April 10, 2019

How to Lead Conversations on Equity

I started my last post talking about #ClearTheAir and I'm going to do the same thing again. That community has had a huge impact on me. Thank you Val! In the fall we read White Fragility and it was eye opening. Everything in that book seemed so obvious, yet I'd never really paid attention before. Once I had that experience I wanted everyone to join me in my new enlightened state!

My current work is all remote so it wasn't quite as simple as hanging out in the staff room and raving about the book until I found people who would discuss it with me. But, we'd had a book discussion at work before (Radical Candor) so when my colleague spoke up about our lack of action steps toward a new organization goal (Attract, retain, and support a diverse community.) this seemed like a good opportunity to find a partner in this effort. We decided that our co-workers were in a variety of different places and maybe starting right in with White Fragility would be too much. We needed an entry text.

Point #1: Know your audience. The goal is to move forward in the work, but if you jump straight to the finish line you'll be the only one there.

So we read The Loudest Duck with anyone who wanted to join us (15 people out of under 50 full time employees). The very first thing we asked people to do was to state why they were joining. It was great to read different reasons and see a few perspectives, but also to hear a reverberating commitment to learn about diversity and equity. For the book discussion we alternated between asking people to post things on slack and having video conference calls in small groups. I liked being able to read everyone's thoughts when they posted, but we got feedback that people were more comfortable discussing where they could see each other, hear tone and get immediate feedback.

Point #2: Push people a little outside their comfort zone. You have to push, otherwise you'll never get any closer to that finish line. But not too far, or you'll be alone again.

After we finished the book we wanted to continue the conversation, but with a less work intensive method than a book discussion. We moved to discussing articles, podcasts, tweets, and other questions that arose. To honor the request for discussing in person rather than via text, we set up this awesome slack app called Donut. The app randomly pairs people who signed up every 2 weeks so they can go out for donuts! (Or in our case as a remote organization, conference calls. But once I ate a bagel while I was on the call...) It's been great because we're building connections across the organization, which is a great way to increase the all important sense of belonging, while continuing to have conversations about equity, so we can find other ways support everyone in the organization.

Point #3: Keep going! You don't finish equity work in a day, week, month, or semester. Find ways to follow up and sustain conversations. That finish line we're aiming for? It's really far away.

More than half the employees participate in the donut chats every 2 weeks. There have been 62 pair or trio discussions so far in just a few months of running this. Two new employees are leading a discussion on the book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. A few of us also read Dare to Lead. We're still working on figuring out what our next steps are, but in reading the book we realized we'd like to move from grassroots (anyone who wants to can opt in) to structural change (moving this conversation to formal meeting times).

Next fall at the Boston NCTM regional conference my original partner in this work and I will be presenting on equity in the IM curriculum. There was certainly attention paid to equity before we started these conversations, but the sustained conversation has kept equity at the forefront and improved the whole company's understanding of how our design principles align with equity and access.

Now it's your turn to try. I'm happy to share more about our process or prompts but I think the 3 step guidelines I made up in the last half hour summarize it well.

  1. Know your audience.
  2. Push people a little outside their comfort zone.
  3. Keep going!

April 9, 2019

NCTM Annual, San Diego

I recently read Dare to Lead with #ClearTheAir and one part of the process was to identify your values. Mine are community and making a difference. I've found it really helpful to remind myself of my values regularly as I navigate choices, and that was definitely true at NCTM last week.

I wore many different hats throughout the week. I moved fluidly between Tina the IM employee, @crstn85, Tina the Publishing Committee Chair, friend, parent, and author of Nix the Tricks. During my time in San Diego I alternated between catching up with people and attending sessions, because I was alternating between community (building and maintaining relationships) and making a difference (sharing my expertise or learning things that would help build my expertise for when I implement later). I chose what sessions I attended strategically and often attended with others. There's something to be said for the divide and conquer model, but my values don't include conquering, so sometimes I got to build community and learn simultaneously! No matter what part of the conference I was navigating, I was conscious of how to maximize my precious time to live my values to the best of my ability. Maximizing my time doesn't mean doing as many things as possible, sometimes it means sitting on the floor playing shape sort with a toddler. Because I want that toddler to be part of my community (her parents are spectacular people).

