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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Is this the halfway point or just the beginning? (Murd Letter #4)

My school colleague Stephanie Murdock and I are writing letters to each other this summer and publishing them on our blogs. We are both white math teachers leaning on one another to improve the anti-racist stance that we take in our lives, classrooms, and school. This is the fourth post in the series.

Murd!

Thanks for getting back to me. This is only the fourth letter between us, but I really appreciate what we’re building here and, as we pass the halfway point of the summer, I am looking towards the future. These letters are really worth my while; I’m writing them for you, but they’re helping to clarify so much for me. With that said, was that a “yes” when it comes to continuing to write each other after summer ends? I feel there’s so much possibility ahead, so much room for reflection. No pressure. :-)

I really appreciated your average rate of change activity based on 13th. No lie, I might be stealing it! Seeing it made me think about how I might modify my Algebra 2 curriculum to be more antiracist, Black-centric, and Latinx-centric. As an ode to our antiracist commitment and a challenge ourselves, maybe we use a portion of our upcoming letters to share antiracist ideas for teaching math — algebra 1 (you) or algebra 2 (me). There’s a lot of overlap between us. I would hope that we could share ideas/activities/lessons that are not perfect, but instead flawed, works in progress, or just flat-out resources that could lead to something bigger. I, for example, have been thinking about the role that statistics might play in exposing racism in Algebra 2 and recently came across a treasure trove of data compiled by fellow Math for America teacher Amy Hogan who teaches AP Statistics. I also purchased High School Mathematics Lessons to Explore, Understand, and Respond to Social Injustice, which I have been glossing over with the gathering ideas. I’m less interested in the actual lessons (I don’t particularly like lessons from books like this) than I am in the social issues they address and approaches they take. How do they expose racist ideas and policies? How do they honor black and brown folks? We’ll see.

When I think about bringing antiracism into Algebra 2, what I find interesting is how this work will interact with the problem-centered nature of the course. In case you didn’t know, I’ve designed it around many non-thematic units where related topics are spread out and revisited many times throughout the school year. I’m thinking that, as the course matures over the course of ten months, having opportunities to explore and reexplore race and racial issues from varying mathematical perspectives could be a strength that I use to my advantage.

In addition to curriculum-related stuff, I’m also interested in surveying how we find ways to interrupt white supremacy culture when it comes to how we teach mathematics. As Laura A. Roy says in Teaching While White, “While educators are not the sole arbiters of racial justice, they have a responsibility to work toward dismantling White supremacy at the pedagogical and curricular level.” How is our pedagogy antiracist? What teacher moves are we making to interrupt systems of power that harm dark students? In this vein, last week I attended workshop ran by the Brandelyn Tosolt from Abolitionist Teacher Network which was dedicated to cultivating co-conspirators (i.e. white people). During the session, I began thinking about the characteristics of white supremacy culture and how, as a striving co-conspirator, these characteristics are present at our school and in my classroom. I’ll have a steep learning curve on this front, but maybe we can investigate this together?

Something else I want to throw out there is how I’ve begun brainstorming plans for a “Future Educator’s Club” at school. Folks who are doing this work understand how overwhelmingly white the teaching profession is — that statistic is commonplace these days (thankfully). Why not take a very small step in changing that by encouraging students at our school (who are 85 percent Black and Latinx) to pursue teaching — or at least create space for them to explore it as a viable and worthwhile career choice? We so many other enrichment opportunities for kids at our school. Why not teaching? It’s probably the most important profession of all since it makes all other professions possible and can do so much to fight racism. (Related ideas that I want to ramble on about in another letter or blog post: teaching as a form of protest and teacher activist.)

I know there are barriers for students who want to be teachers — like outrageous tuitions and low salaries once they graduate, which are only exacerbated when it comes to students of color — but why not move to support them and cultivate their interest in a profession that so desperately needs them? Thinking back, I meet a handful students of color every year who express interest in teaching (and that’s without even tapping into our TA program). I usually swoon over these students when they break the news to me and commend them for their interest. But why not do more? Why not help them begin realizing the teacher inside of them? Why not do my part to create a more racially just teaching corps?

