Category Archives: Virtual Conference: Soft Skills

The Conference is Over

The Virtual Conference on Soft Skills has come to an end.  Thanks for participating!  The presentations will stay up indefinitely, so if you haven’t gotten a chance to read all of them yet, you don’t need to worry.

I want to give a special thank you to the presenters of the conference: thank you.  Treating other people well is hard, and showing other people how to treat other people well is even harder.  This is our job as teachers, and this is our jobs as adults; we have to create the world we want to live in, and we do it one classroom at a time, one student at a time, and, you know, one interaction-with-a-cashier at a time.  We use these skills all the time, not just in our classrooms, and I’m grateful that there are so many people thinking about them.

To those of you who aren’t sharing yet, on a blog or in some other form, please start soon.  We all need help, and we all have help to give.  If you don’t feel like you have anything to share yet, well, start figuring something out.  If you don’t think you’re qualified to share, well, you’re wrong.

There were 17 presentations in the conference, which is great.  Pick your own topic and organize your own conference!  This conference probably took me about 5 or 6 total hours to organize and administer.  It was great publicity for me and everyone who presented… give it a whirl!  It’s been fun.  But now, I’m excited to get back to my usual blogging style and schedule.  Next post: defining “fluency.”  Ooooh!

Specifying Behavior with Explicit Roles

Virtual Conference on Soft Skills

Uninvolved students do not learn in any particularly meaningful way, but getting students involved is hard.  Participation points?  Cold calls?

I rely on students’ desire to be involved.  When a student actually does not want to be in the classroom, or is afraid to be involved, I use different approaches than that described here.  Luckily, most students want to involve themselves, and this article is about helping them do that by defining roles for them.

Defining roles for people makes it easier for them to act because it makes a lot of decisions for them already.  Costume parties are easier to participate in when you can crystallize ideas for your outfit on a theme (80’s dance party? Wild west?  Alice in Wonderland, anyone?).  Social dances with defined steps and a “lead” and “follower” are easier to do gracefully because the lead knows he’s responsible for leading and the follower knows he’s, well, supposed to follow!  The definition of the roles takes the responsibility out of some of the participants’ actions, which lowers the risk of engaging.  And we want as many people engaging as we can get!

This year in my math class I experimented with a method I learned about from CPM, and I found it wildly successful.  The idea is to put students into teams, give each team a powerful problem or question to chew on, and to give them the framework they need to chew on it.  The roles I gave and the training I used are below.

The Facilitator

The student assigned the facilitator role is responsible for three things: reading problems or prompts aloud to the team, keeping everyone in the team involved, and keeping discussion going when it stalls out.  This means the facilitator should now allow Tim to space out or Susanne to answer every question without consulting the others.

To train facilitators, I gave my students a list of phrases they could use.  To include people, for example, they could try, “What do you think, Tim?” or, “Can you explain why you think that, Susanne?”  To drive a conversation when it seems like everyone is stuck, they could say, “What have we tried so far?” or “Is there anything we could try a little bit differently?” or “Can we work on a different part of this problem and come back later?”  We literally practiced saying these things as a class, in unison.  You’ll have to decide what method of practice is comfortable for you, but please do not think that students will jump right in to using phrases like this without practice, or that they already possess the skills to facilitate a meeting.  Only a small percentage of adults have a solid grasp on facilitation techniques.

The Resource Manager

The resource manager in a team is the team’s liaison to the outside world.  If the team needs a ruler, the resource manager gets it.  If the team needs to look something up, the resource manager goes to the computer or dictionary.  If the team needs to ask me (the teacher) a question, the resource manager is the one to ask it.  When I teach classes in team formations, I actually refuse to speak to anyone in the team except the resource manager.  The students think I’m joking at first, but I do it for the same reasons I don’t let them sit next to me in study hall.

The resource manager’s role has a subtle but important facet: before the resource manager can use a resource, each member of the group must agree that that resource is needed.  When a team wants to ask me a question, they must agree on it first, and figure out how to word it.  Often, in this process, a team answers its own question, and they all learn how to answer their own questions.  When they can’t answer it, but do come to agreement about what to ask, they all learn how to formulate a question and narrow down the specifics required to make the answer useful.  They know that I’ll make them agree on every single question before I answer it, so coming up with concise questions becomes important.  The resource manager’s role includes orchestrating these discussions.

