Wednesday, October 7, 2015

talking about students: language

I've been forced to articulate my research interests multiple times lately (which is good, because hopefully articulating them will help me figure out what exactly they might be), and I've been thinking about the language I use to talk about students, and specifically, the students I care most about. I'm interested in the secondary mathematics classroom experiences of-- in no particular order-- students of color, students who speak languages other than English at home, girls, and students growing up in low-income communities.

I tweeted the below recently about the common use of "diverse" to describe these students, even when the speaker/author is really only talking about a particular subgroup of said students (e.g. Black students), and so I choose not to describe the students I care most about as "diverse" (although when I think about everyone who falls into one of the aforementioned subgroups, that does make it a pretty diverse whole group).
Christina and the many, many others she links to in this piece have written about why using "minority" is equally problematic, for some similar and some different reasons.

I also see "underrepresented" used a lot, and I sometimes use it when I'm writing or speaking for STEM-specific audiences. But the descriptor I find myself using most often is "traditionally or historically marginalized," and I think the reason is that to me, underrepresented feels like an outcome, or a symptom of the problem, and marginalization feels like the process by which underrepresentation happens, or the problem itself. So just as I'd rather talk about white supremacy than white privilege (I'm not sure privilege in and of itself is a problem; supremacy, however, is), or racism rather than racists, I prefer the term that reminds us of the sociopolitical, economic, and historical contexts that have led to this moment.

Side note: I don't just mean "students for whom the standard math classroom isn't designed," because I'd argue that math class as it exists in most U.S. schools today isn't really designed for many boys, either (or, children, for that matter; my opinion is that it's mostly designed for automatons). But as a category, boys don't face as many societal pressures or influences telling them strongly whether or not they should be good at math, until we start to consider the intersectionality of race (see: Nasir & Shah, 2011 on racialized math narratives for both African American and Asian American males). And because of intersectionality, and the way our society works, "students of color" almost serves as shorthand for most of the subgroups I focus on, since race is so intricately tied to both class and language-status in this country.

But is it further marginalizing to refer to students as marginalized? Does it paint them as victims of a process? Does something like "underserved" put more emphasis on how they're being failed rather than how they're failing (although that feels more passive to me)?

I've done the "member check" (fancy grad school term I just learned: asking the people you're studying whether what you're concluding about them or how you're representing them makes sense) for myself: as someone who identifies as all of the four subgroups I listed above, I'm comfortable with this term-- and more so than I am with other terms-- for the reasons I described. And I'd suppose that being marginalized doesn't have to imply a lack of agency-- in fact, there are too many examples to name all of the ways in which marginalized people express agency-- just a lack of legitimate power. But obviously, n = 1, and I can't speak for everyone, and "because I felt like it" isn't any sort of justification.

Opinions? Suggestions?

Sunday, October 4, 2015

rate of conceptual change

I am thinking about how quickly my thinking is changing, now that I'm reading and discussing and writing about hundreds of pages of research every week, and one fear I have is that as I consider, internalize, or integrate new ideas, I'm going to forget where my thinking came from. I worry that as I get farther and farther from "naive" theories or conceptualizations, it'll be harder to remember what I thought or why it made sense, which will make it harder to empathize with (and therefore communicate with but also regard with full respect) people who don't think about things the same way I do. For example, it has become almost unfathomable to me to think about math teaching without thinking about different types of knowledge and explanation (procedural, computational, conceptual, etc.), and yet I remember feeling like such a light bulb had gone off when, in my first year teaching, I recognized that what I wanted my students to learn didn't just vary based on topic, but also on form. I remember trying desperately to explain this to others, and feeling so relieved when I found the words procedural and conceptual. To me, now, this seems so basic that it's not really even worth talking about, because there are so many more worthwhile distinctions to think about, but I also know from experience that, when I'm working with novice teachers, it's kind of a big deal.

One trajectory of conceptual change I've done a better job capturing is how I've thought about misconceptions; for some reason, it feels like a more significant shift than some of the other things I've learned (which feel more like facts or skills acquired). Perhaps because it's a shift that requires the shift of so many underlying assumptions about how children learn, the validity/importance/role of student thinking, the subjectivity of perspectives and truth, etc.?

I am thinking about how even conflicting ideas can each make sense, if the rationale behind them seems logical or familiar, and how we can hold conflicting ideas and feel no cognitive dissonance. An example would be nice here, but my brain isn't firing on all cylinders. As I learned this summer, many therapists consider themselves "eclectic" rather than aligned with any particular school of thought, and that can mean many things: some therapists pick and choose techniques based on the situation, others shift their explanatory mechanisms of why a client is troubled based on the situation, and others have assembled a coherent (to them) theory of their own that accounts for (what they consider) problematic elements in existing theories.

The reason I'm thinking about this is because sometimes I read something that doesn't sit quite right, but I can't tell whether it's because I don't understand what's being argued, or if I do understand and just disagree. And until I can figure out whether I can trust my judgment or not, I need to hold both  my understanding of the argument and my critique of it.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

reflections on week 1

I wondered whether I should post this, because it's more for me than anyone else, but then I remembered that my blog is more for me than anyone else, and it's my blog, so I can do whatever I want. If you're expecting profound insights or provocative questions on math education or math teacher education, you probably should be reading other blogs anyway, but will even more probably want to skip this one-- just a few things that are on my mind during this first week.