I’ve been flirting with the idea of a Future Educator’s Club for years, but this is the moment, Murd. I’m not turning back. I’m coming to terms with the fact that I’m far too passionate about teaching and social justice to not pursue it. (Last year during career day I even volunteered to be the “Teacher” representative. I felt cheesy, but also right at home going on and on about why teaching is the gold standard in careers.) At a minimum, I have to throw myself at this idea to at least see what happens, right? It’s kind of like what I talked about in my last letter — trying things so that when I retire, I can look back and have no regrets. Who knows, hopefully at the end of the year I’ll be able to cross out “Start a future teacher after school club” off my Teacher Bucket List.

You asked about my why when it comes to this work. I took long enough getting to your question, didn’t I? Forgive me. Though I evaded your question for many paragraphs, and will probably end up still not answering it by the time I finish this letter, maybe in some ways I did. Through my many wonderings that included a plea to continue writing public antiracist letters to you, to a search to uncover ways to teach math in more racially sound ways, to an initiative to address the racial imbalance amongst teachers, my why is wrapped up in my responsibility as a teacher to help young people navigate our world and all of its injustices. It’s rooted in my calling to teach, my passion for being a learner long before being a teacher. It’s embedded my drive to approach every minute of every period of every class as if my son or daughter were on the roster.

There is so much left to say, so much I want to ask you about what it means to be a White parent and teacher while struggling for an antiracist life, school, and classroom. You mentioning how you are redefining yourself as a mother really made me think. There’s so much I want to learn from you that I sense could fuel my work as a White parent and teacher. But I’m tired and this letter is long enough. It will have to wait until next time.

Talk soon.

Leaving questions unanswered,
Brian

I attempted to measure my implicit bias in the classroom


At the end of the school year, in addition to the standard feedback surveys, I had my kids complete an anonymous implicit bias survey on me. On the survey, I had three questions. For the first two, I listed every kid in the class and asked them:

  • Which three kids in the class do you think I favored the MOST?
  • Which three kids in the class do you think I favored the LEAST?

For the third question, students had to identify what I do that gives them these impressions. This one was multiple choice with an “other: ____” option.

It’s important to note that students had to choose particular students; there was no “Mr. P is not biased” option for the first two questions. A colleague mentioned that this might make kids feel boxed in, especially if they truly felt I held no bias towards any student in the class. This was a fair concern, but my thinking was that if a large number of students felt that I was unbiased, and I still forced them to pick, then the data would simply capture my unbiased tendencies; my “favoritism” would be evenly distributed across everyone in the class. There would be no clear favorite or least favorite student since each kid in this group who thought I was unbiased would choose someone at random to simply answer the question. Full disclosure: I could be way off about this.

I also think that by forcing students to choose and not giving them an opt-out, I was asking them to question their own implicit biases when it comes to their teachers being unbiased. Teachers strive to serve students fairly and justly, but is this possible? Are their teachers really as unbiased as they say? On the surface, things may look unbiased and fair, but as their teacher, I’m confident that I have biases (e.g. what I get excited about or how I gravitate to a student’s previous experiences or who I tend to call on). My hope is that this survey could help them realize — in a small way — that implicit bias and its impact are both unintentional but still natural phenomena.

Another interesting aspect of this survey revolves around equity. Every kid in the class has a set of unique needs that require a unique response from me. I can’t treat everyone the same or I would have a bigger problem on my hands. A kid with autism, for example, might not respond well to eye contact, and so I might never give it. Or what if I know a student has lost a loved one, but no one else in the class does, and I elect to leave them be when they put their head down for the entire period? These sorts of scenarios play out every day in the classroom at various levels of severity, and students often never know why we teachers do what we do. Nonetheless, over the course of an entire school year, I wonder how the sum total of my decisions and actions in the classroom appear to students. How does what I do or say make them feel about how I feel about other kids in the class? Does what I do (or not do) make students feel a certain way about who I favor or not favor? How does this impact how they feel in our class? Though they may not know why I’m doing what I do, how it appears to them matters. And I may be blind to that without asking them to identify it for me.

