Category Archives: book

My 2018 in Books

I was really pleased with my reading habits this year. I read more than I ever have. In 2017, I read 26 books. Given some demanding life commitments that I knew I had this year, in January I set a goal of reading 20 books. As of right now, I have finished 30. Yay me! (And thank you NYPL for being amazing.)

So when I read Patrick Honner’s post Books I Read in 2018 where he summarizes his year of reading books, I was inspired to write this post. He also inspired me to request On Writing Well from the library. Thanks Patrick!

Most of my reading this year revolved around race. This continued the trend from last year as it’s something that has been on my mind a lot. In addition to reading about race and getting closer to my own whiteness, I was more conscious of the race of the authors I chose to read this year, ensuring that authors of color made up a large percentage of my reading.

Nonfiction | This is usually where I live when it comes to reading. The most impactful were:

  • Messy by Tim Harford. I’ve always believed that disorder and randomness are highly underrated. This book helped me to better see why.
  • White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. This was probably the most thought-provoking book I read this year. As a white man, it helped me understand how my own ignorance and privilege has contributed to our racialized society. Written for white people, it was unapologetic and bold.
  • Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks. Chapter 10 was probably the most important chapter of any book that I read this year — and maybe ever.
  • Goodbye Things by Fumio Sasaki and Essentialism by Greg McKeown. During late summer and early fall, I read a string of books centered around living with less. Less stuff, less ideas, less commitments. Both well-written, these were two of my favorites.
  • Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. Easily 5 stars. I knew next to nothing about Apartheid, so (once again) my ignorance was on full display here. I savored Noah’s superb storytelling all the way to the end like a good meal. I was sad that it had to end.
  • The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson. This was such an engaging book from start to finish. This is technically a self-help book, but it didn’t feel like it. It’s more of a reality check; it’s woefully pragmatic and I love it.
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. While I haven’t finished this yet, I already know that it’s special. Both vivid and powerful, he shares a lived experience in a way that feels like an obligatory read for anyone in this country.

Fiction | I told myself that I wanted to read more fiction as compared to last year. I succeeded! Last year I read 3 books and this year I read a whopping…5. I’m trying to get better. Notable were:

  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. This really made me think. It took me to places that I never knew I always needed to be. It transformed something that’s in the news every day — young black men who are targeted by the police — something tangible for me. Reading it was a visceral experience. I read it before the movie came out and still haven’t seen the movie, but I want to.
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I read this near the end of the year and the timing was perfect because it tied together so many social issues and stereotypes. It centers on one African woman’s journey in — and out of — American culture. Plus, the writing was stellar.
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Having taught several autistic students through the years, and never making an effort to truly understood their experience, this book was fascinating and informative. It provided such a clear and unadulterated look into the perspective of an autistic young person.

 

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On the intersection of being White and being a math teacher

Two of the books that I read this summer, Why are the All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum and Blindspot by Mahzarin R. Banaj and Anthony G. Greenwald, utterly blew my mind. 

So while the summer winds down, I’ll leave it at the end of this month with so many concerns about my teaching and how I address racism.

A. For my entire life, just like a lot of other White people in this country, I considered myself colorblind. I claimed that I was blind to the race of the people I interacted with. And I took a lot of pride in this fact, too. If I didn’t see people’s race, I couldn’t discriminate or play favorites. I conned myself into this line of thinking. Being born and raised in the inner city, and one of the few White people in my neighborhood and school, race wasn’t a “thing” for me. This perspective continued into adulthood and pervaded my teaching. Even with students, I either claimed the colorblind stance or simply avoided conversations about race. It isn’t until now that I realize that this is, and was a huge, huge problem.

B. Most White people don’t think we live in a racist society. Most White teachers don’t either. But we do. I’m not talking about outspoken racism, like that of white nationalists. I’m referencing the systematic racism that pervades in the air we breathe here in America. In many ways, we choose to not think about it because it’s uncomfortable. White privilege is a very real thing, even if we chose to look the other way. It existent in every aspect of society. Most White people don’t see it this way because we are (myself included) inside the box — we are part of the dominant group. That inherently makes it harder to understand the advantages we have.

C. What’s especially damaging about this is that every single White teacher I know is a good person. They don’t intentionally aim to do harm to students of color. Heck, most of these teachers teach in schools with large proportions of students of color because they want to help interrupt the cycle of inequality and injustice that these kids experience. But our hidden biases, which strongly favor our culture of Whiteness, can still significantly affect our judgment in ways that we aren’t even aware of.

D. What does this mean? It means that if we teachers (and especially our school leaders) don’t develop an anti-racist stance that fosters a critical consciousness about life being more than White privilege, our schools and classrooms will be a mere reflection of the racist society in which we live. It means that if we don’t mindfully recognize the systemic racism that our students of color, and colleagues for that matter, encounter every day, how can we attempt to take a chance at interrupting it?

E. So how do we, as teachers, bring up such a sensitive topic with colleagues and administrators to help push the needle in the right direction? There’s fear, dread, and detachment in people’s eyes (not just White people, either) whenever race is brought up. I know because it used to happen to me. I have no idea how to address this, but I think open, safe conversations with one another are vitally important — like at staff and department meetings. Provocative, reflective prompts are needed (Jose and Wendy!). A simple discussion can go a long way. Norms need to be set. I would hope that administrators can be present and active. Anxiety is natural, but I like to think that if we’re sincere and honor one another, the right words will always find their way out of our mouths.

F. Self-discovery might also help. Here are various research-based tests that we can take online to help determine each of our hidden biases. They are called Implicit Association Tests. Here’s some background on them.

G. I don’t know, I don’t know. I’m at a loss here. I’m no expert on how to make this happen. Progress seems so far away, but this post is a start for me, I suppose. A grueling and uncomfortable path lay ahead.

H. One more thing that I want to add. Right now, 75% of my mathematics department at my school is White male. That bothers me. At times, I worry about the subliminal messages that this sends the 90% of students at my school who are Black or Latino — especially if we (White males) aren’t actively taking an anti-racist approach to teaching and learning mathematics.

 

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On my journey and the mathematicians beyond white dudes initiative

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 held 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. Thanks to Claude M. Steele, so was stereotype threat. I thought about al this frequently, but it wasn’t something that I gave focused attention to over the previous ten years of my career.

I thought about all of this regularly over the previous ten years of my career, but I never gave it focused attention.

Inspired, over the last several months I’ve begun to evolve. I decided that I wanted my teaching to better serve 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.

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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.

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