Introductory remark: if you are newly on this newsletter list, you need a small lead-in. This particular newsletter is largely about the annual gathering of the Washington Teachers of Teachers of Mathematics, aka WaToToM. A bit of a description and a lot of our history can be found on our web page, http://faculty.washington.edu/warfield/WaToToM/WaToToM.html
Once again WaToToM has been presented with a new challenge and risen to the occasion. This time I think we get points for flexibility. There we were all set, in fact in some cases already on the road, for our canonical early February gathering and thud!, both passes closed for the whole doggoned week-end. The decision to cancel the gathering was painful, but unambiguous. Once the shock wore off, we rallied round, and when Sleeping Lady came up with an alternative date we nabbed it. Not everyone from the original list could make it, which was sad, but then some folks who couldn't have made it in February turned up to counterbalance things, and we wound up having an excellent gathering with some exciting developments. I'll hit just the high spots.
Friday evening is our traditional introduce-a-partner time. Since the idea is to introduce someone you don't already know, I decided to ask the folks who had been there at most once before to stand up -- and it turned out to be more than half. Since I know (and lean on!) the solid core of people who have been to so many of the gatherings that I can't quite imagine WaToToM without them, I really liked the evidence of plenty of fresh blood being around as well.
Saturday always starts with something nifty and mathematical. In this case, we had one that tied in with the topic of the morning, which made for an easy choice. In effect, we simply addressed the question: "What do you know about numbers that can be written as sums of sequences of integers?" If you allow a triangle to be a degenerate trapezoid, then these are just the trapezoidal numbers. I got to go from table to table, seeing some people make diagrams with stacks of dots and manipulate them, and others make one such diagram and go straight to an algebraic description and others start juggling the formula for triangular numbers. When I declared the need to go on we had a theorem with necessary and sufficient condition, with only its necessity proved. The fact that by lunchtime there were four different proofs of the sufficiency leads to a suspicion that some people's attention may not have been fully engaged for the next topic, but the liveliness of the discussion indicated that there was plenty of attention to go around.
The overall topic for the morning was outreach: what is going on, what is planned, and what can we do to increase and stabilize it? First up was a project Ruth Parker and I have been working on for many months now. Ruth, alas, couldn't make the shift from February to April, so my son Neill, who has worked with Ruth and has been the major writer for our work, took over. The bare-bones story is that Ruth has developed and honed a set of courses, workshops, leadership seminars, community math nights, and meetings with administrators and community leaders, all carefully structured and tightly interwoven, that have demonstrably had a huge impact in the locales where she has worked. Now the question is how to use her model as a basis for a professional development project that will extend throughout the state. That's where we WaToToMites come into it. With our knowledge about K-12 mathematics and our connections with each other, we are in the best of positions to aid and stabilize that expansion. The ultimate form of the aid remains unclear -- depends in part on what funding we manage to line up -- but the first steps are already available: this summer, MEC (the Mathematics Education Collaborative -- Ruth's group) will be running their nine-day courses in several districts that have already signed on. They have offered us scholarships to take the introductory course -- two, or even three of us per section. If a bunch of us can manage it, we can form a floating seminar to discuss how we can help and to keep the rest of the group informed. I'll be sending out the course schedule when I am quite convinced that it has genuinely settled down.
Oh, and the relevance of the trapezoidal numbers: last month Ruth posed the situation to a bunch of school administrators, many of them reluctantly present, and when she finally managed to tear them away from working on it, she pointed out that that is the kind of engagement we are looking to provide for students. Much enlightenment was evident.
