TODOS Keynote 2018: Embracing Personal and Professional Disequilibrium in a Quest for Social Justice in Mathematics Education

I had the distinct pleasure of being invited to give the TODOS: Math for All! 2018 Conference Keynote address on June 21, 2018 in Scottsdale, Arizona. This blog post is the text of that talk, along with some images I utilized in the slides I presented. Because the talk was to a live audience, there are times where I ask audience members to pause and reflect, and share with a partner. I hope you also utilize the time to pause, reflect, and share with a partner. 

For more information on TODOS, please visit:


In my talk today, I’m going to sometimes ask you to talk to a neighbor. Or reflect silently. I’m also going to point out resources or book recommendations in case you want to be prepared to jot those down.


How do we do it? Every day there is a new horror story, some further dehumanization of sisters and brothers, racists emboldened by the current administration, legitimization of a brutal dictatorship in North Korea, and our current nightmare: children, babies, being torn from their parents at the border, even from families here to apply for refugee status. To withstand these atrocities and fight for justice, we have to come together. And a variety of movements are taking place, people organizing and collecting. Bringing together diverse sets of voices, to work together, in light of and because of our differences. It is in these times and in this spirit of collective action that we are here this weekend, some of us maybe with teams of colleagues, some of us the lone representative of our school. We are here to learn from each other, and in a sense to connect with each other so that we can sustain each other.

I hope tonight to raise some questions and stir the pot a bit before we embark on our weekend of work. The theme of our conference is Moving from Awareness to Action. I want to talk a little bit about perspective. At the root of why we are here is a shared commitment to a just educational system for all students. However, we may not agree on what that looks like. We may have very divergent views on whether and how that can be achieved in a system of public education that is built intentionally on racism and whiteness. Our views are informed by our vantage point. And how we see the world is filtered through our identities, who we are as people. Our identities are malleable, changeable, and this is a good thing. It means that we can change our perspective just as we can change how we see ourselves through experiences, good and bad.

Identity as a Lens on the World

I tend to see the world through Identities – who are we? What do we bring to our understanding of what a just mathematics education is?

I, like many others, like to use Danny Martin’s definition of mathematics identity:

Mathematics identity refers to the dispositions and deeply held beliefs that individuals develop, within their overall self-concept, about their ability to participate and perform effectively in mathematical contexts and to use mathematics to change the conditions of their lives(Martin, 2006, p. 206)

This definition for me captures that not only is a mathematics identity informed by our various identities, but also that our identities are informed by how we see ourselves mathematically.

Let’s look at different aspects of our identities (see figure below). There’s how we see ourselves, and how we choose to be seen. But there is also a lot of room for others to see us how they would like. We also make sense of who we are in relation to larger discourses and ideas. We use these narratives about our social identities to make sense of ourselves, either by embracing or rejecting them.


Example: in a recent publication, my co-author Dr. Vicki Hand and I examined how Latinx high school students use racial narratives to challenge or justify stereotypes of performance in math (Zavala & Hand, 2017). We analyzed how Latinx students in two focus groups made sense of a grade distribution chart that showed what percentage of As, Bs, Cs, Ds, and Fs were given to students of different racial groups. In one group, the students stuck to the script of evoking racial identity as causal to the performance of each racial group.

“I believe that Asians are, but not White people. No offense, but I’m not sure.”  – Luis, focus group 1*

“Isn’t that like a stereotype?”– Samuel, focus group 2*

As Luis states, Asian students have the most As because they are smart. But he is puzzled by why White students are the second highest earners of As. In the other group, appeals to racial identity as causality were challenged, and there was a higher level of doubt that one’s race explained achievement.

Master narratives out there in the world about the kind of people we should be influence the kind of people we are. Racialized narratives of success and failure in mathematics play a role in how students of color see themselves: do I fit the stereotype, or do I challenge it?

Similarly, narratives have an impact on how we see ourselves as educators. You may be riddled with doubt, wondering am I “social justicey” enough in my mathematics teaching? You may be full of confidence, saying to yourself I know who I am and I what I stand for. But I also contend that no matter how you enter this work, we all have something to learn and something to offer. We bring our perspectives, our journeys, our identities to the work. That is why we need each other.


