Inclusiveness in Math Education (#TMC17 Theme?)

Twitter Math Camp (TMC17) is over for this year. It took two days to start this post, and over two weeks to finish it, and there is still so much to process. This was my first one, and I’m sure that some parts are always the same, but other parts are surely unique to this year. If I had to pinpoint one overarching theme for the last week, though, it wasn’t directly about math at all.

Make no mistake – I did a lot of math, and had a lot of fun learning about new problems, playing around with new ideas, and discovering new mathematicians who I hope will continue to teach me such interesting bits of mathematics. But that wasn’t the most important part of the experience. If I were to sum up the most important part of the week in one word, it would be inclusiveness.

When I first arrived in Atlanta a week ago, I got the opportunity to meet up with an old friend, Shebah. I taught with her in Oakland almost ten years ago, and she has long since moved across the country. She comes from a family of Mexican heritage, and is engaged to a man with a Puerto Rican background. As we talked about my career, and my colleagues in math education, and this whole community of Twitter teachers, she asked about the diversity of TMC. I only knew a lot of people from their profile pictures, and although I can point out some people of color, that just highlights the lack of racial or ethnic diversity. I did mention that there is a lot of gender diversity in terms of men and women, although I do not know (nor is it really my business unless a friend or colleague chooses to share with me) how many identify as trans/non-binary/genderqueer. Is there diversity of sexual orientation? My experience is that gaydar is not to be trusted, so except for people who mentioned the gender of their partner or spouse, peoples’ sexual orientation just didn’t come up. So how diverse is TMC? The only answer I can say with confidence is that it’s not diverse enough. And right away, I had the idea of inclusion in the back of my mind. Do people who are not white feel included in the Math Twitter Blog o Sphere?

Wednesday was the Desmos Pre-Conference day, a day in which I got to see some amazing new developments in store for Desmos users, including more control for scripting when writing activities, enhancements to the Desmos Geometry app, and some interesting transformations to play with.  There was a great evening activity put on by Desmos, and I went to sleep that night so excited to be in my little world of nerdy math teachers.

And then, on Thursday, July 27, Dan Meyer published a blog post, “Let’s Retire #MTBoS”. And as a result of that post, lots of people over the next several days became hurt, angry, and felt disrespected and dismissed. Again the theme of this whole episode boiled down to inclusion. Who feels included in the #MTBoS community? Who doesn’t feel included? What can be done to bridge those gaps, to make every math education professional, new or experienced, K-12 and beyond, coaches and administrators, all feel a part of this community?

Through the rest of the week, themes of inclusion and belong arose – from which teachers felt welcome in #MTBoS (whether due to its perception as cliquish, the relative youthfulness of the organization, or due to the smaller number of non cis-white members), why there was such a relatively small number of elementary school teachers or minority teachers at TMC, to how we can improve the status and inclusion of students of color and non-male/non-binary students. A whole Twitter thread (or variety of threads) on the topic of what can and should replace “boys and girls” or “ladies and gentlemen” made its way into a Storify Posting on #Equity. Some preferred the idea of using “y’all” or a variation, some liked “scholars”, “learners”, or “my little monsters”, and some defended the older teachers who used the traditional “boys and girls” because it’s hard to change. I don’t buy that argument at all – we don’t (or shouldn’t) accept when teachers from earlier generations maintain their stereotypes and outdated language.

I have memories of my great aunt, a schoolteacher, talking about some of her “colored students” with a surprised affection, like they were overachieving in her eyes because they would sometimes perform at the same level as her “regular” students. I didn’t stand up to her comments at the time, since I was probably about 15 years old, she had been retired for probably 20 years, and my mindset was that it probably didn’t matter too much what she said in the privacy of her own home. Still, I know now that it did matter. I may have silently disagreed with her, but other people who she talked to may have been swayed by her statements. I feel like I have come a long way, but sometimes wonder just how forcefully I would confront a teacher who, whether blatantly or subtly, whether intentionally or accidentally, spoke in a manner that was offensive towards a student or group of students. And then I realize that I have a very mixed record, and that I’ve let teachers slide, not saying something in the moment, because I don’t want to get into a confrontation that will take an important discussion on a tangent. I definitely swallowed my tongue on a few occasions with parents as well when they have said things that offended me greatly. My goal for the future – to take that stand, even when it may be uncomfortable, even when it may cause some unwanted ripples. To allow a message of exclusivity, whether it means excluding teachers from our professional community or excluding students from the class culture, to be voiced without objecting to it is tacitly endorsing something that can’t happen.

So, amazingly, despite all of the great mathematical discussions and ideas that came out of TMC17, which were definitely the most fun, the ideas of equity in the math education community are a far more important takeaway to me. In light of the events in Charlottesville this past weekend, this theme is more important than ever.




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