Math Apathy Part I
Part I Norms for Reading Our Blog
The goal of the Nepantla Teachers Community blog is to provide an honest and encouraging space to navigate sociopolitical situations that occur in mathematics education for the purpose of working towards justice in traditionally marginalized communities. By using the word political, we mean any situation that involves power dynamics.
Each post will be published in two parts (Part I: The first Saturday of each month at 5 PM and Part II: the following Wednesday at 9 AM). Part I will give a math teacher author’s real dilemma that they have recently experienced and to share some information about themselves. Part II will provide an analysis of the powers at play and the author’s response (or lack of response) to the situation. Before Part II is published, readers are encouraged to interact with the author and each other by asking questions, comments, and/or providing ideas on how they would respond if they were in their shoes.
We as readers and/or participants agree to keep the following in mind as we engage with other educators’ sharing their stories:
1. Each author is choosing to be transparent/vulnerable at the risk of disapproval or disagreement. These are not meant to be places of attack but a place to empathize and grow together.
2. We use the word nepantla to connote the space of tension and grey area that people experience as they navigate multiple (and often opposing) philosophies, truths, or identities. We offer this blog as a space to remain in nepantla to guide creative and nuanced responses to the contexts we encounter.
3. Note that all students’ names are pseudonyms. Some details may need to be obscured to protect the privacy of individuals.
Part I: (Written by Esther Song)
I can’t say for sure when I first started to hate my 3rd period class, but by May, I walked into my room ready to throw in the towel. Although I just wrapped up my 8th year teaching high school mathematics, this year was my first year at my current high school in Chicago Public Schools. I had spent 3 years in a wealthy suburban school district and 4 years teaching in a selective-enrollment school in the South Side, but last year I moved to a neighborhood (not selective-enrollment) school to work in an underserved community. Approximately 90% of students identify as Latinx and about 80-90% qualify for free/reduced lunch.
I had walked into the school in the fall with high hopes but by spring, I was emotionally drained and felt like I was making no progress. I had tried fun activities, one-on-one student conferences, parent phone calls, detentions, and after school tutoring. But in the end, motivating students to care about geometry (or even school) felt impossible. Mathematics, in any of its forms that I had presented, seemed to hold no interest or relevance in my students’ lives.
Truthfully, I had a difficult time relating to the lives of my students. My parents and I were Korean immigrants. My parents worked labor intensive jobs at a fish market with almost no English skills while I was growing up, but we saw education as the only way out of a life of poverty. It was hard for me to see why my students didn’t have the same perspective.
I came into class on Monday and started with a quote on the bellringer: “‘A person is lazy until something strikes their heart.’ Do you agree or disagree?”
I looked up hopefully to see if this might stir these young people from their math apathy by starting with a non-math introduction. Instead, students scrolled through their phones, put on earbuds, or asked to go to the bathroom. Jovani, who looked like he was high every day, put his head down AFTER he saw the bellringer. Most didn’t even notice there was a bellringer on the screen… like there is ...every. day. Finally, I looked at them with frustration and said, “You all don’t even try. I can’t do this!” A few of them looked up in surprise. I hadn’t meant to say I was giving up on them. But it was too late. And I really did feel like giving up on them.
What would you have done in this situation? What are some reasons that students might be disengaged?
Part II of this story comes out next Wednesday at 9 AM. Subscribe to our blog and check it out. Comment below!