Creating a More Inclusive Fellowship Weekend for Educators

21 August 2019

In a previous post, we described our attempts to reduce bias in the selection process for our Desmos Fellowship, an application-based program from which we select 40 people every year for an all-expenses paid trip to San Francisco for a weekend of mutual learning. We seek a diverse group of participants for the Fellowship because we want to support a diverse group of teachers and students with our work, and the Fellows offer us some of our most important instruction about this goal every year.

But we are reminded by the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Robert Berry, that “it is possible to have diversity without inclusion.” Desmos Fellow Lauren Baucom noted similarly last year that it is one thing to feel invited, and another much more significant thing to feel as though you belong.

As a company, we are engaged in frequent discussions, in book clubs and in other meetings, that help us grow in our ability to create inclusive math education spaces. We know we are early in that work, so in our preparation for the Fellowship Weekend we invested in a consultant from Becoming Better Together to help us plan an inclusive weekend.

Here are some of the measures we took before the weekend and during the weekend to help participants experience belonging at the event.

Before the Weekend

  • Code of Conduct. We sent our code of conduct to participants a month before the event. We wanted everyone to understand that we took their safety seriously at the Fellowship Weekend, and that there were reporting mechanisms and consequences for violations.

    A Desmos Fellow: “It was meaningful to see the strong language and consequences outlined for failing to meet the code of conduct. Identifying Shelley [Carranza] and Dan [Meyer] specifically as people to reach out to in case of any issue was important as well.”

    Another Desmos Fellow: “The clear layout of what constitutes inappropriate behavior, the consequences, and how to report made it an actionable document.”

  • Home groups. In the weeks leading up to the event, we invited returning Desmos Fellows to lead a “home group” for 3–5 new Fellows, answering their questions, previewing the agenda together, offering support via public forums and direct messaging, and making sure everyone had rides planned to and from the airport.

  • Affirmation. In the days leading up to the event, we wrote emails and note cards to all the new Fellows to affirm them individually and remind them of the unique contributions we anticipated they’d make to the group when we first read their applications.

During the Weekend

  • Home groups. We built on the relationships home group members had already established leading up to the Fellowship Weekend. Those groups then met every day throughout the weekend, including for dinner on the first day.

    A Desmos Fellow: “It was comforting to have a leader to check in with and a group to sit with. The rest of the returning fellows took initiative to welcome and engage with us on Slack and throughout the weekend as well.”

  • Norms. We explained our group norms, the dispositions and behaviors we hoped would foster a good learning environment for all participants. We also referenced our Code of Conduct explicitly in the first session of the weekend and throughout the next two days.

  • Pronouns. We asked participants to tell us the pronouns they wanted to use during the Fellows Weekend and included them on name tags.

  • We emphasized shared ownership of our headquarters. We transferred as much ownership over our space as we could to attendees by making sure everyone knew which areas were common for all attendees and which areas were available at any time for a spontaneous meet-up or for solitude. No area of our headquarters was off limits, though one room was reserved in advance for religious observation.

  • We scheduled an offsite breakfast for educators of color. We know that a sense of belonging is not something that is assured for everyone, even in situations of good intent. So we crafted a time for educators of color to create their own community in a space where the risk of speaking honestly about their lived experiences with oppression was lower than in a multi-racial group.

    A Desmos Fellow: “The educators of color breakfast was meaningful for me before I even arrived. It sent the message that the Desmos team acknowledged the social risk that EOC take even when entering welcoming professional spaces.”

    Another Desmos Fellow: “I loved having the educators of color breakfast. Through informal conversation with educators of color, I was able to lay a foundation of relationships that only grew over the weekend and I hope will continue to grow.”

  • Multiple evening departures. In years past, we’ve largely operated on our home Pacific Time Zone, hanging out late into the night, well past bedtime for our colleagues who traveled from the East Coast. This year we made sure not to schedule any evening events past dinner on the first night. We also made sure that at regular intervals throughout the night, new Fellows were accompanied by a returning Fellow back to the hotel whenever they decided their evening was over.

  • Prioritizing pedagogy over technology. In previous years, we hosted a session for all Fellows dedicated to our Computation Layer programming language. We also closed our weekend with a “show and tell” in which participants showed off activities they made with our technology. That heavy emphasis on our existing technology had two negative effects. It created a status imbalance between participants whose schools had and hadn’t offered them resources like technology and time to gain experience with the technology. We also found that by emphasizing our technology, the Fellows would reflect our existing pedagogical ideas back at us rather than helping us develop new ones. This year, we offered Computation Layer training as an optional elective, and for the potluck, we asked participants to share any artifact of their weekend—including non-technological artifacts like a lesson plan, a summary of a conversation, or an application of math to a social context.

The initial feedback from participants on these efforts and our agenda was very positive, which speaks highly of the support we received from Becoming Better Together.

We also received concerns and criticism from attendees in areas where we deviated from that agenda. Educators of color were extremely generous with their time, energy, and insights in spontaneous conversations about how we needed to improve our efforts to support historically marginalized students. But those conversations left several educators of color feeling depleted. Furthermore, during a whole-group debrief, our team didn’t sufficiently credit one of those participants for their insight—an erasure which was noticed and cited by another educator of color in a very vulnerable act. We owed better to both of those educators.

We hope that all of these efforts—even when we didn’t realize their full potential—communicated to our participants how much we valued them and their insights. We are deeply grateful to new Fellows for engaging us in thoughtful conversations and to returning Fellows for leading breakout sessions that challenged our entire team and invited us to reflect on and even revise long-held values.

Learning from each year’s cohort helps us create a Fellowship that is not just more diverse with each coming year, but also more inclusive. We look forward to the continued and growing impact that each improved Fellowship has on the math education of every student, especially students who are too often pushed to the margins of their classes and schools.