Why am I learning this? + Criticality

When am I ever going to use this in the real world?
Why am I learning this?

Four years ago, I was interviewing for a new school and was asked how I respond when students present me with the above questions. Like all math teachers, I get these types of questions from students a lot. (Now, in Zoomland, I don’t many questions at all — but that’s another story.) But up to that point in my career I hadn’t thought enough about how I respond to students when they ask them. Put on the spot, the interview provided me a space to process my thoughts in the moment, which I really appreciated. The answer I gave during the interview even turned into a blog post. (Interestingly, it was my current colleague Stephanie Murdock who was interviewing me.)

Back then, I viewed the very presence of such questions as indicators that my teaching lacked engagement. Students wouldn’t be asking me about the usefulness of math if my pedagogy and curriculum already established that, right? In other words, I didn’t seek out to answer these questions for students as much as I used them to reflect on my practice. The existence of the questions themselves were enough for me.

While this is still true, and the emergence of such questions still says a lot about the state of my teaching and how I’m rendering mathematics in my instruction, I’m thinking differently about them nowadays. I think if a kid were to ask me tomorrow why they’re learning whatever it is they’re learning, first I would be thrilled that they decided to unmute themselves and say anything at all. That’s a huge win. But after my excitement dampened, I would probably respond with something like, I don’t know. Why do you think we are? Let’s find out.

This precarious response that I’d give my students on was the result of a conversation I had with my close friend and colleague Shane Coleman this summer. He mentioned that, for him, being vulnerable with students was key to addressing their need to know why they’re learning something. The genius of it, I think, was how it uses students’ uncertainty and frustration with the system (and me) as a vehicle for empowerment. Instead of rushing to silence my students with a math elevator pitch that “answers” their questions and allows me to move on with my lesson, it’s a stance that invites my students to question everything and find meaning for themselves. Whatever meaning they discover may be rooted in the value of our Algebra 2 curriculum, yes, but it may also be rooted in purposelessness of it all.

To be sure, this makes a mess of things. By encouraging students to question the purpose of the Common Core — about the unit circle, about rewriting exponential functions, about factoring trinomials — it gives them permission to question everything and it’s source. Who “discovered” the roots of polynomials? Who wrote this curriculum? Do they look like me? What are the alternatives?

What I’m learning is that encouraging these types of questions and perspectives from students helps to normalize criticality in my classroom. Criticality was not a idea I knew about before I recently read Cultivating Genius by Gholdy Muhammad. She defines it as “the capacity to read, write, and think in ways of understanding power, privilege, social justice, and oppression, particularly for populations who have been historically marginalized in the world.” In her book, Muhammad does a great job outlining the role criticality can play in the classroom and its value for teachers, especially when they teach Black and Brown students. She states:

In short, teaching criticality helps students assume responsibility for the ways in which they process information — to avoid being passive consumers of knowledge and information. Criticality helps students read the world with a critical eye, refusing to accept unexamined information as factual or true….Criticality pushes questioning of information and the source of information — and this source may include the teachers. Therefore, criticality (like culturally relevant/responsive pedagogies) does not believe in hierarchies in teaching and learning. Instead, the knowledge and perspectives students bring is honored and valued, and the classroom becomes a community of teachers and learners. (p. 122)

While responding with “I don’t know, let’s find out” is but one relatively small instance of nurturing criticality in my math class, I think it’s an important one. Maybe my response will trigger something more substantial from my students and I. Maybe my students will help me learn a little something about why I’m teaching what I am. Or maybe nothing will come from it. Maybe it’ll be one of those many moments in class that come and go which never get remembered. Either way, at it’s best it’s a move that cedes authority and asks my students to be critical of the system — a burdensome system that feeds us all. At it’s worst, I hope that it can be a model for vulnerability.

Now, if only I could get them to unmute themselves.


My two cents (Week of Oct 12, 2020)

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 fifth post in the series.

No classes — Indigenous People’s Day.

I took my cogen’s advice and developed “consistent” breakout rooms where the same 4-5 students stick together for a few weeks. After school, I caught up on a massive amount of grade input; importing grades form Classroom to Skedula is a life saver.

Out of nowhere, I developed a weekly Self Check-In for my students. Also out of nowhere, I created my first Feedback Video of the year; it’s deepening how I’m thinking about my planning.

I fell into a discussion today with my eighth period class which let me know that, despite our long distance relationship, we are in fact making progress. Whether it is pumpkin spice, the Lakers, oranges, velvet red cake, or Ninja, I sense that the glue is forming.

I had anxiety about my cogen not showing up today, but they did, and it was great. Ending the week, my school’s structures seem to be as unstable than ever…and my class is finally beginning to feel just the opposite (thanks to preassigned breakout rooms, DeltaMath, student bios, Google Form quizzes, Turn-Ins, Self Check-Ins, cogens, etc).

It’s all feels so different now (Murd Letter #7)

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 seventh post in the series.

Hey Murd-

Excited to hear back from you! I feel so much has changed from when I last wrote you — for the both of us. We now have several dozen students looking to us for guidance, we’re knee-deep in our planning, we’re grading. The summer feels so far away. More on that later.

I must say, I’m in love with Just Like Me. It’s incredible. Since I read your letter a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been replaying Just Like Me over and over in my mind, preparing myself for when I do it with students. Yes, I’m stealing it…it is such a dynamite idea that I hope to include it in Mathematical Voices, Volume 2! I really like it because it continues the development of student identity and personal narrative in mathematics, but extends it to the broader society and math culture. I, too, have my students write a mathography and this will compliment it beautifully and also serve as a lifting-off point for when I begin the Mathematicians Beyond White Dudes project with them in a few weeks.

