The Drylongso Award recognizes leadership in anti-racism. What does anti-racism mean to you in your teaching practice?
My conception of providing leadership in anti-racism emerges from my life experiences as a member of a sociocultural community, as a practicing teacher educator, and as an active researcher. My courses are designed to provide experiences that challenge students’ beliefs and perceptions and to scaffold and facilitate critical reflections and actions. I invite students to examine their motives for wanting to teach; is it just a career, is it out of a love for children, or is it a means towards working for the common good of all children? I challenge them to question their understanding of mathematics and its role in empowering children. Ultimately, I want students to view their role as future teachers as a crucial and vital way to serve and value human dignity and justice.
Thus, we use the experiences that we bring to the course to develop critical perspectives regarding how children and adolescents learn and understand mathematics. Together, we grapple with transforming learning environments into highly interactive contexts that support and assist children’s intellectual development. This unity of theory and practice provides a framework for us to conceptualize mathematical learning from a sociocultural perspective, resulting in a critical analysis that includes opportunities to create and participate in technology, assessment, and problem-solving activities. Students examine pedagogical practices of mathematics, analyze their conceptions and misconceptions about mathematics, and participate in scaffolding and constructing new knowledge. These learning experiences result in a collaborative effort to transform new understanding into practical classroom activities and to provide a medium in which students may begin to travel the path that leads them to their greatness and full potential as equity educators.
What do you hope students learn in your courses?
When teaching for the common good of all children, teachers must think beyond a curiosity level of reflection. It is often suggested that if teachers are more deeply reflective about their practices, they are further empowered to become better teachers. The assumption is that reflection alone should be commended, regardless of the character or quality of teaching. This view ignores the idea that the power exercised by teachers may serve in some instances to perpetuate practices that are harmful and hurtful to their students; therefore, genuine reflection requires an open-mind, and it is inclusive of diverse voices, especially those of the students we serve. I believe that the harm of teachers’ practices are greater especially when our work lacks social responsibility and does not support or promote justice.
I assist my students in understanding this position by sharing and discussing lived human experiences about teaching and learning mathematics. In developing this understanding, I encourage students to experience the tremendous power of mathematical literacy for achieving equity and justice within the classroom. How one is positioned in terms of mathematics pedagogical practices, beliefs, and attitudes has a great deal to do with how one sees the issue of who is and who is not a mathematics gatekeeper. I ground my teaching practices in Bob Moses’ (2001, 1989) idea that mathematics literacy is a civil right to which all learners are entitled. Moses believes that members of communities who are lacking in mathematical literacy risk becoming a permanent underclass, perpetuating generation after generation of people who live on the margins of this nation’s economic and political institutions. My goal is to challenge prospective teachers to think about and act upon their pedagogical practices and beliefs in order to change the subtle ways that they might serve as mathematics gatekeepers of higher learning opportunities. A classroom community needs to encourage a shared commitment for all learners to achieve mathematical literacy, which creates the unity that binds teachers to students and allows teachers to become invested in the futures of their students.
The following email from one of my students illustrates this notion.
I am hopeful that as a future educator, I can really use my platform in order to raise awareness about these important matters for my students. I thought about the independent study I did with you last semester, and how mathematics teaching/education holds an unearned privilege in our society (and math professors are disproportionately white).
I am so grateful to have had you as my advisor and professor and mentor during these past few years! You have helped me build my confidence as a professional and a teacher, taught me how to incorporate social justice into my daily life and my practices as a math teacher, and you have been such a huge support system. I appreciate you so much!! Thank you for everything, Dr. A. I am so grateful I got to work with you for one more year.
What I want my students to understand is that the unity of language (words) and mathematics (thought) informs mathematical thinking and thoughts about instructive inequalities. Instructive inequities (e.g., the achievement gap) are shaped by enhanced notions of racial hierarchy and inferiority. To some, it is to blame the learner and the learner is considered to be intrinsically less academically capable of learning and understanding mathematics. I offer classroom experiences that help shape academic concept formation for the learner and that emphasize how the role of the teacher is essential to the students’ construction and co-construction of knowledge and thinking. As such, I argue that if mathematics prospective teachers are successful in understanding the role of language in influencing mathematical thinking and learning, then they might be able to remove the obstacles that hinder their future students from connecting mathematical content with the role of language in learning concepts and skills. Using dilemmas and scenarios, my students gradually develop an understanding that the achievement gap as a concept is, in essence, an opportunity gap. It is not about learners’ abilities, but it is the lack of opportunities rooted in generations of institutional structures and economic inequalities. Accordingly, these critical orientations to language and mathematics that are actualized in specific contexts for the goals of justice and empowerment shift the conversation away from the achievement gap and other dehumanizing classroom practices, such as the proverbial doctrine that mathematics is a universal language.
