Social Justice Pedagogy

In the past month or so, I’ve become increasingly aware of the importance of infusing social justice pedagogy into my math teaching practice. This is not something that has come out of the blue. Years ago, I was quite interested in critical legal theory and immigration reform, having been involved in the world of immigration law before becoming a teacher. For some reason, I never brought my past experiences into my classroom. Maybe it was because I was just getting used to teaching. Or maybe because I considered my transition into math education a “clean break” from my lawyerly past.

But something’s changed recently and I’m not sure what. Regardless, I’m someone who’s just starting to think about how math is not a “neutral” subject as is commonly believed, and how the ways we teach math can help reproduce or interrupt social inequalities.

From my position as a beginning thinker on this subject, I’ve started to change my pedagogy in small ways. Mostly, I’ve been integrating issues of social and economic inequality into the examples I use to promote mathematical understanding. I’ve been asking students to engage with these issues on a mathematical level but also to use mathematical ideas and concepts to get a better sense of the issues themselves. Two resources have been profoundly helpful: Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers and Radical Math.

I still think about Nepantla, a term Rochelle Gutierrez uses to describe the tensions inherent in teaching. Incorporating social justice pedagogy comes with a lot of tensions to think about. How do you balance a standardized curriculum with a vision of social justice? How do you tow the line between teaching your students to critique institutions and propagandizing your students? How do you find time to carefully and thoughtfully incorporate social justice pedagogy into your classroom without getting fired or forgoing self-care?

I should also note I teach in a relatively privileged school. With that in mind, two big questions come to mind — why engage in social justice pedagogy at all (1), and how might it backfire (2)? In Educating Activist Allies, Katy Smallwell offers insight into both questions:

Why Social Justice Pedagogy

(1a) Poverty is not just about poor people but about the relationship between people of all social classes. If you want to interrupt the reproduction of unequal opportunities and outcomes, there’s value in understanding the perspectives of those with privilege

(1b) Orienting children from privileged communities toward justice can be an important strategy in the larger project of addressing injustice

Potential Problems

(2a) Injustice is seen by students as “over there” and “in the past”. Injustice is romanticized or deficit stereotypes are reinforced

(2b) Injustice is seen as the result of “bad” people and not of structural forces that systematically oppress those without privilege

(2c) Students who confront facts and figures of injustice incorporate them into heightened feelings of exceptional progressiveness and worldly ease.  At worst, knowledge of social and economic inequalities is seen by them as something marketable to help them get into elite colleges

I’m not sure how I’ll address these concerns as I move forward with efforts to make social and economic concerns more visible to my students. Like all things in teaching, I’ll have to try it out, see what happens, and reflect. Here’s to the beginnings of a journey.

Tension, Grading, Nintendo, Strawberries

The concept of conocimineto leads Anzaldua to construct Nepantla or the space that represents “el lugar no lugar” (neither here nor there), what has been thought of as the “third space”, “between worlds, between realities, between systems of knowledge”…When one lives with this constant tension, there tends to be a greater awareness and conocimiento con (familiarity with) uncertainty. Knowing that everything is conditional, that we may need to pull out another hat to wear at any moment, we are tentative with our ways of viewing the world.

This is the concept of tension, which Rochelle Gutierrez describes in her paper Embracing Nepantla: Rethinking “Knowledge” and its Use in Mathematics Teaching. Recently, I’ve been able to make use of the concept to think more clearly (or better yet, less definitively and more intimately) about my students and my teaching practice. I’ve learned to embrace being in a “messy place”, and this has led to some positive changes in my classroom. It’s also reinvigorated my feelings toward this profession by highlighting the ever-changing, dynamical nature of teaching.

One tension that I’ve recently thought about is the extent to which we give grades. Students view grades as a form of accountability. I want them to feel that their work is valued and recognized, and grades are a way to give them credit for their efforts. But students also attach their identities and worth to grades. Grades can undermine students’ efforts to become intrinsically motivated learners and distort the relationships among students and teachers.