The hat that was hardest to wear is the one that's replaced the hat that is no longer mine to wear, my new identity as former TMC organizer. It's been a difficult transition. In January I was fully involved, knew exactly what was going on, and felt confident that I was both building community and making a difference. Even if it felt like a lot of effort, it was effort that clearly aligned to my values. Now I'm disconnected and have no idea if anything is even going on. The silence is deafening. Did anything that I was building toward survive? It was entirely unclear. But then I went to NCTM and heard some whispers. People who read what happened and said they were moving from talk to action in their organization. I'd love people to move from whispers to shouts. The Southeast Math Summit is finding their voice, who else will join in?

Since I no longer have TMC organizing to do, I am shifting my focus toward NCTM as a community where I could make a difference. Let's be like Dr. Robert Berry and ask NCTM how it's doing. NCTM is truly wonderful and getting better, of course!

Truly wonderful:
  • the conference is a physical space where all of my math ed friends gather, since it's so large friends from several circles (and countries!) end up in the same space
  • a large organization can invite high profile speakers, we had 3 fantastic keynote speakers this year
  • there were many important ideas being shared in the space, I mostly stuck to the equity sessions but even when I ventured outside of that strand people were incorporating equity into their other sessions
Getting better:
  • the conference feels like a 3 day event where I see people from other circles, as opposed to a community in and of itself
  • there was nothing at this conference to encourage me to be an active member of the organization outside of "come to Chicago" which is an entire year away
  • I happen to be an active member, this is my 3rd year on a committee, but I'm still trying to figure out how the inner workings of the organization function
  • I spent a lot of time explaining what I do know of those inner workings, without a clear way to help others learn more or get involved
As always, people who have rejuvenated their connections are engaging in conversation on twitter. I invite you to join us as we brainstorm how the NCTM of the future could be even more truly wonderful. If you have any examples from your other communities about how to address issues, especially issues of equity, please share!

    March 21, 2019

    Mathematics Education, Equity, and Professional Development

    This is a guest blog post from Esther Song:

    When I was growing up in the small section of affordable housing in an affluent Chicago suburb, I remember most of my adolescence wishing I was white. Back then, I didn’t realize that’s what I wanted. As a middle school kid, it came out in the form of looking in the mirror and wishing my eyes were larger with a characteristic Caucasian eyelid fold, that my hair was blond, and my nose wasn’t so round. As a high school student, it meant hedging my hope on the American dream. As a college student, it meant not hanging out with too many Asians in professional settings so that I wouldn’t be dismissed as just that “Asian group.” Most of my life has been spent thinking about what I lacked.

    Truthfully, if I were to characterize equity professional development in math education today, I would use the phrase “wishing they (students of color) were white.” And I would add that most professional development on equity in mathematics education works to support this deeply ingrained and ultimately racist belief. I remember one school administrator pointing proudly to a chart based on testing data separated by race and said, “This school has fixed the achievement gap” almost as if to say “racism is solved.” I looked around to see my mostly white colleagues nodding their heads in agreement. By achievement gap, they meant the gap between black and brown students and their white peers. And by achievement, they meant testing data. I could get into how high-stakes testing is not a good indicator of learning (or potential) and a better indicator of class, income, and race- but when I think about it for too long, I find the whole thing overwhelmingly depressing. I digress.

    I’ve spent 8 years going through PD after PD that claimed they had the solution. With arrogant certainty, the presenter would say “assessing students properly is the answer” or “learning through projects is real learning” or “we offer a guaranteed 50 point increase on the SAT.” I’m sick of presenters that provide technical solutions (e.g. textbooks, assessment, uniform disciplinary procedures) to non-technical problems (e.g. racism, poverty, fear). Don’t get me started on “Savior” type leaders who look at students of color with pity and as a list of deficits waiting to be “fixed.”

