Category Archives: Letters to Murdock

It’s all feels so different now (Murd Letter #7)

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 seventh post in the series.

Hey Murd-

Excited to hear back from you! I feel so much has changed from when I last wrote you — for the both of us. We now have several dozen students looking to us for guidance, we’re knee-deep in our planning, we’re grading. The summer feels so far away. More on that later.

I must say, I’m in love with Just Like Me. It’s incredible. Since I read your letter a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been replaying Just Like Me over and over in my mind, preparing myself for when I do it with students. Yes, I’m stealing it…it is such a dynamite idea that I hope to include it in Mathematical Voices, Volume 2! I really like it because it continues the development of student identity and personal narrative in mathematics, but extends it to the broader society and math culture. I, too, have my students write a mathography and this will compliment it beautifully and also serve as a lifting-off point for when I begin the Mathematicians Beyond White Dudes project with them in a few weeks.

In thinking about identity, I’m currently reading Cultivating Genius by Gholdy Muhammad and she talks a lot about the importance of pursuing identity in the classroom and how students are searching to see themselves in everything we do, which Just Like Me does a great job of addressing. She states:

Before getting to…content-learning standards, students must authentically see themselves in the learning. When I work with teachers, I often take multiple pictures of them in small groups and project them on a large screen. Their eyes invariably go directly to their own faces. They look to find themselves. I believe that students do the same in classrooms. They are looking for themselves. They are seeking to find curriculum and instructional practices that honor the multiple aspects of who they are. Who we are is connected to historical, institutional, political, and sociocultural factors. These [ideas]…are key because it is our job as educators to not just teach skills, but also teach students to know, validate, and celebrate who they are. (p. 69)

Adaptations that I’m planning for Just Like Me is relabeling it “A Mathematician and Me” and restricting students to choosing mathematicians who are alive. This way, after they write their piece, they can find the mathematician’s email and actually send it to them. How cool would that be? Once a line of communication is open with their mathematician, aside from the meaningful connection that they already established, I have a crazy vision that students might even get to the point of inviting their mathematicians to guest speak to our class via Zoom.

You sharing Just Like Me with me made me think of all sorts of collaboration opportunities you, BD, and I could make happen in the coming months and years. For one, if our department doesn’t adopt a department-wide mathography initiative, in two years when I have your students for Algebra 2, you could share their mathographies with me. I could give them back to the students and use them to spur some interesting reflections about their mathematical experiences during the previous two years (and beyond).

About a week after my last letter to you, I wrote a post on the issue of math curriculum and pedagogy when it comes to doing social justice work. It was a powerful experience to write and brought me a lot of clarity. To your point, for us high school math teachers in New York City public schools who are passionate about antiracism and social justice, our lack of freedom that is a result of state testing can be discouraging (this reminds me of my first letter). That post was a self-affirmation exercise that helped me push back on this discouragement and understand that the medium is the message. The state has the authority on content, but it can’t dictate my pedagogy.

This doesn’t mean that it’s going to be easy…which brings me to my current struggles. Classes have been in session for three weeks or so, but man, it seems like it’s been three months. Where did summer go? I’m mentally and emotionally spent. Before COVID-19, I knew that I generally sucked as a math teacher — but now because I’m not with students, my biggest strength as a teacher has been ripped away from me. This hurts. My kids have learned little math so far this year because I don’t know how to do it when I can’t see, hear, or interact with them in authentic ways. Noticing a new haircut, a modest smirk, or a drawing sticking out of the side of a notebook — despite being unrelated to learning math, these are the types of particulars that I need to teach. Some of us can’t teach without a SmartBoard or dry erase markers or a lesson plan. I can’t teach when I don’t know details of who my students are, what they’re feeling, and why they’re feeling it.

I think my struggles this year are rooted in how I’ve evolved to view my classroom. Over the years, it has become a place that transcends the teaching and learning of math. It has turned into a space that hinges on self-exploration, connection, and personal growth. Math is just the vehicle to greater things. There’s emotion. There’s vulnerability. There’s inescapable uncertainty. These processes are deeply influenced by looking someone in the eye and feeling out their mood. They’re influenced by encouraging a student to keep their head down because I know they’re not feeling right. They’re influenced by popping up unexpectedly to a kid’s 7th period physics class to check in with them. They’re influenced by pretending I have a throat infection and can’t speak. They’re influenced by Friday Letters. Because I can’t do any of these things anymore, I’m lost. I only know how to be myself with students, so share all of this with them. It’s not all good right now and I’m worried.

Of course, all this affects any sort of antiracist, anti-oppression goals that I have for my class, Murd. Actually, I think my current struggles are in themselves evidence of my effort to develop a classroom that has a social justice, humanizing focus. At least I hope so. Unintentionally overlooking my students only perpetuates the status quo, a system that largely sees students as student IDs and test scores. It’s not fun, but let’s hope my struggle is the work. We’ll see how things go. Ugh.

