global Math Department, I’m talking thevisualpatterns website, I’m talking the month long new blogger initiation, I’m talking the freaking inspirational One Good Thing group blog, I’m talking Math Munch, I’m talking the collaborative blog Math Mistakes, I’m talking MathRecap to share good math PD/talks with each other. And of course, now we have the Productive Struggle blog, Daily Desmos, and the Infinite Tangents podcast. [1]

We’re still keeping our blogs, and archiving our teaching and sharing ideas, and talking on twitter. But now we’re also moving into creating these other things which are crowdsourced and for people other than just those in our little community…

It’s been a freakin’ pleasure to see all this stuff emerge out of the fertile soil that we already had. We’re starting to create something new and different… and… and… I can’t wait to see what happens.

At that time, it was just the beginning… So much has happened since.

We’re at Someplace New

There are many more people who are jumping in. More initiatives and collaborative projects are happening. People are meeting up more and more in real life tweetups. There has been an NPR story on one of us. Multiple grad students are doing their dissertation and research about our community. The MTBoS has no official organization or centralized structure and doesn’t speak with a single voice (something I value greatly), but it has gotten the attention of the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). The president elect and the executive director of NCTM came to TMC15. They have given us booth space at their last national conference. There are a series of sessions at MTBoS (strands) that have happened (one, two).  It’s worth thinking about what this means.

When I was at TMC15, I noticed that there wasn’t as many conversations or mentions of “celebrities” or “rockstars” as in previous years. I think I heard those words at most twice. It’s not like people weren’t excited to meet their math teacher crushes, but something felt different. I think we’re shifting away from “celebrities” and “rockstars” and are moving towards brands. Okay, that’s not the perfect term, because there is something pejorative about that, and I mean anything but that, but people have their *thingies.*

Some quick examples:

@cheesemonkeysf is known for talking points and how the social-emotional life of a student has everything to do with their ability to learn

@PiSpeak is known for math debate in the classroom

@sophgermain is known for diversity and inclusion issues

@fawnpnguyen is known for visual patterns and her Sage Experienced Teacher Wisdom (aka her funny and emotionally charged stories from her classroom)

@mathequalslove is known for her work on interactive notebooks and her craftiness

@AlexOverwijk is known for activity based teaching

@mpershan is known for exploiting math mistakes and encouraging critical discourse

and the list can go on and on and on…

I think the idea of “celebrity” is being replaced with “brand” (or niche, or whatever). As the community grows, there are more and more voices. But there are certain ones that get a lot of traction. Of course the more involved they are (via blogging or tweeting), the more noticed they are. But that’s not enough. It’s their messages.

Two things keep ringing around in my head about this.

One came from Christopher Danielson’s amazing keynote at the conference. His message: “Find what you love. Do more of that.” Of course, that’s a little pat, and you need to see the whole presentation to truly understand. It isn’t “I love mathematics” or “I love kids.” He asked us to dig deeper, go a bit farther. What about mathematics speaks to us? What about working with kids makes us tick? His example: he loves ambiguity. The space between the certainties. And so a lot of his work as a teacher is exploiting those ambiguities with his students to get them to learn mathematics — but also hopefully appreciate (and dare I say, love) ambiguity too?


The other is from a reddit AMA conversation with Kenji Lopez-Alt. He writes the best food blog posts evar! And in this Ask Me Anything, he was asked for advice on starting a food blog:


I’m not posting this because I want to share his advice on starting and maintaining a blog. But I realized why I love his posts is because he does have a specific point of view, and that point of view speaks to me in spades. His passion about the science of foods and sharing his discoveries with others is so apparent. But I suppose what I mean is: he has found something he loves, and is doing more of that. He has a brand. 

I suppose I’m saying that what I’m seeing is that there are a lot of others out there in the math community who have found that thing they love, that specific thing that makes them the teacher they are, the thing they are passionate about, and their blog and twitter conversations tend to revolve around that. They are doing what Kenji suggested — but I’m guessing without even consciously realizing it.

I don’t know, I’m just musing here. But I think ages ago there were “rockstars” and “celebrities” who were well-known — but some of their rockstarness was from being around for a long time and thus having a large network of people they could communicate with in a tightly knit community that was growing. Now I think that may be shifting. I think as we have more people, the MTBoS has a lot of mini-communities that exist within it — it’s a patchwork quilt. And that is a natural and good thing.