So, anyway, I gave the survey to four classes. Here are the responses from one class (names are blocked out):

I’ve looked over the results a couple of times and I’m still not sure how to interpret them. In all of the classes, I noticed that some of the kids who were ranked as my least favorite where all quieter, more reserved students. Did the majority of the class believe I am not biased, but instead of choosing some random person in the class (like I talked about above), chose peers who were less outwardly engaged during class? One student even commented, “I don’t particularly think you have a least favorite, but _____ was not in class for a large period of time because she took a trip so I put her down.” At the same time, it’s likely that I did favor these students less than I realized. Could I have been more public in my appreciation and validation of them? Besides, across all classes, the majority of kids selected “Who he calls on during class” as their reason for choosing the students that they did. Reflecting on the matter, while I try to remain balanced, I have a terrible habit of relying far too much on certain students, especially in certain scenarios. Interestingly, my quieter students also received far fewer votes for most favored.

The converse was also true: many of the more vocal, more participatory kids were voted as the students who I favored the most. This wasn’t always the case, but I certainly did see a trend. Surprisingly, a few students who I thought I favored more conspicuously than most didn’t get voted as most favored.

Another thought: I make it an absolute priority to create a personal bond with each and every student, whether it be a handshake, an ongoing joke, attending their games, or learning and remembering their passions. I do wonder how these small connections come off to students. For their rationale on the survey, two students mentioned that “he seems more interested in certain people than in others” and “the little ‘things’ he has with each person shows a lot. I feel like the ppl I put that he favored least never really had a ‘thing.’ ” I think being more systematic about these connections (e.g. tabulating them) could help me be better in this area.

Through all this haze, I can’t help but think that I’m seeing what I want to see in the data. Confirmation bias is no doubt alive and well in these reflections of mine. Planting a seed: It might be worth my while to have someone examine the data who knows nothing about my students and the relationships I have with them. Maybe a colleague and I could do this survey next year and interpret each other’s data?

I’m also wondering how else I might slice up the results. How can I complicate it? Take gender, for example. Would the survey results show a bias I have towards certain gender identities in the room? What about race and ethnicity? The overwhelmingly majority of my students are black and latinx with a low percentage of asian and white students. If I pursued it, what would that angle say about me? What about body type? What about students with special needs? What about grades? Do I appear to favor (or not favor) students with higher or lower averages? What if I somehow found a way to compare classes? What would that reveal about the biases I have for specific classes over others?

So many questions. So much to think about. While I’m leaving with few answers from a survey that I hoped would give me revelations, maybe that’s a good thing. To be continued.



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As a white person,

For the last several years — and especially in the last several months — I have often found myself prefacing things I say with those words.

As a white person, I try to be conscious of what I read.
As a white person, I teach high school mathematics in the Bronx.
As a white person, I notice that this room is filled with nothing but other white people.
As a white person, I have a lot to learn.

In a meeting this week with colleagues who I respect dearly, I once again caught myself using those three words to precede a statement. Saying it wasn’t new to me, but my colleagues, who were a mixed-race group, good-heartedly laughed at me and poked fun. “Of course you’re white!” a few of them said. I laughed too. They were right, and I didn’t need to say it, but in the moment, before I finished whatever it was that I was going to say, I selfishly used a few minutes to reflect on why I feel the need to say “As a white person,” so often.

Those few minutes of public blabbering helped me realize that, on a personal level, using that phrase is my small way of pushing back against white supremacy. By uttering it so frequently, it reminds me that I am white and that I walk through this world with a white frame of reference. It helps me place my conscience in a white context. Before I open my mouth and say something that perpetuates racist ideas, which I have often done, those three words slow me down. They don’t stop me for saying or doing racist things, but they do remind me that my white privileges played a role in whatever it is I’m about to say.

Using those words regularly is also important for me because of how white supremacy works to keep white people oblivious to their inherent and unearned advantages. As a good-meaning, progressive white person, it doesn’t want me to confess my whiteness; my racial ignorance is a big part of what keeps it alive. For the first three decades of my life, like many other “good” white people, I was colorblind. I didn’t acknowledge race because I never had to. Race never affected my life in any significant way. Ignoring race was a personal choice that I never interrogated, but it was also the direct result of the socialization that comes with living in our white suprematist society. We swim in an anti-black, anti-brown culture and I do nothing but reinforce its racist norms if I refuse to speak of my race out loud. Having not done this for so long, I am disappointed. But it’s all the more reason why I find myself pushing the words “As a white person,” out of my mouth as much as I do. They help me break rank — however briefly — with white supremacy. Those words allow me to outwardly recognize my race, which white supremacy wants only to conceal.



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