Personal Journeys Matter

I want to tell you a story about how I came to see the world as I do now – literally. This is the story of why I wear glasses. I just started wearing glasses 2 months ago, 4 months after giving birth to my second son.

picture of Maria's son

After a challenging first week of closely monitoring his jaundice, the all-clear from the doctor left me feeling both relieved and ill. I was nauseous, with chills and headaches. I figured, I must have caught the crazy flu virus going around.

For days, I assumed I was sick with the flu. The symptoms refused to subside. I was also progressively losing my ability to sleep.

It took another week, an ER visit, and two doctors visits to figure out I was definitely not sick with the flu, but rather I was hyperthyroidic. You see your thyroid is a gland that sits near the base of your neck and helps regulate your metabolism. Your endocrine system sends it messages to make more or less hormone, and if you make too much you are hyperthyroidic. The mystery here is that I do not have a thyroid, having lost it to cancer about 8 years ago. In theory, my thyroid levels are entirely controlled by the pills I take every morning, and that hadn’t changed. All that had changed is that I had given birth. And the cocktail of physical changes resulted in a total imbalance in my body.

By the time doctors figured out we needed to reduce my thyroid medication so that my level could drop, I had lost my appetite completely and could not sleep anymore. I was in the throws of postpartum anxiety and depression, complicated with hyperthyroidism. With treatment, slowly, slowly, slowly everything started to rebalance. One day at a time, time that crawled along at an earth pace. Slow like seasonal change. And it was in mid April that I discovered that while everything else was on the mend, a very specific pain in my eyes was not.

I scheduled my first adult visit to an eye doctor. As it turns out, my once perfect vision was now flawed. My eyes were no longer working together well. They didn’t point in the same direction, and my pain came from my eye muscles trying to correct this misalignment all day.

I had walked into the optometrists office sure I was not going to need glasses, because I never have, and because I could see just fine. What is more, my identity as someone with exceptional eye sight was at stake. But when he put the lenses with the prisms over my eyes in the exam room, suddenly a tension I was so used to that I didn’t even realize was there was gone. My eyes relaxed. It was amazing.


Adjusting to wearing glasses has been a shift in how I see myself. I used to have perfect vision, I don’t any more. It’s like accepting something is wrong with me.

I’ve started to see the world a little differently as a result of my postpartum experiences – my own body turned against me and I had to forgive it, learn and grow. I’m learning my peace with what’s out of my control, even as I try to understand myself better and work to address what is in my control.

That’s also what we are doing here this weekend – we are coming together to address what is in our control and what is at stake in mathematics education. And perhaps in some ways we are also coming here to get clarity, to figure out that our vision for social justice is no longer perfect, and to realize that with each other’s help we can see the pathway to justice more clearly. Maybe caught up in the throws of our own lives we didn’t realize our vision had become blurry. May this weekend bring clarity to each of us, like that sweet relief a new pair of glasses brought to me.

It is the personal journeys we make and the risks we take that make enacting a vision of social justice possible in our classrooms.

Let’s try something in the spirit of bringing our identities and who we are into this weekend. Turn to your neighbor, introduce yourself if you haven’t already, and why are you here at TODOS? Neighbor, your job is to listen with curiosity and no judgment, and ask questions to understand what this person just shared. Then switch.

Reclaiming, Rehumanizing, and Respecting Mathematics

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question of what a commitment to social justice in mathematics means to me, and how I see the field. I’ve started to think about the “re” words that we use to describe necessary change towards a socially just agenda. Like Rethinking, re-envisioning, re-imagining. These words are important to us because they signal change.  Let me walk you through my thinking, and offer it as a way to do some stock-taking before I get to the part of my talk focused on risk taking:

I have been thinking about where the field of social justice mathematics has been, where it’s going, and what our various entry points into conceptualizing social justice in mathematics might be. Today I’m suggesting that one way to think about our successes and challenges in the field is to think about three central concepts: Reclaiming, Rehumanizing, and Respecting Mathematics. These are not mutually exclusive constructs, rather they are very interrelated. But for the sake of sense-making, I’ve parsed them out into these three areas. I’d like to discuss what I mean by these, also as a way to talk about the tensions we bump up against and that we must navigate to move from thinking to doing.

