Creating Balance in an Unjust World Conference: A Teacher's Perspective on Watching His Students Change the World

posted Mar 21, 2013, 9:22 PM by Brad Kohl   [ updated Mar 22, 2013, 11:57 PM ]
10:40 AM.  San Francisco, California, U.S.A.  Sunday, January 20, 2013.

Breck Advanced Mathematics Research Students Nicholas Thyr, Daniel Bergerson and Eden Motto begin their workshop, Mathematics Serving the Community:  Empowering Community Organizations with Youth Research, at the 2013 Creating Balance in an Unjust World math and social justice conference.

12:00 PM.  San Francisco, California, U.S.A.  Sunday, January 20, 2013.

Mathematics education in the United States has been forever changed.  A little bit.  And it’s not going back to the way it was.


What made this conference special?  I’ve been to countless math conferences and presented at nearly as many.  This time the students were teaching.  More important, the adults were listening.  These adults were teachers, but mostly education professors, methods instructors (those who teach teachers how to teach), and doctoral students in math education and curriculum design.  They came from universities such as Harvard, Columbia, and UC-Berkeley.  My students are teaching those who teach teachers how to teach how to teach teachers to teach.

This is a bittersweet moment for me.  As much as I want to claim ownership of my students, I can’t.  It’s true that I helped them develop the tools to have a credible voice, but for me to take credit for their work is like the hammer taking credit for the finished house.  It’s more than me, more than I could have imagined.

The choreographed ballet of their presentation leaves me transfixed as an unexpected front row guest.  Eden effervescent about creating an opera with fourth graders during May Program about the life of Gandhi.  Nick’s droll sense of humor describing the trials and tribulations of invading St. Paul neighborhoods to measure boulevard trees.  Daniel excitedly describing the empathy assessments he’s creating for the new music nonprofit ACME, all the while pressing his audience for ways to make it better.  And everyone jumping in with that special idea or thought that tied everything together.

“My” program is being played out in front of me.  Gone are the day-to-day goals, the last-minute tweaks to a PowerPoint slide, and an iPad that bizarrely transcribes student speech into something about “Catholic Oldsmobiles”.  Young adults are speaking with confidence and authority on topics they’re passionate about, embodying the “Student Work, Student Voice” tenet of math research.

The presentation ends with table discussions, led by Nick, Daniel and Eden, on how to incorporate the ideas and philosophies of math research into participants’ individual settings and programs.  “End” really isn’t the right word, because these conversations are just the beginning.  A half-hour after the scheduled ending time, we finally break for lunch. 

During lunch attendees bring their colleagues to meet the students.  People ask to join them, and sit with notebooks writing down words of advice and inspiration.  The conversation flows freely from university grants to community clients to program design.  I sit in awe and simply listen as this group of young adults intelligently and professionally guide professors along new pathways of teaching.

As Eden said in her senior speech, “Education should not be the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.”  Many fires were lit that day.

*Apologies for the badly photoshopped photo.  In our excitement over the workshop, we forgot to take a picture of ourselves  The setting is Mission High School in San Francisco and the faces are ours.  The bodies are not. But, whatever.  Everyone has a body double in California.