Learning in Community
Dear Mathematics Teacher Education Community,
We stand at crossroads in the relationship between mathematics education and politics, communities and schools, movements and learning to engage. At this moment, racist, homophobic rhetoric have become commonplace in schools and the media; Black, Latinx, Indigenous and Asian lives continue to be in peril; and state and federal policies and legal decisions are undoing decades of civil rights. Within mathematics education, we see attacks on teacher and student agency, constraints on mathematics curriculum, and mass exodus of educators forced out from a normalized culture of teacher burnout. Our community is exhausted, divided, and hurt.
In moments when unlearning is needed, I pause. Leigh Patel (2016) talks about the pedagogy of pausing, the intentional engagement in suspension of our own premise and project so that we can move forward with intention. For months now, I start each day pausing - reading and reflecting - to consider how I can design for learning and engage with others with more intention. Here, I humbly offer a collection of thoughts in development, observations of existing patterns, and questions that guide me to change in ways that, I hope, help to grow our capacity as a community. Specifically, I learn and build from the words and perspectives of three Asian American activist scholars (because who we uplift and cite matter) who have shaped my ability to see new possibilities and take up new approaches as a mathematics educator, teacher educator, scholar, and community worker.
"There is…a place called justice, and it will take many voices to get there." - Dr. Mari Matsuda
Mathematics education often positions outside others as experts. We hire outside consultants to lead the professional learning with teachers and schools. Education leaders, policymakers, and funders decide what is best for children and how classrooms and schools can become more culturally responsive and more equitable. Dr. Mari Matsuda reminds us that the work of justice requires us to consider whose voices are heard? Who is silenced? Dr. Matsuda is a lawyer, activist, and law professor at the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaii. She was the first tenured female Asian American law professor in the United States and one of the leading voices in critical race theory since its inception. Dr. Matsuda reminds me that communities of color and those multiply marginalized should be at the center of decision-making. They embody ways of knowing and making sense of mathematics and the world that those in more privileged positions do not. Mathematics education systems are complex and tension-filled; nondominant students and communities have ways of knowing, doing, and being to navigate through dynamics of power, racism and hierarchies every day. We need to recognize the resilience, ingenuity, and agency they have had all along. An Anishinaabe scholar, Gerald Vizenor (2008) talks about this as “survivance” - not simply surviving in the face of oppression and marginalization but finding ways to grow, thrive, reimagine, and evolve. It is this way of knowing and being that holds the potential for transforming our education systems.
I’ve learned that tapping into the expertise of nondominant students and communities is not a simple task. Our field has often utilized deep investigations with nondominant communities in pathologizing rather than liberatory ways. And I have, unconsciously, taken up many of these problematic perspectives and practices. In a current project partnering with schools, the project leads are working with teachers to design for cultural responsiveness. Our original goal was to take an existing task from a mathematics textbook leveraging the shared teacher expertise in the room to determine shifts in the task to make it more culturally responsive. I used this process of collective analysis and redesign of mathematics curriculum with teachers for years. Suddenly, I finally saw how problematic it was. In my 10 years as a classroom teacher, I made home visits and caregivers, family members, and community organizers came into the classroom to co-teach with me. Yet, as a mathematics teacher educator, I seldom include students and communities as part of the professional learning with me. Cultural responsiveness is not a product, it is a process of co-analysis and co-design with those most impacted. Now in analyzing tasks with teachers, instead of creating a shared product, we discuss processes and structures that allow us to learn with and from the children, classroom teachers, or the community served and to explicitly consider reasons why historically marginalized communities may not want to engage when prior school structures have often been harmful. Dr. Matsuda reminds us that the journey toward educational justice must begin with nondominant community experiences and narratives. Who is the curriculum culturally responsive to if decisions are not made with and by those who are most directly impacted?
