In the spring it was different. Now, I’m worried.

In the spring, it was different. I knew those kids. We had spent six months building something before having our school year hijacked. What we knew about each other carried us through those cold, desolate, scary spring months in New York City. It was a dark time. I felt alone and my students felt alone, but at least we had each other. We had a shared history. This history helped us make something out of nothing.

Now, with the hustle of the first week of school well underway, the cold realities of this strange year are slowly sinking in. I’m sitting in my empty classroom teaching students who are represented by icons on a screen. These icons occasionally sound like humans, but are mostly silent. They don’t smile or smirk. They don’t fidget. They don’t laugh. They don’t walk in tired or frustrated. I see names, but they are faceless. We have no history, no memories, nothing to fall back on. It all feels so empty, so fabricated.

I’m worried. I’m misgendering students and forgetting who is even in my class. I’m trying desperately to hang onto details that emerge about who these young people are, but it all seems so rushed and frenzied. Outside of a name and student ID, I have no idea who they are. I’m not sure I ever will.

And, I’m sorry, but teaching math doesn’t make any of this any easier. As someone who places a heavy emphasis on relationships and human connection, the Common Core is incredibly divisive. It lacks humanity and only furthers the distance between my students and I at a time like this. How the hell is the distributive property and right triangle trig going to help me reach my kids?

Maybe there are math teachers out there who can press on with content no matter who or what or when or how. Maybe these teachers can have no semblance of knowledge of who is on their rosters and still be effective. Maybe knowing who their students are beyond a name and an icon is a curse for these teachers. Maybe knowing their students gets in the way. At the same time, maybe my students need a teacher like that. Maybe they would prefer a teacher like that. Why complicate things?

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My two cents (Week of Sept 14)

For each school day of the 2020-21 school year, I will be writing two sentences to capture some of the impressions, feelings, experiences, or thoughts I had that day. This is the first post in the series.

Monday, September 14, 2020
Met up with a colleague who rode his bike in this morning. Sat through several unnecessary Zoom meetings; Zoom fatigue was a very real thing today.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020
A socially-distant BBQ for staff; fun all around, good food. Shot hoops with Matt, talked NBA playoffs, and discussed the first episode of the 1619 Project podcast with RSJ colleagues.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020
The first day with advisory students — my throat hurts. It warmed my heart to get some drop-in Zoom visits from students I had two years ago.

Thursday, September 17, 2020
Got news that in-person instruction was pushed back to October; met some of my Algebra 2 students today on Zoom and didn’t anticipate how much excitement I had pent-up inside of me. My head turned into an orange (thanks period 8).

Friday, September 18, 2020
Midday, I took a walk in the park as a result my extreme disappointment/anxiety with my school’s “you must turn on your camera” policy. I’m hopeful about the racial justice conversations in advisory and the good vibes I got from a former student (MC).

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The medium is the message

In thinking about my curriculum this year, I’m trying to find ways to make it more socially conscious. To make a long story short: I’m struggling. Well, if I’m honest with myself, I haven’t tried that hard. I bought a book and have been skimming it for ideas. Benjamin Dickman kickstarted an Algebra 2/Social Justice collaborative that I’ve tapped into. He’s also been tweeting a lot of useful ideas that I’ve been trying to digest, and of which I’m thankful. But because I’m chained to the Common Core’s version of Algebra 2, I am having a hard time busting out of the standardized box that it has me in. I also don’t think it helps that I’ve designed my course around non-thematic units.

Sigh.

But there is hope! I’m notorious for building the plane while I fly it, so I might be able to inject some level of consciousness into the curriculum as I go throughout the year. I’m thinking that a starting point could be the themes I used last spring. But an issue I have with those themes is that they weren’t married to any of the standards for the course (at least I didn’t attempt to do this) and they definitely weren’t Algebra 2-specific. And in thinking about the Common Core standards for the course, those related to statistics naturally lend themselves to exploring social justice. That’s promising. I also think all graph analysis we do could be an avenue. And exponentials too.

