Newsletter #107     On Community [AWM]

Once again a preview of upcoming events: this column will appear in due course in the next issue of the AWM Newsletter. It's a copied-in Word document, so I apologize for any little blips and ziggles that may be produced on your screen. The content ought with any luck to survive the technological glitches.

On Community

By Ginger Warfield, with thanks to my colleague Judith Arms for helping me see the connections among sundry isolated portions of my mental scheme of things

For years I have been bemoaning the unfairness of our educational system in loading the schedules of K-12 teachers to the point where they have almost no opportunity to interact. This point of view has been reinforced by the palpable joy with which teachers taking part in our Community of Learners NSF projects greet each other at successive workshops and retreats. I have also found it frequently resonating with comments in articles by and about teachers.

Given the consistency of my plaint, it is a little embarrassing to admit how long it took me to register the parallel between the world of the teachers and the world of the teachers of teachers. It took, in fact, a couple of conversations with Marj Enneking of Portland State University in which she described in glowing terms the impact of getting Oregon's teachers of teachers together before my attention was finally captured. If isolation is damaging to teachers, why should it not also be so to teachers of teachers? From those conversations and that question arose WaToToM (Washington Teachers of Teachers of Mathematics), now in its seventh year, and growing ever stronger. In this column I shall attempt to step back and describe how WaToToM has developed and what it contributes.

Our first gathering was in 1998. There were only 21 of us, but a nicely variegated 21, so that the get-acquainted aspect had plenty to work with. I would characterize that gathering and the two that followed it almost entirely as conversation of the best sort. Nary an ax was ground - well, not many anyway - and the focus was entirely on answering questions like what do we have in common? What can we learn from each other? Where does what we know fit into the larger scale educational scene? What, in fact, is going on in the larger scale educational scene? By the fourth gathering we were beginning to feel that we had achieved some basic level of understanding and perhaps something should be done with it. And that is the time Marj Enneking managed to find a chink in her incredibly jammed agenda and come tell us tales of Oregon's ToToM. They have been getting together for a long time (since before e-mail - what more need I say?) and have accomplished a tremendous amount, including ultimately being awarded a huge NSF collaborative grant which is having an impact all over the state. By the time she finished her description we were all stunned. Fortunately we had a day to recover before we parted company, and we finished that gathering with a lively discussion of what direction we wanted to take as a group and what needed to happen in order for us to move in that direction. I'm not sure, looking back, to what extent we actually moved in the direction we envisaged then, but I can say with considerable confidence that that marked the beginning of our thinking of ourselves as an entity, and of our gatherings as having a goal beyond information exchange and community building. Our conversations have become deeper and livelier (though never, I report with pleasure, acrimonious). We have sent two position papers to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and one to the Higher Education Coordinating Board, and begun increasingly to have follow-up conversations by e-mail in between our annual gatherings. In short, all of us have begun to feel that we not only know more about that larger educational scene we were inquiring about, but are part of it and together might possibly have some impact on it.

Meanwhile, we as an entity have been watching and encouraging the growth of another such community, which reached a milestone this year. Among our most regular attenders have been folks from Green River Community College. About the time WaToToM was getting launched they were launching their own campaign. From the fact that about 50% of Washington's elementary school teachers start their post-secondary education at community colleges, it seemed to the Green River crew to follow that community colleges ought to be putting some thought into providing a good mathematical foundation specifically geared to teachers. They got themselves some funding from the NSF, took on the title of Project TEACH, and settled in to design and test out a good, solid program - a carefully thought out course sequence, and ways to support and connect the students aiming at an elementary teaching career. In due course, they began to feel that they had produced a program worth sharing. How could that be done? They set up a one day Community College Teacher Preparation Summit, and invited colleagues from all the community colleges around the state to take part in it. University colleagues were welcomed as well. It was a wonderful, well-attended day, with numerous sessions discussing different aspects of the program. I enjoyed the sessions, and basked in the frequent references to WaToToM. What gave me the most pleasure, though, was a feeling of familiarity: the air crackled with a life and energy that reminded me forcibly of the first of the WaToToM gatherings. Here is another community in the making, and I will hazard a guess that as it develops it is going to be a very productive one.

Meanwhile, one of the ingredients of their program has been the establishment of a Future Teachers' Club, which has in turn been reaching out to students, teachers, administrators, and other educational professionals from area high schools, community colleges, four-year university programs and K-12 schools by staging annually since 2000 a one day Future Teachers' Conference. I haven't gotten to one of those, but the grapevine provides very positive indications.

"Community-building" has become something of a buzz word recently, to the point that claiming it as a virtue for a proposed activity can produce a skeptical "yeah, yeah". To be sure, the skepticism is sometimes justified, but let me put in a firm word on the other side: a well-built community is a force to be reckoned with! --