Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Teaching is Political

Yesterday, I re-watched Grace Chen’s keynote that she gave last week at Twitter Math Camp (TMC). If you haven’t watched it yet, check it out here and here—it is totally worth 50 minutes of your day. Her talk left me almost in tears at TMC, so I wanted to watch to take it all in again and to try to figure out what about the talk I found so powerful. After re-watching (and re-playing to transcribe so many moments that I wanted a written record of), I was about to sit down to write this post. However, I was soon interrupted when a non-math-teacher friend of mine showed up for dinner. So instead of writing, I tried to describe to my friend what Grace’s talk was about and its impact on me.

I told her that it was about how teaching is necessarily political. That there are many narratives and that the people who are in power choose the ones that are told over and over again. That as individuals we shouldn’t just accept these stories, these policies, these ways of living as the way it is. Instead we need to be making conscious and communicable choices about what narratives we are perpetuating. Even as I was saying this, I was frustrated, because I felt like I wasn’t conveying the power of Grace’s words.

So today, I want to step back, and try again to figure out why this talk made me feel a sense of clarity, understanding, hope, shame, frustration, belonging, pride, purpose, overwhelm, power, relief, and camaraderie.

1. It’s Personal

One reason was its deeply personal nature.

In the context of her father giving up his Taiwanese citizenship and emigrating to the U.S., Grace told us that she sometimes asks people what would have to happen for them to give up their American citizenship. She then shared with us her own answer:  
“I think there’s not much that would convince me to give up my American citizenship because as screwed as this country is and as terrible of decisions I think our government has made over years and years and years, it’s still a pretty incredible place and it has the potential to be the beacon of freedom my dad thought it was. And this is my home.” 
I had the privilege of growing up in a town in MA that did a lot of questioning and criticism of America—both its history and its current policies.  Along with the need to search for the counter-narratives and erased narratives, this also taught me to have a sense of shame and embarrassment about being an American. I appreciate Grace’s example here of being able to “hold multiple truths simultaneously.” America is screwed up and she has hope for its future and it is her home. This is a more complex view than the one that I grew up with, but it is also one that seems more true/illustrative of the whole story and more empowering to live with.

Grace also became extremely personal with her message by telling the story of her grandmothers and the political history of Taiwan in how it relates to her and her family. Grace told us that:
All history is political history because what gets told depends on who is in power, what gets allowed to be told, and what gets whispered about behind closed doors. That doesn’t mean any history is more or less true than another, but to function in this reality we have to learn to hold multiple truths simultaneously. But that doesn’t mean every truth is equally valid.” 
This is not a new concept to me. However, it meant so much more to me when it was being said in the context of the different Taiwanese political history stories she shared with us. So when Grace then said:
The reason I don’t believe that story [that the history of Taiwan starts in 1949] is because I think it ignores, disrespects, and dehumanizes the lives and labor of millions of people over century. And I believe that because I see myself, my family, and people like me being ignored and [something I can’t hear]. But whether you believe my story or the 1949 story, is a choice that people make, either by default or deliberately, based on their values and experiences. I argue that it is our ethical responsibility to make those choices consciously, rather than defaulting to whatever we hear loudest, or whatever we hear more of, or whatever we hear people in power say, and to be able to communicate the reasoning and values behind our choices.”  
she made me care about her, her family, and people like her. And that further motivates me to make conscious choices about what stories to believe and value.

And then she also made it personal for me in thinking about my students and classroom. I am a biracial Asian/white woman who came from an upper middle class background teaching predominantly black and Latino students, many of whom are living in poverty. 
Like my grandmothers, my students weren’t poor and hungry because they didn’t work hard, or because they had no ambitions, or because they made poor choices. They weren’t poor and hungry because of “cultural priorities,” a term that is often used to mask deficit assumptions about people who are not white and middle class… But the story that I am telling you instead, is that like my grandmothers, my students were poor and hungry for political reasons. This kind of story is a counter-story, or counter-narrative because it confronts and disrupts the prevailing view.”  
This is the story that I want my friends, my family, the mainstream media, and really everyone to value and believe. And one thing that I am taking from this talk is that it is part of my job to tell this story to people who might not otherwise hear it or to people who might unconsciously be choosing to believe one of the other narratives about why my students are poor (or more generally why people are poor in America).  And I need to do a better job in researching and articulating exactly what those political reasons are.