Reclaiming Mathematics – Commitment to transforming the experiences of historically marginalized students. Saying every person’s relationship with mathematics matters! In my work as a teacher educator of future elementary and special education teachers, I start with helping teachers reclaim their relationship to mathematics. On the first day of class everyone writes a Mathematical I AM Poem. Each student reflects on their relationship with mathematics, and starts staking their claim on their identities as mathematics teachers. Sharing with the class and discussing common themes is a way to start our on-going conversation about their identities as learners of mathematics, and their desired identities as mathematics teachers.

This is the template my students use. The first stanza is dedicated to who they have been as learners, the second to what they envision for themselves as teachers.

Example Poem by Anya:

I am an anxious perfectionist
I once wondered how far away America was
I heard the meter stick drop
I saw charts
I wanted to do better
I felt inadequate
I am an anxious perfectionist
As I grow as a math teacher,
I worry, will I measure up?
I understand the theories
I say, do the footwork
I dream of inclusive solutions
I try to be aware
I hope to make a difference for just 1 student
I am an anxious perfectionist

Anya was studying for her special education certificate with a focus on visual impairment. She grew up in Hungary, where she told me it was just a given that everyone was supposed to be good at math, so it was strange to her to think about anyone ever thinking they weren’t good at math. And yet, some themes in her poem are about anxiety that comes from perfection.

As you might imagine, anxiety about failure is a common theme in these poems. The template of the poem seems relatively safe because it’s an almost light-hearted way to get at trauma, and inevitably it allows for pre-service teachers to express their hopes and fears eloquently. Beginning with Mathematical I Am poems helps to set the tone for the semester that central to teaching mathematics is understanding one’s own relationship to mathematics. And that pre-service teachers do not need to fear their past or dread their future, rather they can feel uplifted in our class by each other.

Reclaiming mathematics is also about taking back control of curriculum and saying, I as a teacher will use my agency to decide what my students need. Many examples of this can be found in NCTM’s new Access & Equity: Promoting High-Quality Mathematics Series (I’ll make a shameless plug, since I have a co-authored chapter in the grades 3-5 book.) . In our chapter, my co-author Marianna Singwi-Ferrono, a 4th grade teacher at the community charter Roses in Concrete in East Oakland, wanted to do something radically different from the mathematics curriculum she had been teaching from most of the year. She was a teacher committed to empowering her students with math, but felt she needed support to depart from curriculum and do something more meaningful. Together we designed the School Outside Space Design Project. The goal was for students to propose a way to divide up and repurpose the outside area adjacent to the new fifth grade portables. This project combined student-lead work sessions with teacher-lead minilessons, and taught students about area, fractions, and square feet and yards. Students worked collaboratively and presented their proposals on posters.

For us, we saw students reclaiming mathematics by taking ownership of ideas, which we could see in how they huddled together over the work and the energy they brought to it. We also noticed that the teacher reclaimed mathematics because she actually felt more relaxed teaching an open-ended project than sticking to the math textbook. (for more on this project, see our chapter in the NCTM Access and Equity: Promoting High Quality Mathematics Grades 3-5 book).

From your personal experience, you perhaps know first hand that there are specific challenges to navigate to successfully reclaim mathematics. It is both a personal process of deepening one’s own relationship with mathematics, and a professional process of creating space to do worthwhile mathematics in the classroom. A tension we may all be familiar with is that we are the creators of curriculum that departs from the mainstream. But maybe it is important to re-image teaching mathematics as divorced from mathematics textbooks, and instead find ways to support teachers to move towards project-based and open-ended tasks that foster student agency. Where does this happen right now? Mostly in private schools, as though only children from more privileged backgrounds can handle the duration and open-ended nature of a multi-day math project. But we know that’s not right.

