Newsletter #51     A whole lot to talk about

Many years ago a friend, observing me to be in somewhat dilapidated condition, expressed concern to my husband. "Don't worry," he replied, "she's just dealing with the effects of being finite." To his enduring delight, she replied "As bad as THAT?"

This quarter any of you who noticed that the asynchronous newsletter had slid over into being the a-existant newsletter could well have concluded that nothing was happening on the UW Teaching/Learning front. Not so. It's just that the scribe has been dealing with finiteness. So here is the nutshell, or thumbnail, version of the News of the Quarter in Review.

First we have the Brown Bags. Sometime in February, Jay Johnson came up from the Center for Quantitative Sciences and discussed the calculus course he teaches there. Basically it came about by his being asked to use his inside knowledge to produce a course consisting of the calculus people really, REALLY need to study a Quantitative Science. So he pared the content down to the absolute essentials, and then set out to make sure those absolute essentials wound up absolutely understood. The course has had its ups and downs, but seems to have settled into a form that both Jay and the students enjoy, with a lot of solid learning going on. His experiences certainly mirror a good many of ours (as witness his title of "Despair, thy name is story problems".) For instance, having designed a course whose entire purpose is to make possible the study of sundry sciences, he is a tad disconcerted by the regular appearance of a certain number of (generally somewhat grumpy) students who demand a passing grade because it is the only thing between them and graduation. Shades of Pre-calculus as a terminal course!

Considerably later we had a Brown Bag with Reed Stevens, who is a new kid on the block over in the College of Education. That one clearly requires a follow-up, because a scheduling glitch kept the attendance rather low, while the pertinance and interest of what he had to say kept getting higher. He did his graduate work at Berkeley, working a lot with Alan Schoenfeld but ultimately doing his thesis under someone else whose name (blush) I have forgotten. What I do remember was that the bifurcation was between focusing mainly on teaching or on learning, and he opted for the latter. His main study was a comparison between how architects use mathematics and how fifth graders undertaking an architecture-related project use it. But my main memory is not from the comparison but from the architecture firm itself:

And the punch line? A = B.

Does this indicate schizophrenia or dishonesty? Not a bit of it. It's a gorgeous illustration of just how fluid the world's image of mathematics is.

Onward from the Brown Bags:

One of the riskier things to attempt in life is a second rendition of something that was really great the first time around. I am here to tell you that it CAN work. Almost a year ago (in Newsletter # 41, in fact) I burbled at length about the gathering at the Sleeping Lady Resort of Washington Teachers of Teachers of Mathematics (otherwise known as WaToToM.) It was so much fun, and so profitable, that a) it clearly needed to be repeated and b) it was a little scary to do so. I needn't have worried. Though the "agenda" (to use the word very loosely!) was the same, there's no way you can get together that neat a bunch of people and not have it work well. Besides, some things were distinctly different-- like, for instance, spending the week wondering whether the passes were going to be closed by avalanches just when we needed to go through them (answer: no. The Wednesday before, yes. The Saturday night and Sunday morning while we were gathered, yes. But Friday and Sunday afternoon, no. Whew!) Another change was that thanks to a grant from the North West Math and Science Consortium we had guests from Montana, Oregon and Alaska. With characteristic good fortune, we managed to have one math professor, one person from a state education office and one school teacher, each of them with lively and helpful additions to make to the conversation.

And conversation was really what it was about. Conversation about what is, and could, and should be going on in K-12 schools, and what we can, or might, or should do to support it now and to prepare teachers for its future. And conversation about what different universities and colleges around the state are doing, or would like to be doing, or feel as if they ought to be doing. Our focus this time was at the high school level, with four teachers with experience ranging from three years to twenty-some years in schools ranging from inner city to suburban to small town leading Saturday afternoon's discussion. This also gave a nice excuse for a session on spherical geometry using Lenart Spheres which served to illuminate neatly one of our underlying bonds: the sheer joy in doing mathematics.

One neat feature was that this time we had faculty members from every university in the state system (Eastern, Western, Central, WSU and UW) often both math and math ed (note my clever ambiguity: from UW the "both" is because Jim King and I were there from the math department and Jack Beal from the college of ed; from several of the others the "both" is because the math department encompasses math ed and one person can be in both.) This means that at each of the universities there is now someone who can put a name and face to someone at each of the others with a shared interest in teaching teachers. I think that's called networking!

We also had faculty members from Seattle U and UW Tacoma and Green River Community College, and graduate students in education and a district coordinator. And (this really was like last year) someone from the Office of the Superintendant of Public Instruction who came in drastically underestimating her capacity to fascinate us with information about what is going on at the state level with regard to the State Essential Academic Learning Requirements, and the proposed tests and their preparation and impact. All this she will be repeating as part of a panel after lunch on Math Day, so I shall hold off on the general report and just mention one rather chilling but highly memorable bit: she and some others have just been conducting a study to determine what it is that distinguishes a bunch of schools who have had pretty spectacular success in mathematics recently from the rest of the schools in the system. Results were interesting but non-startling until the last one. "Teachers in the successful schools teach the mathematics." "?!?!?" "Well--don't shoot the messenger--it turns out that in most schools, math is taught when there happens to be time after the reading lesson and there's no assembly." We didn't shoot her. We were far too busy scraping our jaws off the carpet.

WaToToM was the last week-end in February, on the other side of the mountains. The following week-end, on the other hand, there was a major event on the other side of the Sound. CCML, having with some sadness staged the last of its middle school workshops (though not by any means seen the last of its participants!), staged an Orientation Retreat to kick off the high school portion of our efforts. I was looking forward to it with some trepidation--change is not my forte, and I have really enjoyed working with our middle school teachers--but the week-end in Silverdale succeeded in turning my attitude neatly around. Seventy teachers, representing all six of our school districts, and what a great bunch they were! They tore into the transformational geometry of Bluebeard in the San Juans; they cogitated thoughtfully on the seven principles in the Revised Standards draft; they pondered the implications of the tenth grade WASL test; in short, they never slacked off. This, too, is going to be a lot of fun!

If that was a nutshell resume, I think the original nut must have been at least a Brazil nut. If it was a thumbnail report,, I don't think I want to meet the thumb. But at least the news is no longer lying whimpering and unattended in a corner. Just as well, because there are some big bits coming. But that's another story.

[Back to index]