    As one of the co-authors of the open letter to Twitter Math Camp, I had not even wanted to apply in the first place. I’m weary of going to majority-white conferences with majority white-leadership that claim that their conference is for me too because they slapped an equity label on it. I sighed in disappointment but not in surprise when I heard the leadership team preferred the status quo over changing the narrative.

    I can only speak for myself and I have three central desires when it comes to professional development as a mathematics educator. I want (1) a community that (2) is aware of the struggle and (3) humbly sustains hope. The struggle birthed from centuries of racist beliefs, structures and practices- are abundantly present in math classrooms. This is where adolescents of color are told, “With enough grit and the right character, you can go to college, be successful, and achieve the American dream. You just have to wish to be white enough. And if you miss the ticket, never forget for a moment that it’s your fault.”

    I have the honor of being part of the founding board of Nepantla Teachers Community, an organization dedicated to social justice and mathematics education by focusing on teacher identity. Nepantla is a Nahuatl (Aztec language) term connoting in between or a reference to the space of the middle. In other words, it is the space of uncertainty or "grey area". We sit bravely between difficult truths like “I am a teacher of color who believes in social justice” and “Students of color hold the lowest grades in my class.” Although we are new, the leadership team is a community for me. There are a few reasons we are different than other organizations I’ve encountered. Our leadership team is majority PoC. In our professional development workshops, we value building relationships equally to the content. We don’t offer easy-bake solutions but instead share our experiences of challenging tensions inside (and outside) of the classroom. There’s no pretty packaging or 3-step-cycle, but it’s honest, uncertain, and completely hopeful.

    Because of the many anti-racist writers, activists, professors, teachers, and friends whose shoulders I stand, I’m no longer breathing in that toxic air that said my identity was inferior. I want my PD to #cleartheair, not further pollute it. I want to experience (and co-create) PD that fits my needs (and strengths). I want my PD to be filled with educators who experience the tension of reality and hope every day. I want nuance. I want creative insubordination. I want to stop receiving messages (for myself and for my students) that urge me to desire to be white and start celebrating what I (and my students) bring to the table. In short, I’m asking professional developers (myself included) to start changing the conversation from “how can we change our students of color so they can fit the successful mold?” to “how do we change ourselves so that our brilliant students (and teachers) of color can shine?”

    February 11, 2019

    In the Interest of Transparency

    Last July I committed to increasing transparency around TMC decisions. I never could have guessed that we would end up with this post, but here it is. I hope that this history lesson and perspective helps move the conversation forward.

    The Twitter Math Camp board and committee (Team TMC) consisted of a mix of people who had attended the first TMC in 2012 and people who had joined later. There was often a conflict between nostalgia/replication and vision/change. On both the board and committee people lived along a spectrum from “it works fine, the easiest way to get this done is to do the exact same task I did last year” to “last year my favorite part was ___, what if we also did ___, and someone I talked to asked/suggested ___.” As in any organization, there was lots of compromise. But throughout all of our decisions, there was a tension - some of us wanted to create a professional organization, that wasn’t a priority for others. This happened because TMC didn’t start as an organization, it started as a gathering of friends. It quickly grew into something much bigger, but the structures didn't grow as rapidly as the attendance.

    • TMC12: a few people organized a free gathering for a few people they knew on Twitter
    • TMC13: a small committee organized a free gathering for a bunch of people they knew on Twitter

    I attended TMC13 and joined the committee for the following year.