In thinking about identity, I’m currently reading Cultivating Genius by Gholdy Muhammad and she talks a lot about the importance of pursuing identity in the classroom and how students are searching to see themselves in everything we do, which Just Like Me does a great job of addressing. She states:

Before getting to…content-learning standards, students must authentically see themselves in the learning. When I work with teachers, I often take multiple pictures of them in small groups and project them on a large screen. Their eyes invariably go directly to their own faces. They look to find themselves. I believe that students do the same in classrooms. They are looking for themselves. They are seeking to find curriculum and instructional practices that honor the multiple aspects of who they are. Who we are is connected to historical, institutional, political, and sociocultural factors. These [ideas]…are key because it is our job as educators to not just teach skills, but also teach students to know, validate, and celebrate who they are. (p. 69)

Adaptations that I’m planning for Just Like Me is relabeling it “A Mathematician and Me” and restricting students to choosing mathematicians who are alive. This way, after they write their piece, they can find the mathematician’s email and actually send it to them. How cool would that be? Once a line of communication is open with their mathematician, aside from the meaningful connection that they already established, I have a crazy vision that students might even get to the point of inviting their mathematicians to guest speak to our class via Zoom.

You sharing Just Like Me with me made me think of all sorts of collaboration opportunities you, BD, and I could make happen in the coming months and years. For one, if our department doesn’t adopt a department-wide mathography initiative, in two years when I have your students for Algebra 2, you could share their mathographies with me. I could give them back to the students and use them to spur some interesting reflections about their mathematical experiences during the previous two years (and beyond).

About a week after my last letter to you, I wrote a post on the issue of math curriculum and pedagogy when it comes to doing social justice work. It was a powerful experience to write and brought me a lot of clarity. To your point, for us high school math teachers in New York City public schools who are passionate about antiracism and social justice, our lack of freedom that is a result of state testing can be discouraging (this reminds me of my first letter). That post was a self-affirmation exercise that helped me push back on this discouragement and understand that the medium is the message. The state has the authority on content, but it can’t dictate my pedagogy.

This doesn’t mean that it’s going to be easy…which brings me to my current struggles. Classes have been in session for three weeks or so, but man, it seems like it’s been three months. Where did summer go? I’m mentally and emotionally spent. Before COVID-19, I knew that I generally sucked as a math teacher — but now because I’m not with students, my biggest strength as a teacher has been ripped away from me. This hurts. My kids have learned little math so far this year because I don’t know how to do it when I can’t see, hear, or interact with them in authentic ways. Noticing a new haircut, a modest smirk, or a drawing sticking out of the side of a notebook — despite being unrelated to learning math, these are the types of particulars that I need to teach. Some of us can’t teach without a SmartBoard or dry erase markers or a lesson plan. I can’t teach when I don’t know details of who my students are, what they’re feeling, and why they’re feeling it.

I think my struggles this year are rooted in how I’ve evolved to view my classroom. Over the years, it has become a place that transcends the teaching and learning of math. It has turned into a space that hinges on self-exploration, connection, and personal growth. Math is just the vehicle to greater things. There’s emotion. There’s vulnerability. There’s inescapable uncertainty. These processes are deeply influenced by looking someone in the eye and feeling out their mood. They’re influenced by encouraging a student to keep their head down because I know they’re not feeling right. They’re influenced by popping up unexpectedly to a kid’s 7th period physics class to check in with them. They’re influenced by pretending I have a throat infection and can’t speak. They’re influenced by Friday Letters. Because I can’t do any of these things anymore, I’m lost. I only know how to be myself with students, so share all of this with them. It’s not all good right now and I’m worried.

Of course, all this affects any sort of antiracist, anti-oppression goals that I have for my class, Murd. Actually, I think my current struggles are in themselves evidence of my effort to develop a classroom that has a social justice, humanizing focus. At least I hope so. Unintentionally overlooking my students only perpetuates the status quo, a system that largely sees students as student IDs and test scores. It’s not fun, but let’s hope my struggle is the work. We’ll see how things go. Ugh.

And for what it’s worth, not being able to walk across the hall and have impromptu conversations with you about sequence notation or factoring is only adding to my frustrations this year. More than any department meeting that we will both be a part of, I need those quiet, unplanned moments that provide me with so much inspiration. I’ll miss knocking on your door and peering in with anticipation…and you never turning me away. (I’ll also miss seeing you as I huff-and-puff my way to school in the mornings.) I will obviously make due, but not willingly. You’ve played an important role in my growth these last few years and not having you around will be hard.

I’m closing this letter on a seemingly disheartening note, but I feel I must honor the moment. See you on Zoom…soon.


My Two Cents (Week of Oct 5, 2020)

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 fourth post in the series.

They have free breakfast and lunch for staff now. I had both, yum!

Zigzagging between rooms to teach is driving my crazy and keeping me being fully present with my students. Decided today to stay put at my desk and had a productive day.

Seriously considering a “traveling letter of appreciation” for all of my classes this year; it’ll be mailed from one student to the next in lieu of having the token of appreciation. Ending the day feeling isolated and down.

Had a mini-debate over orange and apple juice today in first period — orange juice won. It’s needless to say, but my kids still aren’t learning much math.

I teach no classes on Friday, but this day felt stuffed. Had my first cogenerative dialogue — also known as a cogen — with four students today; I had no idea what I was doing, but I was excited.