Getting Better by Nailing the “Why”

Last weekend I presented at the CMC North conference in Asilomar, CA. I’ve attended this conference for most of the last eight years (though I took the last two years off after my wife and I had twins). It’s always been one of my favorite conferences, and this year was no exception. In fact, this may have been my favorite math-related trip to Asilomar yet!

I gave a 90-minute presentation on Desmos, the “free and fantastically beautiful online graphing calculator.”


I had a blast during the session and received a lot of positive feedback, but something felt a bit off. This is more or less the same Desmos presentation I gave twice in CMC South, but after those sessions (particularly the one on Saturday morning) I felt like I was on top of the world.

After this session at CMC North, I had a nagging sense that I need to make some core improvements. I spent some time reflecting over the rest of the weekend and the first half of this week, and (with the help of a few online math friends) have settled on three things to address:

  1. Do a better job nailing the “why” of Desmos. Let’s say someone attends my session. And another half dozen sessions over the course of the weekend. Then rapid reintegration into family life on Sunday afternoon/evening, and rude awakening/come-down-from-the-mountain re-entry into school life on Monday. Why would anyone—even those who enjoyed the session and were momentarily impressed or inspired—deviate from their longstanding routine to spend time and energy changing the way they teach and their students learn? That’s the question I need to answer, whether in relation to Desmos, Posers + Solvers, Twitter as My PLC, Technology and the Curious Mind, or any of the other sessions I’ve been about lately. And whatever the answer is, it needs to bleed through in every part of the session.
  2. Less is more. I think I crammed too much into this one. My goal was not to provide an everyone-watch-me-and-try-to-do-the-exact-same-thing experience. Those almost always explode into frustration within minutes (at least for me as a presenter) when working with a group of that size. Instead, my aim was to inspire participants with some new ideas for how Desmos could be used. I assumed some previous Desmos experience, which was a safe assumption for many (though not helpful for those few who were new to the tool). However, I think everyone wins if I slow down, take a few more breaths, and invite people to try a few things along the way instead of just near the end.
  3. Bump regression to the middle or end. Regression was launched literally the day before CMC South. It was like candy, or a new toy, or… I don’t know, something entirely awesome. So what did I do? I crammed it into the beginning of my session, since that’s the piece of I was most excited about. But I derailed an otherwise fun and engaging lesson—Hundred (Thousand) Meter Dash—with some rapid-fire regression keystrokes and a few rounds of “don’t worry about how to do this, just watch me do it.” The result? More than a few lost (and/or bored) participants. The fix? Push that piece to the end, and/or modify it considerably. In particular, I could “fast forward” through the keystrokes and instead load a pre-made graph to show off some already-built slider-based models, then some regression-based models. I think I’ll better understand how to revamp this portion of the session after I nail down the “why” of my presentation.

Speaking of the why, I’m debating between one big takeaway, or three key ideas. Whether the list includes one item or three, this will definitely be on it:

The whole point is to get to the math conversation.

Desmos paves the way to that conversation better than any tool I know.

Your Turn

With that as the backdrop, I have two questions for you:

  • What is the “why” of a session you’ve given recently? If you haven’t nailed it down, how could you?
  • What is your “why” for Desmos? If you had 15 seconds to convince someone that they cannot live without Desmos in their classroom moving forward, what would you say?


I decided to pull my own session out of my two-part CMC North Sessions Recap series because it was less a recap of my session and more a reflection of how to improve the material for a future conference or workshop. If you’re interested in reading more about my experience at CMC North 2014, check out these posts:

Comments 2

  1. Not sure if this is a compliment to Desmos or not… suppose it depends on your view. But to me Desmos nails the same thing that Apple did about 5 years ago with the iPhone / iPad…. They delivered on low floor / high ceiling while also making my simple work look amazing enough that it seems special.

  2. “Nail the why”, “less is more”, and “slow down and invite people to try things along the way” are my goals in the classroom, too!

Leave a Reply