Saturday, February 22, 2014

international competitiveness in STEM

An unedited email I sent to our communications team after one of our co-CEOs published an op-ed about equity in STEM education and named, as a motivating reason, that "young Americans will be competing for fulfilling, stable jobs in STEM fields against a cadre of youth in China and India." This article wasn't the worst of the genre I've seen, but felt like the straw that broke the camel's back in terms of my silence about how this argument feels to me and a number of my AAPI colleagues and peers.

The op-ed that EVB co-wrote about STEM education-- and its implications for our country's economic future-- broke my heart. Not because I don't think we should be preparing more students to be successful in STEM fields, but because the rationale shared, like so many other arguments for STEM education these days, centers on international competitiveness. When advocates drum up urgency around American students being less prepared for the future than students in other-- particularly Asian-- countries, and single out China and India rather than countries like Canada, Germany, or Finland, they make a nationalistic appeal that scares me.

It doesn't scare me because I don't love this country; in fact, this country and the opportunities available here lifted me and my family out of centuries of generational poverty and political oppression-- and I am forever indebted to the United States of America for it. It doesn't scare me because I don't want to see this country succeed; a country magical enough (however imperfect) that my parents willingly traded their families, their language, and their culture for decades of discrimination, taunts, and limited opportunities, is a country I want to see succeed.

It scares me because in this country that I love and so desperately want to see succeed, there's a long history of Asian Americans being portrayed as the enemy-- as foreign, as the Other, as the "yellow peril," and as an aggressive threat to national well-being that must be defended against. In the late 19th century, Chinatowns were systematically burned to the ground and immigrants (and their native-born children) were chased from their homes because Californians didn't want Chinese Americans competing for their business or their jobs. During the early 20th century, fear of the "Asian invasion" meant that Asian Americans were denied citizenship based on their race (even though the Fourteenth Amendment stipulated citizenship for anyone born in this country; Asian Americans were considered the exception) and outright forbidden from entering this country through the Chinese Exclusion Act (which meant that many workers became permanently separated from their families, since if they went home to visit they'd never be allowed to reenter). Let's not forget Japanese internment during WWII, despite the fact that many Japanese men-- many of whom came from families who'd been here for generations and had never left this country-- enlisted to fight and die for the United States, or that only about thirty years ago, Vincent Chin was brutally beaten and murdered by a Chrysler plant superintendent and his son who blamed him (and people who look like him) for layoffs due to increasing international competitiveness within the auto industry. And that's just East Asian American history.

I don't doubt for a second that our students (students of color and women in particular) need really strong STEM educations to prepare them for jobs. In fact, I'd take it a step further and suggest that strong STEM educations aren't just about jobs; they're also about justice for a group of students who have been systematically denied economic, political, and institution power by a society that would have them believe that STEM is for smart people and they're not smart, or that STEM is objective, rational, and dispassionate, in ways that limit their access and influence. I don't doubt for a second that our world is globalizing, and our fates are more closely connected with the fates of human beings in other countries than they ever have been before.

However, I also know the cost of gaining ground at the expense of a marginalized group.

So, when the co-CEO of Teach For America signs her name to an op-ed that names Chinese and Indian youth as better positioned to fill jobs than Americans, and when a staff member recently said to one of my Asian American colleagues that "I have been to your homeland because I need my students to know who they have to beat," it breaks my heart. It breaks my heart that we are constructing an argument that minimizes what I believe is the real purpose and value of STEM education and in doing so, reinforcing the status of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners in a way that contributes to our ongoing stigmatization.

As a woman of color-- who works in education so that all students of color and especially girls have access to the jobs, understandings, and power that they deserve, as an Asian American, and as someone whose career thus far has been deeply rooted in STEM education, I'm asking you: please join me in shifting the narrative from being "we need better STEM education so American students win and Chinese/Indian students lose" towards "we need better STEM education so our students can be equal participants in a civic society that for too long has denied them their basic humanity."

Monday, January 6, 2014

18 days

Because it's been a while since I've written about math. Not much to say now, either, except that I'm still in the slog of creating summer school curriculum, feeling blah about it both because creating good curriculum is impossibly hard work and people spend their entire careers trying to get it right, and because there are far more interesting problems in the teacher education world I'd rather be contemplating. Curriculum is just not my cup of tea.

I could say all sorts of things about summer school, and what it does/doesn't do for students, and what is/isn't possible with novice teachers, but instead, I'm just sharing a video we created last summer, mostly to remind myself how much can be accomplished in 18 days. This is from summer school-- credit recovery, not enrichment, students who'd failed their previous math class-- in a large urban district, with (experienced but out-of-state) teachers who engaged in our summer pilot and graciously allowed us to film their practice so we could demonstrate some of the type of math instruction toward which we aspire to train our teachers. Mathematical agency is a blanket term we're using to describe a number of difficult-to-describe student outcomes that go beyond academic mastery and personal growth, like empowerment and belonging and confidence and joy. Fuzzy, I know. Don't worry, there are plenty of other videos besides this one-- videos that focus on things like mathematical skill and student discourse. They just don't make me smile quite the same way.

password: math
Creative and technical artistry from my colleague, Megan Rossman, and her team. 

