This post is my submission to The Virtual Conference on Humanizing Mathematics.
Prompt: How do you express your identity as a doer of mathematics to, and share your “why” for doing mathematics with, kids?
For all of our training and best laid plans, the work of teaching happens in real time. The work of teaching happens when a student asks a question and gives you a peek into their thinking. I offer you a story about a student who asked me a very unexpected question and how I tried to make the most of this teachable moment.
It is an afternoon in late May. My lesson on compound interest is interrupted by a school-wide drill that runs too long. By the time my 11th grade class has settled back into their seats we have about 15 minutes left of the period.
Idil: How are we feeling? Can we get another 15 minutes of this lesson done, then pick it up tomorrow?
Idil: Okay, what should we do? What do you all have the energy to do?
Unanimous groans. Everyone is too warm and it is too close to the end of the day, they want to stare at their phones and run out the clock. This feels like a good time for a conversation.
Idil: Did I tell you all about my Desmos thing this summer? They perk up.
I was selected as a Desmos Fellow! Can I tell you about the Desmos Fellowship? Do you want to hear about some cool stuff I am doing this summer?
They almost all seem interested. I stop to give a caveat about power and consent. I say the following: I am their teacher, I have a lot of power in the room and I get to make a lot of decisions about what we do with our time. Listening to things that I want to talk about, outside of the curriculum, is not something that they have to do. And even though a conversation seems like an easy thing to consent/object to, when people with more power start talking it can be awkward/scary to tell them that you don’t want to hear it.
Safia: Miiiissss, just tell us about your summer plans!
Idil: Ok, but you can zone out or use your phone if you don’t care.
My students know how much I love Desmos and seem genuinely excited for me. For the most part, I talk and they casually offer their input. We Google Dan Meyer, we look at his blog and I tell them about how long I have been reading it. I tell them how many people applied and that I was one of only 40 selected this year. I am not used to bragging but I’m so glad to be sharing this with them. Safia raises her hand.
Safia: Are there any other people of colour?
When I tell this story, this is the part where the listener’s eyes get wide and they ask “what did you say?” This is also when, as it was happening, I became very aware of my position, power, and the various responsibilities that I had to the students in front of me. Before I tell you what I said, I want to tell you what I thought.
Thought 1: Don’t react, respond and validate.
Anyone who works with young people knows that what you say is only part of the message that you are communcating. How you say it is maybe the most important element. Even with the most thoughtful response if I reacted poorly to this question, if I looked shocked or uncomfortable, my intended message would be lost. My upset would tell the class that Safia’s question was inappropriate.
It is a brave thing to do to bring race, gender, orientation, or identity into a conversation in which it is not already present. When you do, you risk being labelled as divisive, attention-seeking, or making excuses. I wanted to honour Safia’s question and the social risk she was taking in asking it.
My body tensed up at the question; I was not ready for it and would have much rather had this conversation without the entire class as an audience. I had to tell myself to take a deep breath and consider my words carefully. Safia must have seen me flinch because she said something like “never mind, it’s okay”. She gave me a way out but I did not want the question to go unanswered. I wanted all of the students who are secretly asking the same question to have their concern validated. I wanted the students for whom this kind of question would not come naturally to see it asked, to see us process it, and to learn something about the lives of others.
So I started with “that’s a good question”.
Thought 2: Listen for the questions behind the question.
When we discuss students mathematical thinking, it is well known that questions are window into their current conceptions. This is true of all questions. A question is a window into what a student values and how they see the world. When Safia asks me if there are any other people of colour she is not simply looking for demographic information. While I can’t see inside her mind, I have some hunches as to what the question meant. I have hunches because I know Safia, I had been speaking with her for months and had an idea of her values. I also know Safia in a few contexts outside of math class. She has been part of efforts in our school to hold us accountable and create a more equitable practices. Safia and I also belong to the same community: she is a young, Black, visibly Muslim woman from Somali family. So while I was not in her mind, I had a pretty good idea of what the questions behind the question were.
Perhaps my biggest insight came from the fact that when the list of Fellows came out, I asked her question too.
For me, and maybe for Safia, this question was about access and safety. It was a stand-in for a whole list of questions: will I be the only one? Will I feel comfortable enough to engage fully? Will anyone sit with me? Is this a place where my unique perspective will be seen, let alone valued? Is it worth the social risk?
When we imagine “math people” there are whole groups of students who know that the popular construction of that term does not include them. And so, while I was grappling with the issue myself, I had a rare and powerful opportunity to speak to this issue authentically. I know that Safia wants to go into a STEM field. I also know that she doesn’t feel like a math person. Further still, she told me that her previous math teacher didn’t believe in her and that that experience made her disengage from math class.
In this question, I have an opportunity to model something for Safia. I have an opportunity to go back and be the example that I didn’t have as a student. Which leads me to my last thought.
Thought 3: What do I have to offer?
There is no fill-in-the-blank script to follow for having conversations about identity in the classroom. There is only the reality of yourself and the students in front of you. I could speak to Safia’s question from a prospective very close to her own, but our perspectives were only two in a room of 26. My answer would land differently for different students. For students who identified with me, my answer could model one way that an adult deals with questions of belonging and social risk. For students for whom I am a window into another world, my answer could give that world more depth and nuance.
What I have to offer my students is experience. I looked at the list and wondered too, and then I was able to move past the question without the answer. After years of asking this question I understand that what I really want to know is: Will it be worth the social risk?
And so, while processing all of this, I answered Safia’s question.
Idil: That’s a good question. Let’s take a look at the list again. Hmm, it’s not really easy to tell people’s identity from their names.
You know what… I thought about this too and this is where I’m at now…
I am the only person of colour or the only woman with a hijab in a lot of places that I go and it can be kind of intimidating. It’s scary to be the only one, or the first person like you to do something. The thing is, if I only go places where I know I’ll be safe I won’t get to do a lot of the things that I want to in my life. So sometimes you have to be scared and do things anyway.
The good thing is that when we go someplace new, maybe other people will see us and think that they can do it too. So… I don’t know…but I’ll let you know when I get back.
I would love to hear how you would have handled Safia’s question, or what thoughts it brought up for you.
Postscript: I was very pleasantly surprised to find that the Desmos Fellowship team was asking Safia’s question too and putting some practices in place to lower the level of social risk for educators of colour and others. The Fellowship weekend was much less risky and much more rewarding than I had anticipated. I am so glad and grateful to have been invited and to have accepted the invitation. I can’t wait to tell my students about it.