Reflections on the AP Annual Conference 

I’m returning home after spending three days in Austin, Texas for the AP annual conference. This was my first time to Texas and won’t be my last. Austin is one of the coolest cities I’ve visited. Aside from being in a great city, I wanted to share a few of the things I learned from this conference.
First, I wasn’t sure what to expect. National conferences, at least in my limited experience, can either be awesome or giant let downs. About a week before the conference I noticed that Sir Ken Robinson was going to be giving the keynote address. Ken Robinson is one of my favorite people and one of the most influential people for me in terms of ideas that broadly guide my teaching (you may have seen his TED talk, which is the most watched TED talk of all time). He delivered a phenomenal keynote address that was as insightful as it was humorous. One of my problems with AP in general is that I hear many teachers toss their hands up in the air and say things like, “well I can’t do that creative or innovative thing because of all the content. Or lack of time. Or too many slow kids.” To kick off the conference with a speaker that preached creativity, collaboration, curiosity, and critical thinking sent a clear message to us: these must be a part of our mindset as well as our students’, regardless of what test they take at the end of the course.
Sir Ken stuck around for a bit after his keynote. I was fortunate to be able to meet him and chat for a few minutes. When I mentioned that I was a math teacher he said some of the most creative people he knows are math teachers. He asked if I enjoyed teaching and was genuinely interested in my answer (which was obviously a giant YES!). This set the stage for a great conference.
Me with Ken Robinson
Day 1
In the morning I started with a session on discourse activities in pre-AP courses in which Jennifer Wilson argued (rightly so) that students need to be taught how to communicate mathematics effectively. She pointed out that when we tell students too “show their work” they often don’t know what that means. She also mentioned that this is true for many of the things we ask our students to do (she spoke specifically about the Standards for Mathematical Practice). She provided slides on what different levels of skills (show your work for example) actually look like. I’d encouraged you to check out her slides as they provide lot’s of examples of how we can get students to talk about mathematical concepts effectively. Many of the tasks also encourage students to pursue different avenues to solutions and to justify their ideas. If you ever have a chance to attend one of Jennifer’s sessions I’d encourage you to do it. If you can’t catch her in person then definitely follow her on Twitter(link) and check out her blog.
show your work

Another session I attended discussed the AP Capstone program. I wasn’t aware of this program before attending the conference, so although it wasn’t specific to my content, it’s a program that I might encourage my school to pursue in the future. If you haven’t heard of it then you should check out the website (which will do a better job of explaining it than I will).

The final session I attended was by a teacher that discussed how she implemented daily quizzing in her calc classes. She used the quizzes as 30% of the students’ grade. I think I’d like to do them more as a formative assessment. I’m trying to figure out how technology might make them easier to grade (I’m currently thinking Plickers). I think that giving students frequent feedback (especially in a formative context) can only increase their understanding of concepts. She shared all of her quizzes with us and if you’d like the quizzes I’m sure she’d be willing to share (let me know and I can get you her contact information).
Overall it was a day full of learning and I’m glad that I attended the sessions that I did!
Day 2
I started of the second day attending a session by one of the AP calc test chief readers. He discussed overall trends in the test as well as misconceptions on specific problems. I’ll be honest, I didn’t think I’d get a lot out of this session but I was wrong. A few trends he highlighted:
  • Students need to pay attention to detail. For instance, they shouldn’t round too early in a problem because the rounding will compound itself throughout the rest of the problem. Many students lost points because they forgot to close parentheses or brackets (or didn’t use them at all).
  • Students need to get better at concisely and mathematically justifying their answer. This includes writing logical statements explaining their reasoning.
  • Students must show work. Even on “calculator necessary” problems students should never write down the answer with no work or justification. They definitely do not like “bald” answers.
  • He also noted that we should encourage students to store complex functions in their calculators (if the functions will be used multiple times in a problem) and use the “solve” feature in the calculator as opposed to “intersect” feature.
Like I mentioned, this session may not have been the most inspiring, but it was packed with valuable information.

Next I went to a session by Soowook Lee on increasing conceptual understanding in AP calculus. He provided several quality examples of how he tries to get students to understand mathematics beyond the algorithm. You can see his slides (as well as his website with other resources) here.

Following lunch I spent some time preparing for my session which was Increasing Discourse and Inquiry in AP calculus. Overall I think my session went well. For having the last session of the conference I had an engaged audience, they laughed a bit, and I think they learned. I was slightly disappointed that my session overlapped with one called Active Engagement Activities in Calculus. I was disappointed for two reasons. First, I would’ve attended it. Second, I think a lot of people were torn by which session not go to as the theme was similar but the resources would likely be quite different. Here is the link to my slides.
As I mentioned above, this was an awesome conference and one I’d encourage other AP educators to attend. The sessions were of high quality, the conference was well organized, and it overflowed with learning.

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