And I’m seeing specific people — old and new — speaking with clear voices and messages. This is what I’m passionate about. This is how I enact that passion. This is what I stand for. This is my brand. Hear me roar. [1]

And they are going outside of their schools and our smaller community to bring the thing they love to a larger audience. Creating websites, writing books, leading professional development, etc. They are expanding their brand. (And again, I don’t mean brand in a negative way!)

These are the people that speak to me. They have a voice. And I’m interested in hearing what that voice is saying. I would venture to say that they speak to others for that same reason.

What is so awesome sauce about this is that they are becoming teacher leaders. We don’t have models for what a teacher leader is in the United States. Once you become a teacher, unless you leave the classroom, you will always be a teacher. There are no ranks (except maybe the very expensive National Board certification), and there aren’t well-defined pathways to get more involved in the profession — again, without leaving the classroom. There aren’t a lot of models of those who are effecting change outside their own classroom. Think about it: excluding the MTBoS, can you think of five teacher leaders who are still in the classroom? One? [2]

But I see right now in this community the creation of new models for what a teacher leader can look like. Whether you have five years in the classroom or twenty five, there are pathways that people in the MTBoS are carving out in order to share what they love.  Help other teachers. Impact student lives. And more than anything, this is what I predict will be happening more and more as the community continues to grow and mature. [3]

Back To Me

On a more personal reflective note, I realized I don’t think I have that brand. I think if 10 people were asked in the MTBoS, “what is Sam Shah about?” I doubt there would be a general consensus. Why? Because I don’t think I have figured that out for myself… yet. I know many things about myself as a teacher — I can be reflective as heck at times — but I still don’t think I speak with that voice or brand that so many others I admire do. And that’s not a bad thing at all. It’s just me still figuring stuff out.

[1] Again, I don’t think many would even say they’re aware of it…

[2] This is not a knock on those who have left the classroom to help our profession. I am just saying it’s hard to be a teacher leader and stay in the classroom. And I want to stay in the classroom.

[3] A lot of this part of my thinking came from @pegcagle and @_levi_’s TMC talk.



  1. You are geometry to me. You lay out these seemingly simple things for your Ss to ponder, and connections begin to be made. You understand what the shape and space and line of these ‘gons really means – or at least your shared comments and ideas seem that way. I think you are going to rock topology, because of the understandings you already have about geometric “things”. Persevere!

  2. You are (1) a source of well written student worksheets and activities for discovery learning, (2) an archivist whose vast knowledge of so much of the #MTBoS is of great importance in making connections and the reason so many of us find each other, and (3) a promoter of unicorns (among many many other things, including one of my dearest friends).

    1. Great points Chris!

      Sam, I still think of you as a rockstar…but I’m glad I can call you friend! Thanks for all you’ve done to support me in getting started in this crazy MTBoS world.


  3. I know I’m not really a part of the MTBoS, but it’s amazing to see how much it’s grown over the past few years. I’m so impressed by what you’re all doing online (even being out of the classroom)! Keep up the amazing work.

  4. You are a source of inspiration. Your blog is one that I visit ANYTIME I am looking for quality worksheets or questions to ask when working with my students. Everything that you’ve shared shows your deep understanding and interconnectedness of topics.

  5. Thank you for posting! I missed TMC15 (and 14 and 13), and I’m enjoying hearing everyone’s recap.
    It’s helpful that different teachers are polishing their “brand” in that when I want to try something specific (or recommend something to a colleague), I know who to go to.
    This community is awesome. Energizing. I’m still working on my “thing” but I’m grateful to have such a supportive group to help along the way.

  6. When I was a beginning faculty member, one of my senior colleagues warned me to stay away from colleagues who get on the same soap box every time they had the chance to. He was describing people who would talk about the same thing every time or ask the same question at every conference so as to push their point of view. I doubt sincerely that you’d ever get in that situation, but maybe there is something to be said about having a fresh, constantly renewing perspective? Maybe it’s ok to not have a common unifying theme to your “brand”?

    I also wonder about the time scale for these “brands”. Teaching is too dynamic for us to stay lodged into the same theme for too long, I think. If x = time frame for a teacher to naturally shift foci, what is the distribution of x? Mode at 1 semester, 1 year, 10 years? What is your x (right now)?

    1. Hi Daryl,

      This is an interesting comment. I think maybe “brand” was not the right word for me to choose — I’d say “framework” or “lens” might work better? Something which has an theory of learning undergirding it (whether or not the author is conscious of it). Or for some, maybe it’s a pet passion. But I’ve seen it morph as people grow and better understand their craft and kids. Like Dan Meyer — when he first started, his big push was “design” but that morphed into the idea of “need” (through a bunch of intermediary steps).

