Desmos Fellowship Weekend

I had the opportunity to be part of the Desmos Fellowship Weekend earlier this month. Too much happened, and I met too many people, to fit all of my thoughts about the weekend in a blog that is supposed to contain “rough draft notes”, so I’ll mention two takeaways from the weekend.

Desmos is an ed company, first, and a tech company, second: The weekend highlighted for me that Desmos is a strong example of a math edtech company that listens to, prioritizes, and acts on many of the most prominent ideas put forth by the math education community. Michael Fenton led an activity and conversation showing how one of Desmos’s AB activities could be used to (1) create intellectual need, (2) honor students’ informal thinking, and (3) encourage mathematical discussion. The activity used a lot of tech, for sure, but it wasn’t tech for tech’s sake. The tech was meant to support pedagogy and learning, and many of the activities being worked on by the other fellows over the weekend reflected these same priorities.

Caveat: I’m careful to use the phrase “many of the most prominent ideas” and not “every”, “best”, or even “most important”. Like any math ed organization, Desmos privileges certain ideas in math ed over others. In some ways, this is a good thing. I’m glad Desmos isn’t a test prep company. In other ways, Desmos probably has room for growth. These areas include: equity, power and identity, trauma-informed instruction, and support for ELL students. More on this in the next takeaway.

Let’s keep talking about equity: There were lots of good conversations about equity, mostly kickstarted by a session led by Lauren Baucom and Christelle Rocha. I was particularly taken by their share of Prof. Rochelle Gutiérrez’s definition of equity, which she defines as “the inability to predict mathematics achievement and participation based solely on student characteristics such as race, class, ethnicity, sex, beliefs, and proficiency in the dominant language.”

I hadn’t thought about equity in terms of predictability before, but this lens makes sense and foregrounds the role that systemic issues play in foreclosing mathematics learning opportunities for marginalized and vulnerable students. It’s a nice reminder that what we’re dealing with here is not about “broken kids”, “broken homes”, “broken cultures”, or “a few bad apples”. Prof. Gutiérrez’s quote is reminiscent of a quote I recently read by the feminist philosopher Marilyn Frye:

The experience of oppression is that of confinement by obstacles that aren’t accidental or occasional or avoidable, but are “systematically related to each other in such a way as to catch one between and among them and restrict or penalize motion in any direction.”

This quote alongside Gutiérrez’s definition of equity reminds me that there are no easy fixes when it comes to making sure that all cultures, languages, and perspectives are valued and made an integral part of mathematics classroom communities. Ed tech will not be the panacea that some may think it is, especially in relation to equity. But companies like Desmos can be part of the system that helps teachers and schools lend voice to all students and help them understand and embrace difference.

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