Author Archives: brian

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.

A great listen: The 3 Educated Brothas Podcast

avatars-000344296744-c8rdf1-t500x500This summer, out of nowhere, I started listening to podcasts. I’ve been down with writing as a means of expressing one’s experiences for a long time, but I’m now learning to appreciate how impactful the spoken word can be. I dabbled here and there with what I listened to, focusing mainly on podcasts related to education. Being a newbie, I tried to give whichever ones I started at least three or four episodes before I passed judgment. Thankfully, most were winners and held my attention.

One of my favorites is 3 Educated Brothas. It is a podcast about all things education through the experiences of three Black men in the field. It has a fluid, conversational structure, which I really love. The guys — Marc, Edmund, and Pat — just sit down and talk. They haven’t stuffed it with bells and whistles — they fuel the show with authenticity and realness. They check-in with each other, banter, go on tangents, and push back on each other’s ideas. During their talks, somehow they have a way of making me feel as if I’m sitting at the table with them as they chat it up. Their style is warm and inviting. In some ways, it’s like I’m catching up with colleagues or even my own boys. They all have different roles in education (professor, consultant, and high school teacher) and they do a great job of leaning into these roles to bring different perspectives to the listener. Plus, given that they’re all Columbia grads and two of them work in NYC, the whole podcast feels local because, well, it is.

For me, their vulnerability is a cornerstone of the podcast and also why I love it so much. They don’t pretend to be something they’re not or know more than they do. This vulnerability shows up with how they question themselves and admit when they’re unsure. For example, when they discussed rape culture in episode 3 of season 1, the guys owned up to their inexperience with the issue. Because of my own ignorance of rape culture, there was a familiar sense of uncertainty and admitted complicity in their conversation. I think the guys may have decided to have the conversation because of their inexperience, which was refreshing. That said, because they didn’t have a woman present for the dialogue, they were presented with a healthy point of tension; they debated whether it was even worthwhile to dive into such a heavy topic. How might they implicate themselves? How might they do more harm than good? It is this sort of self-questioning and willingness to interrogate themselves that is present throughout the podcast and one of the big reasons why I’m so drawn to it. Through it all, it’s my impression that Marc, Edmund, and Pat use the podcast as a space of healing and engage in dialogue with the expectation that they might be changed as a result of it. That’s inspiring.

As a white man, I can’t go any further without acknowledging how invaluable it’s been for me that they’ve centered their Black male experience in the podcast. As Black men, they’re candid about how they see the world — and how they’re seen — and this backdrop of Blackness is something that I really appreciate. Given my own personal narrative and upbringing, this foundational aspect of the podcast is something that I gravitate towards and a huge reason why I’ve sponged up all of their episodes. As a teacher of Black children and a colleague to Black teachers, the three of them afford me much-needed perspective and insight into the experience of Black men in America today. In the process, they also explicitly and implicitly press me to further process and question my white racial identity, which I need. My racial ignorance is real.

Many of their themes stand out. Their heavy focus on self-care has been important for me to hear. Their early talks about black boy joy, the statement for the culture, tough love, and Ratchetdemic stand out as valuable listening experiences that I’ll no doubt be returning to and referencing in the future. And let me not forget about their guest speakers! Marc, Edmund, and Pat have done a really dope job of injecting fresh energy and vantage points when they’re needed all the while maintaining the message, as showcased in their chats with Mariel Buquè, Yolanda Sealey-Cruz, and Chris Emdin. I’m grateful.

In honor of their most recent episode, which was an affirmation exercise in which they showered each other with love and admiration for the simple fact of showering each other with love and admiration, I want to publicly affirm each of them. As Pat said in the episode, “affirmations are accessible always” and it shouldn’t take someone we appreciate to achieve a goal for us to call them out on how amazing they are in their own right. I don’t know Marc, Edmund, or Pat personally, but listening to them has been an uplifting and compelling experience and one that’s well worth me shouting them out. They each bring something valuable to the podcast and, in this vein, here are my personal affirmations for each of them:

Marc 
Being the only K-12 teacher, he exudes practicality and craftiness. Many times during the podcast, just when I think my mind might be straying, Marc finds a way to pull me back in and ground the conversation in the present moment and work that’s done in the classroom. Being a teacher, this speaks to me. I also find that he leads with his vulnerability on the show, which I can’t respect enough. He likes to trouble issues with his nuanced perspective; I have tried mimic this with colleagues this summer. His belief that teaching is his form activism is powerful and wish more of us teachers explored.

Edmund
I’ve found Edmund to be a stabilizing force throughout the series. I find his perspective calming, consistent, and pointed — all at the same time. Given his academic and scholarly success, I have come to appreciate Edmund’s willingness to continually grow and talk about his growth throughout the podcast; this is humility at it’s finest. I’ve been loosely studying hip hop culture recently and hearing some of his expertise on it has been interesting.

Pat
Of the three brothas, Pat is definitely the philosopher. He has a keen way of drilling down into an idea to reveal not only its inner workings and his thoughts on the matter, but also mine. His monologues provide me with both a literary and psychological workout. Every time he jumps into the conversation, I mentally ready myself for something deep…and he never disappoints. Because he works in the NYCDOE as a diversity and inclusion trainer, I can only hope that one day I’ll land in one of his workshops. He’s seeded many ideas in me that I’d love to hash out with him.

What’s really cool is how their work on the podcast has motivated me in ways that go far beyond my ears, my thoughts, and my teaching. The takeaways I’ve had from the guys and the show have moved me to begin a similar podcasting initiative at my school with colleagues. I’m eager to see how it’ll pan out. Stay tuned.

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