Despite my optimism, I find that much of what is packed into the course is abstract and hard to conceptualize through a social justice lens. There is lots of factoring and rewriting expressions into equivalent forms. Then there’s systems of (nonlinear) equations. And sequences. And rational exponents. And graphing trigonometric functions. Surely, my inability to draw immediate connections from these concepts to issues of social justice falls on me and lack of ingenuity and practicality with mathematics (that’s another issue altogether). But this curriculum — and most math that is learned in schools, in my humble opinion — wasn’t constructed to speak to the social conscience of students. This is disappointing. That said, I am feeling rather down about the Algebra 2 curriculum this year and how detached it is from my students’ realities.

Sigh.

But, again, there is hope! After reading For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, and Pedagogy of the Oppressed this summer, I began to reimagine my pedagogy and the role it plays in empowering my students. Despite having a hard time squeezing social awareness out of the math, I began to wonder how my methods themselves could be a model for social justice. How can I use them to meet my students on their cultural and emotional turfs? How can I be critical of the inherent power structure that exists within the classroom while meeting the needs of my students? How can I privilege their voice and perspective by including them in the ongoing decisions that are made in the classroom?

These are the types of questions that I started asking myself as I read. They aren’t directly tied to my curriculum and they don’t require any immediate change in content. What they do is deepen my impressions of how content is experienced and received by my students — and what those things should look like. They focus me on method; on the structure of the classroom and what that structure communicates to students about what matters. In Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Postman and Weingartner underscore this by saying “the medium is the message” and that “the invention of a dichotomy between content and method is both naïve and dangerous…the critical content of any learning experience is the method or process through which the learning occurs.” (p. 19) In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Friere declares that “Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students.” (p. 72)

Viewed through this lens, content is rendered secondary and pedagogy is thrust to the fore. This idea runs contrary to the three things that high school teachers are made to believe that matter the most: content, more content, and even more content. It positions my students as knowers, as experts that should be relied upon heavily to make content come alive. I think this goes beyond me merely using students’ “prior knowledge” to inform instruction. I must do that, yes, but I must also invite students to teach me how to teach them. Their lives should be reflected in what happens in the classroom, not just their “prior knowledge.” My students should have the agency to determine how the class functions and what aspects of math are explored. This is what Chris Emdin refers to in his “reality pedagogy” framework for teaching. He states that “the key to getting students to be academically successful, is not to teach directly to the assessment or to the curriculum, but to teach directly to the students…[to] teach from the standpoint of an ally who is working with them to reclaim their humanity.” (p. 40)

So while the oppressive weight of the curriculum lay on the weary backs of my students and I, there is hope. Through my struggle to introduce social justice to the Common Core, I must remember that my pedagogy can itself be liberatory and full of humanity. My pedagogy can be the model. I can do this by adopting routines that not only seek out and honor student voice, but those that use my students’ voices to shape and reshape the class in meaningful ways. This form of pedagogy posits that teaching math is a function of my students’ realities — not my curriculum. In this way, my methods can embody the social principles that I want the mathematics to eventually explore.

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This makes Six (Murd letter #6)

My school colleague Stephanie Murdock and I are writing letters to each other and publishing them on our blogs. We are both white math teachers leaning on one another to improve the antiracist stance that we take in our lives, classrooms, and school. This is the sixth post in the series.

Murd-

That was the last letter of the summer…and I think you saved the best for last! It was SO thought-provoking. Interestingly, you started it with a blank slate. I can’t help but draw a parallel from this to the minimal amount of planning that you’ve done for this school year. Is it a sign?

I wonder, if our antiracist activism comes in the form of the work we do at school — changing school policy, changing our pedagogy, enacting modified curricula — then what could we have done over the summer other than interrogate ourselves and improve our historical literacy when it comes racial inequality? School wasn’t open; there were no students. We can’t change something that hasn’t started, right? I guess I’m asking myself that question because as much as I want to affect outcomes and use that as my measuring stick, I also have to be kind to myself and prioritize self-care. The fact of the matter is that none of this work is sustainable if I’m constantly dragging myself through the mud about not “doing” enough — especially during a time (like summer) where my options are limited. As a white person, I need to understand that the road to racial justice is long and I need to push myself, but I also need to be realistic.

In a similar vein, I was indirectly reminded last week (by a colleague of ours) that obsessing over change is not only harmful to myself, but can also be detrimental to the work — in this case, affecting outcomes. This is not to say that the work isn’t urgent. How I took it was as an acknowledgment to decenter my vision and my desire for change and instead make sure I am lifting up folks who are marginalized by the policies that I wish to abolish. Without valuing their input, without privileging their voice, without centering their experiences, I fear that any change I work for is still all about me. Instead of making it about dismantling unjust systems, I make it about satisfying my own sense of accomplishment. Acting out of white guilt can be better than not acting at all, but it’s also very dangerous and self-serving. I think there’s a careful amount of grace in this line of thinking, of which I am learning.