2. It’s a Math Classroom

I think the other reason that Grace’s talk was so powerful and made me feel so many things is because she talked about these ideas in the context of a classroom, and specifically a math classroom.

Here was one of Grace’s big points:

There’s a prevailing narrative that math is not influenced by people, cultural contexts, governmental policies, or anything else. There’s this idea that math has some sort of purity outside of people and that “math is math is math.” And yet here’s what Grace said to a room full of math teachers:
 “Likewise, my students’ stories didn’t start when they entered my classroom, or when they opened a math textbook, or even when they enrolled school. Their stories started generations ago, also influenced by people, cultural context, and governmental policies."
"Who you are as a math teacher doesn’t just start when you wake up and drive to school, or when you plan a lesson, or in your teacher prep program. Who you are as a teacher started generations ago, shaped by the people who raised you, who inspired you, the people who challenged you, people who may have tried to hold you back. Your story is shaped by cultural context, what foods and languages and mannerisms you consider normal and what you take for granted. And your story is shaped by governmental policies that control education, employment, housing, access to resources. But who you are is not wholly determined by all of that. And that not wholly determined is where my hopefulness lies.”  
And so this makes me want to better examine how the choices I am making in the classroom (consciously and unconsciously) are influenced by my experiences and history and what I can do differently than how I have been conditioned to think and act. It also makes me want to think about what are the narratives my students have been told about themselves and math and what are the counter-narratives I want us to explore together. And how can I invite and take advantage of their histories and stories in our math classroom.

And this is a conversation that I haven’t found there’s really space for or is a priority in the education world as a whole. I have pockets of people who I can talk with about how education, and math in particular, is political and what implications that has on us. But certainly I haven’t done this in an organized or sanctioned way. And so I want to finish by saying that I’m hoping to continue the conversation on these prompts that Grace gave us—with people at my school, with other educator friends in my district, and with educators friends online.

  1. Create a Microcosm
    “One of my academic heroes, Kevin Kumashiro, writes that stereotypes aren’t harmful just because they are untrue.  Even though they do generalize, they do make assumptions, they do erase complex and nuanced stories, they are harmful because every time they are repeated they recall and recite history [or oppression].” 
    I have made a place to start doing some of this work here.
  2.  Teach to Gray Areas
    “But when we teach the power of mathematics, we can also teach its limitations—what it cannot understand or interpret or predict on its own.”
  3. Explore Alternatives
    “Politics is a way of valuing our way of finger counting over their way of finger counting. And exploring the idea of alternate mathematics helps us recognize that what we take for granted is just one of multiple, possible stories.” 
    “The version of U.S. school mathematics that emphasizes universal, and generalizable, and abstract, I think of it almost as an analogy to the 1949 story of Taiwanese political history. Or maybe it’s the 1895 version. It’s hard to tell whether your history of mathematics is complete or if it’s true or something you want to stand behind, until you take the time to consider other possibilities.”
  • Where else have you seen different ways of doing mathematics, and what values do they communicate?
  • What do these ways of thinking mathematically offer?

And so I will just finish (this post, I am committed to continuing to think and act) with a couple more quotes from Grace

“So when I say that our choices should be conscious and communicable about the stories we are telling and the policies we are living out, our mathematics should be conscious and communicable as well. On top of that, I would encourage us to think about the values that underlie our conscious, and communicable mathematics.”
“The mathematics that we value depends on our context, and I think one thing we can do in our classrooms is to be really explicit about that when we can. Not to not teach it, but to teach the alternative, to teach different ways of thinking, and to say that in this context this makes a lot of sense, in this other context this might make more sense."

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