How did you grow your capacity for anti-racist practice in your teaching? What resources (people, scholarship, etc.) have supported your growth?
In my teaching and mentoring, I aim to prepare students to practice antiracism in their professions and lives. In order to help students take on an antiracist lens to the world, I focus on finding connections and building relationships with students. I make sure I’m in the classroom a few minutes early and ask students questions about themselves as they arrive: How are you doing today? Where are you from? What do you want me to know about? On the first day of class, I ask students to introduce themselves by sharing something that their peers and I couldn’t figure out by looking at them. I model this by telling them that I look forward to weekend marathons of Korean dramas. Throughout the semester, students are prompted to share more information about their experiences and histories. Throughout, I share about my own background growing up during the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. I invite students to look for commonalities across our different experiences and to seek out opportunities for us to understand one another.
Depending on course goals, I might also start a semester asking students how they define equity and distinguish equity from equality. Their answers to those questions help me figure out where my students are coming from and identify how I can most fruitfully invite them to practice taking an antiracist lens on the course content and their world. As the semester progresses, I might throw out more some of my more controversial statements (e.g. “the achievement gap is dehumanizing”) and ask students to unpack the argument, voice and unpack counter arguments. I believe that in order to bring students into this work, I have to facilitate an environment where the discussion is free from a fear of judgment or indoctrination. I aim to make it easy for students to trust that I am there to help them come up with their own questions through structured activities and that I am open to having them ask questions and challenge information that is presented. My goal is to get them to take seriously the arguments being made in the class, to understand the basis of those arguments, not necessarily to agree with me.
When students do disagree with the arguments being made in the course, I offer time for private reflection and ask them to consider why they don’t agree and what might be getting in the way of their acceptance of a new perspective.
The award recognizes your work with FACES, the undergraduate student group that facilitates campus conversations on race and racism. How has your work with FACES influenced your teaching practice?
As stated in FACES mission statement,
FACES is an anti-racist organization committed to challenging racism and systems of power as they manifest at Boston College and beyond. We seek to end racism and its roots in oppression and dehumanization through conversations, academic forums, and direct actions. In these ways, FACES engages fellow students in a desire for justice and contributes to an equitable educational and social environment.
Under effective student leadership and my role as advisor, we have become a very successful student organization in our continued struggle to contribute to the dismantling of systematic racism. As the faculty advisor for this exceptional group of students, I attend every Monday night Council meeting, engaging in many of the organization’s activities. Therefore, my work with the FACES Council reaffirms my belief that when we embrace thinking without reflection, action, and evaluation, we run the risk of further distancing ourselves from those we serve. We need to become more conscious of our practices in deeds and actions and how they truly affect those we serve. Thus, my work with FACES has affected my own learning and development and the responsibility I have to prepare the next generation of anti-racist teacher leaders.
In my work with FACES, students sometimes ask me how I continue with my antiracism work when it is so often accompanied by backlash. In those moments, I tell them that I am very good at turning the other cheek. No matter how many times I am slapped, I will not allow my voice to be silenced. I channel my anger into action and remind myself that I am in the privileged position of educating the next generation of teachers in social justice pedagogy and a next generation of antiracist leaders. I hope they leave with a strong sense of self and a strong sense of community.
What do you wish other faculty knew about FACES?
Knowing how FACES became an anti-racism student organization, I believe it is important that faculty and interested others know about FACES’ background. It was during a Halftime retreat in May 2004 that I met James “Jim” Unis, a Boston College football player who had been notified that, due to an injury, he would not be able to play in the forthcoming year. Through several conversations with Jim, I was informed about a student organization that he and several other student athletes were interested in starting, but they needed guidance and a faculty advisor for the group. During the summer of 2004, twelve BC students from various backgrounds met every Friday evening to develop a purpose and focus for the organization. Emerging from our discussions is the anti-racist organization known on campus as faces, which offers four different types of action-oriented experiences for students, faculty, and administrators: a First Year Program that targets mentoring incoming first year students, and Classroom Presentations that focus on upper-level students, and Out Reach that targets faculty and administrators, which includes classroom and book group discussions.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
My role as an anti-racist is an unfolding drama of developing effective pedagogical practices. I continue to reflect critically and act on what I believe is necessary to study as a learner, to research as a scholar, and to teach as an educator.