Newsletter #102     WaToToM the Sixth

It's happened again! Yet another WaToToM has come and gone. #6, in fact.This time, possibly owing to the mood of reminiscence induced by doing Newsletter #100, I have decided to start my report on it by giving the background of how we got to our current (ahem) illustrious position: Somewhere back in the mists of time, when I was talking with Marj Enneking of Portland State University, she began extolling the virtues of Oregon's organization of Teachers of Teachers of Mathematics, otherwise known an ToToM. In subsequent conversations, she extolled it yet more, and ever more convincingly, until finally the day came when I concluded that Washington had to have a version of it. I even figured out that the title had to be WaToToM. What I couldn't figure was how to do it. And then I was invited me to a one day conference at the Sleeping Lady Resort and Conference Center near Leavenworth, and suddenly the whole picture came into focus. I more or less threw a dart at the calendar, reserved ten cabins, all triples, for the week-end the dart landed on, and got to work. Jack Beal (College of Education), Jim King (Math) and I put our heads together and came up with a bunch of phone numbers of likely candidates, then demon-dialed our way through the list. We didn't quite fill the cabins, but we nearly did, fortunately with a list such that the number of men and the number of women were each divisible by three. That's the magic number that keeps the price per person down, and since I had casually neglected to reckon in the taxes when I set the fee, finances were a little nip and tuck.

That was 1998. The basic thrust was pure and simple acquaintance-making, beginning to reverse the existing state of total non-communication among the institutions around the state where teachers are taught. It was a resounding success for a bunch of reasons, but most fundamentally because when you get together a batch of people with a major common interest and no previous acquaintance, there is an infinite amount to be learned and a huge pleasure in learning it. We began to start getting a handle on what we had in common and what we didn't and where our strengths and challenges were. We also established some firm traditions. One was having a panel of K-12 faculty members spend the second half of Saturday afternoon telling us about their classrooms and their lives as teachers, so as to keep us grounded as to what our underlying purpose is. The level of the teachers has changed yearly -- middle school first, then high, then elementary, and around again. Another tradition was starting Saturday morning with something mathematical and fun to play with, from Caspar Curjel's three dimensional coordinate systems to Lenart Spheres to a couple of trial runs of games I was planning for the Math Day teachers' lunch. Yet another was having the first half of Saturday afternoon free for enjoying the Sleeping Lady's amenities, from the sauna to the adjacent cross country skiing area (which latter explains my personal tradition of spending the following week creaking in every muscle!)

The following two years we deepened our acquaintance, and began to learn more about new goings on and interesting developments and projects at each other's institutions. One in particular was Project TEACH, developed by an extremely lively and articulate crew from Green River Community College whose presence has helped keep the energy level high ever since they first turned up.

Year four marked a change in spirit, though not in format. That was the year Marj Enneking joined us. She gave us a run-down of what Oregon's ToToM has accomplished in its several decades of existence. Fortunately, that was on Saturday morning, which gave us nearly 24 hours to recover from the stunned state to which the tale reduced us and gather ourselves up to Do Something. The only problem was that we couldn't quite figure what to do. So we decided to gather information during the year and come back geared up to take action on it. And we did. We agreed on a priority and produced a letter to the State Superintendant of Schools which was duly sent off and responded to. There was a major weakness to the whole procedure, though. It resulted from the one tradition that really needed breaking, one which went from the sad to the ridiculous in the course of the five years. It could best be described as the OSPI bug. It went this way:

In year one we phoned OSPI (the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction) to describe our plans and invite someone to come. They sent Peggy Vader, a gallant woman if ever I met one. Despite an illness which was shortly to prove terminal, she came and answered all the questions we could formulate and some we wouldn't have thought of, and we appreciated her presence a lot. The next year Bev Neitzel came, and again we learned a lot, though we had to struggle to hear it, because she had a really colossal cold. She managed, though, and again we appreciated her being there. In year three I managed to goof entirely on communications and think Bev had received the invitation and was coming, when in fact she hadn't (something of an achievement, you must admit, to blow it quite that thoroughly!) The following year I saw to it that Bev really did get the invitation, and she was all signed on and ready to head out when she came down with what she firmly maintained was the first really bad cold she had had since her previous WaToToM. This time she decided she had better stay home. Year four, that was. By the next year, there had been some rearrangements as OSPI and the appropriate person to invite was Bob McIntosh. Bob graciously accepted our invitation, registered for the conference -- and then got sick and couldn't come. By this time there was definitely an element of paranoia in my reactions!

