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Culturally Responsive Teaching

5 Tips for Culturally Responsive Teaching in the Math Classroom

Teachers can help all students feel like they belong in math classes by creating connections between course material and students’ lives.

August 3, 2022
High school math teacher instructs her class in front of a whiteboard
Allison Shelley for the Alliance for Excellent Education

Throughout my experience in the secondary mathematics classroom, I have noticed many students, especially students of color, disconnecting from the content presented to them. Rochelle Gutiérrez, a professor of curriculum and instruction, has noted, “Mathematics education cannot truly improve until it adequately addresses the very students who the system has most failed.… We need a central focus on students who are Latinx, Black, and Indigenous in ways that build upon their strengths.”

Creating inclusive classrooms is not a one-and-done fix; instead it is constant, conscious work that educators must do in any classroom. When students are learning math where culturally relevant pedagogy (CRP) strategies are utilized, they can develop an understanding of the importance and usefulness of mathematics as well as develop their ability to discuss relevant societal issues.

5 Ways to Implement Culturally Relevant Pedagogy

1. Research CRP. These resources are helpful places for teachers to begin researching what this pedagogy looks like in the classroom.

  • Affirming Diversity—Sonia Nieto and Patty Bode provide a rationale for the necessity of multicultural education. This book serves as a foundation for teachers who are looking to implement CRP that shows the benefit of teaching with a multicultural lens.
  • Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain—Zaretta Hammond investigates the neuroscience research behind culturally responsive teaching and describes brain processing systems relevant to culture and learning. This book provides physiological backing for CRP and more information for teachers.
  • Learning to Teach Mathematics for Social Justice—Tonya Gau Bartell highlights the implementation of social justice mathematics and teachers’ experiences and beliefs doing so. She provides teachers’ research about other educators who are already doing this work in the field.
  • Connecting Mathematics and Social Justice—Kyle Evans and Megan Staples provide users with free secondary social justice mathematics lessons in their online book.
  • Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors”—Rudine Sims Bishop argues that students should be able to see themselves in the material, look into others’ experiences, and engage with the worlds of others.
  • Homeroom—In this documentary, Peter Nicks exposes some of the pitfalls in the current public school system, specifically in Oakland, California, and provides teachers with some of the realities of students’ experiences inside and outside of school.
  • Waiting for Superman—In this documentary, David Guggenheim investigates the decline of the American educational system and how students are affected.

2. Reflect on your own experience. Just as your students bring a unique perspective to the classroom, so do you. It is crucial to analyze your sociocultural identity before making changes to your classroom, curriculum, and outlook regarding CRP. You may begin by completing an identity wheel to reflect on the different pieces of your identity that you bring to the classroom. Think about how your perspective may differ from your students’ and how your past lived experiences influence the way you approach interactions within the school.

3. Adopt teaching strategies to highlight and support student voice in the classroom. A teacher’s main role in the classroom is to teach content to students. Expecting high academic achievement catalyzes the creation of a supportive, motivational environment. If students feel as though their teachers believe they can become academic high achievers, they may feel more motivated and supported to do so.

At the same time, creating a classroom environment that recognizes and respects students’ cultures requires teachers to teach using a student-centered lens. For example, mathematics educators can use materials that ask students to share their thinking. Teachers can implement written or oral prompts encouraging students to share their thinking about a problem, provide them with opportunities to analyze other students’ mathematical thinking, and highlight when students use various paths to a problem’s solution.

4. Begin units with connections to students’ lives. To foster a culturally relevant and inclusive classroom, you must commit to learning about your students’ backgrounds. This could involve facilitating classroom discussions around students’ previous learning experiences, incorporating social and emotional learning, and providing a safe space for students.

For example, a teacher could begin a unit about ratios or proportions with an activity comparing the number of students in the school with teachers in the school as a ratio before diving into the traditional content. Other real-world examples could include analyzing various data or data trends for different racial, socioeconomic, and gender groups.

Providing this type of information within a diverse classroom provides a mirror for some students, a window for others, and a sliding glass door for all. “Notice” and “wonder” activities with real-world connections can be a good way to grasp students’ attention and curiosity at the beginning of a unit, even if they are not familiar with the relevant mathematics yet.

5. Build relationships within schools and communities. Creating lessons and/or activities that bring other school staff members into your classroom can boost student engagement. This could include creating interdisciplinary lessons with other teachers (e.g., science, history) or retrieving data about the school from a staff member (e.g., secretary, cafeteria worker). A few examples of these data are finding the number of students who get hot lunch every day, the number of students in each grade, or the number of teachers and how long they have each worked at the school.

Similarly, consider building connections to your students’ communities. This could include analyzing statistics from your students’ communities, interviewing a community member who works in a STEM-related field, or organizing a community walk to help students see mathematics in the world around them. Students could look for geometric patterns in brick pavement, estimate the height of the school or other buildings or structures, or record quantitative data about the number of signs they see.

These strategies allow students to see the relevance of mathematics and how their culture and background relate to learned content. Implementing CRP into the mathematics classroom requires adequate preparation, a willingness to alter classroom expectations and curriculum, and an ongoing commitment to fostering an environment conducive to productive, engaging learning. When it’s implemented, all students can feel connected to mathematics and acquire skills to help them engage as democratic, global citizens.

E. Jean Gubbins, PhD; Rachael Cody; and Gregory T. Boldt coauthored this article.

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