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Small Wins: Math & Identity

Written by: Michelle (Michelle is choosing to remain anonymous but if you'd like to connect with her, please email us to reach out.)

My students are teaching me how to break the rules.

I have always been a rule follower. This is likely a result of society’s reinforcement of associated stereotypes of Asian- American women, my school experiences and my “helicopter” immigrant parents. As a student, I never questioned authority and easily complied to the most absurd rules, often blind to the intentions behind such rules.

In my current setting in California, I am teaching mathematics remotely on Zoom. Early in the semester, my school set a distance learning policy for all students: Zoom profile pictures can only be either a selfie, a Bitmoji, or nothing. The justification for this policy was to prevent students from using any inappropriate pictures or using photos of other students as their profile picture. Instantly, I thought to myself “Great. Should be easy enough to follow. I’ll remind my students next class.” Most of my students complied with no problems.

A few weeks later, I decided to follow up on this policy with my students, hoping to prevent any problems as the presidential election approached. Before class one day, I asked students who did not adhere to the Zoom picture rule to change their picture. I held students in the Zoom waiting room until they compiled, hoping this would get students to change their pictures. Unsurprisingly, this strategy only partially worked. Eventually, I still admitted everyone. One student, Alberto* messaged me and said, “I don’t see why I need to change my picture. I’m just trying to learn.”

I’m just trying to learn. Alberto had not changed his picture yet and was communicating to me the absurdity of this rule. Alberto’s Zoom picture was a portrait of a rapper. As a first year teacher, my gut told me to follow the school rules and tell him; “everyone has to adhere to the same distance learning policy.” The following class, I asked Alberto to once again change his picture. This time, he did. Upon entering the Zoom call absent of a Zoom picture, Alberto messaged me, “Why do I have to change my picture when I see at least 3-4 other students who haven’t changed their pictures yet? I had a picture of my favorite rapper who recently passed and I want to honor him.” Within several seconds, Alberto changed his Zoom picture back to the picture of the rapper.

This past summer, I was part of Nepantla Teachers Community (NTC) 2020 cohort and started my journey to discover what it means to be a social justice mathematics educator. I wrote: “I have a responsibility as a BIPOC math educator to push back against racism in my classroom, especially because I believe I largely benefitted as an Asian American student in the mathematics education aspect of schooling.” Alberto is Latinx, and my white students had easily complied and changed their pictures. Knowing my school’s statistics on Black and Latinx students’ suspension rates, I asked myself, “Have I lived up to this responsibility that I wrote over the summer?” It is easier to resort back to harmful, carceral practices during the busy school days, especially during a pandemic with high stress and anxiety levels.

What does my Zoom picture policing have to do with social justice and mathematics education? Everything. Especially in a Zoom environment, where most students’ cameras are off, it is even more difficult for students to express who they are as human beings. The limited avenues for self-expression are their Zoom picture and name, which are both mediated through Zoom as a platform. When Alberto changed his Zoom picture back to the picture of his favorite rapper, Alberto had demonstrated resistance in the mathematics classroom. How can students view themselves as mathematicians if they cannot bring who they are into the classroom? Who are students as mathematicians if they cannot resist and question what it means to be a student engulfed in a larger school system during a pandemic? As we discussed in our NTC over the summer, students are not simply stripped of their identities when they step into the mathematics classroom, even though many wish mathematics to be an apolitical space.

I asked myself, “Why am I following this distance learning policy so closely? Which students might this policy disproportionately harm? What actual consequences are there if students don’t follow this rule?” There are nuances and complexities within all of these questions. For instance, I am a first year teacher without tenure. There have been instances of inappropriate/offensive Zoom pictures. However, in the end, I decided to let Alberto keep his Zoom picture.

Alberto taught me how to break the rules, or as Dr. Rochelle Gutiérrez says, how to engage in creative insubordination as a mathematics teacher. By letting Alberto keep his Zoom picture, I am allowing his resistance to show through and thus allowing him to express his values, interests, and identities in the mathematics classroom.

Social justice does not have to be radical. It does not always have to mean teaching creative lessons on social justice or discussing mathematics content situated in a social justice context. Sometimes, it means breaking rules that allow students to be who they are in the classroom. Sometimes, it means asking “Why?” Sometimes, it means reflecting on how my actions mirror who I am as a mathematics educator. This is my nepantla.

*Alberto is a pseudonym.

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