Do No Harm

Photo Credit: Lauren Johnson

If you are a math teacher, perhaps you have heard of Desmos. They make an amazingly powerful, free, online graphing calculator as well as awesome math activities. Over the past few years, in pursuit of learning more about what teachers need as well as to build a network, they have developed a “Desmos Fellowship” program where about 40 teachers are brought to their headquarters in San Francisco for a weekend of collaboration and learning. 

There have been 3 cohorts of teachers to be involved in the Desmos Fellows program. The popularity of the program growing so much that there were over 400 teachers to apply for Cohort 3 that just met this past weekend. I was very humbled and honored to be part of the group. If you ever have heard the saying, “if you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room,” just know if that is true, I was most definitely in the right room, as I was overwhelmed by the amount of people so much smarter than me!

Photo Credit: Hanako

Walking into Desmos HQ was cool. A typical start-up office with old wooden floors and windows in contrast to the shiny laptops. Frosted glass dry-erase boards covering a few walls with interesting/intimidating math scribbles. It was cool. But one thing that caught my eye, was the beliefs/principles wall decals on the wall. The principles said things like “Trust Teachers” and “Design for real classrooms,” "Design for Delight," and "Works Every Time." All amazing things. But one that stood out to me was “Do No Harm." 

Now, I had just attended the ISTE annual conference a few weeks ago and was still recovering from an Expo hall experience that left me less than enthused for what I saw edtech-wise for us math peeps. In fact, I was downright upset at a few “products” that were little more than online, multiple choice, boring math with built in “help” that popped up overwhelming paragraphs of text for kids to read to get them the right answers. I mean, it was bleak.

So back to Desmos where there were edtech people committed to “Do No Harm.” Wow. So, no harm to kids feelings about math? No harm to teachers feelings about tech? No harm to students ability to do math? No harm. Is this possible?

The weekend included lots of cool stuff. I won’t lie, it was fun. Amazing people, fun activities, delicious food, out for drinks… but there was also a lot of work. Teachers collaborated on their ideas for activities to build within the platform’s activity builder. We brainstormed, we storyboarded, we gave and got feedback, we built. Some of us even dappled (or dove) into the new computational layer to make our actives even more interactive and robust. My brain hurt a lot.



There was a point in the weekend where Michael modeled a lesson for us. First we noticed and wondered. Then we estimated. We wrote on paper, we turned and talked to our neighbor, we discussed. Not until well into thinking about the problem did any of us jump onto Desmos. But, finally, there it was… the need for something to help us see a pattern. We were thinking, “wouldn’t it be helpful to have a tool to help us graph this relationship we have been thinking about for the past 15 minutes?” Yep, Desmos helped.

I was in the minority in that I teach in the K-8 setting. Most of the teachers are teaching high school. Embracing my unique spot, I challenged myself to appropriate Desmos’ power for primary kids. Could I build something useful for 1st graders? My first attempt was okay, but I had that Desmos principle swimming in my heard, “Do No Harm.” Was my activity doing harm? Was it actually too helpful to students? Did it take away their opportunity to play and make meaning for themselves? I was worried. But a chat with Christopher gave me some new ideas and I was back to finding ways to incorporate more of what I thought kids needed.

The Desmos Fellows weekend was a weekend filled with conversations about pedagogy, teaching, and learning. Sure, the tech was part of it, but it really wasn't even the main point. Seriously. This is what I wanted that Expo Hall at ISTE to be. This is what I want classrooms to be. Focus on the learning. Focus on students. Do No Harm.


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