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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The video club 

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This is the follow up to my post last summer that outlined my anticipation of a research-based, video-based professional development that I was to facilitate with the math department at my school. We coined the name of the PD “The Video Club.” So, with the extended arm of Math for America, I was lent a HD camera, omnidirectional microphone, and a tripod. The goal: analyze, interpret, and get better at responding to student thinking.

Here are some takeaways from the experience:

  • The entire department felt the PD was worthwhile and would love to do it again. Everyone was highly engaged throughout and over 80% of the group felt that this PD helped them gain key insights into student thinking. This was a relief. I believe in and value the work, I just hoped they would also find it worthwhile – which they did. Plus, I’ve never headed an initiative like this before, so I’m glad it was a source of growth…and not utter failure.
  • The department felt that the experience made us more conscious of the words and terms we use with students. For example, the use of the word “cancel” was recognized as something to rethink. We discovered that many students infer, for instance, that the common factors in the numerator and denominator of a fraction “cancel” out, when in fact they are a form of 1. “Cancel” made our students feel as if the factors just disappeared. This is subtle and a direct result of our utilization of the word in class. On a related note, a colleague mentioned that students’ mathematical abilities are a reflection of our teaching and that she witnessed her own shortcomings embedded in their thinking. Interesting.
  • The experience helped us develop better questions – or at least to habitually reassess the quality of questions that we ask our students. Questions should anticipate and clarify student thinking all the while pushing kids to make connections. There were instances where we spent all of 15 minutes debating a 7-second student discussion. This deliberate focus on the details of student thinking allowed us craft questions that addressed very specific areas of student understanding.
  • We realized that the more analysis we did of student thinking via the video club, the more we valued the process of analyzing student thinking. This lead us to create more opportunities for our students to discuss mathematics during class so that, in turn, we could analyze their thinking. This may have been the result of the tangible improvements in our planning and teaching that we made after each of the sessions.
  • Many teachers are mandated to analyze student work. It hit me early in the year that recording student discussions around a task was actually an elevated form of this. We weren’t interpreting written work to get at student thinking. Instead, we were watching and listening to them explain their thoughts, which is a much more sophisticated way of understanding student thinking.
  • This seems somewhat counterintuitive, but I learned a great deal about mathematics. Specifically, I learned more about how mathematical relationships and ideas are viewed through the eyes of my students. For example, I explored why it is so common for students to reference the Pythagorean Theorem when they see a triangle labeled with sides a, b, and c – no matter what the problem is asking. (Our dependency on those arbitrary letters may have something to do with it.) This type of perspective taking has proved to be incredibly powerful when it comes to developing impactful learning opportunities for my kids.
  • I came to embrace the openness of each session. I prepared prompts and questions beforehand, but insights from the team really led the way. Over time, instead of being a “facilitator,” I was just another member of the group who helped push the conversation forward. I learned that the uncertainly involved with this work is a good thing.
  • When I initially dove into this project, I was concerned about the amount of prep time required – especially since we were dealing with video. Anyone who has dealt with video knows that the editing process can be discouraging and straight-up unbearable. I was elated to find out that, from beginning to end, the process requires no editing. Sustainability!
  • Lastly, this experience afforded me an opportunity to lead my colleagues. I was empowered. And I’ve taken on other leadership roles in the building, but for reasons that I cannot seem to pinpoint, this one felt different. It may stem from my own personal belief about how this work provides exceptional hands-on improvement for teachers – and how rare this is.

I’m enthused to continue this work next year. MfA has been an invaluable partner and I’m pleased to know that I have their continued support!

 

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“You need to have your aim posted”

What impact does posting the aim, or central question of a lesson, have on teaching and learning? What purpose does it serve?

I’ve heard throughout my career that “you need to have your aim posted” at the start of every lesson. @stoodle got at this idea recently and made me realize that I myself have been pondering this for quite some time.

A year ago someone at a PD mentioned that they never post the day’s aim. Nor do they “announce” it at the beginning of class. Instead, the aim is elicited from students during the learning process. The essential question is built upon their prerequisite knowledge and pulled from their comprehension of what they learn from the lesson. It is never given, but rather discovered by the students.

