Saturday, 16 July 2016

TMC 2016 Entry 1A - The JLV Keynote

“If I’m afraid to go here, then what does that say about me going anywhere else?”

I don’t know when you’re going to read this. Maybe it’s the day after I write it. Maybe it’s 2025. Since I don’t know, you’re getting a bit of context. On Wednesday, July 6th, Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in Minnesota. It was streamed live by his girlfriend. There were a number of shootings in the US that week; here’s why that one is particularly relevant to this post.

I am currently in Minnesota, at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. I came here for “Twitter Math Camp”, a gathering of math teachers from across North America. I am actually Canadian. My parents were a little worried about me being here at this time, but not TOO worried - because I’m a white male. Philando was black. So is José Vilson, our keynote speaker for Saturday, July 16th.

Part of me feels like saying that shouldn’t matter. But it does. And not simply because José is the founder of #educolor, rather because I cannot personally connect with the fear that he and his wife would feel in him coming here. Because this is a race issue, and I have privilege going for me.

And yet I am the one recapping. Because I decided I would blog all of this conference. So you’re about to read what might be a somewhat distorted view, as it’s been processed through my eyes. And maybe that doesn’t matter, because I try to be objective? But maybe it does. Maybe it matters in all my writing. And so now that you have some context, let’s get into:


José has been blogging for the better part of a decade, mostly under his own name. (Initially he had a pseudo name and there was more cursing.) He joined Twitter to get in on a conversation about rap and music and teaching. His first follow, the rap guy, was Dan Meyer (@ddmeyer, well known in math circles). In fact, José was in the audience during Dan’s TED talk that ultimately went viral - and he predicted it was going to be a big deal.

José teaches middle school, where “there is no ego”. (It’s like a parabola that heads down and bottoms out with a minimum around Grade 7.) He has experience with rowdy middle schoolers. Now, how do we elevate ourselves and our teaching above things going on in educational reform? How do we address the student asking “why do I care about what you’re doing right now?”.

We don’t have the “when am I going to use this later in life” conversation in English, or Social Studies - even in Science, there can be an attempt to figure out complex machines. Lunch, it’s really relevant to kids in their daily lives. And yet, is something that WE’RE doing in math not as relevant? Why not? More to the point, who gets to decide relevance?

In English, do you just read DVD manuals or the terms of agreement for signing into apps? (That’s relevant, right?) Yet in math, that seems to be the sort of thing we are asked to do. Math is math, why can we not love it for what it is? Why are non-educators telling us what we should do with our math teaching? WHO. ASKED. THEM? “We’re just trying to do our jobs and we’re very passionate about what we do.”

And yet. Some of it may have been brought on by us ourselves. This is our fault! There are two roads that diverged, first, “Strictly Math”, which is easy to approach. You merely follow the model. José can’t simply do that. Then there’s the other path, “Math and... Other Stuff”. How we approach our teaching in this has a lot to do with what we see on forums like Twitter.


1) The general public watches too many movies.

People tell teachers, “I don’t know how you do it.” At the end of the movie, all the black boys and girls are behaving, it’s awesome, and that’s not how that works. At the end of the day, the only certainty we have as teachers is that they get a report card (and even then, maybe not). The movies aren’t making teachers complicated. We’re patron saints or we’re evil. We have serious issues, but somehow, the class is seen as our sanctuary.

2) The general public thinks we generally do a very good job.

We do have an approval rating that’s higher than... say, both America’s presidential candidates combined. No, but seriously. The usual phrase is we do a good job “except for the one or two bad apples - that spoil the bunch.” And yet that’s not how that works either.

3) The general public has a hard time with educators as people, who talk about things other than teaching.

Who talks about education? It seems like anybody but teachers (unless you’re a college professor). So why would José choose RACE to talk about? “Look at me, then look at y’all. Then look at me again. It’s okay to look at me, I’m handsome.” Race was something he didn’t think we talked about enough, and yet it’s so relevant to his interests.

Relevance for the kids. There’s a different conversation about José’s students doing math versus all students. He quotes here from Bob Moses in “Radical Equations” - in essence, algebra, once the gatekeeper for higher math and the priesthood, is now the gatekeeper for citizenship. “The work that we’re doing right here doesn’t just matter for kids going to college, it’s a big part of who we are and what we do as a society.”


