By Ivette Chuca, El Paso Community College; Art Duval, Contributing Editor, University of Texas at El Paso; and Kien Lim, University of Texas at El Paso
Every year, at the beginning of the school year, a group of about two dozen mathematics instructors gets together from the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) and El Paso Community College (EPCC). For most of a Saturday, we put on a workshop for ourselves about teaching courses for pre-service elementary and middle school teachers. We have no incentive other than a free breakfast and lunch. While we have enjoyed putting together and participating in the workshops, we did not think it was especially noteworthy. But then several outsiders pointed out to us that working across institutional lines like this, between a university and a community college, is not so common. But maybe it should be more common, because we have found our partnership to be valuable to our respective institutions and to our students.
How did we get started?
In March, 2012, UTEP’s College of Education initiated a joint UTEP-EPCC meeting to discuss alignment of math courses for undergraduates in the teacher education program. Issues discussed at the meeting include aligning two lower-division math courses, selecting a textbook, creating a wiki to share resources/information, advising students, and improving communication. Although we were brought together by administrators in Dean’s and Provost’s offices, we the faculty quickly took ownership of the effort.
At the second meeting, we identified a need for professional development to help instructors structure their classes to increase student’s mathematical thinking. We discussed questions like: Why should instructors attend? What should they expect to get out of it? What topics are appropriate (e.g., lesson planning, problem solving, what mathematics thinking look like)? We chose “Helping Students Become Mathematical Thinkers” to be the topic for our first workshop, which was held in August, just a few months after we got started. We chose to hold the workshop less than two weeks before the start of the fall semester because we wanted to offer instructors some ideas and resources for their courses. We called our workshop Teachers Teaching Teachers (TTT).
The first workshop went well and we had another five:
- Summer 2012 – Helping Students become Mathematical Thinkers (28 attended at EPCC)
- Fall 2014 – Fostering Mathematical Thinking (25 attended at UTEP)
- Fall 2015 – Big Ideas in Statistics, Insights from Practicing Teachers, and Task Analysis (26 attended at EPCC)
- Fall 2016 – Active Learning (20 attended at UTEP)
- Fall 2017 – Reading Math Textbook (24 attended at EPCC)
- Spring 2019 – Proportional Reasoning (27 attended at EPCC)
What does a typical workshop consist of?
We offer breakfast at 8:30 a.m. to encourage participants to come early and register. Our program starts at 9:00 a.m., with an ice-breaking activity. Most of our workshops consist of two main parts: a learning-and-sharing session before lunch and a working session after lunch. The learning-and-sharing session might have two or three activities in which attendees are participating as active learners or problem solvers. In some years, these activities were facilitated by the workshop organizers: math tasks that challenge participants to think (2012), hands-on-approach in understanding areas (2014), active learning (2016), and 10 essential understandings of ratios and proportions (2019). In other years, invited guests presented topics like big ideas in statistics (2015), perspectives of elementary or middle school teachers (2015), and three-levels of reading—stated, implied, and applied (2016). In the working sessions, attendees worked in small groups to create math tasks (2012, 2016), analyze textbook tasks (2015), generate questions to guide reading of math text (2017), and analyze and respond to student written work (2019). We typically close our workshop by encouraging the participants to take an online survey.
What does the workshop-organizing process entail?
Organizing the first TTT workshop took the most effort because we had to start from scratch. That first summer, a group of about 6-8 of us met almost every week to plan the content and the logistics. Subsequent workshops have involved less effort and coordination because we knew our duties (e.g. logistics, food ordering), and because there has been very little turnover among the organizing committee members. We now typically have 3-6 planning meetings in the summer to prepare for the workshop in the fall semester. Some years, it may take 2-3 meetings just to decide on a topic because we allow ideas to emerge and evolve. For example, the Spring 2019 workshop started with creating a model lesson on a topic that “all” instructors could adapt and implement in their courses. We then selected proportional reasoning to be the topic, then the topic evolved into identifying key concepts necessary for understanding proportional reasoning deeply and analyzing students’ misconceptions involving ratios and proportions.
Expenses are minimal, and consist mostly of breakfast and lunch for participants. This is covered by the hosting department (UTEP or EPCC) and/or a textbook publisher.