You digging into white supremacy culture makes me think that there will be very real opportunities for us, as a school, to self-assess how these characteristics are present at the institutional level at BCSM. Echoing a colleague of ours, part of this would entail, I think, asking those we serve — the students and alumni — how they’ve experienced racism, anti-blackness, or any other kind of discrimination (such as patriarchy, which is too often overlooked), and really owning that as a school. It would also require asking past and present staff members about their experiences. Within the realm of RSJ, everything we’ve done so far has revolved around our perceptions of how racist and socially unjust policies have harmed our students and staff. Until we hold up the mirror and hear things that we don’t want to hear, it may be hard to move forward in a meaningful way. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but a necessary one.

(Side note: This is synonymous with how our country as a whole has never truly reckoned with its ugly past. Case in point: Why did take for the 1619 Project, released in 2019, for us to fully understand how slavery shaped our nation?)

I’m glad you mention the mathography. I’m in the process of revamping mine a bit to include a parent/guardian interview component, but another idea I had was how we might approach this assignment departmentally. Instead of each of us doing it as individuals — and fearing repetitiveness or stepping on each other’s toes — what if our team sat down and figured out a way to have students write a mathography every year, but through a different lens? Could we think of the mathography as a four-part self-exploration that was assigned every year they were enrolled in a math class? The more I think about this idea, the more I think there’s something valuable here for us to consider. It also serves as a reminder to me that, as a collective, we should be leaning on each other for systematic solutions instead of individual ones. It isn’t always possible, but when it is, having systematic solutions to systematic problems seems like the way to go.

I really appreciate your lack of planning for the school year, Murd. I myself have never been one to do any significant planning before the year begins. (It blows my mind when I see teachers planning in June for the following year.) If that habit wasn’t cemented before this roller-coaster-of-a-year begins, it definitely is now. I loved it when  you said, “It is starting to feel wrong to plan before meeting students.” Yes! Reading those words was like reading my mind. I think in my last letter I mentioned For White Folks… by Chris Emdin and how my rereading of that book really spoke to me when it comes to coconstructing the classroom alongside students. This goes beyond merely co-creating classroom norms in September. A foundational aspect of this model is having weekly co-generative dialogues (see C1) with students to make joint decisions about the class. Co-generative dialogues are on the top of my To Do List this year.

This summer I’ve even had dreams of beginning a future school year starting from nothing (literally) and having the students help me build and choose what we do from day 1. It is a radical idea that flattens the teacher-student hierarchy…but I don’t think it’s impossible or even unlikely. Who knows, maybe my dream will come true one day.

(Another side note: Your comment about us often ignoring the uncertainty and newness of a school year struck me hard. You got me wondering, outside of a global pandemic and historic social uprising, why do teachers do this?)

All this makes me remember the hard time that I’ve been having in thinking about curriculum when it comes to antiracism. This has a lot to do with my realization that I was asking myself the wrong question this summer, but also because, outside of statistics, much of the Algebra 2 curriculum is pretty abstract. I feel that this will make it very hard to tie in antiracist ideals in tangible ways. In this light, I have been thinking a lot about how my pedagogy (the process and structure of the classroom and how content is learned) can be liberatory and embrace students’ realities. Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner advocate for this in Teaching as a Subversive Activity by declaring that “the medium is the message.” They go on to say that, “the environment itself conveys the critical and dominant messages by controlling the perceptions and attitudes of those who participate in it.” There’s so much more that’s running through my mind about this, but I don’t want to carry on too much longer. I will write about it soon and, if you care to read it, I will send it your way.

I know we’ll still be zooming from separate spaces in the building, but I hope we cross paths physically this week. Not only am I looking forward to actually seeing you for the first time in six months, but I also have a gift for you. Have to find me to get it!

Co-generating,
Brian

P.S. This has nothing to do with nothing, but I just wanted to say that I appreciate your mention of the “metaphorical pen.” Love that.

P.P.S. I have a special project that I’m working on for the staff this year. Stay tuned.