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Math Apathy Part II

This is a continuation of a previous post. Click here to read Part I

Part II Norms for Reading Our Blog

In Part II of the blog post, each author will have engaged with a reflective tool to analyze the powers at play in the situation. The purpose of reflection is to refine and redefine oneself, so that one can continue growing into a more disciplined self. Nepantla Teachers Community is using a reflection tool called Levels of Oppression (created by Mariame Kaba). This reflection tool is included below with the definitions of four types of oppressions. When we analyze the levels of oppression we are looking at, we are asking ourselves the questions “Who had the power?”, “Who had control?”, and “Who had access to what?”.

Part II Analysis and Resolution- (Written by Esther Song)

Levels of Oppression


-Internally, one of the reasons I wanted to give up is because I held a thought in my head, “These (low-income Latinx) kids just can’t be motivated to do the most basic tasks- let alone mathematical tasks.” This thought is further validated by coworkers, media, and students themselves who say “They’re not the IB/honors students. They don’t care. Their parents don’t even care.” While another thought also countered, “If people are unmotivated, there’s always a reason. These students likely encounter challenges beyond my understanding and life experience to have such little stake in their schooling. Every person cares about their future.”

-Part of me believes that I am alone. That I am the only one that can help them improve in learning mathematics (which will consequently open more opportunities for their future career goals). It places an undue burden that fans the flame of the “savior complex”, that only I, one with greater privilege, can champion the oppressed.


-Most of my interactions with students come from a deficit perspective. I let them know all the content AND character deficits they need to build. I often don’t provide space in class to celebrate their intelligence, personality, and home or youth culture. I do celebrate them individually sometimes but it doesn’t coincide with what we’re learning in class.

-I’m also worried that other teachers/admin will look down on me if I don’t cover more content or prepare them for the following year. In turn, I become disappointed with my students when they don’t produce content understanding.

-I’ve formed generally positive relationship with most of the individual students but for the most part, it doesn’t seem to have an effect on their academic performance or motivation. This is discouraging for me.


-One of the reasons students have such a boring/negative experience in my classroom is because the SAT drives content, especially in Chicago (and Illinois). Students are pushed to have better SAT scores in what feels like an unbeatable rat race with the scales already tipped.

-Our math program is essentially tracked into loosely “honors” and “regular” classes. Students who are not in the honors track are considered much less capable by students, staff, and outside the school. Students in this class come here already saying things like “We’re in the dumb class.”


-Society expects that students are in schools with the only obligation to learn academics/subjects. But they likely have many more stressors outside of school than is recognized. Students have told me they have to take care of siblings, take a job to help out with family needs or are navigating tensions outside of school.

-Students’ emotional needs are ignored because they are easier to deal with when they’re not encountered. It’s a lot easier to pretend students are fine but recognizing they face challenges outside of academics is part of interacting as whole human beings.

So What Happened?

One student, Juan, raised his hand half-jokingly and said “We should do that circle thing again.” [I’ve attempted having class talks as a circle a few times throughout the school year. We had moved our desks into a giant 30-person circle. I had heard a friend about running a peace circle, but I’ve never been to any trainings. It was my best attempt at responding to the emotional needs in the classroom. We had a “talking piece” which helped identify who’s turn it was to talk. Typically the piece is something that has meaning and is carefully passed from person to person. My talking piece was… a stapler… because I’m not a great planner. After each question, we would pass the talking piece from person to person and they could choose to respond or not.] In my desperation, and completely unplanned, I said, “Yes. Let’s get into a circle.” We moved our desks into a giant circle. I took out the stapler. I looked at them and they looked at me. I opened my mouth, unsure of what was going to come out of it, and said, “What’s one word you would use to describe math class?”

Student after student shared something along the lines of “boring”, “pointless”, “whatever.” I had the stapler this time, and I followed up. “I’m really frustrated. I feel like I’ve continued to put effort to try to get you to learn something. But each day you come in here and don’t do anything. I guess from my perspective, when my parents came to U.S., we really struggled to just get by. I felt like the only way out of our situation was by doing well in school. But that’s my point of view and it might not be yours. Help me understand.” Juan responded, “I just don’t give a f*** about school. It’s not just your class. It just doesn’t matter.” Juan’s friend, Jovani, replied, “You know it’s hard. Sometimes I try. And I know other people see me here as just a pothead, but I actually do be trying. But I get these stomachaches and I just put my head down.” Another responded, “Ms. Song, you be thinkin’ our lives are great because we wear Jordans or I got some air pods, but life isn’t that great for a lot of us. We go through s***.” Several people nodded in agreement and shared a few more things about their own perspectives. I felt my heart softening. It made sense why they felt so disconnected from schooling.

I looked at each of them and I felt so tired of telling them what they were doing wrong and what they were lacking. I started from the right of me, addressed each person by name, and shared something I loved about them. I thanked them for their humor, for caring about other people, for their refreshing honesty, for their quiet (or loud) brilliance. For some students, I apologized for not checking in with them and letting them sit with their head down. And surprisingly, they returned affirmations. I teared up when Jovani said, “I know I don’t always try. I’m sorry too.” Another shared, “Other teachers have given up by now, but you always ask us to do things and you keep trying. We notice that.”

Before we could wrap up, the bell rang and I quickly asked if people could help out by putting the chairs back into rows for the next class. And they did. It’s not a big deal… but they’ve never really been willing to do that before. It certainly wasn’t a quick fix solution. Although students treated me and each other with more respect that week, most of them didn’t increase their desire to try harder academically in class. Still, when I looked at myself in the mirror, I could say I made a move toward what I believed was a more humanizing environment. I didn’t want to just keep pushing forward till the end of the school year as if I was blindfolded. I didn’t want to pretend that I could just keep the machine of school chugging till the academic year ended. And I’m glad I didn’t.


Thank you for reading our third blog post set of Nepantla Teachers Community. We will be posting a mathematics educator's story on the first Sat and following Wed of every month. Subscribe to get email notifications.

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