Newsletter #41     WaToToM

There are times when plagiarism really pays off. A year ago, at a math meeting in Oregon, Jim King and I listened while Marj Enneking of Portland State University bubbled about the benefits and professional pleasures and just plain fun of TOTOM gatherings. TOTOM is an organization (using the word loosely) of Oregon's Teachers of Teachers of Mathematics at universities and colleges and community colleges all over the state. They have been getting together one week-end a year for eons and having extremely lively conversations on everything from course content to state certification requirements, forming in the process an extremely tightly knit community with a great capacity for cooperation. In fact, they recently put this cooperation to work and got themselves an NSF collaborative grant for teacher enhancement. The only downside to that is that they had to break the long tradition of complete equality among the participants except for the designated telephoner (I told you it started eons ago--pre-e-mail!), and elect some officers.

At the beginning of the conversation, Jim and I thought "Wouldn't it be nice for Washington to have such an organization?", and as Marj warmed to her subject, we thought "Washington really ought to have such an organization." By the end, it was "Washington has got to have such an organization!!"

This past week-end was the first gathering of WaToToM (Washington Teachers of Teachers of Mathematics.) First annual, as it turns out--we had a splendid time. Thanks to an advance from the math department to cover the deposit, we were able to gather at the Sleeping Lady in Leavenworth, which has got to be the ultimate conference center. I could spend an entire newsletter on the ambience, or the locale or the food. Maybe two on the food. But I will restrain myself and just point out that the location was excellent in terms of fair play for east and west within the state. They had the greater distance, but we had the seasonal gamble on the passes (which behaved themselves beautifully, but I sure wouldn't have bet on it a week ago!) And east we did have as well as west. Also community colleges as well as colleges and universities. Also people from math education departments as well as from math departments. And in addition, we had someone from the Office of the Superintendant of Public Instruction, a district level person from the Bellevue School District and three middle school teachers, all enormously helpful in keeping our focus on real teachers of real students.

Friday evening we sat around introducing ourselves to each other, thereby confirming a suspicion most of us had had that this was a terrific group of people.

Saturday morning, after a four course breakfast, we rolled into the conference room for a session that pulled us right out of our postprandial torpor: Caspar Curjel brought a bunch of three-dimensional coordinate systems and launched us straight into a lesson. For the next hour we were all over the place, arguing just where on the sloped ceiling the imaginary ball traveling along the line determined by a dowel would hit, and how long it would take to do so and in the meantime just how to set up the functions defining its location. Great fun, and a perfect launch for the subsequent conversation, which ranged freely among a large batch of related, pertinant topics: the amount students at all levels can profit from hands-on experiences with mathematical objects, the timing and methods of abstraction, the virtues and dangers of using context-driven materials, the difficulties at every educational level of simultaneously engaging students of vastly different ability and interest levels in the same mathematics, the pressure to move too swiftly onward to new materials before the students have digested current ones and (most painfully to me) the outside world's perception of the math department in our Real Identity as purveyors of calculus.

After lunch was a long break, in which a bunch of us went cross-country skiing, another bunch went walking, some hit the sauna and I suspect some hit the hay for a bit--the morning had been pretty intense. Then we reassembled for a session run by our three middle school teachers which was possibly even more intense. By the time they had finished their introductory teaching autobiographies we were already dealing with the fact that of these three excellent middle school math teachers only one had come through what we think of as the conventional preparation channels for teaching math. Still reeling from that, we discovered that a perfectly legitimate route through conventional preparation and into middle school, where the teacher may well be dealing with algebra and some pretty heavy-duty geometry, is through the courses for future elementary school teachers. Most of us teaching those courses have a definite mental image of our current students being out at some future date surrounded by the waist-high types who need to know about things like place value and why a third is bigger than a quarter. Scary. Then we found out more about their students, which was told with far too much love to rate as scary, but was nonetheless decidedly overwhelming. We don't have to deal with students who feel as if they and all their classmates are living in soap bubbles and constantly concerned with popping each other's bubbles while maintaining their own. [Someone pointed out that the difference may only be that our students have painted their bubbles to be opaque, but we didn't pursue that image!] Armed with this information, we broke into small groups and discussed their impact on our teaching and implications for our goals. The three conversations wound up in somewhat different places, but there was no temptation to go off-task, because the task was far too compelling.

The time after dinner I had billed as schmooze time and instead converted to what's-the-program-at-YOUR-institution time. People were pretty exhausted, but rose nobly to the occasion, partly because we all really did want to know what each other are doing. Lots in common, but also some huge variations--it really was interesting.

This morning, Peggy Vatter from OSPI led off the discussion with some information about Eisenhower grants and about the current state of the assessment program. She thought she didn't have much interesting to tell us. She was wrong. The next question on the floor was answered before it even hit the floor: do we want to do this again next year? Resounding affirmative, plus some really useful ideas on managing the mechanics of paying for it. Also a bright idea from the organizer of next autumn's Northwest Math Conference: why not have a gathering there? (guaranteed non-empty guest list, since he had just recruited several speakers from among us.) So we will. Breakfast, maybe, for instance. Further discussion revolved around the fact that much as we enjoyed being a tight little group of twenty-one, we all know other people who would have enjoyed being there, and from whom we'd all have profited. So we'll work on that for next time.

And on that mellow note we headed for lunch, and then rolled out (in various senses of the word) and headed home. WaToToM lives!

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