Listening and Learning from Educators of Color

About a month ago, Christopher Danielson offered up a challenge to white educators to listen more and talk less. Specifically, we should be listening often to students/teachers/people of color and the privilege of being a white american that they do not have the opportunity to enjoy.   I took Danielson’s advice and began to really listen intently to these voices.  This blog post is how my listening will impact my teaching practice.

My family upbringing did not include overt racism, and my parents instilled values that included kindness to all.    I was confident growing up (and still am today) that my father worked very hard in order to financially secure his family.  His beginnings weren’t humble, as most would define the term, but coming from a family with 4 children, earning a C average in high school and attending the only college that would accept him weren’t great indicators of the kind of financial well-being that he has achieved.  My mother grew up in a household which included an alcoholic father and a co-dependant mother.   Her resilience allowed her to escape the dysfunction of her upbringing and earn a college degree. So my conclusion was: My family isn’t racist, my parents worked hard to get where they are in life, so anyone (white or black) should be able to do the same.  If they don’t, the problem must be individual.  After all, not all white people discriminate against black people.  

Then I began to listen.  And with that listening came a fuller understanding and acknowledgement of my white privilege and the institutional racism that still affects people of color today.  For example, I listened to Jose Vilson, whose book This is Not a Test explores the effect that race has on school and teacher quality.  His personal narrative allowed me to fully immerse myself into the issues of equality (or lack there of) that plague our inner-city schools.

I listened to Melinda D. Anderson whose unapologetic, relentless support for students and educators of color opened my eyes to how racism is treated as a thing of the past in our country but is a present day dilemma for people of color.   Her voice has helped me to recognize that black students disproportionately attend high poverty schools making segregation a 2014 issue, not a 1954 one.

I listened to Ta-Nehisi Coates whose monumental article The Case for Reparations challenged me to recognize that black americans may have equal opportunities in our country, but their access to those opportunities is anything but equal.  I listened to an hour long interview he did with Vox and one of the most powerful messages I received was this:  Our country had a 250-year policy of slavery plus another 100 years of downright discriminatory, racist laws.  We’ve spent the last 50 years trying to repair it, with many policy makers still not acknowledging that there was anything to repair in the first place.  So Coates asks, if a country spends 350 years seriously mistreating a particular culture and then 50 years sort of trying to fix it, where would you expect that culture to be socio-economically?

I also listened to this:  “Sixty-Three percent of Americans believe ‘blacks who can’t get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition.'” And for the first time in my life I profoundly disagreed with that statement.  The very idea that blacks ‘who can’t get ahead’ would choose irresponsibility purposefully, over and over again, doesn’t make sense to me.  There are many reasons I find this belief held by a majority of Americans to be lunacy, but one in particular that is close to my heart is education.  As George Washington Carver stated, “Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.”  How do we expect black students to earn that key to freedom when inequality continues to play a key role in schooling opportunities?   Is education a great equalizer when blacks are wildly disproportionately educated in schools that don’t measure up?

And I continue to listen.  The National Association for Multicultural Education published interviews with teachers of color which help white teachers like me “work more effectively and respectfully” with students of color:

  1. Listen to teachers of color
  2. Examine white privilege
  3. Be honest about your knowledge of a culture
  4. Clarify your purpose for teaching
  5. Challenge your students rather than pity them
  6. Be resilient

(Multicultural Perspectives 9(1), 3-9, 2007)

I want to continue to listen because by listening so far, I have been able to learn.  As a white person, I do not experience judgements based on my race, which is why it is so vital that I keep listening to those who do.



Crafty Math

I was recently inspired by @mathinyourfeet‘s post: Hoping that this was a project that could be adapted for 3-5 year olds, I inquired about the details.  Malke Rosenfeld was one step ahead of me with a blog post.  Some background on my craftiness:  My mom is the crafty one.  Growing up, I’m sure she was frustrated that I never took to sewing or quilting, but her gift in that area is unmatched.  (Luckily, my brother ended up being the artsy one.)  It’s hard to believe I became a math teacher, but I don’t excel in the realms of ‘measuring’ and ‘cutting.’ I knew the 3.5-year-old focus on this was going to be short (9 minutes to be exact), I wanted to maximize our mathematical conversation.  First, she decided that she would be pink and I would be yellow (our respective favorite colors).  She also decided that the strips should be weaved in a pattern of pink/yellow/pink/yellow. IMG_5596

Next, she noticed that the papers were making small squares.  Because of the pink/yellow pattern, she pointed out a face with eyes and a nose.  🙂


After about 3 pink strips, she groaned, “mommy, I’m getting really tired.  Can you finish it for me?”  Of course I wasn’t going to allow this craft to remain undone, but I think she appreciate the outcome.


Luckily, the extra strips of paper didn’t go to waste.  They ended up as a wall decoration as well.  IMG_5603

Can There Be Quality PD for ALL Teachers?

