My 2018 in Books

I was really pleased with my reading habits this year. I read more than I ever have. In 2017, I read 26 books. Given some demanding life commitments that I knew I had this year, in January I set a goal of reading 20 books. As of right now, I have finished 30. Yay me! (And thank you NYPL for being amazing.)

So when I read Patrick Honner’s post Books I Read in 2018 where he summarizes his year of reading books, I was inspired to write this post. He also inspired me to request On Writing Well from the library. Thanks Patrick!

Most of my reading this year revolved around race. This continued the trend from last year as it’s something that has been on my mind a lot. In addition to reading about race and getting closer to my own whiteness, I was more conscious of the race of the authors I chose to read this year, ensuring that authors of color made up a large percentage of my reading.

Nonfiction | This is usually where I live when it comes to reading. The most impactful were:

  • Messy by Tim Harford. I’ve always believed that disorder and randomness are highly underrated. This book helped me to better see why.
  • White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. This was probably the most thought-provoking book I read this year. As a white man, it helped me understand how my own ignorance and privilege has contributed to our racialized society. Written for white people, it was unapologetic and bold.
  • Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks. Chapter 10 was probably the most important chapter of any book that I read this year — and maybe ever.
  • Goodbye Things by Fumio Sasaki and Essentialism by Greg McKeown. During late summer and early fall, I read a string of books centered around living with less. Less stuff, less ideas, less commitments. Both well-written, these were two of my favorites.
  • Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. Easily 5 stars. I knew next to nothing about Apartheid, so (once again) my ignorance was on full display here. I savored Noah’s superb storytelling all the way to the end like a good meal. I was sad that it had to end.
  • The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson. This was such an engaging book from start to finish. This is technically a self-help book, but it didn’t feel like it. It’s more of a reality check; it’s woefully pragmatic and I love it.
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. While I haven’t finished this yet, I already know that it’s special. Both vivid and powerful, he shares a lived experience in a way that feels like an obligatory read for anyone in this country.

Fiction | I told myself that I wanted to read more fiction as compared to last year. I succeeded! Last year I read 3 books and this year I read a whopping…5. I’m trying to get better. Notable were:

  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. This really made me think. It took me to places that I never knew I always needed to be. It transformed something that’s in the news every day — young black men who are targeted by the police — something tangible for me. Reading it was a visceral experience. I read it before the movie came out and still haven’t seen the movie, but I want to.
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I read this near the end of the year and the timing was perfect because it tied together so many social issues and stereotypes. It centers on one African woman’s journey in — and out of — American culture. Plus, the writing was stellar.
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Having taught several autistic students through the years, and never making an effort to truly understood their experience, this book was fascinating and informative. It provided such a clear and unadulterated look into the perspective of an autistic young person.

 

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#blackbrillance + social justice + problem-based learning

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One of my summer reads has been The Brilliance of Black Children in Mathematics by Jacqueline Leonard and Danny B. Martin (inspired by Annie Perkins). I’m almost three-quarters of the way through it. It is rather dense because it’s packed with research, but I’ve been enjoying it.

Chapter 6 has stood out. It focused on the development of culturally relevant, cognitively demanding (CRCD) mathematical tasks. The authors of the gave this definition of CRCD:

Culturally relevant, cognitively demanding tasks should be mathematically demanding tasks and embedded in activities that provide opportunities for students to experience personal and social change. The context of the task may be drawn from students’ cultural knowledge and their local communities. But, the use of context goes beyond content modification and explicitly requires students to inquire (at times problematically) about themselves, their communities, and the world around them. In doing so, the task features an empowerment (versus deficit or color-blind orientation) toward students’ culture, drawing on connections to other subjects and issues. CRCD tasks ask students to engage in and overcome the discontinuity and divide between school, their own lives, community and society, explicitly through mathematical activity. The tasks are real-world focused, requiring students to make sense of the world, and explicitly critique society — that is, make empowered decisions about themselves, communities, and world. (p. 132)

The authors go on to caution the reader that finding/creating a CRCD task isn’t enough:

It should be reiterated here that task creation is by far only the beginning. Culturally relevant pedagogy necessitates that teachers learn about students, their culture, and their backgrounds. Ladson-Billings (1994) indicates that the teacher must be the driving force to creating a culturally relevant classroom. The contexts of the tasks alone will not necessarily make for the culturally relevant environment. It is the thinking behind the tasks and the actions during the implementation that make them culturally relevant. Without the appropriate set up of the task and the accompanying discussion and connection to the students and/or their communities, the task although created as culturally relevant, will lose its relevance. (p. 134-135)

This all got me thinking about all of the problem-based learning that I did last year with my kiddos. Our focus all year was thinking about, discussing, and solving problems that built on each other. As such, the big ideas of the algebra 2 curriculum were slowly uncovered through the problems. I used a range of pedagogical approaches but mainly leaned on whiteboarding (VRG and VNPS) to foster small and whole group discussions. On top of all this, back in June, I learned of Brian Lawler, who has done work around how teaching mathematics equitably requires problem-based learning. It’s an interesting take and learning from him provided even more incentive for me to improve my PBL approaches. Here are the slides to a presentation that he gave at the PBL Summitt in 2016.

