Humanizing Mathematics

I’ve written this post for the MTBoS virtual conference on humanizing mathematics.

How do you highlight that the doing of mathematics is a human endeavor?

Thanks to people like Rochelle Gutiérrez and conversations on Twitter, at Math for America, and through MTBoS, I’ve spent the past three years wrapping my head around this idea of mathematics as both a humanizing and dehumanizing endeavor. The greatest challenge has been in figuring out how to share these ideas with my (now former) middle school students. Because many of them saw math as this finished, metallic product, I wanted to highlight that math was an ongoing process, tied up in big things like cultures and institutions but also to local things like human psychology and emotion.

I couldn’t claim to be an expert on the idea of math as a human endeavor, and I really wanted to give my students a chance to reflect on this idea themselves, so I asked them to complete a few assignments where they could share their views on, emotions about, and experiences with mathematics. Especially for middle schoolers, it was important I spent a lot of time just listening to them and letting them open up about their feelings. I like to think that instead of me sharing my ideas about math as a human endeavor, my students and I were co-creating our ideas together.

Below I’ve briefly described some of the assignments I’ve given, but more importantly I’ve shared some of my students’ responses.

  1. Mathographies: These were students’ personal histories with mathematics, in and out of the classroom. They could talk about favorite memories and experiences, least favorite memories, or just general feelings about mathematics. I noticed that for many of them, math and math learning were so closely intertwined it was impossible to tease them apart. In this sense, math as a human endeavor could only be understood by looking at math learning as a human endeavor, and vice versa.

  1. Math Across Cultures: I asked my students to pick any country, culture, or community and write about the similarities and differences between how math is taught and understood in that community compared to how it is taught and understood in our classroom. Students could do book or Internet research and/or interview family members, caregivers, and friends. It was fascinating to read their research findings, but it was just as fascinating to read how they thought about their own mathematical experiences in our classroom.

  1. Open Form Project: I gave them a project with a part where they could do anything they wanted as long as it was math related. It could be anything from sharing their favorite problem to creating a slam poem about math. I was inspired by my college Shakespeare professor who gave us a similar assignment (as long as it was about Shakespeare, of course).

    Most of the assignments ended up being videos or containing photos with identifiers, so I won’t share them here (but OMG the songs they made up…). I will share one illustration, though, which wonderfully summarizes the humanness of mathematics, with all its ups and downs:

Into the Doctorate

This fall, I’ll be starting a doctorate in Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education (CITE) at Michigan State University. I received an email from one of my methods professors asking us to answer these two prompts:

  1. What motivated you to apply to and enter a doctoral program?
  2. What do you hope to focus on or learn about as a doctoral student?

Even after I wrote my applications last December, I’ve been reflecting a lot about why I’m doing a doctorate and what I hope to get out of it. My thinking and motivations have shifted and evolved considerably over these past seven months, and so I’ve used these prompts to put down in writing some of the thoughts that have been floating in my head.

What motivated you to apply to and enter a doctoral program?

In short, my goal in entering a doctoral program is to prepare for and do scholarly work that has a net positive impact on the experiences of mathematics teachers and learners, especially those from marginalized backgrounds. To elaborate, I see my decision in terms of three concepts: agency, identity, and representation.

Agency: I was a middle school math teacher for six years. I had a lot of agency to change the lives of my students. I am also involved in a non-profit and somewhat active on social media and so have some agency communicating math ed ideas to people outside of my school. I’m doing a doctoral program to engage in a new kind of agency, where I’m not only affecting students and sharing ideas but also discovering new knowledge.

I know many people who change from teaching to academia say they do so to have a wider impact in education. I do not share those feelings. Especially today, classroom teachers can have just as wide an impact as academics through blogs, websites, Twitter, conferences, and books. The question becomes: what value can academic scholarship add to educational discourse that cannot already be done by teachers, coaches, consultants, and administrators? My response is to say that academic scholarship tackles education problems systematically and with an acknowledgment of its messiness and complexity to a degree that other professions might not have the time for. So through this doctoral program, I hope to develop the tools, habits, values, and relationships that will give me a kind of agency within the education field that is uniquely nuanced and disciplined and that derives its power from the knowledge process.

Identity: I will always be proud to be a classroom teacher and will always have a passion for working directly with children. However, I’ve entered this program because I would like to see myself as someone who does scholarly work for a living. Even in my first year of teaching, I knew I had a passion for the knowledge process. By this, I do not just mean having a lot of knowledge but also knowing how to create, wrestle with, communicate, and operationalize it. I see much power in this kind of expertise and closely self-identity with those who use research to effect social change. I became a math teacher through role models like Magdalene Lampert and Jo Boaler, whose scholarship connects them with teachers, parents, and the general public to shape discourse about mathematics learning and teaching. Someday, I would like to do the same.

Representation: There are not many Filipino Americans doing education scholarship in the U.S. In general, Filipinos bear a kind of liminal status, often lost in the black/white paradigm of race and even differing from our more recognized East Asian counterparts in that our brown skin and Spanish colonial past gives us both Asian and Latino affiliations. This liminality is becoming even more important as greater numbers of U.S. schools are hiring teachers from the Philippines to make up for teacher shortages in their home states.

