Having had the opportunity to meet Tricia Ebarvia in person at a Teaching Tolerance workshop in June, I have been reading her #DisruptTexts tweets and posts with interest, admiration and a little envy. A former English major, a part of my heart has always stayed in the literature place, and I love the work that Tricia and others are doing to transform the teaching of ELA into a more equitable practice. I am not without envy, however, because this path – content-wise – does not seem as clear to me as a teacher of mathematics, even though this work has been the lion’s share of my professional development for the last five or six years, and has been on my radar even longer. When I was a second year teacher in 2007, I discovered Jonathan Osler’s Radical Math curriculum on line, and volunteered to teach an elective course at my school with the same name. I borrowed liberally from Osler’s curriculum, incorporated a unit of study around the Jena 6, and the class – populated with students in need of ‘just one more math credit’ – was marked with lively discussion and high engagement. Unfortunately, since that time, I have not had that degree of freedom in creating my own curriculum and refining my early efforts; I teach in New York, land of the Regents Exam.
When I saw Dylan Kane’s post, Disrupt Math, thus, my interest was naturally piqued; I have been thinking to myself the last few weeks “Why don’t we have a hashtag like that? Where is this conversation in the #MTBoS?” Like Dylan, I am aware of the MTBoS Book Club, but the reading schedule during the school year was more with which I could realistically keep pace. Many of us are talking about equity, posting about equity, tweeting about equity. And that is important. But the conversation, in my mind, needs to develop some focus, or foci, because it is all too easy for us (and by us, I am referring to the white teaching community) to raise the banner of equity, proclaim ourselves proponents of social justice, consider ourselves woke, and assume our awareness is where it needs to be.
I want to conversations that center the learning of mathematics, and how all of our students should and can learn math, and what changes we, as individuals, can make in our classrooms and math departments to create spaces that are more equitable than the ones that currently exist. I want to share strategies and practices that ensure that all students are given voice in the mathematics classroom – things like mathographies and name tents, visibly random groupings, and vertical non-permanent surfaces. I need ideas for allowing this space to exist inside a classroom and school and system which lives by standardized testing, a place where I may need or want to stay for a myriad of reasons, one of which is not abandoning the students of color who remain there.
But before we do that, or while we are doing that, we need to ‘take fearless inventory’ of ourselves (referring again to my white colleagues) and of the system by which we benefit, and of which we are inexorably a part – the white supremacist system that runs on deeply embedded structural racism. Until we do that, in my view, we are only giving lip service to the idea of equity.
We need to let go of our imagined exemptions from this despicable system when educating ourselves – I am female, I am gay/trans, I am Jewish (or Italian, or Irish…), I have chronic health conditions – whatever you think your passport out of this may be, forget it. If we are white, we benefit from racist structures, and have privilege in too many ways to enumerate, or maybe even perceive. We need to work on lifting the veil for ourselves in order to equitably serve all of our students, else we run the very real risk of becoming well-meaning white saviours – something many of us were taught to be in our alternative teacher training programs. Well-meaning white folk are not going to help, and may even make things worse in the ignorance with which they approach the work.
So how do we do this? There is no recipe, no list of steps one can take, because this is a process, and the work is – wait for it – endless. (Sorry.) But like any process of evolution, there are levels of awareness we will reach as we re-educate ourselves. And while the picture of American whiteness and its concomitant history may be difficult with which to live and imagine yourself a part, I have found that it is the only way to proceed honestly.
I am not any kind of an expert. I am a middle-aged, cisgendered, straight, lapsed-Jewish white woman with health issues, who, recognizing that it was not my job to ‘save’ my students but rather to educate them as best I could, has taken upon a course of self-study in order to honestly see myself and the system in which I operate. I am grateful for anyone who has (knowingly or not) pointed me in the direction of resources with which to educate myself, or who has shared themselves and their stories with me – on Twitter, through blogs, PLTs, workshops – so that I might further open my eyes, and hopefully, help others open theirs.
Here are some resources I have used/am using/recommend:
White Fragility by Robin Diangelo – I am only several chapters in to this book, but every paragraph holds some resounding truth.
Revisionist History – Season1, Episodes 4 and 5, and Season 2, Episode 3 – These episodes from Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast explore how our educational system systematically overlooks students of promise who are poor and frequently people of color, as well as a deep dive into Brown vs. Board of Education.
Learning to Be White: Money, Race and God in America by Thandeka – this book by a Unitarian Universalist Theologian and journalist, explores the politics of between white in America.
This is a very short list of a myriad of books that I have read over the last ten years which have contributed to my growing awareness of my whiteness and the structural racism of which I am unwittingly yet undeniably a part. However, these particular books and podcasts have given me the clearest mirror in which to look. (Additionally, I am writing this post from Lake Dunmore in Vermont, and don’t have access to my bookshelves.)
I started out writing in response to Dylan’s post, and I want to go back there. Dylan poses three questions he would like to further discuss in order to explore how to achieve greater equity in mathematics:
Who practices mathematics?
How is mathematical knowledge created?
What does it mean to practice mathematics?
I think these are worthy questions which can help us as a teaching community begin to disrupt mathematics teaching as it currently exists in the United States (to make a sweeping generalization). But I believe that until we understand how we are cogs in what has become a self-maintaining wheel, and how we might disrupt the operation of that wheel, we cannot fully grasp, and thus begin to correct, the inequities in math education.