Friday, March 31, 2017

Hidden Figures

Last Friday, every student at the arts-focused public middle school where I teach math walked to a nearby theater to see Hidden Figures, the 2016 movie about African-American women who were essential to the success of the early US space program, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly. We were accompanied by most of the school staff, including our principal and assistant principal, as well as dozens of family chaperone volunteers, a crowd totaling more than 400 people. Seeing the film together and talking about it afterwards with one of my classes were some of the most meaningful and fulfilling experiences I've had as a teacher, and I feel so much love and pride for my whole school community.

A lot of people made that field trip happen, but I was the main force behind it and grew almost obsessed with it, and I want to write about why. As a math teacher, I've become more and more focused on equity in math education and passionate about inclusion and empowerment, and this event sprang from that passion. I love helping my students love math and become confident and competent mathematicians and problem solvers, but I've never lost the memory of what it feels like to know others think you don't belong in math or science and to wonder if maybe they are right. I know that having good intentions and promoting logical thought isn't enough by itself to counteract the fog of racism we all live in, and that STEM fields are still unstable territory for girls and women in our culture. As a math teacher, I have the responsibility and the privilege to help make things better. Sometimes I manage it, and sometimes I still fall short of where I would like to be, but I have to believe that if I keep caring and educating myself, I will be more and more effective at raising everyone up as mathematicians, students, and citizens. I'm fortunate to teach in a time when we can collect and share resources to do that.

As soon as I started seeing information about Hidden Figures last fall, I was hooked. It sounded almost too good to be true — a fun, feel-good, PG film that brings STEM and civil rights achievements by Black women in the early 1960s into the light, shows the excitement of the intellectual accomplishments behind the space program, features stellar actors, and puts a mathematician center stage as a heroine — wow! I read a blog post by a fellow member of the "MathTwitterBlogosphere" (#MTBoS), Delaware physics and math teacher John Burk, with the subject "Let's Start a Movement for Hidden Figures," and thought a school field trip would be a fantastic idea if the movie turned out to be as terrific as it looked. Teachers in my professional learning community at school were intrigued with the idea and interested in working on it, and the school administrators, the school Site Council, the Equity and Climate and Culture Committees, and every other teacher who heard about it were positive and supportive.

As more previews were posted and early rave reviews came out in the media and from STEM educators, I got more and more eager to have my students see this story of courage and accomplishment. I made my screensaver into the picture of Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and her coworkers marching down the hall, posted about it on Twitter, and got an "I LOVE THIS!!" retweet from one of the actors in the picture (fun!!). The week Hidden Figures came out in local theaters, I showed all my math classes previews and a brief clip of the real mathematician Katherine Johnson (now 98) and told them about my own excitement. One African-American girl had seen it before the regular release date, and had watched the previews enough that she was mouthing along to all the words... about women doing math and engineering! A Black mom of another girl later told me the family went to see the movie and thanked me, saying, "I think it’s great that she’s being exposed to careers that require a good math knowledge." Several Black and multiracial girls told me about doing their Social Studies current event assignments on the real-life figures from the movie. White students and boys also went to see it and told me how much they loved it. After a snow-related delay, I finally saw it myself with my own teenage son and we both found it incredibly moving and thought-provoking (and the whole, full theater cheered at the end). As I had expected to be, I was struck by the main characters' heroism as individuals, but I was also impressed with how well the movie showed teamwork and support, how accurately it portrayed math as problem solving, and by the complicated story line about Dorothy Vaughan promoting her whole group's skills and successes and anticipating how the IBM computer would change their workplace.

It was around this point that my enthusiasm for a whole-school field trip moved to determination, especially when our principal went to see Hidden Figures and became one of the strongest proponents of a whole-school field trip, and when our school counselor encouraged me to follow through with planning and generously shared materials, tips, and work from her experience on similar trips. The whole thing took a ton of planning and support: honestly, I might have hesitated more if I had realized how much I was asking from our secretaries and counselor, especially. But I could not have asked for a more positive, can-do attitude from the whole community, and it made the whole thing stay fun and inspiring. Just about the entire staff worked on organizing permission forms and payments and sponsorships, even the school nurse, who wouldn't even be at our site that day. For our professional learning community (PLC) one afternoon, a dance teacher, a social studies teacher, the principal and I had one of my favorite school meetings ever, as we brainstormed about curriculum for teachers to use the afternoon of the movie viewing. Staff, students, and parents thanked me so many times for leading this effort that I lost count, and it was so encouraging to know they were happy about it. Even the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics president, Matt Larson, was talking about Hidden Figures on his NCTM blog the same week as our trip!

The day of the trip, I was a little edgy as our large crowd walked to the theater, wondering how it would go, but the kids were in excellent spirits and great fun, and I don't think I heard any complaints on the 3/4 mile walk, even though it rained all the way (our native Portlanders were completely unphased by that). We actually split across two theaters, and it was pretty awe-inspiring to see how many people were there in each. I loved seeing the movie just as much the second time. The kids seemed totally absorbed during the movie, though in our theater they were quieter and more solemn than I expected (except with Octavia Spencer's line to the white supervisor, "I'm sure you believe that."... that got a vocal reaction!). I was delighted and a little relieved when they clapped as the credits rolled. It seemed fitting that the sun unexpectedly came out for our walk back. Everybody seemed happy to have this experience together and I heard such a positive response to the movie from those who had seen it for the first time, both students and adults.

