Bringing my student’s community into our classroom.

No more excuses.  It is time for math teachers to see our classrooms as more than a space for numbers, operations and equations. No more excuses. It is time to create safe and welcoming spaces for our students.  I am saying this out loud to myself, but I would like to share with you a commitment I am making for the next 61 days.

61 buttonI live and work in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Currently, the number 61 is meaningful to my student’s  and the community we live in.  At the end of this post I will tell you the meaning of 61 and how I have brought the meaning of this number into my work in my classroom.  First I ask that you indulge me in reading a few thoughts on a math teachers relationship with the communities our students live in and then a bit about the community I live and work in.

As math teachers too many of us have gotten away our entire careers with avoiding teaching anything too controversial.  I want to start by revealing that many times in my 24 years of teaching – especially when some politically charged event is in the news and particularly when this event brings out the polarization of our society – I have been secretly happy that  I teach math and I don’t teach Social Studies.  As a math teacher I have been free to choose when  to engage and when not to engage in tough conversations. As long as I fill the classes I teach with numbers, equations, graphs and fancy math words like ‘logarithm’, it is presumed I am doing a really good job.  As math teachers we have unearned privilege to ignore the events in the communities our students live and get away with it.

This is not OK.  Not. O. K. I say all of this to say to myself and all math teachers that we don’t have the right to NOT bring our student’s lives and communities into our classrooms.  We are wrong when we retreat to the safety of what we can get away with.  I humbly ask you to consider how you can bring our students communities into our classrooms.

In order to improve my personal practice I’ve read lots of books – many times I’ve read them in community with other educators.  In many of the books written about teaching African American students a common theme emerged.  For example, in Lisa Delpit’s book Multiplication is for White People Delpit identifies factors that either hinder or enhance the educational attainment of students, specifically those of African American heritage. She charges educators with the responsibility of knowing their students in the classroom and community contexts. Since reading her book I’ve continually asked myself, ‘how can i get to know my students and communities better – and how can I bring this into my classroom?’.

That said, let me tell you a bit about my community – Minneapolis and what I am doing this month to follow through on Delpit’s charge to educators.

Last week I attended a Bat Mitzvah of my friends daughter at a wealthy, mostly white Synagogue located in Minneapolis.  Towards the end of the service the Rabbi prompted the attendees to say out loud the names of those we cherish and want to remember who have passed away in the last year.  20-40 names were said aloud.  The first name uttered though was that of Jamar Clark and a moment of hush and nodding of heads followed his name.  Most of us in the room look nothing like Jamar.  Most of us may live in the same city as Jamar did, but the blocks that separated us represented vast differences in our socioeconomic backgrounds. When I heard his name said aloud I was humbled that this congregation was keeping his memory alive.  As I sat there I challenged myself to bring Jamar into my classroom.

For those of you not from Minneapolis, you may not know Jamar Clark’s name.  On November 15, 2015, Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old African-American man, was shot by 2 Minneapolis Police officers who were placed on paid administrative leave.  The night after the shooting, Jamar Clark passed away.

In response to the shooting, Black Lives Matter organizesit ind protests outside the police station near Jamar’s death that lasted for 18 days.  Many of my friends protested.  My students protested.  Jamar’s death made the national news, but more importantly it has
been a emotional rallying event for the High School Students I teach across town.  The students at my school have organized sit-ins and walk outs in memory of Jamar.  The most recent sit-in was a week ago.  My students are not letting the memory of Jamar fade away.

On March 30th, 2016 our local County Attorney, Mike Freeman, went on TV to announce whether the officers involved would face charges.  He spent an hour laying out the facts in the case.  One fact that stood out to me was that it took only 61 seconds, 61 seconds, let me say this again, 61 seconds from when officers arrived and Jamar Clark was shot.

Jamar was shot and killed in the same neighborhood as the students I taught my first 14 years as a teacher.  I have spent countless hours in these neighborhoods.  I have committed my life to staying connected.  I have friends that live there.  I have worshiped in a church in this neighborhood.  My former students are leaders in this neighborhood.  I am convinced that the color of Jamar’s skin played a role in the events of this evening.

So last week I got serious and said I need to do something at least small and ongoing to keep Jamar’s memory alive.  I approached 1 of my math teacher peers (who is a leader in combining math and social justice in her own classroom) with my idea.  I said I wanted to make a statement using the number 61.  Together we agreed we wanted to send a message to our students that we see Jamar Clark and we will not forget.  We wanted to create space in our classrooms so students could see us doing something – something connected to their passions.

So here is my commitment for at least the next 61 days.  For 61 days I will wear this button wherever i go.  I hope people ask me about it and think it is something geeky mathy.  I will use this opportunity to give them a short message about Jamar and the community I love and work in.

we believe black lives matter
updated 61 signIn addition, I will display this sign in my classroom and other places.  If you want to join me, download a copy of this sign and adapt for your own classroom.  Project 61  Project 61_elementary

Bringing our students community into our classroom requires us to make simple Tweaks.  Here are a few more I am making related to Jamar Clark and the number 61.

  • I am committed to following community leaders and educators of color on Twitter and other Social Media.  If I am to understand my students communities, their worries and passions I need to be filling my mind with voices of those who are different from myself.
  • I will be publicly tweeting for 61 days.  I’ve already started simply tweeting the number 61  for the past 7 days in a row.  I’ve been asked by several people why I am doing this.  There is power in a repeated message.
  • As I said above I will wear a button that I hope will encourage others to ask me “Why do you have a button with the number 61 on it?”.jamar timer
  • I will hang a sign in my classroom expressing my support for Jamar and BLM.
  • I may create an assignment where all solutions are 61.  If I do, I will attach it here.
  • I plan to give 61 seconds (vs 1 minute) to do a quick writes in my classroom. I’ve already set up a 1 minute and 1 second timer on my phone I am calling the ‘jamar clark’ timer.   Subliminally I am sending a message to my students that I have heard the number 61 in the news and I don’t want to forget..
  • I plan to use my ‘jamar clark’ timer at least once a day to quiet myself and brainstorm ways I can continue to get to know my students and the communities they live in.  If I can’t take 61 seconds to slow down and do this, then I need to get out of the profession.

I close asking you to identify the ‘jamar’s’ and ’61 second’ opportunities you have in your own communities.  I challenge you to find small (or large) ways to bring your students communities into your math classroom.

If you live in my community and want a ’61’ button, let me know.  If you don’t live in m community and want a button, I am happy to get you one.  Thanks for listening.  You can find me on twitter @saravdwerf or email me at sarav@mpls.k12.mn.us

One more thing – For more resources on this topic from people who are way smarter than I am, check out these resources:


Sara VanDerWerf

I am Sara Van Der Werf, a 24-year mathematics teacher in Minneapolis Public Schools. I have taught math in grades 7-12 as well as spent several years leading mathematics at the district office. I currently teach Advanced Algebra at South High School and I'm also the current President of the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics (MCTM). I am passionate about encouraging and connecting with mathematics teachers. I'd love to connect via twitter.  Join the community.  Tweet me @saravdwerf.

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