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.

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