So reading through chapter 6, it hit me that the PBL setting that I’m constantly improving affords my kids frequent, bite-sized opportunities to have meaningful discussions about relevant, empowering mathematics — exactly what I didn’t do last year. I centered all of the problems in contexts typically found on the Regents exams, which surely has its place, but when considering that 90% of my students are either Black or Latinx, it is an issue. The bottom line was that there was a strong disconnect between the problems I curated and my students’ lived realities. Here’s an example from last year’s problems (I could have chosen many more):


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While fairly procedural, it’s a pretty standard Regents problem. Most algebra 2 teachers in New York wouldn’t complain too much about it.

Other than the unrealistic nature of the problem, what I’m coming to grips with is that the discussion we have a problem like this involves just mathematics, not the implications of the mathematics and how it directly affects how my students view themselves and/or society. The challenge I’m setting forth to myself now is to find ways to change the narratives that my problems present to my students that will help us have more meaningful, transformative conversations.

For instance, after combing through the website Radical Math, I found myself thinking about all those payday loan joints that are everywhere in the city, especially in Black and Latinx communities like where my school is located (and where I myself live). With interest rates as high as 400 percent, they help create a wicked cycle of debt that cripples many folks who are struggling to make ends meet — some of whom are quite possibly parents of my students. In addition, they target people of color. I’m thinking that instead of focusing on Bella, Ella, and their mythical interest rates, I could help my students explore about the damaging impact these lenders have our communities through introducing data from the above sources and through a series of problems that they grapple with. It’s not perfect, but here’s an example:


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I’m pretty bad at using math to generate discussions about broader social issues like race. But then again, apart from beyond the white dudes, I’ve never had math problems to catalyze such discussions. I hope I’m better with facilitating discussions about problems like this, to help students see how they can better identify with math. If so, the result could be something important, relevant, and empowering.

This is a long post.

Last thing. The authors shared some examples of these sorts of problems that were created by graduate students who were also teachers. What was interesting was that, after studying the problems, the authors found that “very few of the teachers used race as a basis for their culturally relevant tasks.” Instead, the primary culture the teachers relied on was age. For me, it’s easy to get excited about some other aspect of problem set and get swept away in White culture, so this is a reminder to deliberately seek to address race in the problems and activities I use.

Through all of this, I feel like I’m getting closer to where I need to be, but I’m still left thinking about the many ideas in algebra 2 and how I might address them in the midst of the looming Regents exam.

 

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On the intersection of being White and being a math teacher

Two of the books that I read this summer, Why are the All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum and Blindspot by Mahzarin R. Banaj and Anthony G. Greenwald, utterly blew my mind. 

So while the summer winds down, I’ll leave it at the end of this month with so many concerns about my teaching and how I address racism.

A. For my entire life, just like a lot of other White people in this country, I considered myself colorblind. I claimed that I was blind to the race of the people I interacted with. And I took a lot of pride in this fact, too. If I didn’t see people’s race, I couldn’t discriminate or play favorites. I conned myself into this line of thinking. Being born and raised in the inner city, and one of the few White people in my neighborhood and school, race wasn’t a “thing” for me. This perspective continued into adulthood and pervaded my teaching. Even with students, I either claimed the colorblind stance or simply avoided conversations about race. It isn’t until now that I realize that this is, and was a huge, huge problem.

B. Most White people don’t think we live in a racist society. Most White teachers don’t either. But we do. I’m not talking about outspoken racism, like that of white nationalists. I’m referencing the systematic racism that pervades in the air we breathe here in America. In many ways, we choose to not think about it because it’s uncomfortable. White privilege is a very real thing, even if we chose to look the other way. It existent in every aspect of society. Most White people don’t see it this way because we are (myself included) inside the box — we are part of the dominant group. That inherently makes it harder to understand the advantages we have.

C. What’s especially damaging about this is that every single White teacher I know is a good person. They don’t intentionally aim to do harm to students of color. Heck, most of these teachers teach in schools with large proportions of students of color because they want to help interrupt the cycle of inequality and injustice that these kids experience. But our hidden biases, which strongly favor our culture of Whiteness, can still significantly affect our judgment in ways that we aren’t even aware of.

D. What does this mean? It means that if we teachers (and especially our school leaders) don’t develop an anti-racist stance that fosters a critical consciousness about life being more than White privilege, our schools and classrooms will be a mere reflection of the racist society in which we live. It means that if we don’t mindfully recognize the systemic racism that our students of color, and colleagues for that matter, encounter every day, how can we attempt to take a chance at interrupting it?

E. So how do we, as teachers, bring up such a sensitive topic with colleagues and administrators to help push the needle in the right direction? There’s fear, dread, and detachment in people’s eyes (not just White people, either) whenever race is brought up. I know because it used to happen to me. I have no idea how to address this, but I think open, safe conversations with one another are vitally important — like at staff and department meetings. Provocative, reflective prompts are needed (Jose and Wendy!). A simple discussion can go a long way. Norms need to be set. I would hope that administrators can be present and active. Anxiety is natural, but I like to think that if we’re sincere and honor one another, the right words will always find their way out of our mouths.

F. Self-discovery might also help. Here are various research-based tests that we can take online to help determine each of our hidden biases. They are called Implicit Association Tests. Here’s some background on them.

G. I don’t know, I don’t know. I’m at a loss here. I’m no expert on how to make this happen. Progress seems so far away, but this post is a start for me, I suppose. A grueling and uncomfortable path lay ahead.

H. One more thing that I want to add. Right now, 75% of my mathematics department at my school is White male. That bothers me. At times, I worry about the subliminal messages that this sends the 90% of students at my school who are Black or Latino — especially if we (White males) aren’t actively taking an anti-racist approach to teaching and learning mathematics.

 

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