My 2020 in books

Ah, 2020. What a year. It was filled with a lot. Frankly, probably too much. One thing that helped get me through this year was reading. Through all the bumps, bruises, and realizations, the books I read this year helped provide me some solace.

As I look back on my year through books, audiobooks played a bigger role than they ever have. (I read 35 books in 2020; three were audiobooks. I’m breaking records!) Last year I commented on how proud I was to have reread a book and how I hoped that it would become a tread for me. Well, I wouldn’t call it a trend yet, but I did manage to read four books this year for the second time, one of which I read twice this year.

As in years past, a good chunk of my reading this year was centered around race and racism. Given the racial and social uprising that occurred this year, there were many, many social justice-themed booklists popping up all over the internet. I peeked at them, but quickly got overwhelmed. In the end, my guiding principles were to dive deep into history and to ensure, no matter what books I found myself reading, that the authors were mostly folks of color. Added fuel for this came from an antiracist summer book club I helped organize with my school.

In no particular order, here are some of the standouts from all the books I read this year.

  • Late in the year, Eddie S. Glaude’s Begin Again formally introduced me to the heart and mind of James Baldwin, which I am thankful for. I was pulled to read it after listening to Glaude on an episode of NPR’s Throughline podcast. Although I read Fire Next Time last year, I approached it blindly. Begin Again gave me needed context and positioned me to better interpret Baldwin’s work. Almost immediately after finishing Begin Again, I read No Name in the Street, which was passionate and pointed.
  • I enjoyed the symmetry between Katherine D. Kinzler’s How You Say It and Kate Murphy’s You’re Not Listening. One focused on language and speaking and the other on how we listen to each other, but both reminded me of the importance of communication. How You Say It also opened my eyes (and ears) to language bias and discrimination…and how widely accepted they are in society.
  • Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport was great. It reminded me a lot of Essentialism from Greg McKeown, which I read a couple of years ago. I couldn’t help get a sense of elitism from Newport (and McKeown), but I appreciated his message nonetheless. Given that practically everything has moved to a screen now, his book was a refreshing pushback to make sure that I use technology to serve my personal and professional needs. At least partially because of his book, interestingly, I no longer have a SmartPhone.
  • Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, which was published 1971, proved to be one of the more stimulating, momentum-building books of the year. A colleague gifted it to me before the school year began and it lit my fire for the year ahead. It motivated a blog post that helped me realize that, despite my struggles with infusing social justice into my curriculum, the medium is the message.
  • Rereading For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood by Christopher Emdin was inspirational. When I first read it in 2016, it felt lofty. A lot has happened within me since then and, in reading it again this year, Emdin’s message was clearer and more in-sync with my goals. It moved me to organize scheduled cogenerative dialogues with my students this year. (It also paired well with Teaching as a Subversive Activity.) I can’t wait to read Ratchetdemic next year.
  • Like a lot of the reading I did this year, Locking Up Our Own by James Foreman provided me a history lesson. Saturated with data, it gives an honest and forthright perspective on policing, the criminal justice system, and their impacts on Black Americans — and our country as a whole. Clearly written, Foreman tendered an incredibly complex narrative in a straightforward and concise manner. Hats off.
  • Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari was long, but worth the time investment. He did a masterful job of making me feel like a speck on the timeline of history, but also helped me understand a great deal about how we sapiens arrived here in this moment.
  • Ben Orlin’s Math with Bad Drawings was hilarious, insightful, and warm-hearted all at the same time. Easily five stars. My only disappointment is that it took me so long to get around to it. Since reading Math with Bad Drawings, I’ve been doing my best to emulate Orlin’s stick figures with my kids. They’re so fun and lively. Needless to say, I’ve been failing miserably.
  • Mathematics for Human Flourishing by Francis Su and Christopher Jackson was special. Su and Jackson found a way to capture the intersection of mathematics and humanity in an engaging, heartfelt, and beautiful way. Their open letters throughout the book epitomized the overarching message of the book and left me feeling uplifted and ready.
  • We Want to Do More Than Survive by Bettina Love was probably my Book of the Year. It was outstanding and exposed much of what I’ve been searching for these last few years. Love’s poignant comparison of teachers today with 19th century abolitionists revealed as much as it motivated. Hell, the book was so good that, back in June, it got its own blog post.
  • I didn’t get into much fiction in 2020. That said, I closed the year with the novel The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which, although I’m not actually finished with it yet, is outstanding and easily one of my best books of 2020. I doubled-down on Coates by rereading Between the World and Me in late summer, which is easily in my personal top ten books of all time. Coates has a unique ability of leveraging words to capture the absoluteness and idea, experience, or scene — especially when it comes to matters of race, racism, and the human condition — in ways that few writers can.


