How has race and intersectionality impacted your life?
I grew up during the age of the Equal Rights Amendment in Washington D.C. Many of my teachers were were advocates, so I got a lot of feminist theory. In those days, they still had people knocking on doors. My dad was the kind of person who always invited everybody in, and so we had lots of good conversations about equal rights. And then, in the early 80s, I started learning about gay rights and AIDS and HIV. I started learning about all of these identities, and eventually I started learning about race.
More recently, my district became interested in equity. Rather than thinking about closing the achievement gap through an academic curricular model, they wanted to look at social emotional attitudes, instruction of students. I was thinking to myself: I need to think about race more critically. And so I got on the internet, and I found CHOOSE.
Why is talking about race in the subject(s) you teach necessary?
Think about why mathematics was taught in the first place. One of my heroes, Aristotle, said that there's two reasons for doing math: One, so we can build better catapults. Second, so we can learn how to think clearly. Over time, we’ve forgotten the “thinking clearly” part and have focused on the “building better catapults” only. Math has just become part of STEM. It's gotten pushed into science and technology, lumped in there. It's no longer seen as part of training us how to think clearly, especially about abstract objects or concepts.
For Plato … math was really, really important for training people how to think about justice, or other abstract concepts, like beauty.
For Plato, Aristotle's teacher, math was really, really important for training people how to think about justice, or other abstract concepts, like beauty. Mathematics allows us to rationally organize our thinking about things that may seem abstract, distant, even scary.
Math helps us see how varied the world really is.
You know, the part of math that’s about building catapults is also important for racial literacy. With the catapults, you’re looking at statistics and probabilities. In the transgender history book I'm reading right now, I’m seeing how we don't just have X Y and X X chromosomes, but we have a multitude and a continuum of biological aspects. Math helps us see how varied the world really is. There are so many probabilities, so many possibilities, of how we can be. Math shows you it’s not just A versus B, or good versus bad.
What was it like teaching this lesson or unit plan?
One of my students said that he didn't feel like the lesson was a math lesson. So I felt like, in some sense, that was a win. It means it wasn’t boring, right? So, for my lessons, we constructed thought experiments where we built mathematical models that allowed us to categorize a variety of different aspects of identity. This way, students could see how vast our identities are.
These lessons also just help students learn how to research, which is a general requirement for math and in K-12 teaching. Students learned how to do research using different data collection websites. There's a large number of different websites who report on demographics and population sizes. Not only did they learn how to use them, but they got to see that they're different. So, one website is going to say that Riverside has 320,000 people. And another website data collection is going to say that Riverside has 350,000 people. One website is going to define Hispanic as anybody who chooses to identify as so. And another website might identify Hispanic as anybody who is Mexican or South American or Central American only. Students discover that there is a way in which we categorize that’s subjective.
The Tell Me Who You Are stories also lead to a really interesting mathematical discovery about numbers categorization, because a lot of what the stories are saying is how the people interviewed are categorizing themselves, and how that juxtaposes the way in which they've been categorized by either their community or society in general.
How did your community react to your work?
You know, one day I was looking into the Quad, in our school in Southern California, and I just thought my students are so much more aware of their gender and race than I am. They have a sense that it’s okay to not be this cis, White, middle-class male. I thought, their experiences shouldn’t just be informal, expressed in the hallways, but brought formally into the classroom. So I had a lot of students participating. I co-collaborated with other educators, too. We even invited a custodian to join us. He turned out to have been in the first group of students bussed in Riverside, which was the first district that tried bussing kids of color into the upper middle class neighborhoods. It was incredible.
What would you like to tell any educator looking at your work right now?
Don’t beat yourself up for not having mastered virtual learning.
Everybody is struggling in a profound kind of way, whether it be from death, from being overwhelmed at hospitals, from not being able to see other people face to face. And then there's also the whole economy thing. Some of my students’ families are living paycheck to paycheck, and when a large percentage of them are unemployed, that's no paycheck, which means they’re not living. We just need lots of compassion all the way around, especially from administrators. To all teachers: Don’t beat yourself up for not having mastered virtual learning. Just be kind to everyone, especially yourselves.
Dennis DEETS'S Lesson plans:
TYPE: Lesson (full class) TITLE: Math and Race CONTENT AREA: Math
GRADE LEVEL(S): 7th to 12th Grade (including SPED)
DESCRIPTION: Students address two CCSS Standards for Mathematical Practice: reason abstractly and quantitatively (SMP2) and, model with mathematics (SMP4). (Content standards are part of the statistics strand and can be addressed appropriately based on grade level.)
Through analysis of classroom demographics and city demographics, students learn to generate mathematical questions about race and the world around them. They learn how to express this world in mathematical/statistical terms, to use quantitative data to model their immediate experience, and to research and present their findings.
Click below to download a PDF of Dennis Deets's full lesson plan.
TYPE: Lesson (full class) TITLE: Modeling Intersectionality CONTENT AREA: Math GRADE LEVEL(S): 7th to 12th Grade (including SPED)
DESCRIPTION: Through a simple thought experiment, the concept of intersectionality is represented mathematically. The model establishes an abstraction that supports discussion of the complexities of intersectionality. This lesson addresses CCSS Standards for Mathematical Practice, SMP2 and SMP4. Probability content standards are dependent on grade level.
Click below to download a PDF of Dennis Deets's full lesson plan.