Rehumanizing Mathematics – In her work, Rochelle Gutiérrez  (click for a video of her talking about this) has called for a re-imagining of mathematics education, in part because of the way equity is in danger of being watered down. Rehumanizing calls our attention to the politics of teaching and mathematics (the western dead white male cannon, and where is our space to do something different with mathematics), addresses microaggressions and other ways that power is imbalanced in the classroom, calls us to act on our moral imperative to shift ourselves, curriculum, etc in the classroom in the name of justice, and creates opportunities for students to feel like whole human beings.

“When we consider the relationship of power to mathematics, we cannot be content with notions of power that are limited to solving difficult problems in mathematics classrooms. We must be open to deconstructing power dynamics, challenging authority, restoring peace and dignity, repairing settler colonialism, and positing new questions that need to be asked.” (Gutiérrez, 2017, p. 12)

Key ideas here are power and identity: understanding how identities impact our desire to see justice in the mathematics classroom – who are our students? Who are we? As well as understanding the lay of the land and how students, teachers, and policies interact within our school system, which is situated in our white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

As an aside, I highly recommend reading Gutiérrez’s commentary which comes from the Journal of Urban Mathematics Education, one of only TWO publications in our field that regularly engages with issues of power and oppression in mathematics education (the other one being the publication of TODOS, Teaching for Excellent and Equity in Mathematics). She describes in detail recent attacks from the Alt-Right on mathematics education researchers. It is important that we are all aware of what is happening, to us and our colleagues, also so that we can work collectively to support each other.

Resisting and Rehumanizing – I’ll also make a quick plug for the Math Ed Collective, which everyone, not just academics, should be aware of. The collective is a group of mathematics educators and researchers formed to fight back against the attacks. It’s strength in numbers. On their website there is more information and resources for anyone who is attacked for the work they do in mathematics education.

Gutiérrez is pushing our field to gather the evidence of how mathematics is being rehumanized in classrooms, research, and advancements in theories. The newest Annual Perspectives in Mathematics Education focuses on just this idea for students of color traditionally marginalized in mathematics. In this volume co-edited by Imani Goffney and Gutiérrez,  not only does Gutiérrez elaborate on 8 dimensions for rehumanizing mathematics, but numerous authors contribute to new ways of conceptualizing a socially just mathematics education system through rehumanizing, and provide specific examples from classroom analyses.

But there are tensions. I have to wonder, how do we achieve a revolution in how we teach mathematics, within an educational system that was founded on colonialism and racism? How can we both be the colonizer and liberate the colonized? This is a big question for me. I taught in public schools, and I am deeply committed to preparing teachers to teach differently in public schools, but every now and then I wonder at the limits of public schools.

I recently read the book Educating for Insurgency by Jay Gillen, a veteran teacher with the Algebra Project in Baltimore. It is both a account of what the Algebra Project classroom in Baltimore is like, and a rich narrative about the damage traditional schooling does to young people, especially how the structure of high school dehumanizes youth by not trusting them to make decisions about their own education, undervaluing their intelligence, and fostering obedience instead of critical thinking. I had the opportunity through a colleague to talk with the author, who has been a teacher in the Algebra Project for over 15 years. He told us that shortly after the book was completed that they were kicked out of their public high school. All the good work they were doing was too unconventional for the school system, so they were evicted from the high school. For radically rethinking the mathematics classroom and making it a place where students, even students with children, could learn mathematics together. If babies in the classroom make admin uncomfortable, what do you think a revolution in what and how mathematics is learned will do to admin? Is it a wonder that there is a trend in some Black families to home school? Is it a wonder many Latinx communities have long looked to parochial school instead of public schools, and are (in my neighborhood at least) over represented in charter schools? Not that these systems such as parochial school are free of racism, but I list these examples to consider how public school is not some panacea, and has many barriers to revolutionizing mathematics.

Are we really surprised that the Baltimore Algebra Project would continue to thrive outside of the school, even as they searched for a new home within the public school system?

Respecting Mathematics has to do with the way mathematics is perceived in mainstream culture as in need of people with diverse perspectives, in need of more racial diversity.  Herzig captured it in one way:

If more individuals were to be included as full participants in mathematics, then the groups that those individuals are seen to represent would share in that power, and the equity implications might reach beyond the domain of mathematics. (Herzig, 2005, p. 254)

So when I say respect I mean that we respect the field enough to say that yes, you as a young Latina or Black woman have the right to learn high level mathematics, and we are going to get you there. And that we frame this as not just important for the student, but as important for the field of mathematics. WE need YOU. We need the perspectives you bring, and your impact will go beyond mathematics. We will also shift narratives of who belongs in math.

