Summit Reflections with Identity and Empowerment in Mathematics

Hey y’all,

It was wonderful getting to see so many folks in our TFAmily this weekend and the Fall Summit. I got to hear some really exciting updates from our math folks across the region and also was able to spend a lot of time collaborating with some of us in the Identity and Empowerment in Mathematics workshop. I’d like to share some of the strategies, ideas, and questions we had in that workshop, but I first have to start with some of the broad themes I saw from this time together…

The first thing  on my mind is the clear connection between our workshop on the importance of identity and the stories from our opening speakers. Kimberly Merchant of the Mississippi Center for Justice spoke about how her teachers’ failure to push her potential led her to just sort of slide along for years, until a professor urged her to attend law school. She also mentioned the major motivation for attending college was to get as far away as possible from her home on the gulf coast. It makes you wonder how things might have been different had a teacher operated from a standpoint of cultural competence – building in a critical eye for Ms. Merchant’s community while also seeking out and affirming the positive models and history of the same place. How many Mississippi students view “escape” as the only viable option, leading to a continuous brain-drain from the region? How might Mississippi look in 15, 20, or 30 years if students right now saw the challenges but also the determination and leadership of those seeking better opportunities for these communities? Front and center when considering identity is the perception of this region as a place to escape, with little to offer – especially to those from historically oppressed communities. This message strikes me as overwhelmingly damaging to the students we serve here, and perpetuates a lack of trust or investment from students since their community is discussed only in terms of deficits. Ms.  Merchant demonstrates that these champions do exist in our communities, but we need to make sure that their stories shine through over the negative stereotypes.

The next speaker, Barbara Logan, is the incoming Executive Director for TFA Mississippi. She discussed the amazing language and analysis her 5 year old niece displays (in particular being able to critique the film adaptation of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day versus the original story), but when she expressed this amazement her niece would only say (to paraphrase) “Of course I can do all of that. You teach me these words, why wouldn’t I use them?” And there is the powerful counter-narrative to Ms. Merchant’s story – the way that we perceive young people is reflected in their perceptions of themselves. For Barbara’s niece, she sees no reason why it is amazing for her to compare and critique and to do so with complex language since that is what is expected of her from the adults in her life. The same role of identity is at play when our math students are told “you are so far behind,” “come on, this is easy,” or “we just went over this.” These messages set the tone of “normal math students can do this. You lack the ability or determination of a normal math student. Something is wrong with you.” It is no surprise then that we see statistics like this:

“…more teenagers name math than any other subject as the course they find most difficult in school.”

  – Furner and Gonzalez-DeHass, 2011

This is where our Identity and Empowerment in Mathematics workshop comes into play. The purpose was to understand our own story with math, consider the implications this has in our work with students, and understand how we can build positive student identities towards mathematics. It is certainly not a feat that can be accomplished in 90 minutes, but we had a fantastic conversation to get us started. My own math story demonstrates the immense privileges I was afforded which helped me gain an appreciation towards mathematics. Indeed, much of our math identity comes from an intersection of race, gender, class, and community. I never had to contend with gender stereotypes that women are not meant to do math or that Asians must adhere to the “model minority” stereotype and excel at arithmetic fluency. Because I was offered Calculus in high school, I did not have to take remedial math courses in college or purchase new technology to succeed in these high-demand courses. How will my students cope when they attend college?

Ethan's Math Autobiography
Ethan’s Math Autobiography

Considering our own math autobiography is vital if we are to positively impact the identity of our students. There is a real danger of placing our own history and values on the shoulders of our students, and expecting them to operate and learn the same way we we did despite our separate lived experiences. And there again is that sneaking accusation of “normal math students can do this.” We are defining normalcy through our own experience, and demanding that students meet us there rather than us as teachers seeking to understand and empower them through their own unique assets.

At this point in the workshop, after building and discussing our math autobiographies, we  considered how culturally aware our students currently are and what our role is in this awareness. Through a set of student interview questions aligned to culturally-responsive teaching, we sought to understand how our students perceive the intersection of math, knowledge, and learning. There was a common theme from many of the teachers’ interviews, a few of which I’ve posted below:

“Broadly speaking, my higher students and my older students said they were more impacted by my class than my lower 6th graders have. The older students say that they can see that I care about them by sending positive messages home and by encouraging them to think independently. The other students said “I don’t know” or by helping me pass the class.” – Ms. A.

“I see two broad types of responses and attitudes towards math and school in general. My students who have had success in school and math feel very confident in their abilities and see the importance of learning and how it connects to their future goals. My students who have struggled have little to no confidence and don’t see much if any connection between what happens in school and what really matters to them.” – Mr. M.

“My non-honors students struggle with protecting something about themselves in my math class,whether that is their reputation amongst peers or their ego and pride. A good third of my students responded in technical terms: their understanding of math and knowledge as well as teacher relationships were cold and not personalized, i.e. that I am here to “help them learn better” or “teach them math”; math was discussed in broad terms and along the lines of “it is important to be successful in school.” I was surprised to see some students reply with a personal investment in math, for example that succeeding in math would make the family happy, but that was far less the case than the norm, and I’m curious to hear how others are helping students ‘humanize’ their math experiences in the classroom” – Mr. K.

While it is perhaps easy to see a progression of lower math grades –> disinvestment in math –> limited cultural affirmation and identity awareness, I would ask that we instead see the opposite progression as the reality. When students do not recognize their potential as capable creators of knowledge, they lose investment in the purpose and process of the content, and ultimately fail to perform. While it is more obvious to see the student as failing math, we as culturally-responsive teachers must consider the ways that the math is failing the student: How are we affirming their potential as math thinkers? Are we designing tasks that reach all students through complex, multiple representations or approaches? Do we listen and incorporate learning when students voice frustration about systems and structures that frustrate them? Do our assessments push students to reflect on their strengths and next-steps or merely stamp them with a defining number to reflect how much they do not understand?

And that sort of self-reflection – not for the purpose of “shaming” teachers but rather so that we can continuously improve our alignment to student needs and assets – is what can help us stop this progression of disempowerment in math class from the very seeds of identity. This Thoreau quote often comes to mind:

“What lies before us and what lies behind us are small matters compared to what lies within us.
And when we bring what is within out into the world, miracles happen.”

And with that we dove into discussion of how our class structure can empower students. Here’s some of our brainstorming:

2014-10-18 17.35.14 2014-10-18 17.35.522014-10-18 17.36.42 2014-10-18 17.36.22

From there, we considered six specific methods that are demonstrative of culturally responsive teaching in math. They, along with specific examples, can be found here. In summary, math teachers should:

  1. Use familiar modes of communication.
  2. Make analogies between new content and students’ lived experiences.
  3. Bring in community members to share math-related applications.
  4. Choose relevant contextual problems.
  5. Choose relevant instructional tasks and projects.
  6. Choose a relevant unifying theme or essential question for a unit.

And so all of this culminates with where we are right now – we have a real potential to empower students in their math identities and change the trend of math being seen as innate and inaccessible. The challenge is in how willing we are to look at ourselves and deeply consider from where our values about math came and how our class is impacting the identities of our students. Perhaps more than any other actor, math teachers hold the greatest power to unlock the latent potential of students and help students see themselves as capable leaders. We have to stop using the excuse that the failures of the past and the challenges of the future shackle us from doing just that. We need a stubbornness in conviction that insists that every one of our students has the capability to achieve excellence; that they are worth empowering. Because ultimately, the saying holds true:

“We see things not as they are, we see things as we are.”


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