Master Teachers on Teaching (MT^2)

Last week, I was invited to speak at Math for America’s Master Teachers on Teaching (MT2) event. It’s a special evening that consists of several TED-style talks from MfA teachers on topics that connect to teaching and learning. I’ve been to many MT2s in person and have always walked away inspired. It’s one of many ways that MfA privileges teachers and their voice. This was the ninth annual MT2 — and the first virtual one. The theme was Disruption: Finding a Way Forward.

Motivated by folks like Patrick Honner, who has presented at multiple MT2s, and Patrick Callahan, a school colleague who has also presented, during the last few years I’ve been thinking increasingly about public speaking and the role it could play in my practice. But, before maybe last year, I would have never thought about submitting a proposal to an event like this. For one, I never had the confidence. Who wants to listen to me? Pft. Second, aside from a personal challenge, I struggled to see the value in it for myself. Why would I give a talk like this? What purpose would it serve me?

Unexpectedly, this year was different. Somehow I found both the confidence and the personal need to submit a proposal to speak. I think remote learning played a big role. It’s been hard out here. Being isolated from my students, my classroom, and my colleagues, I have struggled to find meaning this year from behind a screen.

This emptiness has lingered since the spring, but landed on my shoulders differently this fall. And despite my hopefulness, I couldn’t shake it. I sensed this and began feeling a need to fill the void, to find an outlet, to heal. I needed to find something that could give me meaning, something that could help me survive my losing battle with remote learning.

Enter: MT2.

I pitched my talk. It embraced the obvious: just how misplaced and confused I am now that I’m not in my classroom. I wanted to use it to explore the relationship that I’ve had with my classroom though the years and how it shaped the teacher — and man — I am today. Somewhat shockingly, MfA liked it.

I dove in to planning. I identified several key moments from the classroom that broadly defined the role my classroom plays in my life. To help make it tangible for anyone who actually decided to listen, I decided to connect these moments with physical objects in the room, like the doorway, SmartBoard, and floor. Jen Cody and Michael Paoli coached me throughout…and helped reel me in. Michael also provided the last line of the talk, which was killer. Jen helped me with the simple and fitting title: Room 227. I’m thankful for their guidance and ingenuity.

Of the six speakers, two of which were emceeing, I was slotted to speak last. This may have added to my nerves a bit, watching five others tell their story before mine, but, in the end, the talk itself went fine. I was pleased with it. I was nervous at the start, but soon found my groove. In fact, about 2/3 of the way through the talk, I was doing too well…and noticed it. I hadn’t stumbled over my words or fidgeted, as I had done in my many recitals of the talk. So, when I started talking about the chairs of my room, out of no where, for about 30 seconds, my nerves began to swell up within me again. Not being in front of a live audience — not being able to find eyes and individualize my words, which I would much prefer — only added to my sudden anxiety. Standing there in my living room, I fought back, touching my face and head. By the time I started talking about how my students shave my beard, I got out of my own thoughts and found my stride again. I finished strong.

Aside from my talk, which was packed with emotion, I naturally lead with my emotions both personally and professionally…which sometimes gets me into trouble. But in a situation like this, in the middle of a global pandemic, with teachers and students experiencing so much, I think leading with emotion actually benefited the talk and honored the moment. At least I hope so.

Math for America has provided me with so many outlets for growth these last eight years, but this one was special. I needed MT2 more than ever. Having spent the last six weeks searching for language to capture my despair and disconnectedness and then using the spoken word to let it all out, I find myself in a better place now. I’m still fed up and feeling unloved and lost in being removed from my second home, but less so.

MT2 was my deep breath. And now I’ve exhaled.

The 2020 MT2 speakers, including yours truly.