    • TMC14: a committee organized a free gathering for a growing number of people connected on Twitter (registration opened Feb 22 and closed Feb 26, reasonable!)
    • TMC15: a committee organized a free gathering for a growing number of people connected on Twitter (registration opened at 8:15 am and closed at 9:00 pm the same day, tricky but still not terrible)

    Our host for TMC16 was Augsburg College. They were able to offer us the site for free only if we met a minimum number of people staying in the dorm. That made us a little nervous we wouldn’t meet the minimum so we decided to charge a $20 registration fee. It was a just in case fund, that could turn into a fun fund if we didn’t need it. So we needed to open our first bank account that year, which meant moving from a group of people organizing a gathering to an incorporated entity. We needed some official looking papers that say things like Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws. We also needed a board of directors. I got named both secretary and treasurer because why not, they were just titles and someone needed to have them. A few board members were from the committee and a couple were invited people who had attended a conference, but it didn’t seem to matter much because the board had no role other than to have your name on the paper that let us open a bank account. If you’re curious what kind of work I did as a committee member that year, I posted about it. It was a lot of labor, but a labor of love. For the next few years, the role of the board was to pick the host site each year, and the rest of the committee continued doing the exact same roles they’d been doing for years. Since there was no turnover people stuck with their one task, did it in isolation, and communications and structures were minimal to non-existent.

    • TMC16: a committee (and a board) organized a conference for 200 people connected on Twitter (registration opened at 11:45 am and filled at 7:45 pm the same day, full on unfair for anyone working during those hours so we re-assessed)
    • TMC17: a committee (and a board) organized a conference for 200 people (chosen via lottery) connected on Twitter
    • TMC18: a committee (and a board) organized a conference for 200 people (chosen via lottery) connected on Twitter

    During the summer of 2018, we changed quite a bit. Team TMC met for the very first time. Yes, seriously, we’d never had a meeting either virtually or in person with the whole team. We decided to move to Slack to keep track of our discussions, which allowed people to see what happened in other subcommittees! We decided that the board would have regular meetings and help make some decisions. And we shifted the conversation from wondering what to do about diversity to making a commitment. We knew that this would require making changes to most parts of the conference because we weren’t just going to get educators of color there, we were going to build a conference experience that made educators of color feel welcome, included, and that TMC was their space. Some of us brainstormed what that would require, we wrote up a proposal, we shared it with the entire board and committee and asked if they were ready to make a commitment to equity and diversity. After discussion and clarification, every member of Team TMC signed on to the plan.

    Most aspects of the proposal have been formalized and made public already:

    As with all organizations, different members of the organizing team participated in different initiatives, to different extents. Some of us felt more urgency in fighting for aspects that we thought aligned with TMC’s mission even though they required changing some aspects of the traditional structure. The conflict between nostalgia/replication and vision/change was readily apparent. Other times we were educating and explaining perspectives and experiences. None of the behind the scenes work was unexpected. In fact, it was anticipated and I appreciated the honesty when some members of the team readily admitted from the start that they would need support. I was ready and willing to provide that. Neil deGrasse Tyson said it well,
    “It’s okay not to know all the answers. It’s better to admit our ignorance than to believe answers that might be wrong. Pretending to know everything, closes the door to find out what’s really there.”
    It was hard work, and sometimes stressful or frustrating. But every time I would question whether it was worth it to continue I would ask myself:

    • Who would be harmed if I quit?
    • Who would be harmed if I stayed?

    In September, October, November, and December I answered myself by saying I was supporting more teachers by staying, and the harm to myself was a manageable amount of stress. In January I was really unsure of whether the two sides balanced. And then in February, the balance flipped to the other side.

    So what happened?

    In January we transitioned from the part of planning where we make decisions and announce them, to the part where we act on things and interact directly with people hoping to attend the conference. This was where we found out how committed to the stated mission people were and how they react to questions and critique. “People” here is very broad, both people on Team TMC and people at large. Let’s look at how each group fared:

    Speaker proposals were due on January 21st. Some members of Team TMC read them all, including the equity statements. We determined that equity statements were an area of growth for many proposals, but overwhelmed by the number of tasks we had to do in a limited time (our timeline hasn’t changed since the conference had 100 attendees, this was more proposals than that year with more information than any year to read in a week!) we drafted a multi-step plan, and implemented step one of the plan - email everyone whose equity statement needed work a separate comment included in their acceptance/waitlist/rejection email.