How did participants respond to these workshops?
One measure of our success is that many participants keep returning to the TTT workshop each year. The workshops seem to meet the needs of the participants. The participant comments revealed that they liked the topics, activities, and student-centered discussions. They enjoyed working with peers, sharing experiences, and learning from others in a friendly atmosphere. Participants from each institution were eager to interact with their colleagues from the other school. And they enjoyed the food.
The comments also revealed participants’ growing awareness of the importance of student thinking and engagement. One participant “learned about my own classroom practice, learned to stop and reflect between activities.” Another participant acknowledged that “it’s challenging to create activities that engage students.” Other comments included “thinking must be present in the class,” “you must create a need for students to be engaged in learning,” and “it’s important to work with others in solving problems.”
What factors contributed to successful collaboration?
We attribute the success of TTT workshops to the mutual respect and collegiality among UTEP-EPCC math faculty in the organizing committee. We are comfortable and enjoy each other’s company. Many of our meetings are held in the evening at a restaurant where we have a chance to dine, chat, and connect in addition to work and plan the activities for a workshop. We are open to ideas and willing to try new things. For example, we ran with the suggestion of having school teachers share their perspectives for the 2015 workshop because most of our workshop participants, who are college instructors, do not teach elementary and/or middle school students. We are reflective and adaptive. For example, our first workshop lasted 7 ½ hours and our second was 5 hours. We eventually found that 6 ½ hours is most appropriate.
Even well-meaning faculty (and staff) from a community college and a university working together face challenges arising from competing institutional demands and constraints. For instance, a community college has strong incentive for its students to complete the associate’s degree, while a university has a strong incentive for its students not to put off courses in the major for too long. We at UTEP and EPCC have a built-in advantage in that we are the only 4-year university and community college, respectively, in the area. This almost forces us to work together on issues such as articulation and enrollment. Many students from EPCC eventually transfer to UTEP and many students at UTEP started at EPCC. Some students are even taking courses at both campuses at the same time. To capture this reality, we repeated to each other, “Our students are your students are our students,” sometimes modifying it to “Our students are your students are all of our students.”
Working together year after year, faculty from both institutions have come to appreciate that we have more in common than we have differences. Both UTEP and EPCC faculty work towards a common purpose; that is, to increase the quality of our math courses for prospective teachers who would in turn improve the math courses they teach when they become teachers. We think an element of kindness among the organizing committee members underlies our success. That is, we care for each other, our fellow instructors, and our students.
What have we learned?
In our earlier workshops, each institution (UTEP and EPCC) was responsible for different sessions. We later realized that our collaboration would be stronger if each activity is co-facilitated by one faculty member from each institution. We learned that one or two ice-breaking activities help improve the workshop atmosphere. This year, we began by having workshop participants share how they implemented the ideas learned in the previous workshop and the outcomes. We encouraged them to implement the ideas and activities of this year’s workshop, on proportional reasoning, in their courses and then share their findings at the next workshop.
What are some of our challenges or unfulfilled dreams?
Our success in offering an annual workshop may be limited to creating awareness and may not have lasting impact on changing the way our instructors teach mathematics. We were very motivated at the end of our first workshop but we were not successful with follow-up efforts once the semester started. Workshop participants were not very responsive after the workshops and the organizing committee members were busy with their own routines. Effective professional development projects require follow-up activities and support throughout the academic year, and possibly over two to three years. If we could secure funding to support such an expansion to a full-blown project with more extensive follow-up activities, we would all benefit. On the other hand, the group dynamics and motivating forces would be different, and there is the risk that our current collaboration would dissolve at the end of the funded project.
When we started TTT, we thought one of the easiest things to accomplish would be to agree on a common textbook for both institutions. It is a surprise that we still have not done this. So students who transfer from EPCC to UTEP must buy a different textbook when they take the third (upper-division) course at UTEP. We have also had difficulty attracting adjunct faculty who teach only one or two courses to attend our workshop.
We cannot say for sure which parts of our story would work at other universities and community colleges. Some of what is going on here may be very specific to El Paso, or to the people who happen to be here. But one part that is perhaps universal is the value of just getting the faculty at the different institutions together to talk to each other, and seeing what they come up with.