Four aspects of culturally relevant teaching

I ended my last blog post with the following line – “It is through the principles of growth mindset that we can begin to shift our discipline from a place laden with anxiety and trauma to a place of nourishing and growth”. My plan was to write a blog post about mathematics anxiety and trauma based on research done by Kasi Allen, and I still plan on doing that, but then Chicago Public School Teachers and Support Staff went on strike. As I picketed alongside my friends (because once an Admiral, always an Admiral), I thought about all the things educators do beyond teaching and support – counseling, advocating, and nourishing (both actually and metaphorically) – to make children feel seen and whole. 

So this first post in a series on math anxiety and trauma will address culturally responsive teaching (CRT) in the mathematics classroom as a way to start the conversation about how we teach math in a way that appeals to children, acknowledges their knowledge and talents, and does not make them anxious anytime the topic of math class comes up.

If we are not careful, CRT can become a buzz word or a generalization that does more harm than good. Teachers may choose images or present scenarios that are stereotypical or inappropriate in an effort to exemplify their cultural responsiveness. But CRT, as I see it, is not about making the mathematical content relevant for specific groups of students, but rather about seeing our students as individuals who are knowledgeable and capable rather than limited. For emerging multilingual students, especially, teachers often focus on accommodations and modifications rather than strengths, without finding out what students know and can do in terms of mathematics.

In their text, Teaching student-centered mathematics: Developmentally appropriate instruction for grades 6-8 (2018), John A. Van de Walle, Jennifer M. Bay-Williams, LouAnn H. Lovin, and Karen S. Karp identify four aspects of culturally responsive instruction:

  1. Communicate high expectations – meaning that we teach important mathematical content and expect all of our students to engage in sense-making as well as explaining their thinking. This may look different for different students but the content and the expectation of justifying your work will not be compromised. When we have high expectations for students we do not shy away from big concepts like rate of change or multiple representations for fear it will be too much for our students. We assess prior knowledge and supplement our plans as needed to have all students learn important mathematical concepts. 
  2. Make content relevant – meaning that we plan with out students in mind and critically examine curricular material to make sure aspects of our students’ lives are reflected. We ask students to make connections between mathematics and their lives and interests in a meaningful way. 
  3. Attend to students’ mathematical identities – meaning that we invite students to include their lived experiences in our lessons, generate problems for the class, present their unique approaches, and use multiple modes of demonstrating knowledge. 
  4. Ensure shared power – in a physical way, this means that we sit at the same level as our students, rather than lecture from a podium. In an intellectual way, this means that we provide students with opportunities to teach while we step back and learn. We expect that students will explain their process and thinking, rather than asking them for an answer and doing all of the explaining ourselves. 

Recently, I asked my students, in a secondary and middle grades math methods courses to think about what we do, what we do not do, and how we modify when needed to address these four aspects of CRT. With their permission, I am sharing their work with you! You can find it here – The Dos and Don’ts of CRT

I would like to thank my wonderful students this term – Wanda, Andrew, Sonia, Daniel, Jackie, Nicole, Cassi, Elizabeth, Pranali, Michael, Kathleen, Nithya, Laura, Jamee, Ross, and Alec. My favorite part of teaching is learning, and I sure learn a lot from you! 

What successes and challenges have you experienced while implementing aspects of CRT in your work? Share them in the comments below! 

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