The question is how holding this tension plays out in the classroom. One aspect of tension is the notion that it is never resolved. Having this particular tension means that the extent to which I give grades should remain unsettled and subject to revision. Tension does not create an excuse to be frozen in a state of inaction and stalemate myself. It does require that I search for sources of inspiration to build new ways of thinking as I continue to exist in Nepantla.

One such source of inspiration has been video game design. One game in particular has had a positive influence on my teaching practice. The game is called Celeste, which I’ve been playing on the Nintendo Switch. It’s an incredible game about a girl who wants to climb a mountain, but along the way she must overcome issues of anxiety, depression, and self-doubt. Mechanically, it’s a side-scroller like the original Mario game. The goal is to get to the end of the level without dying from spikes, melting in red goo, or falling off a cliff.

Image result for celeste game

One of the best elements of the game is the strawberries. The game places strawberries throughout each level that the player can collect, if he or she wants to. Some of the strawberries are grueling to get to without dying. They’re not required to beat the game and you can get as many or as few as you like. Unlike how many other games might have handled it, strawberries don’t strengthen your character or unlock extra levels. There’s no actual point in the game to getting the strawberries. But, damn, have I spend a lot of time getting them.

Image result for celeste strawberries

Since playing Celeste, I have changed the structure of my task design. In every task or question I assign (actually, to the extent that I can manage), I now include one or more “strawberries” for students to solve. I still grade the core questions or at least set out a clear expectation that students must engage with them. However, the strawberries are optional. They are not worth extra credit and have no impact on their grade whatsoever. In that sense, there are assignments for which there is no accountability, and yet there is accountability everywhere else throughout. Nepantla.

Source for Optional:


The strawberries are usually tied to our current topic, but not always. Some of them are easier than others, and some are grueling. I hesitate to call them “Extension Questions” for the reason that enrichment shouldn’t be reserved for the strongest students or fastest problem solvers (an idea I developed from Craig Barton’s book “How I’d Wish I’d Taught Maths”).

I don’t believe that this new design resolves my tension with grading. I’m not even settled in how I’ll implement this design next year. Moving forward, here are possible ways I’ll revise my use of strawberries:

  • Call them “strawberries”. I’ll be transparent with my students about where I got the idea. They’ll also find out sooner how much I like my Switch.
  • Give them a chart where they can record how many strawberries they’ve collected. Again, this won’t be for a grade. It’ll just be for them.
  • Admittedly, most of the strawberries were more challenging than the core problems. I should widen the range of questions that I pose as strawberries.


Performative Emotions

Found on Reddit:


Performative emotions. What a great term. It applies so well to my relationships with family and friends, and it applies equally well to my relationship with students.

Today was an exhausting day, and I barely taught. It was day 2 of the NYS ELA Exam, and most of the time was spent proctoring. Thirty-two students, stressed to the bone from 1st period to 3rd period, furiously writing as if their future (because their future) depended on it. But then by 4th period, bored to tears because they couldn’t leave the room until 5th period. I wanted to emotionally support them, but besides the fact that I couldn’t talk, I don’t know if I would’ve had the strength to rally their spirits even if I could. It’s actually been an exhausting week.

By 7th period, I was in the playground on my assigned monitoring duties. The students always want to chat when everyone’s outside. They bring up oceans of gossip, usually revolving around conversations on snapchat. Lots of them were fed up with exams. One girl cried because she thought a boy posted a disfigured cartoon drawing of her. Another girl has been chronically exhausted because of all the extracurricular activities that her parents make her do. One boy got in trouble for something he says he didn’t do but “I’m okay with that, because I’m always getting in trouble anyway.”

It was a lot, and I could’ve done more.