Saturday, January 4, 2014

home (notes to self)

I have a few threads I need to tie together:

I finally tried a new salon today; the one I'd been going to for four years made me feel like I was trading a little bit of my dignity for good hair, what with the constant questions about my favorite Japanese restaurant, my favorite Vietnamese restaurant, my favorite Chinese restaurant, have I ever tried Korean food, why people like me all have such thick hair (I don't) and look so much younger than we are (no, I'm not still trying to decide my undergraduate major), when all I, captive, really wanted to talk about was the weather. Since I now live closer to Chinatown than to this salon, I headed that direction and had my hair cut by a man about my age, who knew exactly what to do with my Asian but not archetypically Asian hair, and chatted instead about the time his auntie had visited my ancestral homeland, which soap operas are best for learning 漢字, and yes, the weather. His fluency-- in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese, depending on which clients walked in and whose babies or vacations they were talking about-- made me feel unexpectedly hollow, sharply aware of what I could have been (could be?) had I not spent so much of my childhood hating and hiding my Asian-ness.

I'm still reading Teaching to Transgress; there's a lot more to reflect on there, but a throwaway line caught my eye: bell hooks describing Afro-Caribbean students "who had a sense of a home outside the United States that they could return to-- cultures, places of origin," and how that influences the way they interact with texts. Differently, she implies, from how African American students had interacted with the same texts in her previous courses.

My parents chose to come here. They gave up and continue to give up an extraordinary amount to be Americans, which makes me proud to be one, and makes me wonder how I'd feel if it hadn't been a choice: if my people had been forcibly brought here, or if they'd been here first and forcibly dispossessed, or if they'd fled war or famine or other forms of untimely death wrought by Western imperialism. Not that colonization, political oppression, ethnically-motivated abuse, and generational poverty are exactly absent from my recent family history-- and part of why my parents chose to leave their homes-- but the perpetrators by and large shared the same skin color as their victims (although Franny Choi reminds us what it means for Asians to unite (h/t @hongwon)), and it happened across an ocean (although it is true that the first white person my father ever saw stepped off a US military vehicle). There's something to this that makes me wrestle with where I/we sit in the settler/colonizer/colonial narrative, and then:

They are also choosing to go back.

Because why not go back to where you're from-- where your family is, where you can speak your own language, where you'll belong-- once you've wrung your adopted land/culture/institutions of what you think they'll give you (always a little more and a little less than you'd hoped)? In my work, we do a lot of talking about where people are from, how that does or doesn't match where they teach, and what type of support is subsequently most fitting. We champion teachers who work in the same communities where their parents marched in civil rights rallies, pilot differentiated programming for teachers whose students' families are border-crossers or border-crossed like their own, and advocate for teachers to work with communities of people who share their identity and experiences (yes, my parents did once tell me they didn't come here for me to be a teacher).

But where I'm from has no easy geographical correspondence. The place where I grew up was mostly devoid of people who shared my identity and experiences, and those who share my identity and experiences-- well, part of being from a displacement and dispersal narrative means that others like you are not exactly huddled in an urban ethnic enclave. Given the history, laws, and politics of multiple countries, there aren't all that many people whose immigration stories match my own, and when I tried to teach in a place where I might generalize more broadly to a pan-Asian American experience, I was sent to rural North Carolina instead.

So where do I go back to?

This question is both literal-- I'm still not convinced the city I live in is the one where I ought to, and my wanderlust continues to grow-- and metaphorical-- while Google suggests these terms are used somewhat interchangeably, it is not a third place I am still looking for (Oldenburg), nor what it means to have a third culture (diplomats, expats) but rather my third space (Bhabha).

Sunday, December 29, 2013


It's been a rough fall. Within two weeks in November, I broke up with my manager (who has been making me feel unsafe and devalued) without leaving my job, broke up with my significant other of 4 years (who will be someone else's wonderful life companion but not mine), and stumbled through a series of indignities as the senior leadership at my employer deftly and continuously mishandled a public (at least internally) incident of anti-Asian American racism. Of course, none of these were isolated events; much had led up to them, and much continues to unfold.

All told, I've been proud of the choices I've made this fall. Unlike other points in my life where I've felt trapped or angry or listless or frustrated, I haven't compartmentalized and ignored the feelings, nor have I thrown myself into a whirl of diversionary activity. I've confronted them in ways that have required being vulnerable and asking for help: two things I am not very good at, but am getting better at, which I like to believe is a sign of maturity. I've sought and found support in my people-- friends, colleagues, and advocates, some of whom love me unconditionally, some of whom push me just the right amount, and others of whom do both-- but also found more strength in myself than I had expected. Enough, in fact, to turn around and reach out to others who were hurting when I thought I could barely handle my own pain. I kept expecting a collapse of some sort-- self-destructive behavior, medicating, utter emptiness-- but it hasn't happened. Instead, I've done a list of things I didn't think I would be capable of doing.