And for what it’s worth, not being able to walk across the hall and have impromptu conversations with you about sequence notation or factoring is only adding to my frustrations this year. More than any department meeting that we will both be a part of, I need those quiet, unplanned moments that provide me with so much inspiration. I’ll miss knocking on your door and peering in with anticipation…and you never turning me away. (I’ll also miss seeing you as I huff-and-puff my way to school in the mornings.) I will obviously make due, but not willingly. You’ve played an important role in my growth these last few years and not having you around will be hard.

I’m closing this letter on a seemingly disheartening note, but I feel I must honor the moment. See you on Zoom…soon.


Adrift,
Brian

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.

Yet (Murd Letter #5)

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 fifth post in the series.

Murd,

Thanks for another thoughtful letter. I’m pumped that you’re willing and able to keep writing. A lot is going to be tugging at us in the coming months and making a commitment this far out can be daunting, so thanks. Outside of using prompts from White Supremacy and Me, I’m already imagining themes and structures we could use in our future letters. Let me not get ahead of myself though!

I share in your disappointment about not doing much to affect policy change. But, if we’re fair, aren’t you always the one pushing the word “yet” to your students and our department as a means of honoring the journey, inspiring change, and acknowledging what’s going to be? I don’t know how to solve linear systems yet. I haven’t learned how to factor by grouping yet. We haven’t accomplished that yet. You see where I’m going with this Murd? Wouldn’t it be appropriate that you (and I) say that we haven’t changed any policies yet? That we haven’t affected any outcomes yet?

Despite the wordplay or possible euphemism that I just pulled off in that last paragraph, I do appreciate your unsettled feelings. White people — like myself — tend to use empty conversations and book clubs as a means of dealing with racial guilt and shame. These things help us feel better while also ensuring that we look good in front of others. (To be honest, our letters are part of this.) Despite having the talks and saying we’ve changed, our thoughts always creep towards to next top story. (I see this happening in our school right now.) Our priorities reflect this, we say we’re busy, and return to assuming that our “good intentions” are enough. Thus, racist ideas persist because we’re not steadfast and intentional about moving beyond the conversations into action and personal sacrifice.

That’s why I respect your sentiments so much. Ongoing critical reflection — having conversations, calling other White people out, participating in antiracist book clubs, writing about it all — must happen, but this reflection must be accompanied by action that interrupts racism and dismantles racist policy in all of it’s insidious forms. Even if the change you seek hasn’t happened yet, constantly reminding yourself of that is in itself a means of attacking White Supremacy. Don’t kill yourself. This reminds me of your third letter.

For the record: I’m blown away by how you’re using photos to document your journey (and your babygirl’s too). Wow. How encouraging will it be to look back years from now and see your history, literally day-by-day. I know you have bigger aspirations for doing it, but still, that’s pretty cool.

Reading your three “Why” questions reminded me that I sometimes feel that I would be better-suited — and more impactful — serving White students. Isn’t it White kids that need antiracist teachers the most? Or at least teachers who are struggling to be antiracist? I can’t help but think that having a White teacher authentically coconstruct a classroom that decenters Whiteness as something powerful and vital for White students. Besides, racism is a White problem. If I’m serious about this work, why not start there — where it really needs to happen? (Note to you and myself: I will turn this paragraph into a future blogpost; it’s got substance.)

Speaking of coconstructing a classroom, I just finished rereading Christopher Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…, in which Emdin talks a lot about broadening the scope how teachers in urban schools traditionally see the classroom and their students. An overarching theme is the value in teachers and students coconstructing the classroom experience from the ground up and how teachers, at their very core, should view themselves as colearners. It gave me a lot to think about. I plan on experimenting with some things from the book in my classroom this year. As I made my way through it, I supplemented my reading by watching several of Emdin’s talks. If you get around to reading the book, I’d recommend doing this as it helped his ideas jump off the page.

By the way, I managed to squeak out a post on the notion of teaching as a form a protest, which I hinted at in my last letter. Coincidentally, it was inspired by Emdin and a piece he wrote for The Atlantic.

I’ll close with an idea that just came to me. It’s for the math department at our school. As a means of promoting mathematicians that are not White men, what if we collectively showcased mathematicians and their contributions to mathematics with our students? I have done this in ways that could be improved and I know you have too, but what if we injected the creative juices of our entire department into this initiative and see what we could come up with? Maybe this entails all of us merely agreeing to “unveil” an agreed upon mathematician and their bio every other Friday in our classes? Maybe we create a space in the hallway (assuming we’re not remote) to honor these mathematicians, their story, and where they’re from? Maybe we install a map in hallway to help? There must be great ways to finesse something like this. What do you think? Would it fly with the department?

That’s all for now. This letter feels a tad shorter than my previous ones…maybe that’s a good thing. :-)

In the spirit of yet,
Palacios

P.S. I was digging your sentiments near the end of your letter about your daughter and being a White teacher of Black and Brown students. It made me think: what is the role of White teachers who teach majority students of color when it comes to antiracism? There is a lot baked into that question that’s worth exploring. And I think Emdin’s book helped me better understand how I might begin answering it. That’s something else for us to think about.

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