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This summer, I was asking myself the wrong question

The summer began with me thinking a lot about the question, What does antiracism look like in math class? It’s a broad question that guided much of my summer learnings and reflections. I attended workshops, had lots of conversations, and sparked an antiracist book club with colleagues. As the weeks passed, thinking about that question made me focus a lot on my Algebra 2 curriculum. I asked myself related questions like how can I change my curriculum to expose racism? and how can my curriculum be a lever that decenters Whiteness?

As the summer winds down, I think I was asking myself the wrong question. While my original question targets racism, it overlooks my White racial identity and the role it plays in fostering antiracism in my classroom. In other words, the question is colorblind. Because I am a White man who has avoided reckoning with his racial identity for his entire life, I find this aspect of the question deeply problematic. Understanding my White racial lens is vital to doing meaningful work in my classroom and spotlighting antiracism didn’t allow me do that; it kept me separate from the work, it protected me.

I realize now that the question I should have been asking all summer was, As a White man, what does it mean to teach Black and Brown students math? By racializing the question, I have to confront my Whiteness in order to respond to it. Of course, as a good meaning White person, this is something I would rather not do. Given 85 percent of my students are Black or Brown, this question is also far more personal and direct. It’s local. It recognizes the sharp racial disparity between myself and the students I serve and brings that to the fore. Unlike when I centered my question around antiracism, I can’t choose to answer this question abstractly, to detach myself from my response. Explicitly addressing antiracism in my wonderings, while important, allowed me to dance around my racial identity and the personal work I need to do as a White teacher who teaches students of color. The truth is, my new question triggers racial discomfort for me — which I need.

All this reminds me of James Baldwin, who once said “You and I are history.” It’s a simple saying, but holds so much. We have to know not only our story, but also the story of our people. For, whether we are aware of it or not, we are carrying all of this weight as move through the world. As a white teacher, it’s important to see myself, my pedagogy, and my curriculum not racially neutral because schooling in this country has never been racially neutral. In doing this work, I have to reject the individualist lie that who I am and what I do with my students is distinct from our country’s ugly history. That perspective is what got us here.

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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.

Teaching as a form of protest

As a public school teacher serving students in New York City, there are a lot of mandates placed on me. These mandates are enforced and reinforced by a system that cares far more about a test score, school rating, and keeping White parents happy than it does for the liberation and racial healing for its dark students. As such, these mandates require me to enact a colorblind curricula and pedagogy. They encourage me to ask my students about tutoring before I ask them about how they’re doing. They urge my students to be themselves in a building without a gender-neutral bathroom. These mandates support the idea that teaching is apolitical. They make seeing a police officer outside my classroom normal. They entice me to manage dark bodies and their behavior. They expect me to focus strictly on content through the many traumas of a pandemic.

This summer I realized that that there are lots of different ways to protest. You can protest with your body. You can protest with your wallet. You can protest with your energy. After reading Christopher Emdin’s recent contribution to The Atlantic’s “On Teaching” project, I began to see how teaching can also be a form of protest.

I can protest by resisting classroom policies that limit when and how many times a student may use the bathroom. I can protest by refusing to adopt textbooks and content that centers the white, male, able-bodied experience. I can protest by not dishing out a detention to a student because they are wearing white socks instead of black. Or because their shirt isn’t tucked in. I can protest by not giving our full 45 minutes to the Common Core each day. I can protest by acting out against the idea that teaching math is about symbols and statistics and not stories. I can protest by prioritizing how I listen to my students — especially my black and brown students who are female, queer, or gender-nonconforming. I can protest by being on the committee that changes hiring practices. In the morning, I can protest by building camaraderie and playing basketball with my students at open gym instead of obsessing over my lessons. I can protest by acknowledging the politics of grades and working to ensure that, at least in my classroom, they don’t supersede my students’ intellectual and emotional well-being. I can protest by defiantly and outspokenly positioning myself as a colearner, not a teacher. With a school whose student body is 85 percent black and brown, I can protest by finding ways to make my curriculum and pedagogy honor, celebrate, and endorse Black, Latinx, and indigenous cultures and ways of being. I can protest by helping my school look in the mirror and face its ugly past.

