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.


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,

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.


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.


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.


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,