And yet, I feel as though I need some year-end ceremony, some symbolic cleansing or healing or declaration that these events do not define me, so that I can stop waking up in the middle of the night worrying or seeking absolution in fluffy novels, unable to truly find joy even on my winter vacation. Gratitude rituals and expressions of caring are my go-to, but I'm finding myself needing something more or different now, and that's likely why I'm turning to books like the one from which I borrowed the title of this post (Thich Nhat Hanh, which shouldn't be a surprise if you've read my last post).

It has always helped me, in times of stress and confusion, to reassure myself that at least I am learning and growing. I am an obsessive learner, so it is comforting to presume that some personal gain will come of my struggle. I am okay, because I am getting through this and I will come out the other side wiser, kinder, and more skilled at handling difficult situations. But focusing on what I am learning is also another distraction from truly empathizing with myself (have you seen this RSA short on empathy vs. sympathy yet?) and acknowledging and accepting how I'm feeling: fearful, anxious, uncertain, wavering between blindly/exuberantly/faithfully optimistic and sometimes actually confident. So perhaps I need to get past that, and stop my sentence sooner: to strike the "because" and the rationalization, and just let myself be okay.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

if the helper is unhappy, he or she cannot help many people

From her essay Engaged Pedagogy in bell hooks' Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, emphases mine:
"In his work Thich Nhat Hanh always speaks of the teacher as a healer. Like Freire, his approach to knowledge called on students to be active participants, to link awareness with practice. Whereas Freire was primarily concerned with the mind, Thich Nhat Hanh offered a way to thinking about pedagogy which emphasized wholeness, a union of mind, body, and spirit. His focus on a holistic approach to learning and spiritual practice enabled me to overcome years of socialization that had taught me to believe a classroom was diminished if students and professors regarded one another as "whole" human beings, striving not just for knowledge in books, but knowledge about how to live in the world...
That means that teachers must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students. Thich Nhat Hanh emphasized that "the practice of a healer, therapist, teacher or any helping professional should be directed toward his or herself first, because if the helper is unhappy, he or she cannot help many people." In the United States it is rare that anyone talks about teachers in university settings as healers. And it is even more rare to hear anyone suggest that teachers have any responsibility to be self-actualized individuals...
Indeed, the objectification of the teacher within bourgeois educational structures seemed to denigrate notions of wholeness and uphold the idea of a mind/body split, one that promotes and supports compartmentalization... The idea of the intellectual question for a union of mind, body, and spirit had been replaced with notions that being smart meant that one was inherently emotionally unstable and that the best in oneself emerged in one's academic work... There was fear that the conditions of that self would interfere with the teaching process."
I'm not yet sure what I make of this, but a part of me is screaming "yes!" I work with a lot of educators, particularly novice teachers, who are unhappy because they feel as though they can't do enough, or because the challenges they're struggling against seem insurmountable. I was one of these novice teachers, and sometimes still tumble into being one of these educators, because gosh: poverty, racism, oppression, anger, and fear are pretty significant challenges for young people who are smart and hardworking and accustomed to being successful because they're smart and hardworking-- or because they've never tackled anything quite so daunting.

Perhaps it's the psychology major in me, or the introspective navel-gazer, but I've always wanted to add one more piece to the elements of knowing your content and knowing your students (I've also seen/heard this described as knowing your content, knowing your students, and knowing how to teach your content to your students): know yourself. I'm certain this isn't a new idea (citations welcome!), and yet it's so often overlooked. The closest I've seen our organization come is in professional development around Marshall Ganz's story of self, although even that feels like an (important) act of organizing and motivating others by explaining who you are and why you do the work you do, rather than an ongoing journey of becoming yourself. Perhaps we're afraid to live in the ambiguity and uncertainty of never quite knowing because we mistakenly assume that we cannot teach others-- or cannot establish credibility/authority, particularly this early in our careers-- if we don't have it all figured out.

But I think our students, especially teenagers who are wrestling with difficult questions of identity and belonging and values and future within the context of poverty, racism, oppression, anger, and fear, need adults in their lives who are willing to engage in those questions, and who are willing to model themselves that the journey doesn't (and probably shouldn't) stop at the end of one's adolescence. And doing that as a teacher requires much more intentionality and much more humility and much more of all sorts of other things than just knowing mathematics, knowing a group of students, or even knowing how to communicate mathematics to students/how to set up conditions where mathematics is inspiring to students.

Tell me what you make of this passage-- I feel like I've got more to say but need your help in processing further :)

Also, now I want to go back and reread Thich Nhat Hanh through an educator's lens.