My research interests are not focused on the experiences of Filipino teachers or students. Nonetheless, I hope to bring a perspective to this doctoral program that is at least partly shaped by my background as a second generation Filipino American who, having been raised in a small suburb of Ohio, has struggled with racial identity and the pervasiveness of Whiteness in the U.S.

What do you hope to focus on or learn about as a doctoral student?

I am interested in studying mathematics classroom discourse, which James Gee defines as the characteristic ways of talking, doing, thinking, feeling, valuing, and interacting that give rise to socially recognizable identities and practices. My interest comes from my time as a teacher, where I saw that different students had differential access to identities and practices, which connected to different sorts of status and other social goods. Despite my best efforts, there were still students who felt marginalized, isolated, or dehumanized by mathematics. I realized this was often caused by the language used by students, teachers, and society at large about what it means to do mathematics and what kind of person can be a mathematician. Language reproduces dominant ideologies surrounding math and math learning, but I am interested in it because it is also a potential site for social change.

Instead of simply theorizing about language use, I hope to meaningfully observe how teachers and students use language in actual classroom practice. I am particularly interested in how teachers and students use language as a resource for achieving their goals, whether it is making or accepting bids for authority in cooperative learning situations or constructing what it means to be a competent and valued member of the classroom. I have a particular interest in Rom Harre and Luk Van Langenhive’s ideas about positioning theory, which first brought me to the work of my current advisor, Beth Herbel-Eisenmann.

I am also interested in the discourse practices and language issues of ELL students, refugees, and newly arrived immigrants. Reflecting back on my life, education, and work experiences, I have always been drawn to refugee and immigration issues. My parents’ immigration stories played a significant role in my childhood upbringing. In college, I interned for an immigration non-profit. In law school, I interned for the immigration court, where I helped decide asylum cases. During my time as a wall street attorney, I did pro bono work representing refugee clients who were victims of domestic abuse. During my time as a teacher, some of my most meaningful experiences were working with ELL and newly arrived immigrant students.

The common thread that runs through both my motivations for doctoral study and my research goals is a simultaneous love for mathematics and concern for those who are marginalized by or vulnerable to the systems within which mathematics learning takes place.

Desmos Fellowship Weekend

I had the opportunity to be part of the Desmos Fellowship Weekend earlier this month. Too much happened, and I met too many people, to fit all of my thoughts about the weekend in a blog that is supposed to contain “rough draft notes”, so I’ll mention two takeaways from the weekend.

Desmos is an ed company, first, and a tech company, second: The weekend highlighted for me that Desmos is a strong example of a math edtech company that listens to, prioritizes, and acts on many of the most prominent ideas put forth by the math education community. Michael Fenton led an activity and conversation showing how one of Desmos’s AB activities could be used to (1) create intellectual need, (2) honor students’ informal thinking, and (3) encourage mathematical discussion. The activity used a lot of tech, for sure, but it wasn’t tech for tech’s sake. The tech was meant to support pedagogy and learning, and many of the activities being worked on by the other fellows over the weekend reflected these same priorities.

Caveat: I’m careful to use the phrase “many of the most prominent ideas” and not “every”, “best”, or even “most important”. Like any math ed organization, Desmos privileges certain ideas in math ed over others. In some ways, this is a good thing. I’m glad Desmos isn’t a test prep company. In other ways, Desmos probably has room for growth. These areas include: equity, power and identity, trauma-informed instruction, and support for ELL students. More on this in the next takeaway.

Let’s keep talking about equity: There were lots of good conversations about equity, mostly kickstarted by a session led by Lauren Baucom and Christelle Rocha. I was particularly taken by their share of Prof. Rochelle Gutiérrez’s definition of equity, which she defines as “the inability to predict mathematics achievement and participation based solely on student characteristics such as race, class, ethnicity, sex, beliefs, and proficiency in the dominant language.”

I hadn’t thought about equity in terms of predictability before, but this lens makes sense and foregrounds the role that systemic issues play in foreclosing mathematics learning opportunities for marginalized and vulnerable students. It’s a nice reminder that what we’re dealing with here is not about “broken kids”, “broken homes”, “broken cultures”, or “a few bad apples”. Prof. Gutiérrez’s quote is reminiscent of a quote I recently read by the feminist philosopher Marilyn Frye:

The experience of oppression is that of confinement by obstacles that aren’t accidental or occasional or avoidable, but are “systematically related to each other in such a way as to catch one between and among them and restrict or penalize motion in any direction.”

This quote alongside Gutiérrez’s definition of equity reminds me that there are no easy fixes when it comes to making sure that all cultures, languages, and perspectives are valued and made an integral part of mathematics classroom communities. Ed tech will not be the panacea that some may think it is, especially in relation to equity. But companies like Desmos can be part of the system that helps teachers and schools lend voice to all students and help them understand and embrace difference.

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