This post was started in November when I was on my way back from the Fellow’s weekend. It languished in my drafts until today.
As I write this, I’m on my way home from a weekend at Desmos HQ where I worked side by side with other Desmos Teaching Fellows. The Fellowship is meant to build “community, mentorship, early access to our best ideas and technology” among the 39 members of the first cohort. It was a heck of a time.
What we did
We spent pretty much all our official time in the Desmos office either engaging in presentations from Desmos staff and collaborating with fellow Fellows. Folks like Shelly, Michael, Christopher, and Dan spoke at length about how they teach teachers to use the calculator and the Activity Builder. Folks like Eli gave us the framework of Desmos’s history, guiding principles, and outlook for the future. And we spent a healthy amount of time just chatting and getting to know each other.
What I learned
The Desmos staff is insanely talented. They have done an impressive job finding folks that not only excel in engineering and design, but really do understand what makes for good math pedagogy. Every member of their team could create an exceptional Activity Builder lesson. They also clearly want to make their product better at all times. The whole staff was around all weekend and were constantly being pelted with “little suggestions” from 39 teachers with feature requests. Not only did they gladly take it all in, but they would follow up with deeper questions about what else would make the calculator and AB better for students and teachers.
The best moment of the whole weekend happened while Michael was demoing the Activity Builder dashboard. At one point, some fellows mentioned that students will sometimes become distracted by the incognito names (where a student name on the dashboard is replaced by a famous mathematician). It was even suggested aloud that maybe they could just have the mathematician name show on the student screen so they knew who they were. Heads nodded, but we moved on. 30 minutes later, Denis (I think it was Denis), announced that we should refresh our screens, currently in a student AB session. We did, and low and behold the new feature was done and in place. Gasps and applause broke out. It was like magic.
Their philosophy is pure. They are not willing to compromise their work. They want students and teachers to have access to a free best-in-class resource. That. Is. It. Here is their design philosophy:
Fellows are smart. These people, where do they find them? Similar to my experiences at TMC16, the people I was surrounded with are such a wealth of experience, insight, and generosity. This would be no surprised to anyone deep in the MTBoS, but it’s nice to work side by side with them once in a while.
Why it was cool
We heard about a few great updates. In addition to that little update I mentioned above, Eli demoed a new way to handle points which has since yielded some pretty cool graphs from folks (that one from Nathan Kraft). You may have noticed that we also now get dotted lines and x-points. It was pretty neat to have the whole Desmos team in the room to immediately answer questions about how these features roll out to Activity Builder and the app (short story: there is a delay for each of those after it goes live to the calculator).
If you’re like me, you have continually been impressed by how consistent Desmos is with providing the right resources for the right reasons. There’s no fat, nothing there that doesn’t have solid pedagogy behind it. Sitting in the room with the whole team, I kinda got an idea of how that all fits together. On that point, I saw how much they agonize over the same stuff we agonize over as users. Teachers will often bemoan the limited search on shared activities. After communicating with several members of their team over a few months now, I have no doubt that they have given that issue even more time and energy than all of us have. No choice has been made without extremely careful consideration (and continual reflection). This stuck with me more than anything. It gave me more motivation to keep working on mindfulness within my craft.
What fellows are supposed to do now
There’s no specific tasks or responsibilities we now have. Many of us will conduct Desmos PD sessions all over, either as Desmos Certified Presenters or as enthusiasts who apply for conference slots. Some have broken off into smaller groups working on specific subjects or aspects of Activity Builder. You will find several of us engaging folks in need on Twitter. We are all still chatting regularly on our Slack channel. We are also going to help usher in a new crop of fellows. Desmos recently opened up applications for a second round of the fellowship.
Working through the fellowship has been one of the most exciting opportunities in my career. Thanks to Desmos and all my fellow Fellows for their generosity and openness.