Newsletter #76     CCML at Semiahmoo

Absences are rarely as noteworthy as presences, but it might nonetheless have struck a few of you that in recent months there has been a singular lack of reference to the CCML project. This was not by chance. There was a period in there when our condition conformed closely to one of my father's descriptive phrases: we could put on our hats by dropping them on the floor and walking under them. Event after event had to be cancelled because of low enrollment. Even teachers who had never been known voluntarily to miss a single CCML offering weren't turning up. The cause of this finally became formal and public as one after another of our school districts announced that substitutes were in such short supply that any request to be absent from school for professional development would automatically be denied. This meant not only that our teachers could not possibly attend anything on a week day, but that their after-school time and week-ends were being bombarded by the whole set of things that could now no longer happen during the day -- and an already stressed population was being stretched yet further. We had a brainstorming dinner meeting with a bunch of our most stalwart supporters and got many mixed messages -- "Well, people might be interested in that," "Possibly that would be worthwhile to try" -- and one absolutely clear one: "Don't you cancel that retreat!" From the former category we tried a few items with some success. One, in fact, was resoundingly successful: Geneva Gay from the College of Education led a Saturday morning session on Cultural Diversity and the Struggling Student that was well attended and thoroughly enjoyed. Chiefly, though, we threw our energy -- masses of energy from multitudinous people -- into planning for a retreat. The retreat was this past week-end and attended by well over a hundred teachers, and I would say that not one iota of that energy had gone to waste. The hats we had been walking under are now being thrown in the air.

Some details would perhaps be in order. The retreat was centered around two themes. One was furthering the efforts of the Local Learning Communities, otherwise known as the LLCs. They have been one of the major elements in our structure since the beginning of our work with the high schools, which makes us ever so slightly smug about the fact that quite recently research results have been appearing indicating that the most effective and sustainable systemic progress occurs in exactly that format. A Local Learning Community is a batch of teachers, generally but not always from the same school, who set themselves a goal and then work together to achieve it. Sounds easy, yes? Consider a system in which everyone involved is teaching five out of six periods of the day, and the twenty-five minutes allocated for a leisurely lunch are not necessarily the same twenty-five as someone else's. Not easy. A few schools have somehow always managed -- Garfield, for instance, has ferociously guarded the simultaneity of lunches and learned to communicate a lot in a small amount of time. Those schools were able to take CCML's support and intensify existing efforts. Others got started in the palmier days of last year and managed to have substitute coverage for a full day math faculty retreat, so they had launched some goals and ideas and were ready to follow up on them. And some whom we had thought firmly entrenched in the "Who, me -- change?" mode turned up, to our delight, for the first time and took the first steps down the long road of developing real communications. Whatever their phase, LLC's clearly valued the time together. During the periods allotted to LLC work, it was really impressive to wander through the area and observe the level of intensity of all of the conversations going on.

LLCs were a major focus but not the only one. One reaction that has been absolutely uniform and dependable since back in the days when we were focusing on middle schools has been enthusiasm for the mathematical content we have invariably included. Teachers know that they can depend, as one of them put it, on having their mathematical batteries re-charged. We decided this time that we needed to accept the challenge that has repeatedly been tossed our way to address the issue of technology and teaching. What resulted was four simultaneous workshops, each offered twice, so that teachers could choose two. We chose three pieces of software (Green Globs, Geometer's Sketchpad and Excel) and one graphing calculator capacity (transformations) and set about finding for each of them a way in which to avoid both "Isn't it cute what this program can do?" and "Here's an activity for your students to do Tuesday" and instead focus on "How can this program be used to give your students access to a piece of mathematics and/or to deepen their understanding of one?" A non-trivial challenge, but we felt good about what our 37.5 iterations had produced by the time we got to the retreat, and judging by their responses, so did most of the teachers.

That, you will observe, required a whopping collection of computers. This we had, thanks to generous loans from a number of sources. It also required a whopping amount of work, which we had thanks to Mike and Barb Gilbert, whose presence on the CCML staff has given us a formidable technological boost. With their help, we let our ambitions vault one notch further and connected all of the computers to the web. Our plan was to get everyone there acquainted with and comfortable using our web-board conference capacity, so that discussions launched at the retreat could then be continued at more distance. In this we ran into the week-end's only glitch. After a heady few minutes in which nearly everybody crowded (cybernetically) into one of our chat-rooms, we tried to move on to the more serious conference capacities. In the process things hung up and couldn't be unhung. We gave up and dismissed everyone, wondering whether we had somehow fried the server or messed up the web-board by the onslaught of simultaneous log-ins. We were working our way up to some pretty high-falutin' theories -- until it was discovered that a key surge protector had its rocker switch flipped to "off". Apparently someone stepped on it...

One other session livened up our Sunday morning: Eric McDowell of the Bellevue School district described to us the workings of Lesson Planning. This is an idea borrowed from the Japanese school system, as described in Stigler and Hiebert's book, The Teaching Gap -- an idea with great and exciting potential. It involves having a small bunch of teachers (could even be an LLC) take some specific lesson (which could be a several-day one) and really, really work on it. First comes articulating the goal of the lesson, a process which can produce many hours of thoughtful discussion. Only after the goal is settled can work move forward to studying how best to achieve that goal, and how to assess whether it has been achieved. Eventually a plan is produced. Then it is tried out by one member of the planning team with others on the team observing, after which it is revised and re-taught. The cycle continues until the planners feel good about it, at which point it is made available to other teachers all over. Bellevue just began this last September, so results are not yet numerous, but the excitement among those who have been working with it was lovely to behold, and it sounds as if some crackerjack lessons were starting to emerge.

Those were all pieces that were fitted together to make up the retreat. Good and successful pieces, but even they don't account altogether for the level of joy the retreat produced in all of us who ran it. For that you have to look as well to two other sources. One was the pleasure of giving our teachers a bit of much deserved and rarely received "pampering as professionals" (a phrase that turned up on one of their evaluation forms.) The retreat was at Semiahmoo (no, I don't know where Totalahmoo is) on a spit of land from which one looks over the water to Canada. The setting was lovely and the Inn treated us royally -- and creature comforts are not to be sneezed at. Even that wasn't the heart of the matter, though. At the heart was a phenomenon of which I became conscious Friday evening as I watched one after another of the late arrivals for dinner come into the dining room, look around a moment and then suddenly light up and dash off towards some table, and which was expressed on an evaluation form as "It was neat to realize that I knew 3/4 of the people here." Creating a Community of Mathematics Learners isn't just our title. It's something we have done. --

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