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LCC Stories

Privilege and Inheriting Chainsaw World

This email was sent to all faculty on May 10th, 2016. I forgot to also send it to all staff, and did that three days later on May 13th, 2016.


The previous Friday was the college Spring Conference of professional development workshops. I had hoped this year's theme would fit the most timely needs of the college (perhaps Open Educational Resources or what could be done about the decreasing enrollment). The theme was "Diversity, Equity & Inclusion" which is something the college is already good at, especially considering the local demographics. Not a bad choice, but I would have preferred to tackle the issues more threatening to the college's health.

The keynote speaker said many nice things about respect and encouragement. Her speach indirectly helped me solidify some thoughts I had been processing about a new syllabus section (see below). As someone unfamiliar with college particulars, she understandably refrained from offering specifics about how to impliment improvement. And she did say a few things that could be interpreted as anti-white or anti-men. On Monday, some e-mails complained that it seemed a bit of a step backward to bash some members of the community without providing steps to move forward. The replies also lacked specifics about moving foward.

So I wrote another e-mail. Somone should provide some steps forward.

The student whom below I call Andrea told me the next time I saw her, "When I got home I told my dad about your announcement, and he was rolling on the floor laughing."

My favorite bit of feedback was, "I never thought about the choice piece. That is true and key. From a psychological standpoint, the students we get at LCC are the very best of those who do not have choice. By showing up anyway, broken and fearful and damaged as they may be, they are demonstrating so much resilience!"

What do you think? Do you agree with how I try below to define the aspect of privilege that most impacts a community college? Do you agree with my two action-item steps for forward progress? Clearly there is more to privilege (ask Steve Locke) but the college needs to start somewhere.

The E-mail

Hi again, folks.

I should respond to Phyllis. She passed along a question...

As you know, we work every single day, with little support, to make education accessible to those who have been traditionally locked out of the ivory tower. My question then, is this, where are the systems broken, where are they breaking people, and where is the support to help us do this incredibly challenging yet fundamental work for equality through education? This is a lens I would like to look through to truly make institutional change."

I have a quick answer. I'll get to that. But first it is story time again.

Also, remember that I teach Math 20. We don't do trigger warnings. Can you imagine if I said, the first day of class, "I am about to talk about fractions. Anyone who has had bad experiences with fractions, or suffered emotional harm because of fractions, might want to leave the classroom?" Most of Math 20 is about recognizing just which inner demons haunt our math ability, and acknowledging how they do that, and then kicking the snot out of them.

The stuff about ratios, percentages, measurement, and geometry is just icing on that cake.

As John Holt once wrote (I sincerely hope you have read How Children Fail), schools too often teach kids that math is a new bunch of problems, instead of how math is a bunch of tools we can use to solve real-life problems.

That's why I brought a chainsaw to class this morning.

I asked one student (let's pretend her name was Andrea) if she was willing to be part of my announcement. She agreed. I checked with her that she was not unusually afraid of chainsaws. I put an old dish-towel on her desk to protect her stuff from oily sawdust, then put my cute shop-tool chainsaw on the desk.

cute little chainsaw

Andrea looked understandably nervous but not actually frightened. Perfect. I began telling a story, saying she could use the chainsaw to add sound effects if she wanted. (She did not. She never even touched it.)

"Imagine with me that Andrea never knew one of her grandfathers very well. She had only met him once, when she was very young. Then she got a phone call from one of that grandfather's friends. Her grandfather had just passed away. He needs to talk to Andrea about what was left to her in the will."

("I hope I get money!" says Andrea.)

"The friend says they should meet at an amusement park named Chainsaw World. Andrea reluctantly agrees. They spend a few hours touring the park. She sees artists carving tree trunks into wooden statues, or carving ice blocks into ice statues. She sees acrobats juggling chainsaws. She sees demonstrations of how to prune a tree using a small chainsaw, or cut firewood using a big chainsaw. There is even an arena where little robots with chainsaw arms fight each other. How does Andrea feel?"

(Everyone looked at Andrea. From her face it was obvious how she felt.)

"Then the friend says, 'Your grandfather owned Chainsaw World. He left it to you in his will. You own this place now. It is your inheritance. I have three questions. First, what questions do you have for me? Second, what do you want to learn about chainsaws? Third, what do you want to do?'"

(I looked to Andrea. She said, with a nervous smile, "Can't I just inherit some money?" The student beside her suggested, "You can just sell the place." Other students were about to contribute, so I resumed talking.)

"Why am I telling you this story? At the end of the previous class, on Thursday of last week, I thanked Andrea for asking so many questions during class. Someone else who was still in the room packing up her backpack mentioned that once in my class there was an incident of a student laughing at someone's question."

