Summer Reading Ideas (with a challenge from my friend Mohamed)

Today was my official last day of work for the school year.  This morning we had our end of the year staff breakfast.  The parents served us amazing food and we then went into our auditorium to honor our 2 retiree’s and say good well to a dozen teachers moving on to other things.  One of the retiree’s, Mohamed Alabari, was my co-worker and fellow Math teacher.  When he got up to say a few words, he used his time to humbly and with joy tell us what he is currently excited to learn about and challenged the entire staff to learn with him as he moves into retirement.  Afterward I asked him if I could share with you what he said and offer up the same challenge to you.  He agreed.

Mohamed was born in Somalia and earned a scholarship to go to college in Cuba and later Brussels. Afterward he moved to the United States and has been here for years and years.  He speaks 6 languages.  He has multiple degrees.  He is an academic, humble and always positive.  Many of us in Minneapolis have learned a lot from him.mohamed

Here is a portion of what Mohamed shared with us as he held this book and beamed at us.  I ask that you take a moment to read this.  It is important.  Hear his challenge.  I will paraphrase what he said.  In the voice of Mohamed:

‘Recently I’ve been reading the book ‘Blindspot, Hidden Biases of Good People‘.  All of us are good people.  All of us.  Every page in this book has made me think.  In this book they talk about that 90% of what we do is unconscious and only 10% is conscious.  I wanted to tell you two stories about me related to this book.  When you look at  me you see I have black skin.  You see I am from Somalia.  A couple of years ago I was teaching an AP class and at the start of the class a white male student walked up to me and said “I want to go to a good college, what do I need to do to do well in your class?”  I told him this and that and what do do.  As I graded the first exam in this class I looked at his test.  It was not good so I took off my glasses, cleaned them and looked again thinking I was not seeing this right.  This student was so interested day 1 to do well.  There was no evidence on his test.  I then corrected a test from a Somali boy.  It was 100% correct.  Do you know what my first thought was?  “Who did this boy cheat off of?”  I caught myself and my unconscious bias.  Let me tell you another story.  Last year my mother passed away.  In my country when you have successful sons, we take care of our mothers when they are older.  I went to visit her.  As soon as she went to pick up her water, my brother rushed and told her ‘Why do you reach for this, call us, we will do it for you’.  This happened by everyone over and over.  Since she did not have to do anything she was not exercising and finally could not move.  We loved her to death.  That is how it is in our classrooms.  We are wanting to help our students so much we are loving them to death.  You need to read this book (Blindspot).  We are good people.  I am challenged on every page.’ – paraphrasing Mohamed Alabari.

The last thing Mohamed shared really resonated with me because it is something I’ve been working on a lot in my own classroom the last 4 years since I returned to teaching.  NCTM President, Matt Larson shared the following quote with Minnesota teachers a year ago:mattI know it has been my tendency as an urban educator to scaffold and support my students to the point I handicapped them.  I’ve been working hard to empower my students to be learners and advocate for themselves.  I still have work to do to be better at this.

I appreciated Mohamed’s candid stories about himself and his own unconscious biases.  I am a white teacher living in a state where 98% of our teachers are also white.  We often find ourselves talking about race in groups of entirely white people.   In an effort to change the information I am taking in – I’ve personally made an effort in the last 10 years to go out of my way to follow people different from my white middle class background on twitter.  I go out of my way to read books/articles, watch movies/tv that are written by people with backgrounds different than my own.  I work to form relationships with people who did not grow up with or like me.  I have a lot to learn.  When Mohamed speaks, I listen.  Many of my current students are from eastern Africa where he was born and raised.  He knows things I need to hear.  When he says read something, I will.  100%

blindspotMy state’s NCTM affiliate (MCTM – no not Michigan/Montana/Massachusetts…. we are Minnesota!) has an Equity Task Force led by Dr. Lesa Covington Clarkson and Barb Everhart.  Last year they led a book study on the same book, Blindspot, that Mohamed recommended you read.  I read it then and it is good.  All educators and non-educators need to read this book.  If you have room in your summer reading schedule, please move this book up your priority list.  Put it in your Amazon cart.

In addition to Blindspot, I want to add 4 other books for you to consider joining me in reading this summer.  3 I have not read (yet) and the last I need to finish.  My selections are totally biased based on 2 things I know I need to deepen my learning on as a secondary math teacher – first I need to continue to read things that challenge me to think about the role of race in society and 2nd I want to read more things by Elementary Math educators.  In no particular order:

  • lyricCitizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine  This book comes recommeded to me by my friend and coworker – award winning math teacher –  the amazing Morgan Fierst.  She quotes it to me frequently – often when we talk about the idea of ‘microagressions’.  This book is not a novel – it is verse and poetry in essay forms.  Here is a short synopsis: “The book consists of seven chapters interspersed with images and artworks. The first chapter details microagressions that have occurred to Rankine and her friends. The second chapter discusses the YouTube character Hennessy Youngman created by Jayson Musson, and discusses racial incidents in the life of Serena Williams and her public image…..”

    hate u giveThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.  This is a young adult novel released in the last year or 2.  Some are calling this book a new classic.  Here is part of the synopsis “Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.”.  My own community is currently anxiously awaiting the outcome in the trial of the officer who shot Philando Castile and the press on the book resonates with me.

    tracyBecoming the Math Teacher You Wish You’d Had: Ideas and Strategies from Vibrant Classrooms by Tracy Zagar.  Seriously, I will read/listen to anything by Tracy.  Others who have been reading this book in the last few months have been tweeting out quote after quote and discussing all they are learning.  I am so looking forward to this one.


  • jim crowThe New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander and Cornel West.  This is the book I need to finish.  It’s great, but I set it down months ago.  I’ve been meaning to finish it.

ALL of these books I’d love to talk to you about.  If you read one and want to connect, let me know.  What are you reading?  Let me know.  I love hearing ideas for what’s next on my reading list.  Thank you for listening to my friend, Mohamed.  Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts.  I am not an expert.  I am simply a humble learner.

Finally, if you are like me and looking for people of color (educators) to learn from or resources and recommendations, I totally recommend going to the EDUCOLOR website and spending lots of time there listening and learning.  (and then acting  and doing something).  Check them out HERE (resources).

Additions (June 16, 2017):

I’ve received several recommendations in the comments below and others to add to my/our summer reading lists.  I thought I’d highlight them here:

  • boysFrom my cousin Deva, a young-adult novelist, comes this addition to my list: All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely.  This book is a another YA novel that delves into racism and police violence, told from the POV of a black boy who is beaten by a police officer, and a white boy who sees the attack. Authors on NPR 
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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