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Small Wins: Teaching Math during a Pandemic

Neethi Venkateswaran is a math & history teacher in Denver, CO. She aspires to make her classes as interdisciplinary as possible. When not in the classroom, she can be found crocheting, cooking, or walking the nearby trails.

Over the summer, Neethi participated in Nepantla's first Summer Cohort, focusing on navigating racism in math education. If you are interested in Nepantla Cohorts please click here.

Below is Neethi's blog post on how she is approaching math and social justice in her "pandemic hybrid classroom."

How I’m approaching math and social justice in my “pandemic hybrid classroom”:

As I began prepping for this school year I scrolled through my various social media accounts, taking note of what my fellow teachers were doing. I was elated to see the number of math teachers (many of whom identify as white) who were radically redesigning their curriculum to address the Black Lives Matter movement. But my heart sank seeing the many negative comments, suggesting that “math should just be math.”

I brought this up with my colleague Pete Horsch, with whom I collaborate on our Math 2/3 sequence of algebra/trigonometry classes at our school in Colorado. We began the year remotely and then transitioned into hybrid mode - where we teach half of our students in person while the other half Zooms into class using 360-degree cameras. I worried about the mental load that our students, and we as educators, are carrying, even with the abundant safety precautions in place. By 2:30 PM on a fully-remote day, my students Zooming in look like zombies (as do I). I'm constantly lesson planning to adjust to our new hybrid norm - all while my grading piles up. I feel tormented and guilty when reflecting on the countless layers of inequity being exposed during this pandemic - while many in the independent school community come from places of privilege.

I wondered: is this the right time to fold in politics into the math classroom? How can we cultivate joy and a sense of wonder about mathematics when so many people are suffering, on so many levels? As one of the few BIPOC teachers at my school, I know my responsibility and right to fold in issues of social justice with my math curriculum.

This is what I can manage: responding immediately to what is going on in the larger world. A few weeks ago, Pete showed me a TikTok video that went viral. In the video, a young woman (Gracie Cunningham) asks some innocuous questions regarding mathematics and how people know how to create theorems and proofs. While many social media users harassed Cunningham, other prominent mathematicians and physicists praised her, writing lengthy responses, noting that her questions were exactly what true mathematicians ask and wonder. Pete and I made a homework assignment to watch the original TikTok video and responses (Francis Su and Eugenia Cheng’s). I posted it as, “Why... math?”

I was floored by my students’ responses. So many ideas resonated with them. Particularly, they felt relief at seeing someone (who was relatively close to their age) voicing questions that they had been too nervous to ever ask themselves. They wished that they had been taught how to approach mathematics differently in lower school experiences, like folding in the humanities with the sciences, considering multiple approaches to problems instead of following one “right” way, and supporting more girls in STEM. They loved Cheng’s emphasis on “math self-esteem” and appreciated Su’s idea about when mathematicians arrive at truth. Another response that spoke to me was when a student noted that math is subjective (despite being often told that it is a cold science).

In offering my students an opportunity to rethink how they view the study of mathematics, my hope is that they extend this thought process to how they view issues of race and equity. I was intrigued that none of my students noted that the two responses they read were written by BIPOC mathematics professors. I prodded them, asking if they noticed that or felt that it was inappropriate to comment on that. Many of them stated that they had just not noticed that (or had not thought to look that information up). With this small question, I hope that I was able to show my students how impactful representation can be - even in fields like mathematics and academia.

Instead of dwelling on the negatives of the world, worried about not connecting with students in the same way that I had pre-pandemic, I'm focusing on these small wins: slowing down and asking ourselves these important questions of what is mathematics, and how and why we should engage with the study of patterns. I consider it a win to be a BIPOC teacher who is there for her students: to offer a space to explore patterns, but to also process what it means to be living and learning during such tumultuous times.

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