My two cents (Week of Dec 14, 2020)

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 13th post in the series.

Monday (Dec 14)
In a bout with Zoom fatigue, I’m discovering the utility and refreshing nature of dialing into zoom sessions with my phone. It essentially turns zoom into a phone call and, in stepping away from my screen (yay!), enables me to shut up and listen more.

Tuesday (Dec 15)
Stumbled upon a fun thing in 8th period: if I get a 100% response rate on the poll for any given day, I must run into my front room or kitchen (whichever comes first), grab the first edible thing I see, and bring it back to the computer to eat it on camera. Today it was turkey from the deli.

Wednesday (Dec 16)
Had a one-on-one with my AP for the first time in over a month. Had a pointed discussion Not So Nice Black Parents episode from the 8 Black Hands podcast in the Continuing the Conversation group after school (I basically listened to the group).

Thursday (Dec 17)
Used Desmos to do a group quiz in class which I really liked; I may turn it into a routine. I nervously and purposefully gave my MT2 talk in the evening.

Friday (Dec 18)
Only 1/2 of my cogen showed up today for our conversation, which was disappointing. The second faculty-wide RSJ session went well; we began to formerly address White Supremacy Culture at our school and a math colleague, Lo, stepped up in a big way.


Call-and-response, virtual handshakes

Before remote learning, one of my most beloved rituals was the handshakes I had with my students. I’ve created dozens over the last couple of years. We did them in the doorway of the classroom where I waited to receive them for class each day and anywhere else we crossed paths. Each student’s handshake was unique to them and based on some sort of connection we had. They were incredibly versatile. They’re also really fun and creative. One ended with the Heisman pose. Another included a game of rock, paper, scissors. And then there was one where the student and I pretended opening a book to read.

There were so many. They were a salient, reoccurring highlight of my day, a physical act that required me to be fully present and acknowledge the individuality of my students. It was one small way to let my students know that I see them. Each handshake served as public affirmation observable to anyone, but was inherently private and special because of the personal meaning it held for the two of us who did it. Being naturally reciprocal, our handshakes also symbolized the mutuality that I strive for with my students. I need them and they need me. No handshake can be done alone.

This fall, as remote learning drove its stake into the ground, my customary handshake was obviously not possible. But, more than ever, I still found myself craving the unique connection that a handshake provides. I needed to find an alternative.

It took a while, but I think I’ve found something. With my students I refer to it as a ‘virtual handshake,’ but it’s essentially a call-and-response that can happen verbally or through text. Here’s how it works. Suppose I have a student, Safiya. After identifying an interesting tidbit about her or something I find pretty cool, together we come up with a phrase or statement that captures it. Let’s say she loves mocha frappes from McDonald’s (I do too). Our statement could simply be “Mocha Frappe.” After we decide on our phrase, we agree where to split the phrase into two parts. With “Mocha Frappe” the split is easy because it’s only two words: part 1 would be “Mocha” and part 2 would be “Frappe.”

Now, anytime Safiya enters Zoom, one of us initiates the the virtual handshake by saying or typing into the chat box part 1 of our phrase, “Mocha.” Whenever that happens, the other person simply replies with “Frappe.” The handshake is complete.

So far, after a few weeks of creating them, I have 8 virtual handshakes — and counting. In addition to “Mocha Frappe,” which is an actual handshake I have with a student, others include:

Part 1: Tic Tac
Part 2: Toe

Part 1: Salut
Part 2: Comment allez-vous

Part 1: She likes the way I dance
Part 2: She likes the way I move

They’re getting more detailed and creative by the day, which is starting to incorporate the symmetry of how we do them. For example, if I include ellipsis (…) or an exclamation point (!) at the end of part 1, I’m imploring my students to return the favor in their response. What’s cool is that, in addition to Zoom, I’ve also been doing them over email and through messages on Classroom. In this asynchronous form of the handshake, I type part 1 at the end of my message. Students reply with part 2.

So while they’re definitely not the same as their physical counterparts, they are helping to dampen the blow of distance learning and close the distance between my students and I…at least minimally. Like my old handshakes, they draw from the personal connection we share, work to affirm each other in distinct ways that are both public and private, and embody reciprocity. I’d also like to think that they let my students know that I see them — even when their camera is never on.