After lunch, we split up into our sixth period classes, and using our PLC's discussion guide which was a lot like this one (in which I edited out a few questions that originated elsewhere), we talked through these questions:
  • What did you think of the movie? Did you enjoy it? 
  • What questions or feelings did it leave you with?
  • Why do you think we spent school time seeing this movie?
  • What does the term “Hidden Figures” refer to?
  • In the movie, we saw many times characters were treated unfairly because they were Black. Which three examples stood out most to you?
  • What character attributes and/or actions did you admire most about Katherine Johnson (the mathematician), Dorothy Vaughan (the manager who taught herself how to program the computer), and/or Mary Jackson (the engineer)? [I also ended up asking them which was their favorite; as I expected, Mary, played by the glamorous and fun Janelle MonĂ¡e, was in the lead, but I was surprised that at least a third of them picked serious, ultra-competent Dorothy Vaughan.]
  • In the film, Space Task group director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) was depicted as a heroic breaker of boundaries when he smashed down the “Colored Women” restroom sign. Unlike many of the dramatic moments in the movie, this incident was entirely made up. In real life, Katherine Johnson herself chose to use the restroom white women used. Why do you think the screenwriter and filmmakers added this incident? Do you think adding this incident improved the movie? Why or why not?
  • What was most striking to you about how men treated women in this movie, and how women treated each other? What aspects of how women were treated do you think seem similar to our times, and what seemed different?
Just two hours before spring break, almost all of my sixth grade class members were intent on considering weighty questions and issues about history and justice and racism and sexism. One girl wondered, "Why were these women 'hidden'? Why didn't we all know this history?" These eleven- and twelve-year-old students were so insightful, intelligent, and empathetic that I couldn't possibly do justice to the whole discussion here. I was so incredibly proud of them. I did write down their answers to the question, "What examples of characters being treated unfairly because they were Black stood out to you?" so you can get an idea of how observant and thoughtful they were. This list was generated not just by a few kids, but from a majority of kids in the room:
  • Dorothy Vaughan and her kids were chased out of the library by the security guard (and she pays taxes for libraries!).
  • Katherine Johnson's coworkers set up a "Colored" coffee pot for her... and it was empty.
  • The bathrooms and drinking fountains were segregated, and the courthouse and bus had "colored seats in back." Separate was NOT equal: the things labeled "colored" were dirtier and cheaper. White people acted like this segregation was right, using words like "your kind". 
  • Mary Jackson couldn't access the class she needed to because of the segregated night school.
  • Katherine Johnson's new coworkers assumed she was the custodian.
  • Paul Stafford kept telling Katherine Johnson that computers can't be authors of technical papers. [Actually, I think the way she was restricted to being a computer was more about her being a woman, but it wasn't completely clear.]
  • Mrs. Mitchell claimed to Dorothy Vaughan that "I don't have anything against you all," which was obviously false (and even the way she talked about black women as if they weren't people like her was insulting).
  • Dorothy Vaughan was doing a supervisor's work, but without the credit or pay.
  • When the police officer approached the women by their broken-down car, he assumed they were doing something wrong, and they were scared of what he would do.

We had been afraid that the hour would drag by as we teachers tried to convince kids to have a serious conversation when their minds would be on the Talent Show that followed it and, of course, on the start of spring break right after the show. Instead, we had a fascinating and vigorous discussion that I was sorry to cut short. Kids even asked if we could continue it the Monday after spring break!

I went to the Talent Show full of fondness for my own class around me, the wonderful performers who included my present and past students, and the adults that support them in their arts and in their studies. Da Vinci teachers regularly go so far beyond classroom teaching. Our drama, dance, visual arts, music, and writing teachers do incredible work to bring our students' art to the wider community and bring professionals to the students; a math teacher is one of the Talent Show organizers and a mentor to the student rock band; a language arts teacher organizes a yearly trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in southern Oregon; our science teachers have kids work on community projects; our social studies teachers have them engage with the broader world as citizens in so many ways; our librarian just spent many lunchtimes and a Saturday with kids doing Oregon Battle of the the Books; the list just goes on and on. I volunteer to assist with some of these events, but usually I feel like my community contributions are limited to my classroom role and General Adult Help. It was inspirational to have my own idea and to be supported and given the freedom to carry it through, which was an experience that makes me appreciate my school and its administration and staff even more. And although it's nothing new for me to get resources and ideas from my online math teacher community, this was yet another time that they helped me create something better than I ever could have on my own.

I was already elated with the entire day, but it got even better when the assistant principal thanked me from stage during the Talent Show for organizing it, and the whole school cheered — what an incredible feeling! From what I heard from teachers at lunch and after school, they also loved the whole event, both the movie and the discussion afterwards in their classrooms. As if all that weren't enough, one of those teachers sent the most amazing email the next day to me and the counselor and the secretaries. Here's the part that brought tears to my eyes: "Of everything I've been involved in at dV, this was the most rewarding and was true community building from the heart. [...] Overall, what amazing kiddos we have!! Thank you guys was so meaningful."

So I started spring break with a full heart, in the best way. It felt good to contribute to community building, good to do a little bit to move society forward, and absolutely fantastic to have 389 kids see this movie and love it. I am so proud of our kids and our community, and grateful to Hidden Figures that we are all more educated on this story than we were last year. What will happen next with our community discourse on race, gender, workplaces, schools, justice, film, math, science, technology, engineering, heck, the whole world? I don't know, but I can't wait to see where we go.