Further topics of outreach discussion were Mathletes and Transition Math. The Mathletes are to be found in the Tacoma area, where Bryan and Celine Dorner and a bunch of others from PLU are working in conjunction with MESA to bring teams of students from struggling middle schools to the state Math Olympiad. Students from PLU work with the middle schoolers, and parents and teachers take part in various aspects, so that a major impact is the building of a community of enthusiastic mathematics support. They had a nifty 3-minute video presentation, complete with the William Tell Overture. Unfortunately I can't reproduce it here, so I must send you to their website: http://www.plu.edu/~mesa/mathletes/home.html
Transition Math was also missing its expected presenter, since Bill Moore, who runs the project, had too many other demands. Christie Gilliland filled in nobly on about ten minutes notice. She sketched the history of the project, which is funded by the Gates Foundation to address the difficulties many students are having with the transition from high school to college. Then she gave more details on Project TIME, which is Green River Community College's sub-award. In this she was ably seconded by two high school teachers working with her on TIME. What none of them could say was what direction things are going. I promised to clear that up after a meeting on Monday, but ultimately realized that the fact that A) the new Standards are still in revision, B) curriculum choices will depend on the outcome of that revision, but in any case C) the legislature has just mandated that students be required to take three years of high school mathematics and D) the content of those three years is not yet specified makes moving forward on the terrain at best hazardous. But there are lots of good things set to happen once the terrain ceases shifting and shaking. You can read about some of them at http://www.transitionmathproject.org/
The afternoon session, after a good long break to enjoy the sunshine and admire the last of the picturesque, albeit soggy, snow, featured Karen Hall from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). She was supposed to have been part of a panel, but the other two wound up in Utah for the NCTM meetings, so it all fell on her able shoulders. Her basic task was to fill folks in on the story of K-12 math over the past couple of years, up to and including the Standards Revision. I tried to stay on the sidelines, or at least chime in fairly neutrally, but something about the flames and smoke coming out of my nose and ears may have provided a tip-off to my response to some aspects. The Standards Revision process itself did not create the conflagration -- it was a Good Thing, and Karen described it admirably (seconded by Kim Vincent of WSU, who was also part of it). Swirling around it, on the other hand, is enough downright nastiness to do very unpleasant things to my equanimity. We'll leave it at that.
The evening session consisted of reports of the overwhelming abundance of great things happening at the institutions represented at the gathering.
Sunday morning is always the "What do we do now?" session. For some reason, I always come in convinced that there is not enough to talk about, which after ten years of always being late to Sunday lunch -- a Sleeping Lady lunch! -- is hard to account for. This time there was so much, and so much of it was valuable, that if Christie Gilliland had not taken copious notes, I would be in the soup. The notes have a recurring theme of "Now we have wandered into...", but in fact the wanderings somehow all strolled into a general direction. I'll try to corral them into specifics:
1) As regards WaToToM itself, I brought up the by-laws issue (a recurrent theme). Consensus: some day we may well need some, and if so we will crank 'em out, but for the moment we have better uses for our time and energy. Informally, though, I lined up two excellent chunks of help: Celine Dorner and Diane Dowd have been serving as secretaries when one was needed for sending things out. Celine is willing to continue. Diane wasn't with us, so I'll check on her hereafter, but that was one load off my mind. The other was the name list. Something not so hot has been going on -- I have lost at least three names off of it. The ones I know about I have reinstated, but it has made me very nervous. So Nicola Parker nobly stepped in and said she would help me get the situation under control. Whew!
2) Where can we do some good? For a start, the State Board of Education is facing a whole raft of big decisions. They are good folks and working hard at it, but it would be easy to see how they could get swept into corners we would rather not have them stuck in. In particular, there is a current issue mentioned above that the legislature has just mandated a full three years of high school math for graduation. They have specified that it must reach the level of Algebra 2, though the sequence could be an integrated one. What is clear to us, but could easily not be to the Board is that Algebra 2 is not, in fact, a well-defined mathematical entity. So we really want them to be sure to wait until the Standards are adopted before making any specific choices on the course requirement, as otherwise a major mathematical dislocation could occur. So we'll send a letter -- it should be available for editing in a few days.
3) Kim is on the Math Panel and commented that at its meetings folks from Where's the Math come in armed with multitudinous hand-outs for the Panel. She requested that we do likewise. This led to the fact that we would need to define ourselves for such a hand-out, and the obvious query: how? We started with some parts of the admirable Math is More web page, but realized that we needed some different things as well. After a few minutes of mental milling about, Keith Adolphson came up with the perfect solution, and even promised to implement it. We are going to have our very own Wiki, on which we can all edit each other's ideas to our heart's content. That should do it!
4) Then finally back to WaToToM and its functioning. I have never gone out for funding, for an assortment of reasons (including fatalism and laziness...) On the other hand, there are people who have some difficulties explaining to their departments how valuable something that sounds so casual can be. A brilliant idea arose and got bounced around until all its rough edges were rubbed off: Saturday evening's reports have become so numerous that they could use a bit of formatting. How about if we make them Official Short Formal Presentations? It would improve the shape of them a bit, and it would allow everyone to say in complete honesty: "I am going to a conference, and while there I will make a presentation about X, Y and Z that we are doing here." Win, win, win....
I just checked Christie's notes in case I had left out anything. And of course I had. On the other hand, this may well be the bulkiest newsletter I have yet put out, so I really must halt the flow of prose. I will round it out with what we unanimously agreed was the Official Quote of the Day: distressed by the aspersions that were rumored to be being cast on Algebra, Apanakhi cried out: "They ought to know that Algebra is the Silver Sword that Cuts through the Compost!!"
No way can I top that one!