This role also needs training, and a list of possible phrases.  “Is there a single piece of information that would help us move forward?” or, “What information do we already have?” or, “Before we ask Riley what this symbol means, what are our guesses?”

The Task Manager

The task manager’s primary role is to keep track of time, make sure that the team is spending appropriate amounts of time on different parts of the assignment, and alert the others when it seems like the whole group is moving off task.  This role overlaps with the facilitator quite a bit, but the concreteness of having specific target times is helpful to students and I’ve never felt like this role is redundant.  Especially when the facilitator is busy trying to lead a stuck group, it’s helpful to have a task manager to keep track of more administrative details.

As always, when expecting a certain behavior from students, we should show them what it looks like.  Training task managers can look like a skit, a list of useful phrases, etc.  You can emphasize the task managing you do in your class all the time – instead of saying “please take out your homework,” write a schedule for the period on the board ahead of time and say, “I see that it’s time to take out our homework.”

The Recorder / Reporter

The recorder takes notes and creates minutes, if you will.  The notes can be her own, but the minutes must be presented to the team regularly to be sure that they are fully representative of any agreements the team has come to together.  These minutes are the final permanent product of the team and can be turned in so that I (the teacher) can give in-depth feedback on a team’s mathematical understanding later.

The recorder is also the reporter, who may be asked to give impromptu oral reports of the team’s progress to the entire class.  Occasionally I ask this of a team that is understanding something fast or in more depth than the other teams, or use a quick round of reports as a closure for a class period.

The training for this role is the hardest, I think.  What if you have students that don’t have practice writing summaries?  This year I practiced with the whole class: we would have a ten-minute discussion and then summarize it on the board, making sure we noted all of the important parts and only the important parts.  Still, I was least satisfied with the work I saw from this role throughout the year.

Together, these roles give the students a powerful framework for their behavior during class.  Since every student has responsibilities to every other student, disengaging becomes less desirable and also less acceptable to the students.  In a large class with no specific roles, if Tim zones out it doesn’t really affect anyone else, and Tim doesn’t have an easy way to zone back in.  With groups and specific roles and responsibility, when Tim zones out his teammates notice immediately, and can prompt him with aspects of his role to re-engage right away.  So great!

These roles make me more comfortable with my guilty admission: I don’t care very much if the kids learn math.  I mean, I’ll teach them some math, and when they leave they’re going to see more of its beauty and be equipped to use it in society.  But which is more important, vector addition or working in a team?  Factoring or formulating questions?  Integrating or leading peers?  Obviously, obviously, the math comes second.  It’s just lucky that learning math provides so many opportunities for learning the more important things.

How to Present at the Virtual Conference on Soft Skills

All you need to do to participate in the conference is:

  1. Write a blog post about soft skills (see the call for presenters for ideas).
  2. Title or subtitle it “Virtual Conference on Soft Skills”
  3. Publish it between July 3 and July 30.  If you don’t have your own blog, send your article to me and I’ll post it here under your name.
  4. Email me ( so that I can add it to the index

Fun ways to spice it up could include a video or podcast of yourself actually presenting your post, or, even better, a video or audio recording of yourself actually using your skills!  That could get tricky, but I’m at camp right now and I can’t help but thinking big.  After I publish this post I’m going to go help my in-camp staff create a puppet theater – maybe my presentation will be done with puppets!

If you’re on the fence about presenting, just go ahead and do it!  Several people have emailed me saying that they’re not really comfortable writing about these kinds of skills, but I want to let out a secret, here: nobody is super comfortable with soft skills.  These are the scary, I-might-really-have-a-lasting-effect-on-this-kid interactions.  These are the personal connections between you and a student, or between students.  It’s right to be nervous about them, but it’s not right to let that timidity stop us from learning and sharing!

Virtual Conference: July 3 – July 31

The community of math teachers that read and write blogs is an amazing resource.  We share lesson plans, techniques, philosophies, exams, and project ideas.  I’ve organized a “conference” to focus more specifically on the soft skills we need to be effective teachers.  Not the killer worksheets, or the progressive grading systems, but on the skills of raising children.  This conference is a great opportunity for us to share the way we bring out the shy kids in our classes, handle teasing, build confidence, create opportunities for leadership, and acknowledge the beauty and significance of the blossoming lives for which we are responsible.  I hope you’ll join us by making your own presentation and placing yourself in the schedule below.