When I heard this, I had an ah-ha moment. It made complete sense. Other than in the classroom, how often are we informed of what we’re going to learn before we actually learn it? Sure, you may have a goal you want to accomplish (e.g. complete yard work before 1 pm), but what you actually learn in the process (e.g. how to mow my lawn as efficiently as possible) is often unknown at the onset. We notice, strategize, experiment, learn, and then realize what we’ve learned.

Recently, I didn’t post the aim of a lesson on arithmetic sequences. I required my students, as part of their exit slip, to write what they thought the aim was for the lesson. Not only did 90% of the kids nail it, but one was even better, and more creative, than what I originally intended for the lesson.

Aim

(This is directly related to the overarching problem from the lesson)

This made me think. Whatever a student feels the aim is (during or at the end of a lesson), provides remarkable feedback as to the effectiveness of the lesson.

Another thing. I’m a firm believer that lessons should be based purely on questions. One question should lead to another, and then another, and then another. Ultimately, the central question – the heart of any lesson – should eventually be provoked. Because of this, I want my students to need the central question of a lesson to accomplish a task or goal. They can’t need it if I openly post it.

I’m left with many questions about this widely-adopted practice of aim-posting. What are the consequences of openly telling students the aim of a lesson? Conversely, what are the consequences of structured learning that promotes the discovery of the aim? If I don’t tell my students the aim, how do I frame a lesson from the onset? Does explicitly stating the aim perpetuate a top-down approach to learning? How can we use student-generated aims to inform our teaching?

 

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Summer 2015: An immersive research experience

NYU Logo

This past week I began a summer-long professional development with NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering called RET (Research Experience for Teachers).

The RET program pairs up STEM teachers and engineers for a six-week collaboration experience during the summer. The engineers at NYU-Poly work hand-in-hand with K-12 teachers (like me) to conduct ongoing research in their discipline. I will write a paper summarizing my research, present my findings, and create a Teach Engineering lesson plan related to my RET experience [UPDATE 3/31/16: My lesson has been published.]. In other words, I will do everything a full-blown researcher would do (minus the lesson plan).

I haven’t finalized my research topic just yet, but I do know that I am partnering with Dr. Nikhil Gupta. He is well-known in the United States for his work with composite materials.

I’ve met Phil Cook, an awesome dude, through the program. Here’s his reflection on his experience thus far.

I’ll get another post up after RET is complete, but here are a few things that I’m most looking forward to:

  1. Can-Do. The director of the program mentioned that he is regularly inspired by what he calls the “can-do” attitude that all engineers embody as part of their ongoing work. I can relate to this. There will be countless setbacks and obstacles that arise, but the objective never changes: understand the problem, focus on solutions, learn. I’m expecting to struggle quite a bit during RET, so I hope to stay motivated and maintain a “can-do” attitude throughout. I remember my UBI experience.
  2. Research. Other than some minimal, unstructured research that was mandated for graduate school, I’ve conducted no formalized research. For this reason, I’m especially intrigued by this opportunity to not only learn about Dr. Gupta’s research, but to experience the process personally. I hear and read about research all the time, but this time I’ll actually be the one conducting it. I find that incredibly empowering. I am fully anticipating the roller coaster that will be investigation, frustration, and discovery.
  3. Impact. RET is actually intimidating and even scary on a certain level. The workload will be serious. The hours long. But I feel like this is what professional development should be. It should push me out of my comfort zone. How else will I improve? The breadth and depth of this immersive experience promises to provide high levels of enrichment, of which I’ve never experienced before. It will be interesting to see how all this work manifests itself in my career and what I do with my students.

With all that said, there is a bigger picture.

Before I was accepted into RET, I have taken more and more interest in research. I realized this because I have so many questions. Those questions cause me to want answers, even if they’re partial or incomplete. Research is a structured, unbiased way to do that. Anyways, I have a lofty goal to be part of a team of teachers and/or educational team that researches teaching, learning, and/or schools. It’s just a dream at this point and I have the slightest idea of how I would make it happen. I’m sure I’ll pick up some cues from this experience with NYU. Maybe I can use MfA as an outlet for this? Maybe I can find a some sort of RET related to education?

To be continued…

 

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