This past week, I have the pleasure of attending Solution Tree’s PLCs at Work Institute along with 2200 other teachers, principals, superintendents, and other school leaders. My coworker did the quick math, and at $649 a head, that’s almost $1.4 million that Solution Tree collects in gross revenues just for the Minneapolis Institute alone. Attendees hailed from 17 states, however Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin seemed to show up on the majority of name badges. Our district opted to send about 60 people to the conference, effectively emptying out our professional development fund for at least the time being.
I want to be fair and give this conference proper recognition. Despite the steep price tag, the keynotes and breakout sessions have definitely delivered as far as being relevant, engaging, and dynamic. The session presenters are highly accessible for questions and have been more than willing to provide quick access to resources, handouts, and templates. The building blocks/cornerstones/pillars of the professional learning community make it very clear that failure for students can no longer be an option and success past high school is mandatory to afford a middle class adult life. I saw many excited teachers and administrators alike as they envisioned how this collaborative culture can work within their own classroom setting. Research was resonating, pencils were feverishly copying quotables.

I thoroughly enjoyed Tim Kanold’s breakout sessions addressing PLC’s and the Common Core State Standards. It was refreshing and energizing to engage in discussions around mathematics-specific tasks. I was reassured when examining Dr. Kanold’s list of additional resources as they included many of the curriculum materials I’ve included in my instruction as of late – Illustrative Mathematics, Mathematics Vision Project, Engage NY, among others.

Ultimately I had a difficult time getting past the elephant in the room, or rather, the elephant NOT in the room. If the PLC model is as effective as the research suggests (and I believe that it absolutely is) than how does this valuable information get delivered to high-needs districts who cannot afford to send district staff to a conference costing over $600 per head? If this disparity in achievement between rich and poor students is widening and failure in today’s job market is truly not an option, then how do schools who don’t have flexible professional development funds get access to the quality expertise needed to effectively implement the PLC ideals? If we truly believe that ALL students can learn and PLCs are the best chance we have to do that, then isn’t it vital that our neediest districts have the proper training to carry this out? I’m grappling with this subtle silent theme prevalent in this conference that ‘We believe that teachers need to ensure that all students learn, but we are only going to ensure that those districts willing to fork over $650 per participant have the proper tools to make that happen.”  Instead, those schools, like the Chicago Public Schools are subjected to cringe-worthy professional development that makes us wonder why anyone would subject teachers to that kind of monotony.

When teachers have the opportunity to have conversations with other teachers from other districts, everyone learns.  Unfortunately, there is an entire segment of teachers, representing a huge number of students, absent from the conversation.  And in order to improve education for all of our students, we must include all teacher voices in the discussion.

Pair Products – An Nrich Favorite

In a few short weeks, I will be making a presentation at Twitter Math Camp on my favorite Nrich Tasks.  I know a lot of teachers have reservations about integrating rich mathematical tasks into their regular routines so I want to focus on problems that have that “traditional” feel while still allowing students to explore mathematical relationships more deeply.

Pair Products is an amazing offering by Nrich and its low barrier to entry makes it accessible for all students.  After working through the problem myself, Nrich offers additional questions to raise the ceiling.

Pair Products C

Additional Questions to Ask:

  1. What happens when you use 4 consecutive even or odd numbers? 5? 6? n?
  2. What happens when you use 4, 5, 6, n consecutive multiples of 3? Multiples of 4? 5? 6?
  3.  (My Favorite) What happens when you use n consecutive multiples of w?
  4. Does your generalization from #4 hold for numbers that increase by .5?  (For example: 3, 3.5, 4, 4.5)

My favorite Nrich pair, Charlie and Alison, offer two different approaches.  Charlie explains a clear algebraic manipulation to arrive at two expressions with a numerical difference.  Alison, on the other hand, represents the product of numbers with an area model.


An interesting challenge might be to ask students to show the area model that Alison employs for some of the additional questions.


Twiddle dee Twiddla

Yesterday was our first official day of SUMMER.  So after a thunderstorm curtailed my gardening plans, I thought I’d check out some apps that have been on my to-do list for a while.   First up:  Twiddla, an online collaborative whiteboard.  Why a collaborative whiteboard?  Our school district uses Google Apps and there are many beneficial collaborative options through Google docs, sheets, etc. The problem:  Mathematics just doesn’t translate very well when typed or through a computer medium.  If I’d like kids to collaborate in real-time via the web, Twiddla might be a viable option for students to collaborate in real time online, with a blank canvas.

What I like:

  • No login required.  Just post the web address and kids are good to go.
  • PDF’s and images are insertable into the background.
  • There is a grid background as well.
  • Students can “chat” or audio conference while working.
  • A variety of colors, shapes, and line thicknesses can be utilized.
  • The Pro version (usually $14/month) is free for educators and students.
  • The writing is very smooth without a stylus.

What I did not like as much:

  • Annotations are added when writer “pauses” rather than as they are writing.
  • An “undo” button would be helpful.

Some screenshots from my twiddla-created session:

 IMG_4068 IMG_4069 IMG_4071 IMG_4072

Now, I’ll have to wait until Fall to test this app out with students, but I’m optimistic about it’s potential.  It could just be one of those things that’s “cool” but in reality, pencil and paper will do.