(I stop to check in with Andrea. Would she feel more comfortable if I paused my announcement to clean up the props? No. I keep going.)

"Math is like a chainsaw. To some people it is scary, it is a new problem to deal with, and they do not want to touch it. They are not wrong. To other people it is not scary: it might be confusing, but they see math as a tool they can use to solve other problems. They feel they could eventually learn to use the tool. They are not wrong either."

"Math 20 is like inheriting Chainsaw World. Our math topics are part of your inheritance. When the term began, Math 20 probably seemed huge and imposing. You may have had trouble just knowing how to think about it or what questions to ask. Math 20 was a stressful situation dumped in your life. You hoped something good might eventually come from it, but..."

(I hop off the desk and start cleaning up the props. The shrug I make when I pick up the chainsaw completes my sentence.)

"We are starting Week Seven. You have learned a lot. You have had two midterms. You have conquered many fears."

"Most Math 20 students do not leave the class at the end of the term thinking, 'Now I am good at math!' But most do leave thinking, 'I could be good at math! I am certainly now better at math than the average American.' Which is true, if kind of sad."

"I certainly don't want anyone laughing at someone's question. There are no wrong questions from Andrea after she learns she has inherited Chainsaw World. Let's look at something I added to the syllabus."

Items to Respect

• Right answers that show me what I know
• Wrong answers that show me what I know
• Questions and guesses that no matter what the answer show me what I know

• Asking questions to resolve confusion
• Asking questions to calm uncertainty
• Asking questions to explore what happens

• When a math topic is scary
• When a math topic is no longer scary
• When it doesn't matter if a math topic is scary, I am doing it anyways

• Math is a bunch of problems that need answers (I start by hunting for the answer)
• Math is a bunch of problems that need new tools (I start by hunting for the right tool)
• Math is a bunch of tools to answer other problems

• When I can first see something in class, and then learn by myself
• When I can first see something in class, and then learn in a group
• When I can first see something by myself, and then learn by myself
• When I can first see something by myself, and then learn in a group

• Trying to fix an ignorance arising from never before having been taught that topic at all
• Trying to fix an ignorance arising from never before having been taught that topic skillfully
• Trying to fix an ignorance no matter what its source
• Establishing accountability for learning and growth

End of my story. With my class I go over that list of Items to Respect, most of which I have talked about before. I also have previously shared with my students highlights from some essays about motivation, changing habits, and how to be a chooser even when reactive.

So, back to Phyllis's question: where are the systems broken and where are they breaking people?

I know what privilege sounds like.

Privilege can look like many things. But in my experience it almost always sounds like a certain phrase thought or said aloud: "But they always have a choice!"

Many very privileged people think everyone always has a choice. Can't you just choose to shrug off the negative messages? Can't you just choose to spend time with a healthy group of friends? Can't you just study more? Can't you just choose to avoid alcohol?

Many very privileged people understand that some people do not always have a choice. (The negative messages will eventually penetrate. There is no functional crowd to hang out with. Worrying about how to afford food tomorrow totally destroys the ability to do homework. Drinking is what men in that place must do.) Yet they fail to see the deeper truth.

The deeper truth is twofold. No one always has a choice. Moreover, for people who are privileged the lack of choice is often a lack of the option to fail. Someone was there (of course!) to encourage you so the negative messages did not sink in. Someone was there (of course!) to steer you away from the unhealthy friends to the more functional crowd. Someone was there (of course!) to make you do your homework whether you wanted to or not. Someone was there (of course!) to keep your drinking from getting out of hand, or if it was already out of hand to make you deal with the addiction properly.

Why did Andrea arrive in Math 20 afraid of fractions? She had no choice. There are details, but the details do not matter much. Yeah, there was probably some negligence that was her own fault. But mostly she was never given what should have been parts of her inheritance, and what was given was presented to her so unskillfully that instead of tools for her to use it became problems for her to struggle with.

So don't think about systems. At least not yet.

Think about every time you assume someone else had a choice to succeed.

Think about every time you take for granted that you did not have a choice to fail.

That's where to start. That's the quick answer.

The long answer is not any more mysterious, just longer.

It does not help to give students applause, esteem, or grades they do not earn.

What does help is to meet students where they are afraid, genuinely show them why that fear is not their fault, acknowledge that yesterday they were blocked from choosing to succeed, detail precisely how much work claiming their missed inheritance will be, and affirm that today if they have time to try the next steps of that work there are allies in the room who will not let them fail.

-David Van Slyke, Mathematics