This may be the most difficult post I have written, but I am committed to writing it, because, as Marian Dingle pointed out to me, the silence she noted after Danny Martin’s talk ‘Taking a Knee in the Mathematics Classroom: Moving from Equity and Discourse to Protest and Refusal” at NCTM Annual two weeks ago was disturbing.
I heard Dr. Martin speak on Friday, April 27, about 36 hours after the rousing keynote by Dr. Chris Emdin. I was mentally prepared for the keynote, because I watched his talk at SXSWedu last year, and I’ve read For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood..and the Rest of Y’All Too. I had read a brief article or two of Dr. Martin’s as well, but his articulate and academic writing, while powerful and moving, didn’t quite compare with the live
‘Pentecostal ‘preaching’ showmanship of Dr. Emdin. That all changed when I heard him speak. The subject of his talk – the mathematics education that Black children currently receive versus the mathematics education that they should receive – was both radical and logical. His language and examples were clear, compelling, and perhaps revolutionary.
I was deeply moved by everything Dr. Martin said, despite the fact that I may have no place in his vision. And I am not bothered by this (I think).
Dr. Martin’s talk addressed the brilliance of black children that goes unacknowledged, undermined, even attacked in our [mathematics] classrooms, and the violence and dehumanization on so many levels in [mathematics] education, which is rooted in both anti-Blackness and white supremacy. He asserted repeatedly (and correctly) that efforts at reform and discourses around equity in mathematics education manage to sustain themselves despite their failure to “respond to Black oppression and dehumanization” [quoting his slides] and ultimately preserve the status quo.
And he thus called for Protest and Refusal in the form of a Black Liberatory Mathematics education: ” the framing and practice of mathematics education that allows Black learners to flourish in their humanity and brilliance, unfettered by whiteness, white supremacy, and anti-blackness.” Dr. Martin outlined a Black Liberatory Mathematics education as follows:
“A Black Liberatory Mathematics education prioritizes liberation over integration and freedom. This form of mathematics education is skeptical of liberal notions of inclusion and equity, appeals to democracy and citizenship, neoliberal multiculturalism, and refuses all forms of systemic violence against Black learners. The freedom to participate, integrate, and be included into anti-Black spaces characterized by systemic violence is not freedom.
A Black Liberatory Mathematics education is designed and directed first and foremost by liberation-seeking Black people including parents, caregivers, community members, Black teachers and Black students.”
Dr. Martin pointed out that the fight for civil rights left behind a nation that remains segregated, with multitudes of black children living in poverty, and where life expectancy of African Americans has actually declined. He is committed thus, to a struggle not for civil rights, but for the “infinitely more important struggle for human rights”, and to an educational system that addresses the needs and brilliance of black children, as defined by their community.
I’m not going to paraphrase (or quote) more of his talk – I recommend you watch it yourself. It will be time well spent.
What he said resonated so powerfully with me – things I have seen in the schools in which I have worked, what I have read and observed in the media, what I hear people say – our system – the system of which I am a part, the system which gave my own [white] children a wonderful education – does not serve Black children equitably on so many levels. They are done ‘soft violence’ in terms of curricular tracking and reduced course offerings, and more overt violence in our discipline systems and routine treatment by deans and school security. So, yes, the answer may be Dr. Martin’s Black Liberatory Mathematics education. And the system he described – by and for Black people – does not include a role for me.
I knew this as I listened to him, and the inner [white] voice that kept asking, “but what about me? What can I do? How can I help?” needed to be silenced, and reminded, that this was not for me or about me. The first question from the audience at the conclusion of his talk was just that, “What can we do?” This question was not asked by a white person, interestingly enough.
Dr. Martin said, “Step 0: Hear me.”
So I am hearing, with, as he suggested, open ears and an open heart. I am reflecting on my piece in this complicated puzzle – an educational system which only serves some people well. To be honest, I’m not really concerned about my role in his vision, because I know it’s not about me, and I know that the way things are – well – it stinks for a lot of kids. I can’t be more articulate than that right now, but I know this to be true in my heart. Dr. Martin also said – and this continues to echo in my mind – “There is no road to justice. Justice is right here, right now.” (Again my apologies for poor paraphrasing)
I think that well-meaning white educators hearing this talk might feel bewildered, and at a loss with this vision that doesn’t necessarily include them or ‘need their help.’ But I think this is exactly the point. With a son about to enter school, Dr. Martin spoke about his decreasing level of trust with a system that provides neither democracy nor citizenship for all of its constituents. I have to honor this hugely intelligent man’s perspective and vision for Black children because he speaks things that I am sadly certain are accurate.
So, step 0: hear him. You can watch the video of his talk here.