"Who are we answerable to?" - Dr. Leigh Patel
There is a lot of tinkering happening in schools and institutions right now. Within my own institution, I see the constant tinkering of curriculum, coursework, and programs to promote greater educational equity and success for all. Dr. Leigh Patel (2016), an interdisciplinary researcher, educator, and award-winning author, asks us to consider how and whom we’re answerable to in the decisions we make. What do we mean by “educational equity”? By “educational success”? Who decides which behaviors and actions are legitimate and considered productive? If we are merely working to include more people in the conventional paradigm of mathematics education and mathematics knowledge, we have tinkered around the edges but have not reshaped the powered practices and beliefs that continue to reinforce the inequities we seek to transform.
As we design for change, Dr. Patel’s (2017) notion of token or incremental inclusion has been helpful. How much of current equity efforts are token change? How much of my efforts to create change lead to token change? Dr. Patel reminds me of the need to move beyond window dressing and more conventional activities to be more radically inclusive. For example, I learned through personal experience and from listening to the experiences of others how damaging it can be, even with good intentions, to expect transformation by having a lone teacher of color or student assigned to an all-white equity committee or to expect collaboration simply by putting a group of educators and families in a room, without acknowledging that the same hierarchical power dynamics responsible for long-standing inequities will quickly reassert themselves. How often are we socializing nondominant students and educators into norms, expectations, and agendas that have been set without their perspectives or input? We need to move beyond processes shaped by predetermined agenda; the goal can’t be for us to consider ways to bring in “struggling” students or families but to consider how to fix “hard-to-access” systems and how to change exclusionary practices. What happens if we shift from a model of training and fixing students, parents, and teachers to fit into standardized spaces and instead embrace an approach that recognizes their expertise and prioritizes the collective well-being, self-determination and dignity?
"Who do you bring into the room with you? How does this inform who you are and what you do?" -Dr. Suzi Soohoo
I end here with Dr. Suzanne Soohoo, my hero. She is the co-director of the Paulo Freire Democratic Project and one of only 10 Asian American (AsAm) endowed chairs in the United States. Dr. Soohoo starts every learning opportunity with this pair of questions to invite us to consider the importance of histories, relationships and context. As an untenured Asian American faculty in a predominantly white institution, I grapple with internalized ideas about my own presumed (in)competence. In my 22 years of teaching mathematics in K-20 learning spaces, I am intentional about the diversity of stories and perspectives I bring in. However, AsAm authors, stories, and perspectives were and are still often missing. I would often position other stories as more important than ones from my own community, perpetuating the invisibility I experienced in my own K-20 education. Reflecting on who I bring into the room with me grounds my need to reflect and act critically to honor my elders and my own positionality to address systems of xenophobia, racialization, and anti-Black racism (any gains Asian Americans have made are often as a result of interest convergence in which we are used as a wedge against Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) siblings to perpetuate meritocracy and division). Dr. Soohoo reminds me that I need to be loud, that I need to take up space to honor the shoulders I stand on and to create space for my children and others that will follow.
With Dr. Soohoo, I have learned to understand that our trajectories are relative to each other; we accomplish nothing individually. We are never enough alone; deep and systemic change requires a collective. Fighting burnout, competition, or a feeling of not being good enough requires us to realize our connectedness. When we enter the room as an educator, researcher, or student, we bring a legacy of those that walked with and before us. For me, my children, parents, mentors, elders, and cultural and community organizers who have paved the way for me to be where I am today serve as my heart, my soul, and my strength. They give me strength on days when I am exhausted or feel incompetent. It is from and within our histories - understanding the historical injustices as well as community resistance, cultural practices, and ethical responsibilities - that remind me that I am enough because of others.
Each step of my journey as a mathematics educator, I have been privileged to learn from and with generous mentors in mathematics teacher education. They have modeled the importance of shifting from answers to asking fundamental questions about how we can create systems that are just, dignity-conferring, and sustainable. It’s about being purposeful in developing new leaders and embodying in the present the kinds of relationships we hope for in the future. I am listening, reflecting, and learning! Thank you!
Patel, L. (2016). Decolonizing educational research: From ownership to answerability. New York, NY: Routledge.
Patel, L. (2017). Rejecting a politics of inclusion. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://decolonizing.net/2017/07/27/rejecting-a-politics-of-inclusion/
Vizenor, G.R. (2008). Survivance: Narratives of Native presence. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.