Here’s some tips for how math teachers in particular can move the conversation forwards. We are big about showing our work. Which means doing the work. We’re going to converse a bit here. Consider:

  • Math teachers ask critical questions. Not simple questions, we go deeper and deeper.
  • Math teachers ask these questions of themselves and others. Even do math in their spare time.
  • Math teachers prepare for teachable moments. We’re okay with stopping right there and talking about something.
  • Math teachers expect non-closure. We know there’s not going to be a conclusion to racism tomorrow, but it’s important for us all to work together to make that happen.
  • Math teachers stand on principles of inquiry and openness.
  • Math teachers allow for multiple pathways. Being complete, correct and consistent about their work at all times.

So why CAN’T we take the lead on the hard conversations? We can have the gender question too. The LGBT conversion, the able bodied conversation, we can apply to these other conversations. Why do we ask students to do the things we wouldn’t want for ourselves?

We need to be uncomfortable about the process. Getting uncomfortable IS PART of the process.

We know learning math is a journey, not a destination. Learning is not linear, but rather a piecewise function. (Despite what the common core might say, none of this is linear.) Cheating off the smart kids in class is ephemeral at best; you can learn from the smarter person, but eventually you have to do it on your own. We must go beyond pee breaks and block schedules.


Consider @RafranzDavis who found her niche in not just talking about math but in asking how does this affect my kids. Consider @MaxMathForum putting himself in this race conversation, pulling us into the idea of it being difficult. Consider @ddmeyer too - although, when he tweets social justice, where are y’all at? That’s a question we need to have.

Race, Math and Students. Our most disadvantaged students need access to higher order math. The math ain’t adding up for them (schools suspend our students of colour at disproportionate rates). Overtesting and “rigour” ratchets up school closures and privatization. (If you haven’t been in a school in danger of being shut down, find someone who has, because that is such a dire situation.) And math is one of the largest gatekeepers. Towards dropout rates, college and career readiness. There’s an idea that you don’t have to do well, just have to get by, but if you’re doing well in Grade 9, you have a leg up.

Remember how José’s wife had some discomfort about him coming? There was still love and empathy in the front of his mind - and there should be, even when it’s math. Have you heard that math is sterile? “There’s no need to bring in these issues when we have to teach quadratic functions.” But things in our lives do affect the situation.

José now dedicates a small part of this presentation to something that happened six miles from here. Philando Castile, who had memorized the food allergies of 500 students per day, and who was killed. (Of note, José RTed the fact that today would have been Castile’s 33rd birthday.)

He said we use tools in a profound way and solve problems that we don’t have the answers to. We keep going on because we need to. This cannot be life. The people, power and the love in this room - we can transfer it to our kids who need it.


Q1) Justin had asked at his school how to address the Ferguson situation, and was told, “Nothing, we’re going to teach.” Aside from having a safe space for students to discuss, and to talk with colleagues, how can he make that issue more important in the district, something that must be discussed?

A1) We don’t have all the answers. Funnel our energies through the students and have them ask the questions. “Ladies and gentlemen, if you have any thoughts to talk about, we can do that.” Build a loving caring space in September, then you can do anything. Not everybody’s going to join because they’re not at your level, but we cannot let that stop us. I’ve become more fearless over the years. Be that adult saying “I want to hear you, to hear what you have to say”. We’re not agents of change, we’re agents to what’s happening.

Q2) Glenn had a very different experience. It wasn’t the teachers or admin, it was the students, a high concentration of hispanic and white students, who shut down conversation. Who said “That was in Florida, that doesn’t matter to us.” Which hurt. That’s such a radically different situation, what would you do?

A2) With students, some of them take time to process. They haven’t been exposed enough. Even the people who have family members who are police officers, or who look a certain way, it’s going to take time. Ask the question, “What’s the borderline for empathy? For compassion?” I would honestly say don’t give up, but ask questions about why they feel the way they do, or perhaps don’t feel at all. 