Teaching is an emotional practice and sometimes that drains you. Making connections with students is the lifeblood of our profession. We devote our energies and our emotions for the sake of our students’ well-being. The difficulty is that we grow so tough and build so much stamina and care so deeply about kids that we often push ourselves to our emotional limit, and sometimes we go past it. For the sake of our students, we leave our exhaustion at the door, put on our kindest smile, give our love and support for their academic and emotional needs, and wish we did more.

But I don’t think we need to, and I’m not sure we should. Maybe it’s okay to take a break from our performative emotions. Maybe it’s okay not to put so much pressure on ourselves. It doesn’t mean we don’t love our students. In The Peacable Classroom, Mary O’Reilley writes, “[T]he best kind of teaching comes out of a willingness to stand in one’s condition. The best teaching does not come out of dropping one’s feelings at the classroom door. You don’t need to talk about being sad or happy, you just need to be present to your own inward life.”

I don’t think this means teachers should shut down entirely and I definitely don’t think teachers should be taking their exhaustion out on students. It’s about being real with oneself and ones emotional reserve. I do worry that a teacher might miss a critical crossroad, a moment where a student really needed someone but the teacher wasn’t emotionally available to respond. But I also worry about the burnout that may be caused by ignoring the dissonance between our inward and outward feelings.

Sociologists call the work of deciding when and how to express emotions “emotional labor”. The term applies to all kinds of professions such as how wait staff regulate their emotions in their interactions with customers. I think emotional labor has a special–and seldom talked about–role in teaching. The strong bonds that need to be forged between teachers and students brings up the question of how much teachers should hold back and how much they should reveal to students. In particular, as I’ve been asking myself all day without a good answer, how do we respond when our need to be real with our emotional condition conflicts with our duty to support our students?

Intersecting Thoughts

I recently worked through two books on education: How I’d Wish I Taught Maths, by Craig Barton and For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and the Rest of Y’all Too, by Christopher Emdin.

Barton’s book is part personal narrative, part research compendium about how Barton radically changed how he taught math despite being lauded for his high test scores and use of group work, open-ended problems, class discussions, and productive struggle. Barton draws heavily on Cognitive Load Theory, which says that teaching should be structured to avoid overtaxing people’s limited working memories. He highlights differences between novices and experts, defends explicit instruction as useful when students are first learning a topic, and lays out pretty good strategies for dealing with students who are not novices but are not yet experts. His book mentions lots of other theories from cognitive science, including variation theory, self-explanations, and interleaving.

Emdin’s book is also deeply personal and well-researched, which makes sense considering Emdin is a former science teacher and now professor at Columbia Teachers College. Emdin’s work is an outgrowth of his experiences teaching in Harlem, where he had a rough first few years because of the disconnect between him and his students. Emdin’s central thesis is Reality Pedagogy, which aims to meet students on their turf. His proposed strategies for doing so, especially among urban youth, include borrowing practices of engagement from pentacostal churches and barber shops, forming cogenerative dialogues with students, positioning students as teachers in a co-created classroom, and entering students’ cultural contexts.

I want to be cautious against painting overly broad strokes here, but I’d dare to say that these are two different types of books about education. Sure, they’re both about how we as teachers can teach our students better. But there’s something fundamentally different about them. And before anyone gets the wrong idea, it’s not because I think Emdin’s book is about culture, politics, and race whereas Barton’s book is about more “neutral” topics. I definitely don’t think that. The cognitive science in Barton’s book can just as much be viewed under the lens of critical theory as anything else, raising questions such as “Who benefits from the research of cognitive science? Where is cognitive science silent and how do its results help perpetuate the status quo?” Both Emdin and Barton talk about politics, it’s just that the cognitive science in Barton’s book is way more subtle about it.