Emdin sums this up perfectly:

A pedagogy of protest privileges dialogue with students even when the school schedule says there is no time for it. It creates space for youth to teach about their lives even when the curriculum says there is no space for it. It focuses on building community and family even when the school administration tells teachers not to express emotion with students. If teachers want to respond to racism as they’ve responded to the coronavirus pandemic, they can start here—in their own classrooms.

Framing teaching as an act resistance makes it harder to look the other way or say that the school system that keeps my students and I shackled to an unjust history is too big or too far-reaching to change. Though I may only be one teacher in a humble corner of the educational universe, I can resist. I can say no. I can give the system hell in my own way with antiracist lessons, cogenerative dialogues with students, and advocating for Black culture — and all of its intersections across gender, sexual orientation, ability, religion, and class — at faculty meetings. I can work to abolish teaching norms that stifles the intellects and erases the emotions of marginalized students. I can protest every day with my teaching by what I plan, what I say, and what I do.


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Mathematical penpals…anyone interested?

I had this crazy idea the other day: mathematical penpals. Yeah, like old-school, pen-and-paper, drop-it-in-the-mailbox penpals. It’s a lost art that I think is worth reviving with our students.

The idea triggered many questions for me. Like, what would it actually be like for my students to be mathematical penpals with a group of students from another school — and possibly another city or country? What would is be like for students to write mathematically-themed letters to one another for an entire school year? Could it happen on a monthly or even semimonthly basis? In addition to some get-to-know-you stuff, what engaging and open-ended math prompts could the other teacher(s) and I come up with to ignite our students writing? How can we help elicit racial and social justice in their writing?

In addition to questions, I began thinking about the possibilities of an activity like this. I got even more excited. For starters, this penpal idea lifts up the frequently dismissed notion of formal writing in math class, humanizes it, and makes it a more interactive experience. Last year I created a book using my students’ math writings and I feel that some of these penpal letters would be great to feature in next year’s edition. Because the letters would be handwritten and delivered via snailmail, they would also add a suspenseful, yet fun, element to the class. When will the letters arrive? How will my penpal respond to what I wrote? What will they write? What did I learn about them this month?

All this, I think, also helps build connection and community across schools — especially if those schools are located in different cities or countries. The students will go from being complete strangers in September to using many personalized letters to get to know one another by June. Having a relationship evolve in that way is unique — and that’s not even considering the fact that we’re in the middle of a pandemic. Giving the historic circumstances that the Covid-19 pandemic presents us with, penpaling could provide our students a memorable way of documenting their school year. And what if we paired students of different races with each other? How could we use their letters to invite dialogue around racial justice? Maybe all their letters lead up to a big hoorah in June where we Zoom with each another and connect live for the first time. After receiving all these letters from someone you’ve never actually spoke to, what a magical moment that would be.

I’m dreaming here, I know. Sorry. But, worst case scenario, I think that having fun, one-on-one communications with a penpal might be a great way to relieve the mounds of anxiety that we all feel right now — teachers included. Plus, it’s socially distant by nature!

From a logistical standpoint, I don’t think it would take a lot of legwork to get going or maintain. The letters could be done outside of class or in a 20-minute block every two weeks or so. The students could (and should) help develop the math themes for each round of letters. Besides, they are the ones writing! And although we’d be physically mailing the letters, our schools would be paying for the postage. (This last point assumes that we are back in our buildings at least partially. If we aren’t, maybe there’s an alternative we can brainstorm.)

I know I probably sound desperate, but there’s got to be SOMEONE out there in the world of education who wants to do this with me. Despite all the uncertainty around the upcoming school year, if you’re interested and happen to read this, complete this form and let’s see if we can make math penpaling happen.


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