Q3) Mary said how her experience is that kids have to know that, even in a math class, relationships that exist outside the class can be talked about inside.

A3) We have to be able to cultivate, not empower, there’s a difference. Students already have the power - they don’t have the filter where some of us must conform to what is asked of us. They can tap into their power, and we as adults have to make sure we support, or even get out of the way. More profound conversation about school systems might be needed.

Q4) Chris sees the line drawn more on economics than skin colour at his school. And the campus is up against a reservation. What of certain behaviours coming from the “right side of the tracks”? How much do you honour people for who they are and how they communicate?

A4) How do we recognize genius? Like, someone who shouts too much, but can rattle off multiplication tables or can give you a quadratic equation. What behaviours do we recognize as special ed, who gets put into honours classes? It’s super easy to generalize, and I won’t do that here. Even gender comes into play in terms of how they get recognized. And I’m always curious about in contexts. My quick answer would be we have to tap into intelligences. Being accustomed to the cultures in front of students are nice keys for us to see towards how students approach the math.

Q5) Jasmine is from the second whitest state in the nation (Vermont, behind Maine). She thinks that makes it even more important to talk about this, because it’s not in their face all the time. So in a school where racial diversity isn’t there every day, how can we bring it up?

A5) People need to have the conversation “what does it mean to be white in this country”. There’s talk of “if only we could know what a native american goes through” or “what it’s like to be in a black person’s shoes”. What if we had a different formation of what whiteness was? Consider how demographics were formed in 1920s, 30s, 40s. How did our white space get to be as white as it did? Questions we can ask about that help us form our own pedagogy.

Q6) Sarah teaches nearby, and thanked José for honouring Philandro. She’s actually the president of their state organization, but 98% of the teachers are white, so it’s white talking about white. The recommendation is to follow people on twitter who don’t present like they do, so other than yourself and the board of educolor, who would you recommend?

A6) (After some talk) I do have a prepared list of members, but I don’t want to copy and paste. We don’t need mascots, we need people who will do the work. And there are white people who challenge other white people.

Q7) Someone from New Jersey spoke up about high stakes standardized testing, wondering what are the racial issues involved in the testing and the opt-out movement.

A7) Recall multiple pathways. How many of our students would benefit from not necessarily having to worry about a narrow measure of the work that we do? We do need more people of colour. We don’t need high stakes testing. Critics who say “how will we measure kids are learning, we need a quick, cheap way to demonstrate mastery of knowledge”? Let’s push back against it. We can do performance based assessments or oral examinations and a lot of that matters too. And for those in favour of testing, question why do we have it, and why are they critical of other forms of assessment.

Q8) Someone remarked on how “soccer moms” have money for tutors for their kids, which is what we see in independent schools. And there is inequity there.

A8) We should consider who is allowing the most tutoring. And who are the schools punishing kids for not doing well? In charter schools they’re sitting them down until they’re getting these answers correct.

A9) One thing that stood out is how we’re asked to be super humans in the system. How do you support and maintain your own sanity, and not get super burned out or feel like a neglectful parent?

A9) I listen to a lot of Michael Jackson, and Metallica in there, Whitney Houston... but really, I look at my son, who I’ve had for 4 years. I can’t stand the idea that any person’s child would be susceptible to the things that are in the society at large, by what’s being constructed by policy makers. If I don’t see a door open, I have to kick it in. That’s where the ‘THE’ from TheJLV comes in. You didn’t ask us in, so here we are, and then before I leave, I’m going to put a wedge in the door.

José concluded by saying he can’t do this work without all the support we provide to him. Thank you. If you are at all lost about approaching this sort of conversation, EduColor, he is hyper available. Follow on Facebook and Twitter. for more information, with a newsletter every two weeks or so. “I’m human as much as everybody else, but I’ll have you all in mind.”


And I’m human as well, doing my best to recap a keynote speech which has no easy answers in the back of a textbook. I hope you were able to pull something from all that. I'll conclude by remarking I was one of the first to stand, one of the ones to purchase the book at the front, and I’m going to keep trying to tackle issues of this sort in my personified math comic.

Thanks for reading to the end! I recapped the rest of the day in this upcoming post.

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