The conference has five scheduled “speakers,” who will each be presenting on a Saturday in July.  Here’s the lineup:

July 3: Dan Meyer

July 10: Kate Nowak

July 17: Riley Lark

July 24: Sam Shah

July 31: Shawn Cornally

[Update 6/12 1:00 PM – for clarity: the “speakers” will not be speaking, but writing posts on their blogs under the title “Virtual Conference on Soft Skills.”] 

These speakers are enthusiastic bloggers with five pretty distinct styles and focuses.  We’ll have different takes on what it means to have and use soft skills in our classrooms, we’ll share different specific techniques (successful or not) you can use, and I hope you’ll find them useful.  Pre-register now for zero dollars!

But the real opportunity here is for you to add your own presentation to this lineup.  Write your own article under the title “Virtual Conference on Soft Skills,” and I will link to it from the convention center between the links for the scheduled presenters above.  If you already have a blog and haven’t taken the time to share things like this, this is your chance to get started.  If you do not already have a blog and are interested in starting one, go ahead and start it!  If you don’t want to start a blog, but do have something interesting to share in the conference, write me an email at and I’ll post your article on this blog under your name.  Especially for new bloggers, this conference will be an excellent way to get attention for your writing so you can start getting feedback on your ideas.

Interested, but can’t think of what you might write about?  Here are some ideas.

  • A presenter could write about specific strategies for:
  • Engaging the small group of kids who didn’t buy your first shot at the lesson even though the rest of the class is atwitter
  • Encouraging questioning in class
  • Helping kids with dyslexia, dyscalculia
  • Addressing disrespect when you see it in your classroom
  • Promoting a supportive community in your classroom
  • Making it easier for students to speak up with answers and information
  • Helping kids feel like they “like math” or “are good at math”
  • Helping students manage big assignments or prepare for big tests
  • Giving students a sense of pride in their mathematical accomplishments
  • Acknowledging student contributions without sounding trite
  • Giving students feedback about their social contributions to a class
  • Dealing with a lesson when 29 students get it and are ready to move on but 1 is totally lost
  • Helping students feel ownership of the curriculum, assessment, or some other aspect of the class
  • Handling cheating or plagiarism or other lying
  • Ending teasing and hurtful sarcasm in your classroom
  • Helping kids having a bad day
  • Helping students who are currently failing your class and have given up
  • Managing senioritis
  • Demanding high standards of students without making them feel consistently substandard
  • Figuring out what’s going on with a student who’s always depressed, always tired, always nervous, etc
  • Getting some fun into your classroom
  • Helping your students bond as a group
  • Getting some exercise into your classroom
  • Teaching students how to help others constructively
  • Helping the student who is in Algebra 2 instead of prealgebra, which would be more appropriate
  • Showing kids that you care about them as individuals
  • Recovering from conflicts with students or between students
  • …and so many more skills we need to raise children.


If you have a favorite technique, a favorite lesson, a favorite class norm, a favorite mediation strategy that focuses on something that would fit into the list above, please share it in this conference!  If you would share experiences that didn’t go well, that would be helpful too.

We don’t have a lot of time to develop ourselves as teachers.  Articles with specific suggestions that are easy to deploy will be the most helpful immediately, while articles with general philosophies will be harder to incorporate in our classrooms but can help change the way we look at our roles. 

I hope you’ll contribute and follow along as the conference progresses.  Please email me if you’re thinking about presenting but aren’t sure whether you’re qualified or have anything interesting to say (a common doubt), and I can help you figure it out!

Update 6/12 @ 2 PM: This “Virtual Conference” will not necessarily have any actual speaking at it. It is a conference in that many people will write and confer about soft skills, but it will not be in real time (unless an ambitious blogger wants to arrange that in a smaller way – I will be happy to advertise for you!). Once someone has written a post about soft skills, they will be added to the schedule on the “Convention Center” page. That is what I call “presenting.”

This conference is a lot of people writing about the same subject within the same timeframe, organized in a single index.