There is a recent example that I can think of, a tough policy decision that was intended to remove a barrier to higher education that was disproportionately affecting Latinx and black and other underrepresented students. The California State University system, or CSU, used to require that intermediate algebra (essentially, a course in Algebra 2 ) was required for transfer to a CSU from community college (CC) because it fulfilled a quantitative reasoning General Education requirement. It is a pre-requisite to college-level algebra courses, and often a perquisite for statistics. The CSU changed their policy to no longer require intermediate algebra for non-math and non-science majors, citing the dismal rates of CC transfer to CSUs especially for technical career majors. It removes a barrier, but does it? Instead of examining WHY students were not supported well, they axed the requirement.

My favorite article is from the OC Register in southern California: No intermediate Algebra? No problem! The first line of the article also states, “If you’re one of those students who dreads math — especially algebra — you’ll soon get a bit of a break at the California State University system.”

I have to say, this policy is not entirely bad as policies go. It is doing what it intends to do – remove a barrier. But it is also a quick fix remedy that doesn’t examine classroom practice or reasons why students were not passing intermediate algebra. Instead, it adds a level of sorting and, in my opinion, adds a different barrier to students of color pursuing STEM majors.  From this perspective, the policy could be see as disrespecting mathematics, because it reinforces elitism that mathematics is only for certain people, not all students.  (The OC Register also published an opinion piece in which Al Mijares, the Orange County Superintendent of Public Schools, criticizes the policy.  click here to read.)

Pause and Reflect: From Reclaiming, to Rehumanizing, to Respecting mathematics – these to me are all essential but tensions-ridden aspects of moving forward with a social justice agenda in mathematics education. And as we can see, at the heart are tough decisions made by individuals or groups about what is “best”.

I’ve been talking for a while now. Let’s take a moment for silent reflection. No talking, as respecting individual think time is important to us as educators. How do reclaiming, rehumanizing, and respecting mathematics show up in your work?  

On being Purposeful and the Risk/Reward Balance of Gatherings

In her book The Art of Gathering: How we Meet and Why it Matters, Priya Parker says we tend to focus on the “stuff” of gatherings (the meeting agenda, the food for the potluck, the test we need to design to give next week), “because we believe those are the only details we can control.” Not so, she argues. We can give purpose to our gatherings if we decide why we are REALLY gathering. Committing to a bold, shared purpose will give people a more worthwhile experience.

We conflate category (type of gathering) with purpose (why are we here?). We shouldn’t do that.

When we don’t examine the deeper assumptions behind why we gather, we end up skipping too quickly to replicating old, staid formats of gathering. And we forgo the possibility of creating something memorable, even transformative. (Parker, 2018, Kindl version)

Our conference organizers have thought a lot about purpose. We have a clear conference theme: Advocating for Equity and Social Justice, Moving Beyond Thinking to Action. Now it is up to us to bring our intentionality to our sessions, to gather with purpose, to commit to a bold, shared purpose and hash it out.

Bringing ourselves together to a shared purpose starts with understanding ourselves more deeply. Your purpose is not the same as your function. Keep asking why, and when you hit a value, that’s when you’ve really come to your purpose:

Let’s take the example of a family math night:

We might begin with the idea, we are having a family math night. But that’s a format, not a purpose yet.

Then you might go on to, okay the purpose of the family math night is to bring everyone together. That’s not quite a purpose yet, it’s a structure. It’s the how of the thing, not the why.

A purpose might be we want to help families be excited about math. That’s a purpose. You can make decisions about what you will do and how based on that.

But STRONGER purposes have values at the heart. If you keep probing you might come to something like “To build feelings of competence and shared responsibility around mathematics between families and teachers”

Ah, so now we have gone from our purpose is “to have the math night”, to our purpose is “to build feelings of competence and community between parents and teachers.” We shifted from object-centered (we are having a family math night) to value-centered or a belief-centered purpose (we are to build a sense of competence and shared responsibility).

