June 23, 2020

Is "How Do We Help?" the Right Question?

I got to(1) attend a workshop today. It was the Gates Foundation bringing people together to think about Algebra 1. We know that student success in Algebra 1 is strongly correlated with graduation rates, college attendance, and other measures of success in school. So the end goal was to imagine products, programs, and approaches to improve the success rate of Black, Latine(2), EL-designated, and students affected by poverty in Algebra 1. But we didn't start there, and the process we experienced was thought provoking. What follows is my processing of my learning. None of these ideas are mine alone, but since this was a flowing and building discussion I won't be citing anyone in particular either. I spoke about individual vs. collective cultures and learning today, I'm clearly still learning about what it means to attribute ideas in a collective environment.

As we brainstormed all the stakeholders, relationships, and influencers a student experiences I realized how many back up plans a student has. Lately conversation has focused, and rightly so, on how many roles schools serve and how hugely disruptive it has been for schools to be closed. For some students, school is food, shelter, safety, healthcare, and learning. However, a community center can also be food, shelter, safety, and learning. So can a home. Healthcare can happen at a doctors office, or a clinic, or the friendly neighbor with expertise. Learning happens in classrooms, but students have the back up plan of their teacher from last year, their classmates, their peers in a different class, siblings, adult family and friends, tutors from a variety of programs, online programs, the list goes on! Would I love to live in a world where a student leaves math class every day with a full understanding of the day's topic and they never need any outside resources? I'm not actually sure I would. Of course I want students to leave math class feeling successful. But I also love the idea of them leaving with questions, and knowing that there are many options for them to continue investigating those questions on their own or in community. The benefit of students have many options is that if one becomes unavailable the others can substitute. The problem is when the entire system breaks down and not only does the primary method of learning (or food, shelter, healthcare) fail to serve the individual, all of the back up plans fail as well. I have too many stories of that happening in my own child's education, but that's not today's post.

Moving past stakeholders in the workshop, we examined a case study. We thought of barriers as well as supports for this student's math success. We allowed for certain ideas to live in the tension of both/and. Being pulled out of math class for intervention is a barrier to full participation (compared to a student who shares all the experiences with the rest of the class). And, being pulled out of math class for intervention provides a supportive space where learning happens. A student can think math is fun and hard. Can get good grades and think that they're not good at math. 

So when we finally reach the section of the workshop where we imagine products, programs, and approaches to improve the success rate of Black, Latine(2), EL-designated, and students affected by poverty in Algebra 1, there is so much context already on the table/slide it's hard to imagine where to start. Maybe "How do we help?" isn't the right question at all. Students don't need fixing, especially not marginalized students. But systems do need re-imagining. Mostly I want to re-imagine in context of all the connected systems. A grant I'm part of allows me to connect with 2 local school districts, we're working on connecting them to each other. I'm also connecting with after school programs in those same cities. What if all those organizations communicated to share information? They don't need to be the same, I just established that I like the idea of students leaving math class and going to engage in math conversations in different spaces. The after school program shouldn't be teaching from the curriculum the teachers are using, that defeats the point of having different spaces. But what if the teachers knew about the after school program for new immigrants and encouraged students to do both/and? Students could engage in class AND get support outside of school. What if the after school program knew about the cohort model the school is running? Then counselors could encourage students to join the program where Black and Latine students see themselves reflected in their math classes by being placed in classes with peers who both share an aspect of their identity and are also striving to excel in math. These programs and approaches aren't about fixing students, they're about bringing students together in spaces where they're allowed to be themselves. Their brilliant, wonderful, mathematician selves. Maybe "How do we help?" is the right question, but we need to be ready for the answer to be "remove the barriers." The kids don't need fixing, they're ready to thrive in the world together, but we can help them find each other, and make the world ready for them.

(1) I went through a series of reactions to being invited to attend. First I was honored. Then I was unenthusiastic about the idea of a 4 hour online workshop. Then I was appreciative that they asked us for our thoughts about how to make an online workshop not miserable. After that I was busy with a million other meetings and not sure this would make the cut. When I saw the rest of the invite list I was intimidated. But then I saw how mindfully they'd built the slide deck we'd be collaborating on, and the conversation topics, and finally decided for sure to attend.

(2) They said Latino. Mostly I see people use Latinx to eliminate the default male or gender binary. But if you speak Spanish you know that x isn't a common ending, whereas plenty of words end in e and they aren't necessarily masculine or feminine, you have to know. Just like you have to know a person to know their pronouns. I'm not sure if Latine is catching on elsewhere but it flows nicer when I read it, so I'm using it for now, until I know better and then I'll do better if need be!

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