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!

In Which His Readers Begin To Suspect That Riley Usually Spends A Lot Of Time Editing

Hello, fellow shapers of tomorrow!

The conference is a big success so far already: many people have written to me saying that they’ve been inspired to start writing, or, if they already write, to write specifically about soft skills. We’re at a total of 12 pledged “speakers” (writers) right now, and I assume there will be writers that haven’t yet announced themselves. Fantastic!

Of course I would be happy if that alone were the only success of the conference, but I suspect the successes will keep coming – I expect a lot of attention and discussion with each presentation. Please keep spreading the word about this conference – it starts in less than two weeks, but there’s still plenty of time to think about what you’re going to write, and the more we get people thinking about it now the bigger our success will be. But don’t link them to this nondescript, unedited post – link them to the Convention Center!

This post and others I may write in the next two month are unedited because I have dedicated myself to being a camp director for the summer.  Being a camp director means many wonderful things, including that I get the opportunity to commit myself fully to a single, righteous, spiritually uplifting and terrifically fun goal.  But it also means I don’t get to write blog posts as often as I do during the year.  I’m going to share a lot of this with you soon.  Don’t go away.  There’s magic in the work you can do at a summer camp that I think is vital to share in our math classrooms, and I want to tell you about it; spreading this magic is one of my two life goals.  Please stay tuned!  If you’re new here, there are about 50 articles in the archive I hope you’ll scan through.  And they’re all better composed than this one! 😉

SO: Think about contributing to the convention, give it another tweet or link, and I’ll see you on July 3rd!


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.

Final Days

How do you feel when your students are walking out of your classroom for the last time?  I feel pride, joy, sadness, accomplishment and disappointment all at once.

This year my classes ended in a deflated way.  At my school, in the last month about a third of our students go out on month-long trips, biking or canoeing or studying history and giving community service in DC.  A great end to the year for those students, but my classes empty out and we’re left feeling like we’re studying something extra, something that might not really matter that much, that it’s fine that the other students miss.

I think it’s important to end the year with some ceremony.  The students have accomplished a lot this year, but sometimes that gets lost on them if we don’t give them time to reflect on it.  We have so much control over what they remember of the year in the way we spend the final days of our courses, and too often courses just kind of… end.  They fizzle away.  There’s some review, and then the final exam.  If that’s all there will be, I want the final to be built up, so that the kids will be really proud of finishing it!  They can’t just walk out.

But I forgot this until just now, and the kids just walked out.  We did a lot of awesome things this year, but because we didn’t process it in any real way at the end, I’m worried the year will disappear in their memories.

By talking and reflecting we can control our own memories.  Let’s do it intentionally!  Let’s get the kids in a circle and talk about how their feelings about math changed this year!  Let’s tell funny stories about the best classes and best projects and most ridiculous public mistakes!  Let’s make diplomas or time capsules or something that can embody the otherwise ephemeral bonds that we’ve made this year.

Developing Yourself Is Part Of Being A Teacher

One of the counselors at my camp, Nick, said that he told his campers to wear a life jacket at all times, but that he never wore his own.  He defended his decision by saying that the campers were smart enough to understand that he was a trained lifeguard responsible for their safety, and that they were untrained swimmers not responsible for anything.  They should be able to understand, he claimed, that their positions were different, and so the rules were different.

We have this kind of stratified privilege system set up throughout society, most explicitly for different ages, so I can see why Nick thought he was right.  Kids can’t vote, drink, or rent a car.  It is reasonable to tell kids to do what we say and not what we do.  But I would be willing to bet that the campers on this canoeing trip thought that wearing a life jacket wasn’t actually very important, because their primary leader and role model never put his on a single time.

Nick thought he was immune from drowning in a river because he was trained as a lifeguard (apparently not remembering that he only barely passed his lifeguarding tests).  He had been given a certification with connotation of skill and a position of authority, and made the mistake of thinking he was done.  He was a very good counselor in many respects, and I think that blinded him to this weakness in his teaching.  I think Nick was telling his campers that life jackets don’t really matter for confident swimmers, and I don’t think he had any idea he was doing it.

I think a lot of us teachers share this blindness to the things we teach indirectly to our students.  For example, in the first several years of my career I hid my processes from my students, thinking that I should be a perfect person, the pinnacle of professionalism, professor of propriety.  I wowed them with things I knew and steered away from topics I didn’t know.  But in hiding mistakes I deprived them of the opportunity to see someone handling mistakes, and in avoiding areas of my ignorance I missed opportunities to show them someone learning.

Some of the areas I most tried to polish were the policies of my classroom.  I didn’t want them to think that I was unqualified, or that I was just making stuff up, because I was afraid that they would think I was wasting their time.  I wanted them to think I really knew what I was doing, to build their confidence, make them take the class seriously, and I wanted (ironically) to gain their trust.

But in the last few years I have started being more open with them.  I share my professional development with them, telling them that I’ll be writing the day’s objective on the board at the beginning of each class because I read that it improved learning, and telling them that I was going to try out a new format for required notes taking because some research shows that it helps students later in their careers, and asking them to please tell me what they think of it later.  This year’s big thing was standards-based grading (my first blog post – awww), and I was very upfront with the students about trying a new thing, not  knowing for sure where it was headed or how well it would work, but assuring them that I was trying it for their benefit and, honestly, the benefit of my next batch of students.

I’ve started to believe that if your students don’t see you learning, then they will not think that learning is important.  If all you ever show them is math that you already know – you never show them what you’re reading about education, or your blog, or your new hobby – they will think that factoring (or whatever) is all you care about.

Now, like Nick might suggest, we are already certified to be good at high school math.  We don’t need to double-check our answers and we can use a calculator because we’re already good at long multiplication, despite the fact that we ask our students to double-check everything and do arithmetic by hand.  And hey, that’s true – we are more skilled with math than our students (usually).  But we must show them that we learn as well, or, like Nick’s campers, they’ll think they only have to learn until they grow up.

That would have been a sweet place to stop the blog post – I love me a poignant conclusionary now and then – but unfortunately for my rhetoric I have a practical suggestion:  Start a blog. and have some tips for you to start.  Blogging is fun, because other people read what you write and you can feel famous (warning: I had fewer than a dozen readers for many moons), and feeling famous is fun.  Blogging is visible and you will be held accountable, which will cause you to think carefully about what you write, which might cause you to think more carefully about what you do in class.  One of my coworkers asked me skeptically if I thought it was ethical to try something in class just so I could blog about it.  At first I was taken aback, thinking maybe I had let this blogging thing get out of hand, but then I realized: oh my god, I’ve actually pushed myself to try something new because of my blog!  This is great!  You should not be embarrassed of trying to improve your classroom, and you should show your students that you’re doing it, and if it ends up sucking, you should apologize to the students and ask them what they think would have worked better.  This is what considerate, learning adults do when they screw up.

If you want to start a blog, go to and sign up for free.  It’s really easy.  I’m going to be asking for people to write guest posts on this blog, and that might be a good way for you to get started, but you’ll need an article or two up on your blog to qualify.  This summer could be a great time for you to condense some real change out of the vapor that was 2009-2010 – something you could use to show your students what you’ve learned from them.