That’s MY President!
This week, Dr. Robert Berry (@robertqberry) wrote one of his final Presidential messages as the NCTM President. The article, titled How do we help teachers teach math to Black kids?” My Response, addressed the continual centering of mathematical practices, curriculum, and instructional strategies on the needs of White students. If you haven’t read his letter yet, please stop now and go do so. It is important for each person in the math education community to make sense of and grapple with the truths that were addressed.
In his letter, Dr. Berry provided an example through the lens of the Standard of Mathematical Practice 3: Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others. Dr. Berry leveraged the fact that the ability to argue with anyone is a privilege that is not equally distributed to students who have been historically marginalized. Specifically in the United States, Black students, particularly Black males, are often threatened and severely punished by local authorities should they choose to construct a viable argument in the presence of the police.
How can we leverage the Standards of Mathematical Practices to assist math teachers in seeing the need for addressing social change within and outside of our math classrooms? I’ll expand on Dr. Berry’s work here with three other SMPs that, when viewed differently, provide us with a depth that we sometimes cannot see on our own.
SMP #1: Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
In a math class where math is seen as objective, SMP 1 can be completed within one 90-minute class period. For many of us, rich tasks that require critical thinking (e.g. Open Middle or 3-Act Tasks) make us feel as though we can be sure we have attended to this SMP in our classrooms. But, what of the problems that are occurring outside of our classrooms?
As a Black Math Teacher, the first time I read this, I thought of the problem of racism. I want students, no matter their race, to make sense of the problem of racism, and persevere in solving that problem together. This is by no means to say racism is solvable. No; racism was/is a part of the foundation of the United States. It’s been baked in to the make-up of many countries, into the systems (including education), the policies, and the structures, designed to assure that some groups of people would find success routinely, while others would consistently be stripped of access.
I also want to distinguish the use of this SMP as preface to the work we expect students to take on upon leaving high school. I don’t want to build students’ strength for problem-solving perseverance in my math class with problems dislike those they will experience when they leave my class. No; I want my students to grapple with the problems of the world in math class and know that together, we must persevere to do the hard work of bringing justice to those who have been oppressed. That the problems that are worth solving are far more complex than parametric equations, and deserve the time to be explored during the block of math class.
SMP #7: Look for and make use of structure.
Rochelle Gutierrez (@RG1gal) (2013) discusses how as math teachers of students who have been marginalized, we must teach them how to “play the game to change the game.” When I read SMP #7, I hear that my students need to be taught how systems have been created, often to keep certain groups of people in a cycle of poverty and chaos, despite their efforts to succeed. As a high school teacher, this went far beyond trying to assist kids in making it to graduation, a local structure. This attended to the global structures of economy, education, government, and policy, because no matter how much “grit” you have, you cannot compete against others who have generational wealth, whether that wealth be financial- or knowledge-based. For me, teaching my students about these structures was teaching them how to “play the game to change the game,” helping them with successful navigation through these structures in life so they can even begin to compete with those who have been handed a significant advantage from birth.
SMP #8: Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.
Look, friends. We’re mathematicians. We study patterns. For many people of color, we have specific insight into the different ways that structures are used to continually oppress people because they are patterns that we have been looking at our entire lives. I’ll give you an example Here are three quotes from the Report to the United Nations about Racial Disparities in the U.S. Criminal Justice System:
“In 2016, [B]lack Americans comprised 27% of all individuals arrested in the United States—double their share of the total population.”
“African-American adults are 5.9 times as likely to be incarcerated than whites and Hispanics are 3.1 times as likely.”
“More than one in four people arrested for drug law violations in 2015 was [B]lack, although drug use rates do not differ substantially by race and ethnicity and drug users generally purchase drugs from people of the same race or ethnicity.”
What do you notice? What do you wonder?
Many Black children can express the regularity in their repeated reasoning based on their experiences with law enforcement. For them, it looks like learning that policies and authorities have regularly been written to increase their chances of incarceration (for more information, see Stop & Frisk), and the repeated reasoning that falls out of this is a distrust for local authorities. There is no question of its regularity. These are not coincidental. These are patterns.
If we look within our systems and structures, we are able to see these patterns with more clarity, and then express this regularity with repeated reasoning. The repeated reasoning is not to say, “Well, it didn’t happen to me, so it doesn’t matter,” or “I’m just one person, what can I do to help?” and definitely not, “Well, they’ll learn that in Civics or Social Studies class.” We are mathematicians. We are the ones that must assist children in learning about these patterns so that change may occur. We are also the ones that must believe students when they say that a pattern exists, even if it does not exist for me.
I am THANKFUL that NCTM has had a President that used his wisdom to encourage the mathematics education community to critically consider how the instructional practices, strategies, and curriculums look different when viewed through the lens of another.
May we each use our own lens to strengthen the experiences of the next generation, that together we may be free.
Written by Lauren Baucom