At the end of last school year, I did a lot of soul-searching. In the midst of finalizing where I was going to teach beginning this year, I found myself reevaluating many of the core values that I hold as a teacher. A huge dilemma for me was reflecting how I address identity and representation in my classroom. Race and ethnicity were of specific interest. I thought about this frequently, but it wasn’t something that I gave focused attention to over the previous ten years of my career.
Inspired, over the last ten months I’ve begun to evolve. I decided that I wanted my teaching to better service the underserved population of students that I encounter every day. Located in the poorest congressional district in America, 90 percent of the students at my school are of color. My previous school was of a similar demographic. It was time to deliberately integrate these statistics into my practice.
Over this time, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve realized that as a white male, I have inherit privileges in our society. Privileges that almost all of my students know nothing about. Although my ignorance prevented me from openly accepting this earlier in my teaching career, I now see that I must do my best to understand my whitenes in order to best serve my students and school community. It’s not enough to simply ignore race and try to teach above it, like I’ve done in the past. I cannot assume that my lessons and the mathematics I teach need not address the racism that my students face every day.
I’ve read works by Jose Vilson, Monique Morris, Claude Steele, Robert Moses, and Stuart Buck. After sparking conversations colleagues, I’ve absorbed a great deal from those who are addressing race and equity far better than I. I’ve attended workshops where I’ve publicly confronted my own biases. I’ve made myself vulnerable by opening dialogue with my students about their take on things. I’m learning directly from them.
This brings me to the Mathematicians Beyond White Dudes initiative that I started this year with my students.
I got the idea from Annie Perkins. Back at TMC16, I attended her workshop where she shared her approach of profiling outstanding mathematicians that weren’t male and weren’t white. I was immediately hooked. I knew that I had to bring this to my kids. Read more about Annie’s outstanding work.
I’m not going to go into the worthiness of this project, because Annie has done that so eloquently already. Instead, I’ll just share how I’ve implemented it.
So far this year I’ve featured a different mathematician for each unit. (Next year I hope to do it more often.) I pull from the list of mathematicians from Annie’s post and piece together a one paragraph biography that highlights each mathematician’s life, achievements, and contributions to the mathematics community. I formally present each mathematician at the start of each unit. The conversation doesn’t usually last longer than 5 minutes. I print and copy the bio of the mathematician on the cover of the unit packet that students receive. I also post the bio of each mathematician in the classroom. Link to the doc containing the posters.
My students have really enjoyed it. They look forward to the big reveal of the next mathematician. Rounds of applause for the mathematicians are not unusual. Other teachers have even seen the posters in my classroom and commented about how they like the idea.
Now I’m not going to sit here and say that all of a sudden I’m doing an excellent job at addressing representation in my classroom, because I’m not. Gosh no. I’m still struggling and haven’t done anything to address the curriculum I teach. I’m just trying harder to be more aware of my own ignorance on the matter and teaching towards it. This is just one small way that I feel I’m accomplishing that. There’s still a long, long way to go.
Becoming an anti-racist teacher is my goal, I think. My students enter my classroom each day with the hopes of becoming better students of mathematics, better people. This is their parents’ hope too. I owe it to them to ensure that my instruction addresses and embraces who they are, really. We all do.