Staying in sync (Murd Letter #8)

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 eighth post in the series.

Hey Murdock,

Thanks for your letter! Let me start by saying that it’s crazy to think that, no matter what happens with school, I won’t be able to physically see you until maybe next year. It’s obviously best for you, and I’m happy that you will have peace of mind and body, but that is wild…and also kind of fitting at the same time. I guess we’ll have to double-down on our letter writing to stay somewhat in sync, won’t we! That makes me think…in our summer letters, we talked about reading a book together and using our letters to discuss it. What do you say? If things are too hectic, maybe we start with an article?

And on the idea of reading books, have you read anything good lately? No lie, I kind of miss the book updates that you used to give me in your early letters. I know they were for keeping yourself accountable, but they still filled me with ideas. At a recent meeting, I overheard you mention that you have come to appreciate James Baldwin, but haven’t had the chance to dive into his thinking or writings so much. Ironically, as you were saying that, I had just finished Begin Again by Eddie S. Glaude, which is a kind of intellectual biography of Baldwin. Towards the end of the book, I feel like Glaude trailed away from the Baldwin more than I would have liked, but it was still an insightful book when it comes to understanding Baldwin’s message…and also to gain some inspiration in these trying times that we live in today. I’ve previously read Fire Next Time, which I now want to reread, and also hope to read No Name in the Street in the coming months as a result of Glaude.

I think adopting the title “A Mathematician and Me” stemmed from my desire to include a mathematical “identifier” in its title. It’s probably a mundane detail, but I wanted the title to have a direct tie to math. I haven’t done the task yet with my kids, but it’s in the works. I have, on the other hand, started my Mathematicians Beyond White Dudes project with my students. I’m feeling that some of the mathematicians’ profiles may get a facelift this year. That will be refreshing, but it does feel strange not being able to hang up the posters around the room and in the hallway.

Oh, this is exciting. In an effort to capture all that’s happening and help humanize my kids’ mathematical experiences this year, I’ve connected with another math teacher from Indian River, Michigan…and together our students will be mathematical penpals this year. There are a lot of cool dynamics that could result of this project. My partner teacher teaches in a rural setting with mostly white students. I don’t. The pandemic. Writing about math. There’s a lot we could do. In addition to using the assignment to have students do some identity work and connect with potential real-world mathematicians, I would like the A Mathematician and Me task to be a focus of a future letter or series of letters with their penpal.

Shifting gears, you mentioned, “My tools of measurement is the feedback from a handful of students that propel me forward.” When I read that, I could not help but think about the cogenerative dialogues that I’ve been having with students this year and how useful they’ve been for me and my virtual classroom. I feel like I mentioned cogenerative dialogues to you in a previous letter, which have been pioneered by Dr. Chris Emdin. Are you also doing them? If so, I would love to chat about how it’s going. Since I’m the only I know who is doing them, I have no one else to talk to about them. I would love a thought partner.

I’m inspired to read how you’ve been able to find small ways to keep your classes current and tap into the present moment. The electoral college and positivity rate examples were fascinating. I can’t say that I’ve been doing the same, but reading about you and BD’s successes may be exactly what I need to get the ball rolling.

It’s crazy that you feel that some of your biases might be getting erased in the virtual setting because, after a recent conversation with a colleague of ours, that exact thought been running through my mind for a few weeks. She compared not being able to see students with losing one of her senses and how this has “heightened” some of her other senses. How is my reading of students different now that I can’t see them — or, in some instances, even hear them? How are students’ behavior changed now that they know I can’t see them? Implicit bias is a huge component of how I might respond to these questions, I think, and it’s utterly fascinating to think about them. I have, have, have to excavate this for myself through a future blogpost.

One last thing I wanted to share with you. This summer, after attending one of their many workshops, I was talking with MfA about creating a white, antiracist affinity group for the spring. They’ve never had a place where white people can come together in solidarity and unpack their privilege and share how we’ve been been complicit in racist systems. There was another MfA teacher who I connected who helped me pitch the idea, which was accepted by MfA. I’ve never planned for this type of workshop before and I am eager to see how it plays out. Though it will be through MfA, I am heading into the affinity group hoping that what I learn from the experience can help me create white affinity groups at our school next year.

My last letter concluded with me being disheartened. Despite some of what I said in this letter, I can’t say that I’ve been doing any better. For me, acknowledging the uncertainty of everything hasn’t seemed to help with how disconnected I am to our school, my students, our colleagues. I can’t shake it. And for the last couple of weeks, the colleagues aspect of my struggle has been particularly challenging. Attempting to do any work — let alone equity work — in isolation from colleagues that I trust has been exhausting and demoralizing. You may or may not have noticed this in my demeanor as of late. Having already been dealt the piercing blow of being in a long-distance relationship with my students, now that schools have closed and I cannot feed off of the trickle of energy that I was getting from in-person relations with colleagues, I’m not sure where to turn. Alas, the work must get done.

Thanks again for your letter, Murd. Writing these letters helps me forge connections that go beyond the shallow zoom links that I’ve become so dependent on.


Surviving,
Mr. P

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.