Is this the halfway point or just the beginning? (Murd Letter #4)

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

Murd!

Thanks for getting back to me. This is only the fourth letter between us, but I really appreciate what we’re building here and, as we pass the halfway point of the summer, I am looking towards the future. These letters are really worth my while; I’m writing them for you, but they’re helping to clarify so much for me. With that said, was that a “yes” when it comes to continuing to write each other after summer ends? I feel there’s so much possibility ahead, so much room for reflection. No pressure. :-)

I really appreciated your average rate of change activity based on 13th. No lie, I might be stealing it! Seeing it made me think about how I might modify my Algebra 2 curriculum to be more antiracist, Black-centric, and Latinx-centric. As an ode to our antiracist commitment and a challenge ourselves, maybe we use a portion of our upcoming letters to share antiracist ideas for teaching math — algebra 1 (you) or algebra 2 (me). There’s a lot of overlap between us. I would hope that we could share ideas/activities/lessons that are not perfect, but instead flawed, works in progress, or just flat-out resources that could lead to something bigger. I, for example, have been thinking about the role that statistics might play in exposing racism in Algebra 2 and recently came across a treasure trove of data compiled by fellow Math for America teacher Amy Hogan who teaches AP Statistics. I also purchased High School Mathematics Lessons to Explore, Understand, and Respond to Social Injustice, which I have been glossing over with the gathering ideas. I’m less interested in the actual lessons (I don’t particularly like lessons from books like this) than I am in the social issues they address and approaches they take. How do they expose racist ideas and policies? How do they honor black and brown folks? We’ll see.

When I think about bringing antiracism into Algebra 2, what I find interesting is how this work will interact with the problem-centered nature of the course. In case you didn’t know, I’ve designed it around many non-thematic units where related topics are spread out and revisited many times throughout the school year. I’m thinking that, as the course matures over the course of ten months, having opportunities to explore and reexplore race and racial issues from varying mathematical perspectives could be a strength that I use to my advantage.

In addition to curriculum-related stuff, I’m also interested in surveying how we find ways to interrupt white supremacy culture when it comes to how we teach mathematics. As Laura A. Roy says in Teaching While White, “While educators are not the sole arbiters of racial justice, they have a responsibility to work toward dismantling White supremacy at the pedagogical and curricular level.” How is our pedagogy antiracist? What teacher moves are we making to interrupt systems of power that harm dark students? In this vein, last week I attended workshop ran by the Brandelyn Tosolt from Abolitionist Teacher Network which was dedicated to cultivating co-conspirators (i.e. white people). During the session, I began thinking about the characteristics of white supremacy culture and how, as a striving co-conspirator, these characteristics are present at our school and in my classroom. I’ll have a steep learning curve on this front, but maybe we can investigate this together?

Something else I want to throw out there is how I’ve begun brainstorming plans for a “Future Educator’s Club” at school. Folks who are doing this work understand how overwhelmingly white the teaching profession is — that statistic is commonplace these days (thankfully). Why not take a very small step in changing that by encouraging students at our school (who are 85 percent Black and Latinx) to pursue teaching — or at least create space for them to explore it as a viable and worthwhile career choice? We so many other enrichment opportunities for kids at our school. Why not teaching? It’s probably the most important profession of all since it makes all other professions possible and can do so much to fight racism. (Related ideas that I want to ramble on about in another letter or blog post: teaching as a form of protest and teacher activist.)

I know there are barriers for students who want to be teachers — like outrageous tuitions and low salaries once they graduate, which are only exacerbated when it comes to students of color — but why not move to support them and cultivate their interest in a profession that so desperately needs them? Thinking back, I meet a handful students of color every year who express interest in teaching (and that’s without even tapping into our TA program). I usually swoon over these students when they break the news to me and commend them for their interest. But why not do more? Why not help them begin realizing the teacher inside of them? Why not do my part to create a more racially just teaching corps?

I’ve been flirting with the idea of a Future Educator’s Club for years, but this is the moment, Murd. I’m not turning back. I’m coming to terms with the fact that I’m far too passionate about teaching and social justice to not pursue it. (Last year during career day I even volunteered to be the “Teacher” representative. I felt cheesy, but also right at home going on and on about why teaching is the gold standard in careers.) At a minimum, I have to throw myself at this idea to at least see what happens, right? It’s kind of like what I talked about in my last letter — trying things so that when I retire, I can look back and have no regrets. Who knows, hopefully at the end of the year I’ll be able to cross out “Start a future teacher after school club” off my Teacher Bucket List.

You asked about my why when it comes to this work. I took long enough getting to your question, didn’t I? Forgive me. Though I evaded your question for many paragraphs, and will probably end up still not answering it by the time I finish this letter, maybe in some ways I did. Through my many wonderings that included a plea to continue writing public antiracist letters to you, to a search to uncover ways to teach math in more racially sound ways, to an initiative to address the racial imbalance amongst teachers, my why is wrapped up in my responsibility as a teacher to help young people navigate our world and all of its injustices. It’s rooted in my calling to teach, my passion for being a learner long before being a teacher. It’s embedded my drive to approach every minute of every period of every class as if my son or daughter were on the roster.

There is so much left to say, so much I want to ask you about what it means to be a White parent and teacher while struggling for an antiracist life, school, and classroom. You mentioning how you are redefining yourself as a mother really made me think. There’s so much I want to learn from you that I sense could fuel my work as a White parent and teacher. But I’m tired and this letter is long enough. It will have to wait until next time.

Talk soon.

Leaving questions unanswered,
Brian

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