Math Class Conflict

I try to read about experiences that are not mine, like being an African-American intellectual who grew up in Baltimore.  Ta-Nehisi Coates has regularly shook my pre-conceived notions about what really is true in America and the world.  Here’s a quote Ta-Nehisi got from Yoni Applebaum.

I was reading a new memoir the other day, by a Harvard graduate who went to work as a prison librarian. Much of the book is an account of his acculturation. He discovered that his robes and spell books, so to speak, were a lot less useful than plate and a broad-sword. That he couldn’t afford to be seen as a punk. He was perfectly equipped for a comfortable, upper-middle-class life—and wholly unprepared for his new environment.

The conversation was about how culture is largely a set of practices for helping a person succeed in a certain environment.  In a tough neighborhood, you act tough and never apologize.  In a wealthy and secure environment, you speak politely all the time.  Use a “best-practice” from one neighborhood in another, and you’ve hindered your success. 

Then I go to read about teaching math at Bree Pickford-Murray’s blog.  She’s got a post about how she was at a math teacher conference and saw a public school teacher from a crowded tough neighborhood speak dismissively and rudely to a presenter (“We can’t talk. You’ve lost all credibility!”) from a rich New England private school, where the class size is about ten kids, and they sit around a single table, not in rows of desks.  Bree’s upset with the public school teacher.  Her commenter Andrew Stadel says

“Furthermore, how dare she not be inspired? How dare she not have an open mindset to someone presenting something that could be freakin’ amazing. How dare she rob her students of an opportunity to experience some amazing mathematical experience. Who’s lost credibility now?”

Andrew makes a good point that kids in a public school need exposure to the deeper math that often only gets taught at prep schools.  But I wish Andrew and Bree would be more empathetic for the people at the bottom of all this inequality in America. 




5 thoughts on “Math Class Conflict

  1. The Space Between the Numbers


    Not sure how you decided that Andrew & I are not empathetic to “the people at the bottom of all this inequality in America.” If you’d read more of my blog–and Andrew’s–I don’t think you’d find much evidence to back up that claim.

  2. joeltpatterson Post author

    Here’s what I’m thinking: if, at a meeting somewhere, one person started talking about how great a meal was at a fine restaurant where the least expensive entree was $30, and a person on food stamps (which is less than $40 a week) said something really angry in reaction to that, one could be appalled at the rudeness of the angry reaction. Or, one could wonder, “what must it feel like for a person to be moved to speak that way? What pressures could they be under?”

    How big must the gap seem to a public school teacher who is forced to have 40 kids in class at a time, and told day in and day out to get those kids prepared for a certain standardized test? And then to hear about how a private school (where the tuition is quadruple what the state allocates per child per annum) is advocating these wonderful teaching methods (without that same standardized test burden–does a private school really deny a student a diploma solely because of a low SAT score?), I think it might be a perfectly human reaction to get angry.

    1. The Space Between the Numbers

      This is really late to be responding…but I just saw this today.

      Yeah, I can see your analogy here–but you’re also picking and choosing the context that you deem relevant. There’s also the fact that this teacher was at a conference, in a workshop that she chose to attend, and that she could have left at any point if/when she realized that it wasn’t serving her needs. The presenter began the talk by giving information about his school and by explaining that he realized the context was not universal–it shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

      I disagree that it’s natural to get angry about it too. And, to be fair, this teacher didn’t get angry. She was dismissive, but she wasn’t angry. I mean, if this presenter had come to her school to do PD, I’d be super pissed because that’s just ridiculous. I actually think being dismissive is the more natural response when someone’s context is so out of line with your own. I don’t actually fault her for feeling that way.

      However, I do feel that choice plays a major role in this–at several points–the choice to attend the workshop, the choice to stay, the choice to be dismissive, the choice to do so while the presenter was talking in front of a large group of people instead of privately afterwards. I don’t think she gets a pass to be rude because the presenter didn’t meet her professional development needs.

  3. joeltpatterson Post author

    It’s the phrase, “How dare she not be inspired?” that sticks with me. It is almost as though from an expectation of teachers to be superhuman, to always rise above the many challenges of the job.


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