I think what makes them different is that they touch on separate (yet overlapping and interconnected) aspects of who our students are. Barton touches on the side of our students that can be informed by cognitive science research. Students are not “calculating machines”, but there are general patterns that can be gleaned about how people think and what amplifies thinking or inhibits it. Emdin on the other hand is concerned about our students’ membership and participation in cultural, social, and political spaces. Of course, these two aspects of our students are not mutually exclusive. Working memory fails if students are stressed about bleak living conditions and the realities of urban youth. Racially relevant pedagogy can increase engagement and capture students’ attentions, which makes it more likely that knowledge in working memory will transfer to long term memory.

It’s also important to note these two aspects of our students are not complete. There are lots of things to say about our students’ relationship with technology, their use of social media, their dealings with bullying and peer pressure, and their participation in a dozen different discourse communities.

In short, students are multidimensional and teachers get better at teaching when they tend to the various aspects of their students’ being.

I keep thinking about the term intersectionality, which was first given its name by law professor Kimberle Crenshaw. It’s a way of thinking about how interlocking systems of power impact people who are marginalized by society. It considers how class, race, gender, age, disability, and sexual orientation are interwoven in ways that render certain classes of people invisible, even to movements that traditionally serve marginalized populations. The origins of its naming has an interesting backstory, which Crenshaw talks about here. The summary is that in 1976, a group of black women sued GM for discrimination. They couldn’t work on the factory floor because they were women, and they couldn’t get secretarial jobs because they were black. The court dismissed their claim because the court believed that black women should not be permitted to combine their race and gender claims into one. Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality to “highlight the multiple avenues through which racial and gender oppression were experienced so that the problems would be easier to discuss and understand.”

I think there is a kind of “intersectionality” that occurs in education. But it isn’t intersectionality, exactly. It’s more about all the physical, neurological, social, cultural, and political realities and practices through which learning and knowledge is mediated. In one sense, what I’m thinking about generalizes intersectionality by considering aspects of our students that are not necessarily exclusive to marginalized populations, such as cognition and youth culture. In another sense, it narrows intersectionality by focusing on aspects that commonly arise in education. This is not to say that I’m not also thinking about race and gender and sexual orientation, and I’m also not saying we can ignore issues of power and privilege. I’m saying our students are wrapped in layers of interwoven social, cultural, psychological, sociological, economic, and linguistic contexts, and it’s our role as teachers to create conditions where students can learn about/embrace/come to terms with/leverage the many dimensions of themselves.

Practically, this means that as teachers, we ought to be trying to make ourselves as versatile as possible. In my first year of teaching, I labeled myself as “someone who was good at math and read a lot of books on cognitive science.” Sure, I was allowed to have my own style, but I know I limited myself in my ability to connect with my students on multiple levels of their being. The reality is that teachers shouldn’t have a “shtick”, even though I know some of them say they do. I’ve learned that it’s not enough for me to have one or two or even three different ways of forming connections with students.

I used to play lots of D&D (Dungeons and Dragons, hello!) When you start off, you choose a race and class. Regardless of race, I preferred to be a Bard. Bards are part-warrior, part-mage, and part-thief with lots of charisma and musical ability. The common characterization for Bards is that they are “jacks of all trades and masters of none.” I think the best teachers are Bards. But I fear a lot of them want to be mages. That is, they want to be master technicians who are well-versed in pedagogical techniques. I used to think this way and I think it’s how my school views our “best” teachers.

Since then, I’ve learned the value of versatility and the viewpoint that teaching is a situated practice. Lots of it I picked up by listening to people on Twitter. People like Ilana Horn, who say  “teaching problems are locally defined”, have helped me see myself as someone more than a “technician of best practices.” David Coffey talks about trying “to prepare teachers to think like researchers [and] not just follow the research”. llona Vaschchyshyn and Michael Pershan had a nice conversation about how hard it is to resist generalizations and simplifications in education, and that ideas–no matter how well-researched–can’t take the thinking out of teaching.

Having read Barton and Emdin’s books, my goal is to continue to read about, think about, and talk about a wide range of educational perspectives. And of course, to bring them into the classroom, get to know my students better, and create an environment where they can learn about themselves better. Reflect, and then repeat.