      But your point that “maybe there is something to be said about having a fresh, constantly renewing perspective? Maybe it’s ok to not have a common unifying theme to your “brand”?” is a strong one that I’m taking to heart. I still think what I’m secretly hoping for is that thing that makes me feel like I’ve figured it out. But since no great teacher I know thinks they have that, I know it’s a bit of a sisyphean task.

      Thanks for having me think more about this!

  7. All that to say, I like that you don’t have a brand. You “still figuring stuff out” is why I keep reading. The diminishing amount of inquiry and reflection on other teacher blogs/sites is why I have stopped following them and only check back when I am looking for something specific.

    I recently gave a presentation to teachers about what I felt were the most valuable online teaching resources. Your site was my final entry. To me, you are “The Guy That Gets It.” Not only is your virtual filing cabinet a treasure trove (you have a knack for recognizing good lessons, so THANK YOU for sharing those!), but you talk about your own teaching successes, misfires, and questions. The teacher you show yourself to be is the kind of teacher we should strive to be like – applying, testing, questioning, celebrating, reflecting. Or so I tell the teachers I coach

  8. I also count myself amongst those who are not sure it’s important to have a “brand.”

    I think our “brand,” as a collective #MTBoS, in the end, is good teaching, and there are so many ways to get there. What we are doing as a community is making those various tools or pathways (or just ideas!) known and available to others. In the end, someone else’s thingie is not necessarily going to fit into my teaching or work for me, and I have to pick and choose which of those thingies is best for me.

    That said, keep the thingies coming, keep organizing them in your virtual filing cabinet (TM @samjshah), and long live the #MTBoS!

  9. Excellent reflection. You’re definitely good at that, among other things. You’re a great curator, both in your VFC and generally your mathteaching ‘taste.’ You try interesting things from other people and evaluate them well. Your recommendations are so solid.

    But I think overall I think about you with practice. In the dharma sense of what to do in real life, not in the sense of repeat until bored. People who can can sort out what something looks like and how it is working in practice are essential and rare, in my experience. So, thanks!

  10. Sam,
    Thanks for articulating the many aspects of the changing MTBoS and for sharing your search to find your place in it. You refer back to Christopher Danielson’s keynote words: “Find what you love. Do more of that.” But after that he said: “Give it a name. Share it.” Maybe the “give it a name” is the branding part. But I think the sharing part is more important. It’s all free. Nothing behind a pay wall. No jealously guarded secrets. No vendors. No ego or one-upsmanship. Democratic. Crowd-sourced. The “all of us are smarter than one of us” ethos. In a commercialized, corporatized, competitive world, it’s what sets the MTBoS apart and makes it a place to treasure.

  11. It has taken me forever to get through this read because you take me on so many worthwhile tangents. If you pack your classes as tightly with content as you pack your blogs, your ss minds must explode. Your classes must be amazing. Maybe you’re the new face of ‘packman’. [📦]

    Sara B. Vaughn


  12. This is an excellent “State of the ‘sphere” address, on the heels of the last TMC.

    As far as your definition of branding, I think there is something limiting in the way you present the idea. I would propose that these ‘brands’ live separate lives away from the person once established. While Dan Meyer may have been the brand name of 3 act math problems, he’s gone on to do more than that, and that ‘brand’ has gone on to include much more than just his work. Or in a celebrity example, Bill Simmons created the Grantland ‘brand’ but once started, it had to involve a whole bunch of other people and their contributions to it, and he was kicked out of ESPN months ago, and yet the site keeps going forward.

    Perhaps thinking of a brand less as one person’s signature interest, and instead as a path which many people be interested in exploring. The people associated with these may be the ones who hacked away the forest to forge this path. That association doesn’t have to become a burden. It’s ok if they decide to go travel down some other path, because as a community, anyone of us can pick up the machete and go deeper into the unknown, and then report our findings back.

    So you can think of the blogosphere as the base camp for all these explorers. Everyday someone could show up, look around, and choose which path to travel through.

    Perhaps a ‘brand’ that you participate in would be managing this base camp. Perhaps your path is really just building the facilities, maintaining the trails, and ensuring that newcomers are welcomed and don’t get lost as they head out towards whatever journeys await them.

    1. I agree with this notion, especially: “I would propose that these ‘brands’ live separate lives away from the person once established.”

  13. I really like what you said about find what you love and do more of it. Not find what someone else loves and do more of it because that might not necessarily work for you. Maybe you don’t have a brand, Sam, but you are an excellent promoter for the online community. Your blog and your MTBoS Challenge is what introduced me to the wealth of professional resources available in blogs online. So thanks for that!