Why spend time digging in to your values under your purpose? To help us break from the scripts of what we expect at particular types of gathering. To help guide decision making around how to spend time at the gathering. And you may find yourself open to new ideas and connecting to people who share the core value at which you arrived.

And, when your purpose stems from a core value or belief, you are putting yourself out there in a way that may feel risky. But risk is part of a meaningful experience.

Earlier you shared a reason why you are here with a partner. We’re going to try this activity again, but we are going to dig deeper. Talk to your partner again about why you are here. Talk about it until you hit on a belief or value, or a specific purpose. ( 2 min max)

Risk Taking and Disequilibrium

Disequilibrium is a word that comes to us by the cognitive theorist Jean Piaget, who describes the knowledge development process as a desire for equilibrium.

The process he described as part of his theory for child development goes something like this: We have existing schema and this is how we make sense of the world. When a new situation is presented to us, we seek to assimilate it into our existing schema. When new information challenges this process, we find ourselves in a state of disequilibrium. This is the unpleasant state where new information cannot be fitted into an existing schema. Resolution comes when the new information is accommodated within the schema, which files the information away for the next situation.


The website reports that Equilibration is the force which drives the learning process as we do not like to be frustrated, and will seek to restore balance by mastering the new challenge (accommodation).

I find it fascinating that disequilibrium is associated with a strong emotion – frustration. Piaget says this is WHY we seek to resolve the issue. It’s a motivator. I really love this idea, because it suggests that discomfort is at the heart of new learning. No more telling kids math is easy to make them feel comfortable. Math is hard, and it’s frustrating, and you will learn it.

Here’s a little story about disequilibrium. When I start talking about racism in my mathematics methods class, I first have my students read an excerpt from Beverly Tatum’s (1992) article Talking about Race, Learning about Racism: The Application of Racial Identity Development Theory in the Classroom in which she articulates key assumptions we are going to make about racism. This is useful to ensure that we start the discussion with some shared assumptions, such as racism is endemic in the United States, we’re all been socialized into it,  and that people can change – we are all more than we have been socialized to be. I then suggest three agreements, also inspired by Tatum. The third agreement is “If you feel uncomfortable try to understand WHY.”

The third agreement has time and again been one students write about at the end of class when I ask them to reflect on our class session. One year an Asian-American student in our Chinese Bilingual Program wrote, and I’m paraphrasing here,

It was new for me to dig into my discomfort when we started talking about racism in the mathematics classroom. I think I am usually not comfortable talking about this because Asians are supposed to be good at math, and I’ve never thought of myself as good at math. But during our activity when we shared out how each of our identities matter, I was surprised to here from some colleagues who don’t identify as white how much their race matters. 

For this pre-service teacher, she was thinking more carefully about her own reason for wanting to avoid thinking about race, while also challenging herself to listen closely to her colleagues, despite the discomfort to herself.

We all may not approach issues from the same perspective. How we all see the major pathways to social justice is a matter of who we are as people, including our racial identities, gendered identities, our linguistic identities, and others. And because of how we each identify, we also enter the conversation positioned differently to disrupt traditional power structures.


This image perfectly captures the idea of leaning in hard to disequilibrium. I have reproduced it without permission, but urge you all to visit her site if you want to see a very cool teacher’s website:

Learning is a process of climbing down into a pit, and then finding your way back out again to a new land. But what I really love about this image is that you don’t climb out alone. People help you out.

Productive struggle should be part of this disequilibrium. If you are not struggling, you are not learning. And I don’t mean suffer. There is plenty out there in the world that makes us suffer. I’m talking about productive struggle, letting yourself wrestle with concepts and ideas that you maybe haven’t thought belong in the math classroom, or that you have never thought were a good idea. And coming from the other side, engaging in the discomfort of sharing your unpopular ideas with others. If you are working on the cutting edge, some people will not understand what you are doing. But together, we can embrace our personal and professional disequilibrium, while supporting each other through our growth.

How do we help each other out of the pit?

We have to listen generously, and ask questions thoughtfully.

