I was getting the math space ready with some climate change infographics when a health teacher walked by and mentioned that the following week (now this week) is Ally Week. I wasn’t aware. So thanks to twitter (@benjamindickman and @annie_p and @LauraVHawkins) I put up some information on some gay and trans mathematicians in the math space.
But I also had my classes engage in such a simple way. I just added this to their nightly work:
Those links, so you can click on them, are:
The way I facilitated this in my classes was very similar, and really informal. In one, I had people “popcorn” their thoughts about the article they read, share something that struck them, ask questions they had, make note of something they never considered until reading the article. In another, I had groups talk about what they read, and then we talked as a whole class, people sharing out what their groups said. (I think if I did this in the future, I might have everyone pull up the article on their laptops so they could refer to them for quotations, or to de-stress kids who don’t want to mischaracterize something they read.) I did almost no talking. I just kept silent, and let kids share in the whole class. Pro tip: sometimes I find it’s effective to a little silence go for 20 or 30 seconds, and then someone else will say something. And if I think things are coming to an end with a tremendous silence, I say “okay, we have time for one more thing.”
Then after they shared, I brought us together as a class. To talk a bit about allyship specifically, I read this paragraph from Anthony Bonato’s piece on being a gay mathematician aloud (this was something most students mentioned when talking about the pieces… it stood out to them):
I didn’t experience explicit discrimination until I was working on my doctorate. One of the professors in my Department told me to be careful about being open about my sexuality, as it would make professors and students uncomfortable. He thought he was doing me a favor, I think. I nodded politely and buried the incident away in my memory. Being gay often involves so many of these small defeats, these small let downs, that it becomes part of our everyday experience.
In two classes, I asked students “If you wanted to be a strong ally and they were in the professor’s shoes, what are actions you could take to support Anthony?”
In one class, we talked more about Autumn Kent (who is a mathematician who is trans). And I asked where in the piece she mentions how to be an ally, and we reviewed that together
Sometimes we need a shoulder, or an ear. Or just some normalcy.
The thing I think most people don’t see is the constant underlying dread, anxiety, stress, and anguish that a lot of us are carrying around. A lot of the time I am walking to and from my daily tasks, my inner voice hoarse from screaming. After the election I would be out and hear people making small talk about the sunshine and I’d want to tear out my hair. When I am doing bureaucratic tasks at work, I am carrying all of my anguish. When I am teaching and getting a laugh from my class I am carrying my anguish. When I am writing that email. When I am in the elevator or at the water fountain. When you ask how it’s going I am frozen. I am saturated with grief.
Listen to us.
In all my classes, I had to come out during this discussion. And I did it by explaining why I had them do this assignment… I talked about when I was in high school, there weren’t really any out kids, and definitely no out teachers (that I knew about), and no real representation of the queer community. And how I’m so happy times have changed, and hearing stories is such a big part of that. And so I wanted to share these stories, to show that being a mathematician does have something to do with sexuality and gender identity… because being a mathematician means being in a community with other people. I ended by sharing the quotation that stuck out the most to me, because I felt it a lot in my first years of teaching. It was from Anthony Bonato’s piece:
We edit ourselves by asking internally a series of questions. While lecturing does the audience think less of me if they know I am gay? When colleagues talk about their family over dinner is it OK for me to join in and talk about [my] husband too? Am I acting too queer in front of my students?
And I mentioned that lots of people in all sorts of marginalized communities do this kind of editing, because they don’t know what’s in the hearts and minds of people who are around them. Which is why being an ally can be so important — to show what’s in your heart and mind.
I remember when I first started teaching, saying I was gay was something I thought I didn’t need to do to students or other faculty members. I’m a math teacher. I was still getting my bearing and earning my stripes. Would it come in the way of me getting my stripes? Would students use it against me? Why would it ever matter in our math class? But I know it does matter. Because when I was younger, there was no one. No representation. It’s not that I didn’t think I could be a mathematician. It was worse. I thought that I was alone in the world, and I was wrong in the world. And so in this activity, it would have been disingenuous to not come out, if only to honor the transformation I’ve gone through from my youth to today.
Regardless, if you are a math teacher and are wondering if there is a way to push the needle forward in your classroom on LGBTQ+ issues, maybe try something simple like this. You don’t have to be queer or trans, it only takes 10 or 15 minutes of class time, and it sends a signal out there that you are an ally and care. About these stories, and implicitly to your students, about your students’ stories.
Update: It’s Friday evening now. It has been an impossibly long week, with late nights. And parent night on Thursday night keeping me at school until 9pm. I’ve been exhausted. But I want to archive one more moment from Friday.
It was after a lunch meeting. Our school has something called “CCEs” (continuing the conversation events) where student leaders lead discussions on important topics. Today’s CCE was around Ally Week and pronouns. I go to the room. It’s a large classroom for our school, but designed for maybe 20 students. By the time everyone got there, I’d estimate there were over 60 students/faculty in attendance. We watched two videos and then have an interesting discussion. I don’t want to share what was said, since confidentiality was one of our norms. I do want to share what happened to me. I was in the room, and I was overwhelmed by the attendance and the seriousness by which everyone was taking things. And while watching the videos about trans vocabulary and getting everyone on the same page, the video had a section on transitioning. And for some reason, with that word, I was flooded with emotion. My eyes were literally tearing, and I had to keep wiping them for the remaining 20 minutes. I was afraid if I spoke aloud to share my thoughts, I would start speaking and my voice would start warbling and then descend into sobs. So I didn’t speak. I don’t know what evoked this big emotion. In my mind were the multiple memoir books I’ve read about trans women. In my mind was the TV show Pose and documentary Paris is Burning. In my mind I was surrounded by kids who cared, and maybe a kid or two who identified or were in the process of identifying as trans. In my mind was all the hardships trans people face that we couldn’t even start to understand. In my mind was the many murders of trans people. In my mind was simultaneously hope and despair. And so I kept looking up at the ceiling, and wiping my eyes, hoping no one would see me. Because we were watching videos and everyone was sharing super interesting things.
I was happy when it was over and I could go wipe my eyes properly in the math office. I tissued my eyes dry, no one was around. Then a colleague/friend walked in and we started speaking about the CCE, and just a few words out of my mouth and what I feared would happen in the CCE happened. My voice warbled and the tears just started flowing. I don’t know why. I was exhausted. I was emotional. I couldn’t speak. I tried to explain in the 30 seconds we had, then I wiped my tears away, stuffed a few extra tissues into my pocket, and went to teach my 90 minute class. I walked into the door, took a few breaths, and said “Happy Friday Everyone,” before getting us started on combinatorics.