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  • Writer's pictureLou Matthews

Here's How I Think About Culturally Relevant Teaching in Mathematics: 3 Keys to Getting Started

Sometimes culturally relevant teaching gets lost in all of the other stuff about 'good teaching'. If you aren't careful it is easy to miss it...It wasn't until I began to look 'away' from the school and really into the communities themselves where I began to appreciate the possibilities of mathematics teaching and learning.

[Updated from original blog post 4/16/18]

The whole idea of being in Africa was a big draw for me in wanting to experience more of my culture in our classrooms. In reality, teaching in Ghana was much of the kind of teaching I have seen everywhere, particularly in urban communities and communities of color. After 25 years of mathematics teaching, research and leadership, and countless personal and community interactions I've seen the same thing: Classrooms of under engaged students practicing the most bland kind of unconnected mathematics activity, mostly in the hands of top-down 'talk' and 'chalk' teaching. Transforming this kind of experience by incorporating challenging, meaningful mathematics tasks and learning is the work of mathematics reformers everywhere.

(Question: What did your mathematics experience look like? Tweet me @loumatthewslive

Compounding the challenge of meaningful math teaching is doing this with stretched resources, ineffective professional development, and stressed teaching environments. All this makes up the status quo of the last quarter century of mathematics education. Reports of persistent mathematics underachievement is easy to find, whether around my own country of Bermuda (here) or US (here). If you're not careful it is easy to get bogged down with the status quo.

I want to share with you some different possibilities. Several days of observing and teaching in classrooms in Ghana rejuvenated my whole thinking about teaching mathematics (see more here) and I share 3 important takeaways below. It wasn't until I looked 'away' from the school itself and focus on the children and their community read previous post: 'When the teaching stopped...the singing began') did I begin to appreciate the possibilities of mathematics teaching in Ghana. The kind of teaching powerful enough to produce achievement success while simultaneously connecting, engaging and empowering children in their community and social identities, we call culturally responsive/relevant.

After spending several lessons observing, I began to look beyond the classroom of Ghanaian teaching. For example, I noticed how closely they played and how they expressed themselves on the playground, in their games, when formal instruction wasn't taking place. One afternoon, I noticed some of the young boys in the middle school were playing a game during an early morning break. It caught my eye because it resembled a game of marbles, more specifically, a version called King's Hole we used to play in Bermuda. I didn't have time for a full lesson in the game, but essentially players take turns 'shooting' smooth pebbles along the ground into a hole centrally located. The first player to reach the hole, wins. Each shot is a judgement of distance, force, direction - all informal measurement ideas. It made sense that it was only after we finished a lesson in a class I had taught on informal measurement that I spotted students using a nonstandard measurement technique with their hands, handspan. A player would place his index finger into the ground followed by his thumb as far apart as possible, making one 'span'. Subsequent counts would be made by It wasn't something that I had seen in middle school classrooms. In watching the children play I was able to see how they reasoned through the game with these informal counts, how they accounted for fractions and argued over 'closeness'.

The encounter left an indelible impression on me. Even with many years advocating culturally responsive teaching, I am constantly and powerfully reminded that the structures of the mathematics classroom don't always allow you to see the precious gold of student cultural intelligence and identity that all students bring to it. So how do we engineer more purposeful culturally responsive teaching in mathematics. Here are three lessons I took from the Ghana Project.

  1. Use a better definition of mathematics - a more human definition. Culturally responsive teaching requires teaching mathematics in ways that leads them to themselves, to community and to a position in the world that is defined by strength, interdependence, critical consciousness, and justice. A more human definition of math is centered in the ways communities act. view and see the world historically and in the present. I'm from Bermuda. For me a Bermuda-centric math must be tied to the ocean, our sense of smallness in a big world, of isolation, of beauty, diversity, and social, racial complexity and economic uncertainty. Encountering children in this created world of math propels students who look like me to make better sense of the world. I suspect the children in Ghana need similar creations of mathematics, as will the classrooms of Baltimore and Washington DC, where I cam currently based. They need not be the same, but I suspect that the kind of mathematics needed for culturally responsive experiences shares similar themes. Messy, yes. But we can embrace messy, unbounded mathematics with ethnic branches as easily as we embrace different branches of math. I love that more people are thinking about this and can't wait for a new publication being released in the next few months doing just that.

  2. Develop a toolbox of resist, reject, redirect and rejuvenate approaches. Culturally responsive teaching is resistance (to the status quo), but also optimistic at the same time. It desperately searches for ways existing mathematics curriculum and tradition might honour culture and community while always innovating to reject and circumvent when it does not. Culturally responsive teaching isn't possible without a critique and sometimes careful rejection of the privilege structures of language, power and text that so prominently shape the mathematics we learn. As my colleague Dr. Gutieriz clearly explains, all mathematics is political. and that we can engage in 'creative insubordination. Despite UK-styled textbooks with some Ghanaian names exchanged, there was little real connection between the mathematics I had witnessed outside. The problems in the texts in the classrooms I observed where devoid of the rich context in which the community experiences mathematics. Creative insubordination recognizes the limitations of one's school or district resources and practices is but a first step and "figures out" how to resist, redirect, reject or rejuvenate these resources is a significant challenge.

  3. Seek out the hidden voices. Culturally responsive teaching privileges the language and means by which children speak and play in their 'community'. Find out when and where they do it. Study it. Use this knowledge as a means for focus your instructional strategies for building reasoning. For example, my next piece of advice for the school would have been to use the native Ashanti Twi to probe student thinking (versus the prescribed English). Similarly, studying the cultural games they play is an important informal assessment tool of the kinds of mathematical and scientific knowledge they possess and grapple with.

The manifestation of culturally responsive teaching for mathematics is often diametrically opposed to what is seen in classrooms every day. Critical elements of mathematical sensemaking, understanding and knowledge acquisition often lie deep within the very children and communities our methods have led us to count out. Sometimes culturally responsive teaching gets lost in what math reformers promote as 'good teaching'. If you aren't careful it is easy to miss it. Even to focus simply on math reform's processes (problem solving, reasoning, etc. is not enough. One must add to it, a desire to learn FROM and WITHIN the ethnic/racial and cultural community. A culturally responsive teaching, then becomes a 'mining' experience, a deep expeditionary experience that MUST go outside the bounds of school and the classroom - our comfort zones.

Here are some further questions: How do you define culturally responsive teaching? What are your biggest successes and challenges with using culturally responsive teaching in mathematics with your students?

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