This year, I am delighted to say, that tradition got broken. Another one also did: I have spent five Januaries in a row having an ulcer lest our numbers fall below the 26 or so necessary to make it possible to repay the math department the funds it always advances for reservations at the Sleeping Lady. This year by the time I checked the numbers we were already at 30, and when the actual gathering rolled around we had 42 participants. That, I must say, was really exciting!

So what did we do? Well, Friday night was the usual "Whobody's here?" introduction session. Saturday morning was launched by Stuart Moscowitz, armed to the teeth with calculators loaned to us by Texas Instruments, showing us a bunch of ways in which calculators can be used to provoke mental activity rather than replacing it. A courageous action, given just how cold I made his blood run by telling him I thought his audience would be full of folks as skeptical as I on the calculator front. I won't give details of the activities, because I intend to crib some for Math Day (so yes, he definitely put a dent in my skepticism!) For the rest of the morning, Bob McIntosh, present and not even sneezing, gave us a very informative run-down of the current state of OSPI. What they are living with is Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation roaring down the track at them. It requires huge amounts of testing and its way of motivating schools to produce acceptable scores is more or less to threaten to destroy any that don't (my phrasing, not Bob's.) One obvious way to deal with this is to lower the bar -- give tests of the old traditional style, measuring computational skills only. This the OSPI is determined not to do. On the other hand, they are also not about to let massive numbers of schools be swept under the wheels of the legislation. So they are simultaneously working on measures to alleviate some of the extreme impact and producing a set of tests for the grades not currently being tested that will be consistent with the EALRs (the state's Essential Academic Learning Requirements) and fair and balanced -- and ready in a matter of months. And in their spare time...

Saturday afternoon provided the most gorgeous weather we've had yet. Picture post card snow scenes in every direction. I'm not sure where the non-skiiers went, but it seemed to me everybody turned up pretty mellow and glowing for the afternoon session. This was the teacher session, but with a new wrinkle: we had a combination of elementary and middle school teachers and graduate students, the latter having been working in the classrooms of the former as part of an NSF GK-12 project run by Loyce Adams in the Applied Math Department. The session certainly achieved the objective of grounding us in the K-12 classroom, and in addition gave us a bunch of different perspectives on what it is like there.

Saturday evening addressed the question of "So what's new at your place?" Answer: lots -- too much to summarize.

Sunday morning is where the difference from previous years really became palpable. Partly it was from our increased experience with working together, but to me it seemed the major difference was having Bob McIntosh there. As we bounced around our ideas for what to prioritize and how to go about making our voice heard, it was enormously helpful to be able to shape the discussion with just an occasional "Hey, Bob, would that be a useful message, and if so, who should hear it?" In the end we laid plans for a position paper on preparing pre-service teachers to have the competencies described in the current state document, which will be sent with a covering letter to quite an assortment of recipients, and for a collection of letters from teachers to back it up. We began addressing the issue of the test required of teachers seeking certification, with an eye on the clock but a strong sense of the need to address it. From this we were rescued by Bob, who solidly supported our desire to work on the test (he was the one who had described it to us) but pointed out that the current test is firmly ensconced for a year or so, so attacking it might as well wait a bit. That means there's already something on next year's WaToToM agenda. How organized can you get?

I was going to leave it at that, but then got worried about a conclusion that might be reached by anyone who has followed my WaToToMage through the years. No, it is not the case that my restraint in not waxing lyrical over the food at Sleeping Lady indicates any diminution whatever in its quality. I imagine that bathroom scales all over the state are being hidden from view for a few days, while taste buds are still happily reverberating from the array of activities they have been put to. And yes, of course we are planning to go back there next year. Long live Sleeping Lady, WaToToM, and everything else that went together to make up a really superb week-end!


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