We have to spend time wallowing in understanding

We have to spend time connecting on the human level, so that empathy is part of our conversations.

Climbing into the pit helps to shift your perspective. There is a danger in data-driven decision making, when the data and the questions you are trying to answer come from a white-heteronormative perspective. When your definition of success privileges a specific metric, and you don’t question why that metric, or entertain alternative ones. When you are so stuck on finding the one rubric to evaluate classroom teaching that you don’t have conversations challenging whether that rubric is really drawing you closer to your team’s purpose. And when you are missing people at the table who understand the communities you are serving, there are other problems to address as well.

So I encourage you to reflect along with me:

What do I need to be challenged on this weekend?

What are the limits of my perspective, and how can I learn from others?

When I climb into the pit, who is going to help me climb out?

Final Turn and Talk: Let’s take a risk now and think about this disequilibrium idea. Turn and tell your neighbor what is a risk that you will take this weekend? Why is it a necessary risk for you?

Preparing for Disequilibrium: Thoughts like Clouds

Our gathering this weekend has purpose. Purposeful gathering. And to be truly present, we have to expect some disequilibrium. But for it to feel productive, I argue that we cannot be in a reactive state. Instead, we have to be in a mindful state.

A few months ago, when I was in the throws of that postpartem mental health emergency, a close friend recommended meditating for mindfulness. If anyone here has experienced anxiety, you know that the constant dialogue in your head of calming yourself down because you are worked up can be exhausting, and you can be your own worst enemy. I learned a lot about mindfulness as a tool to engage in difficult discussions, with myself, and with others.

A key aspect of mindfulness is training yourself to be present in a way that lets you gain distance from your thoughts, so you can examine them instead of react to them. The busy human mind keeps us caught up in our thoughts. If those thoughts are negative or anxiety-inducing, we can be caught in a stream of damaging thoughts. Mindfulness gives you techniques to calm your mind, gain distance from your thoughts, and watch your thoughts drift by like clouds, observing them with acceptance instead of judgment.


This is a beautiful gift. The idea that you can take a step back from your thoughts, and not be consumed by the “what ifs” and the “yes, but”. You observe without judgment. If we could listen to each other with this kind of mindfulness, really listen for understanding and not for judgment, we could have some amazing conversations this weekend about the real talk in math, the oppression and the colonization of the classroom. And we can take these ideas back to our schools, where we may face resistance, and implement some techniques for difficult conversations to be productive.

My only advice for this weekend really is this:

Dig deep for your purpose

Take risks

Embrace disequilibrium

Lift each other up

We are one community that came together for a reason. Let’s dig deep down with each other. Let’s build each other up. Let’s engage in the change we’d like to see in our schools.


Works Cited:

Gutiérrez, R. (2017). Why mathematics (education) was late to the backlash party: The need for a revolution. Journal of Urban Mathematics Education 10(2), 8–24

Herzig, A.H. (2005). Goals for Achieving Diversity in Mathematics Classrooms. The Mathematics Teacher, 99(4), 253-259

Martin, D.B. (2006) Mathematics learning and participation as racialized forms of experience: African American parents speak on the struggle for mathematics literacy. Mathematical Thinking and Learning, 8(3), 197-229

Martin, D.B. (2000). Mathematics Success and Failure Among African-American Youth. New York: Routledge.

Nasir, N.S. & Hand, V. (2008.) From the court to the classroom: Opportunities for engagement, learning, and identity in basketball and classroom mathematics. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 17(2), 143-179

Parker, P. (2018). The art of gathering: How we meet and why it matters. Riverhead Books.

Tatum, B. (1992) Talking about race, learning about racism: The application of racial identity development theory in the classroom. Harvard Educational Review, 62(1), 1-24

Zavala, M. (2012). Race, Language, and Opportunities to Learn: The Mathematics Identity Negotiation of Latino/a Youth. University of Washington Seattle. Unpublished Dissertation.

Zavala, M. & Hand, V. (2017). Conflicting narratives of success in mathematics and science education: Challenging the achievement-motivation master narrative. Race Ethnicity and Education, DOI: 10.1080/13613324.2017.1417251


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