Both teaching and learning have given me so much joy; I didn't fully know what to expect, because I have never been in ed school before, but the enthusiasm with which people dive into testing ideas, asking questions, and grappling with abstract-but-important conversations (e.g. the purpose(s) of education, the values we bring to our work as educators, the philosophical roots of the teacher's role) is so energizing. I am reveling in the extent to which I have the opportunity to engage with others in thinking and learning about so many things and for once, not having to immediately identify a practical application or a concrete recommendation or a purpose/tangible objective/justification for why this matters. And it is reminding me how much I love teaching.

During one of my interview weekends, a current student reminded prospectives who were current teachers to take time to grieve the classroom; I was really struck by the wisdom of his words, and it's something I've come back to a lot these past few weeks, both for myself and in sharing with others. I left the classroom years ago (see: my very first post on this blog), and have watched many friends and colleagues leave it since, and there's this mix of loss/fear/confusion/excitement/regret/guilt/relief-- am I making the right choice? even if I'm pretty sure I am, does that mean I'm selling out? giving up a part of my identity that has been really important to me (perhaps for a really long/formative time)? what if I'm not as good at my new job as I was at teaching? what if I don't find things to love the way I loved (parts of) teaching? will I ever stop missing the kids? should I return to teaching someday? am I a bad person for being excited to do something different? was I actually a much worse teacher than I thought? what's going to happen to my kids/classroom/school? Some of this is part of any transition, I imagine, but for so many of the former teachers I know, teaching was much more than a job, and came with a sense of pride and identity (and sometimes aggrievedness and defensiveness, given the way teachers are often treated) that I don't see as often in many other professions. And it doesn't help that society tends to reward people for leaving the classroom-- particularly young, talented people-- with greater respect and/or higher pay and/or more impressive titles and/or comments like "now you get to expand your impact!" and "now you're starting your real life!" and "I knew you'd advance someday!" and "this is a great opportunity!" All this is to say: I am excited about this chapter, yes, but there is also real loss (for me less the classroom and more my previous work/peers/environment/normal), and I wish there were more room to publicly acknowledge the grief in addition to the joy.

I have felt at times both incredibly out of my element and affirmed that I have indeed acquired some useful knowledge/perspective/experiences in the past three decades.

I've noticed that I spend far less time in front of a screen than I did at my previous job. That's probably because I don't yet know how to read on a computer, and instead am printing everything, and also don't yet have any writing assignments. So much for getting back on twitter after a summer mostly not.

Also, I think I'm starting to make friends.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

tensions and fears

I'm starting a new adventure-- today was my first real day, and there are two contradictions/tensions on my mind. I suspect they'll each evolve over time, but I also suspect they won't ever go away, which I suppose makes them worth chronicling.

First, there's the joy of being a student again, and the sense of freedom from only being responsible for my own learning, rather than being responsible for the learning of so many others (whether it's students or teachers). I have to admit, it's selfishly very exciting, and I'm looking forward to being able to do things like navel-gaze unapologetically and schedule time for exercise (anyone who knows me might see that statement as cause for alarm, since my philosophy used to be that I don't run unless I'm being chased, but there are so many other new beginnings in my life right now I figured I'd throw that one in there too). But I also know that I can't/won't/shouldn't focus solely on myself; as a citizen, community member, and grown person who's acquired some skills/ideas that are useful to others, I still have a broader responsibility to productively contribute to others' lives. I don't yet know how-- Christina (@biblio_phile) and I have started some lovely and difficult conversations about being an outsider/volunteering/"helping" in ways that are intrusive/exploitative/selfish vs. truly in service, and I'm also still scoping out which additional work/teaching commitments I'll choose-- but I also don't expect this to be an easy question to answer (not just as a student, but ever, in my career/life).

Speaking of having acquired some skills/ideas over the years, I'm wrestling with the contradiction of knowing and not knowing; I'm here because I know that there's a lot I don't know and want to know, and yet I also have learned a thing or two that I feel strongly about. I'm less scared about how much I don't know, but I am scared that I am not as open to learning as I should be or could be. There are some ideas I hold deeply because my experiences have pointed to and then repeatedly confirmed them-- like the idea that direct instruction is not always/usually the best way to teach, or the idea that students' subjective experience matters as much as their academic learning-- and I don't know how willing I need to be to have them challenged. A professor I'm working closely with said that part of my work will be to find language to articulate what I already know and developing a more solid evidence base-- beyond anecdotal experience-- to support those ideas, and I'm going to try to hold that framing in mind because I feel like it both honors the fact that I'm not a blank slate coming in-- that my professional experiences have been worth something-- and that I have much room to grow.

Also, I'm learning that I don't know how to cook on an electric stove.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

hi! i moved.

IRL and virtually-- if you're kind enough to have this site bookmarked, please change your bookmarks to

i suppose that hints at some ambition for what's to come in the virtual world, but my IRL move may get in the way. we'll see.