  14. Sam, I read this and filed it away in my head. I moderate at, and decided just now that your post was a good thing for someone who asked a question there to look at. Then I came back and remembered you saying you didn’t have a ‘brand’ (ie easily recognizable online identity). Wrong.

    You are a connector. (I think of myself that way too, but we pursue it differently, I think.) You are the main person I turn to if I want to help someone new get connected with the MTBoS. If they want to get comments on their posts, they need to know how to connect with others. Now I need to find the best post here to point them to.

  15. So apparently my State of the #MTBoS ending (the paragraph on my lack-of brand) led to many people saying I *have* a brand. And on twitter too. I don’t see myself from the outside, so it was interesting and oh so pleasant to get people’s perspectives on where I fit into their MTBoS… So I’m copying those tweets below for posterity!

    Julie @jreulbach
    @samjshah AND I think “Blogging Initative” for you. You are the ultimate baby blogger leader. ❤️

    Calculus Davidson @calcdave
    @jreulbach @samjshah I think of you as a welcoming, kind presence in the community as well.

    Calculus Davidson @calcdave
    @jreulbach @samjshah I mean, you definitely has a “voice” and it’s clear even from a worksheet that it’s Sam’s

    Meg Craig @mathymeg07
    @samjshah Sam = enthusiastic thinking about how to get everyone (Ss & Ts) involved in loving math more. And also unicorns.

    Lisa Bejarano @lisabej_manitou
    @jreulbach @samjshah Also, beautifully thoughtful & engaging guided student packets. My favs: sequences & series and completing the square.

    Jonathan @rawrdimus
    @samjshah you were my first teacher crush, also you’re the packet guy in my head, I could never pull those off as well

    Chris Luz @PIspeak
    @samjshah very well done. The problem is not that you don’t have a brand. The problem is that you have SO MANY brands, so much to offer

    Eric Martin @swedenese
    @calcdave @jreulbach that’s what I told @samjshah, my students immediately know if a worksheet I hand them is Sam’s

    Elissa Miller @misscalcul8
    @rawrdimus @samjshah my original blog crushes are and will forever be @samjshah and @k8nowak ❤️💙💚💛💜

    Dan Anderson @dandersod
    @rawrdimus @samjshah yea totally. I don’t know you want to be, but part of your brand is packet guy, …

    Dan Anderson @dandersod
    @rawrdimus @samjshah as in “I’m certain this guy kicks ass with packets, but I don’t think I could” guy.

    Anne Schwartz @sophgermain
    @dandersod @rawrdimus @samjshah for me, Sam is detailed reflective classroom action.

    Dan Anderson @dandersod
    @sophgermain @rawrdimus @samjshah oh yea, that too!! Sam is not a mono-brand.

    Rachel Rosales @rachelrosales
    @samjshah I just love reading everything you write…so open and heart-felt. Thanks for sharing and pushing me to be a better me.

    Anna Hester @TypeAMathLand
    @samjshah when I find out something is from your blog I expect it to stretch *my* mathematical thinking on the topic

    James Cleveland @jacehan
    @samjshah Right after you walked away from that convo that person told me you said you had no brand, and I said your brand WAS the #MTBoS.

    Chris Robinson @absvalteaching
    @samjshah To me, your “brand” is being the most thoughtful and reflective member of the #MTBoS when it comes to our then, now, tomorrow.

    Max Ray-Riek @maxmathforum
    @samjshah if I had to guess about what you love most a la @Trianglemancsd, it would be something about teaching from first principals.

    Max Ray-Riek @maxmathforum
    @samjshah I look to you for deeply thoughtful materials for students that get students doing the thinking that is at the core of the topic

    Druin @druinok
    @maxmathforum @samjshah agree 100%!! Everytime I read through one of Sam’s handouts, I learn something new

    Max Ray-Riek @maxmathforum
    @samjshah that & a commitment to further professionalizing your chosen profession but that’s probably a side effect of your passion (guess)

    Druin @druinok
    @maxmathforum @samjshah and awesome relationship building (as evidenced by his vistaprint stuff and student letters and awards from students

  16. Hello! This post was recommended for MTBoS 2015: a collection of people’s favorite blog posts of the year. We would like to publish an edited volume of the posts and use the money raised toward a scholarship for TMC. Please let us know by responding via email to whether or not you grant us permission to include your post. Thank you, Tina and Lani.

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