I’ve been tweeting about various highlights of the start of the school year – wonderful comments on name tents, successful ‘stand and talks’, the launching of “Mathematicians Beyond White Dudes”, and the “What is Math?” lesson. The last two in this list, I am convinced, has won me some engagement for which I might have otherwise needed to fight, if indeed those students were willing to become involved at all in my math madness. And I owe debts to Rachel Rosales, Sara Vanderwerf, Annie Perkins, and Brian Palacios for sharing their hard work so that I might improve my practice, and the educational experience of my students, hereinafter occasionally referred to as “the kiddies,” with great affection. I have hesitated to blog about all this, because I am standing on a lot of shoulders, and don’t want to claim someone else’s genius as my own (that, and the fact that my body is screaming from the enforced transition from an 8 am wake-up time, to 5:15 am, or, as appropriately dubbed by my daughter, ass o’clock.
But today I had a success that I am pleased to own. This is a lesson that flopped dismally last year which I was able, with reflection, to fix. In our department, we have debated the value of teaching systems of equations in three variables; we don’t do 3D graphing, or cover the equation of a plane, and opportunities for context are thus lacking. But the Math Overlords in Albany (aka the Board of Regents) have included it in the standards, which by the way, have been recently revised and renamed the Next Generation Learning Standards- but I digress and will only inflict THAT rant on close family and friends.
Whether or not I feel content is appropriately placed in the curriculum, I owe it to my students to prepare them for the gatekeeping exam they will take at the end of my course, and it behooves me to find some way to make the topic intriguing without having the time to address graphing in three dimensions, providing adequate context and background. Last year I came up with the idea of having the kiddies make up number puzzles. I opened the lesson with Task Cards; when students entered the room, each table had a different set of requirements of their card. I made sure my instructions were clear and easy to follow (famous last words, right?). Total flop- the kids had no idea what to do, and looked at me like I was speaking a language that none of them knew. I guess I was. After a little flailing about on my part, we abandoned the activity, and I launched into the very dry task of demonstrating how to solve a system in 3 variables.
Fast forward to Fall 2017. One year more experience, one more year of sharing online, participating in the #DITL (Day in the Life) blogging challenge, and attending high quality professional development at Math for America and being a part of that community. Another attendance at wonderful, inspiring Twitter Math Camp – probably most important of all – surrounded by friends, progressive teaching, and a group of educators dedicated to continual growth for both themselves and their students. A booster shot for my teacher soul, which I was terribly afraid was burning out.
Today, the 6th full day of school, I introduced Visibly Random Groupings in this class. I waited a week because this class is not in my regular classroom with its lovely tables, and we have to put the desks into groups when we enter. I’m still trying to work out the logistics in my mind of moving in and out of a classroom for one period, moving the desks, giving out cards for seating…I know there’s a smooth solution that I just haven’t envisioned yet (feel free to make suggestions!).
I began the lesson with a number puzzle above – it involved three numbers, didn’t necessarily require a system with three variables to solve. The kiddies got busy as soon as they entered the room. Several did write systems with three variables, and quickly substituted into them. Jonathan, my super-eager, super bright 9th grader in Algebra 2, asked if he ‘was allowed’ to solve it with just one variable. Pretty quickly, students arrived at solutions, and wanted to share them. We put some work on the board, discussed all the different strategies involved – guess and check, elimination, substitution – everything we had used when reviewing systems with 2 variables for the last two days.
Then I put this task on the board. I read the directions to them, giving them examples of what the result of each step might result be. I learned last year that it was crucial to the success of this task to be explicit – despite my faith in my students’ abilities, they needed some translation of what I was looking for; this leg up and the experience of the warm-up gave them enough support to begin to play without me telling them exactly what to do. The room was BUZZING. The kids debated which numbers to choose. They debated which variables to use. They wrote the systems and then tested them. Twice. And then I gave each group a small whiteboard on which to write their system. The groups swapped boards, and tried to find solutions. There were heads together, signaling across the room. Not a phone in sight. And I heard lots of great talk – students justifying to one another, arguing with each other. No one needed my help, so I walked around eavesdropping, and grinning. There was frustration and struggle, but the kiddies were so motivated to figure things out, that they took that frustration and used it to fuel another attempt. They took pictures of the whiteboards so they could continue working on them later. And I could see that the class NOW was truly primed for solving the more difficult systems that they will encounter on the state assessment. As the end of the period drew near, I presented an example of the type of system we would be working on next week, just to get them thinking. When the bell rang, several students stayed behind, continuing to work/argue/get excited about solving the systems they had traded with one another.
I’ve been working hard to incorporate engagement strategies and keep the kiddies talking about math to each other. I’ve seen enough positive action thus far to keep moving forward. I love the feeling of being so intentional and witnessing the results. Okay – I know the school year is only six full days old, but I’m on the right path.
A postscript that I’m trying not to dwell on: As of this fall, there are two tracks for Algebra 2 in my school: one for students who passed the Geometry Regents, and one for those who did not. (Students who retake the Geometry Regents and pass it in January can move from one track to the other). There are reasons for this that make sense and others with which I disagree. But the issue at hand is that many students were erroneously programmed in Algebra 2, and this is allegedly going to be fixed early next week – which means A LOT of students are going to be reprogrammed. I am currently teaching 2 sections of Regents Algebra 2 and 2 sections of non-Regents Algebra 2, and all this good work I’ve been doing of introducing my classroom culture and connecting with my students – well, we’re all in for some disruption. Wish me luck in weathering it all.