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.


My two cents (Week of Nov 30, 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 11th post in the series.

Monday (Nov 30)
I felt unexpectedly relaxed all day; I found myself speaking slower than normal — I was more controlled, more calculated. Referencing James Baldwin and Begin Again at the RSJ meeting after school felt vindicating and hopeful.

Tuesday (Dec 1)
I shaved my head in 5th period. That was random and fun.

Wednesday (Dec 2)
Shaving my head while teaching has officially become a routine for my 5th period class. It was democratic, we voted.

Thursday (Dec 3)
My collection of virtual handshakes (call and response) is growing and it’s getting fun. I now have eight — and counting.

Friday (Dec 4)
Worked all day in an empty classroom. Added a new member of my cogen and discussed a way of increasing engagement in breakouts.


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.

Mr. P

My Two Cents (Week of Nov 23, 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 tenth post in the series.

Monday (November 23, 2020)
I think racial and social justice may be slowly becoming a priority at my school. It appears as if our institutional priorities may be changing to help us dismantle white supremacy culture, but there’s still a long way to go.

Tuesday (November 24, 2020)
Another roller coaster. I barely taught in eighth period today before realizing that they needed a mental health day; I wish I had the answers they needed.

Wednesday (November 25, 2020)
I played math pictionary today. It was fun, interesting, and useful to see how students think about and represent the various concepts we’ve learned through informal sketches.

Thursday (November 25, 2020)
No classes — Thanksgiving Recess

Friday (November 25, 2020)
No classes — Thanksgiving Recess