    As you probably know by now, many of the people who received those emails were upset. For a variety of reasons, but partially since they didn’t know about the other steps of the plan. But they mostly talked it out amongst themselves and were ready to move forward.

    Team TMC, on the other hand, got freaked out that people got upset. Some members talked and talked and talked about the perception while others avoided and avoided and avoided the issues. With a lot of work, stress, and a ton of my time (as well as others) we finally moved forward on some aspects like writing a blog post (although we continued avoiding others). I did not enjoy this period of turmoil, and it raised some red flags, but I was willing to put in the work because:
    “It’s okay not to know all the answers. It’s better to admit our ignorance than to believe answers that might be wrong. Pretending to know everything, closes the door to find out what’s really there.”
    -Neil deGrasse Tyson
    I was (and am) happy to participate in explaining white fragility. I was happy to participate in building and implementing next steps. I was happy to compromise on how much we should provide detailed information vs. how much we should expect people to go out, find their own resources, and do the work. I was unimpressed by how tenuous the team’s commitment to our mission was in the face of adversity. I was appalled at the unwillingness to even engage in discussion about how to respond to reactions that were more than just “I don’t understand why I got this feedback,” but were disrespectful and even threatening from people who have attended, presented, and engaged in the community for years. If other board members were going to value the momentarily hurt feelings of previous TMC attendees over the feelings and safety of the educators of color we were inviting, I had to ask myself yet again:

    • Who would be harmed if I quit?
    • Who would be harmed if I stayed?

    Suddenly the list of people who would be harmed if I quit felt less substantial than the list of people who would be harmed if I stayed. I was definitely harming myself, my stress levels were high. So high I went to a workout class on Tuesday night and it was the first time I’d been away from my phone for an hour in a week- I wondered if I needed to tell people I’d be out of contact for that long, then I wondered what absurd world I’d been living in that I was afraid to step away for an hour. This was one of several wake up calls. But outside of my personal wellness, I couldn’t continue to publicly send the message that TMC was making a commitment to a diversity initiative when it was clear the board wasn’t.

    I kept thinking about this post by April Hathcock. (Especially since I didn’t see the update until writing the post you’re reading.)

    I refuse to be part of an organization that would replicate that experience. If Team TMC was not willing to build norms and then uphold them, I would rather make a public statement by exiting. Even though it requires giving up a big part of my identity.

    I truly wish that the dream we built was a reality. It still could be. I hope everyone holds TMC accountable to the promises made and that everyone continues to grow and learn and do better. I look forward to finding new projects to dedicate my energy to that will help others grow and learn and do better.
    “Do the best you can until you know better. And when you know better, do better.”
    -Maya Angelou

    November 18, 2018

    TMC Scholarships

    A few years back some of us collaborated to create a compilation of blog posts and sold them as a physical book with the statement that the proceeds would go toward increasing access to TMC. We collected $1,001 in royalties! After paying for the book building software we have an impressive net amount remaining to donate to TMC.

    Each year I think about how to allocate the funds fairly and each year I feel overwhelmed. So I have been guiltily been holding on to that money until we could figure out how to give it out equitably. This year the TMathC planning committee has been thinking hard about access and equity. To start, this money will help cover the registration fees for educators of color to improve diversity at the conference (waiving the registration fee is part of the way we're signaling our commitment to be more inclusive). We are also working on developing a plan for scholarships to cover travel costs for people whose schools can't reimburse them. I'm so excited to finally be able to tell you that we're using the money raised, sorry it took a few years!!

    If you want to contribute to the cause head over to the TMathC blog to learn more or go directly to the donation page.