Creating a Culturally Responsive Math Curriculum for the Elementary Grades
Seeking a curriculum to both engage and meet the needs of their students, math educators in St. Paul, Minnesota, built their own.
I was a Chapter 220 student. This meant I was bussed from my neighborhood to suburban schools that were a different world from my home in Milwaukee’s 53206 zip code, the most incarcerated zip code in the world—in 2016, 62 percent of Black men there were or had been incarcerated. The racial and financial inequities I experienced in my school years have influenced me both personally and professionally.
Today I’m the math supervisor for St. Paul Public Schools, overseeing curriculum and instruction for over 37,000 students and 3,000 teachers. We’ve tried many things in St. Paul to improve student learning: tracking, 5 Easy Steps, mastering math fluency, professional learning communities, and purchasing new curriculum. We were still not seeing high student growth and proficiency.
In 2017, I was told to find and purchase a new curriculum, at a projected cost of roughly $8 million. But there is no single off-the-shelf curriculum that addresses the varied needs and interests of a student population that is 31 percent Asian, 26 percent Black, 21 percent White, 14 percent Latino, 1 percent Indigenous, and 7 percent ethnically mixed.
If You Can’t Find a Curriculum, Build One
Concluding that a packaged curriculum would not meet our needs, I had to come up with a better plan. Who knows these students better than their teachers? No one. I determined that St. Paul teachers would write curriculum for St. Paul students. My team was enthusiastic, and in 2018 we extended an invitation to teachers to write curriculum during the last three weeks of June.
The response was positive. We had 30 teachers working together to build the vertical alignment of our math curriculum. I knew we were on to something special when I heard teachers saying, “I can’t wait to teach this!”
Throughout the school year, our curriculum writers saw significant improvement in student participation and achievement. More teachers wanted to join, including specialists. We adopted a task, question, and evidence format and added culturally relevant topics with themes of social justice. We immersed ourselves in the literature of Gloria Ladson-Billings and Zaretta Hammond. Ladson-Billings gave us the “why” we needed to do this work; Hammond gave us the “how” to build independent learners.
Some teachers readily embraced these new units; however, some were reluctant to introduce social justice topics in math. I was frequently told, “This could be a traumatic trigger.” But we pushed on, and in 2020, two years into this work, I became inspired by Dr. Claud Anderson’s PowerNomics. Anderson points out economic disparities steeped in historically racist policies of the United States, and provides a financial plan to help Black people overcome the initial and continual setbacks we face in this country.
Financial literacy is now our compass in St. Paul. Every lesson we create comes back to making students financially literate, and every financial literacy unit promotes independent learning through culturally relevant topics and themes of social justice.
The focus of our work is keeping money in the community. Anderson writes that Asian, Latino, and Indigenous communities have areas where members live, work, eat, educate their children, and spend their money, but it’s hard to find that for Black people—we are more likely than other groups to spend our money outside of our neighborhoods. There are a lot of Black neighborhoods, he writes, but not many Black communities.
Financial Literacy as a Blueprint
My team created a financial literacy breakdown by grade level. Understanding that learning deepens when connections are made, we have made sure the primary units are interdisciplinary. During reading periods, for example, students are exposed to literature with financial literacy themes, like Cinders McLeod’s Earn It! and her other picture books about money in grade 1, and Uncle Jed’s Barbershop in grade 2. Students write about their hopes and dreams as they design entrepreneurial business plans, and they prepare persuasive sales pitches that reflect speaking and listening standards—all while learning about wants and needs, goods and services, producers and consumers.
Primary units approach traditional math skills with a focus on the value of money, spending and saving, and entrepreneurship. Students see themselves as producers, not just consumers. Our kindergarten unit focuses on saving, spending, and sharing money; entrepreneurship; and keeping money in the community. The first-grade unit builds on that, as children learn about scarcity, bartering, and trading. Using kid entrepreneurs as examples, students work to develop their own business plans.
Second graders learn about opportunity costs, startup costs, and marketing their businesses. Math team member Stacy Waskosky helped write this unit and taught it to 30 second graders in the virtual classroom during the pandemic. An introductory letter home increased family engagement. Students learned about entrepreneurship from a local barbershop owner, and 100 percent of the students completed the task of creating a business plan and sales pitch—many of them seriously considered taking their ideas all the way to Shark Tank. Examples of all of this can be found in our second-grade unit.
Our fourth-grade teachers now use data on housing and homelessness to teach division. One class was so inspired by this unit that they held a sock drive, collecting and donating over 400 pairs of socks to a local women’s shelter.
I carry mixed feelings about my early educational experiences. I’m grateful for the opportunities the suburban schools provided me, but I wish I could have had them in my neighborhood school, with peers and teachers who looked like me and knew me at a deeper level. Those mixed feelings fuel my commitment to providing urban students with opportunities for rigorous, relevant, and real educational experiences.
I’d like to express my gratitude to my colleagues Peggy Nayar and Stacy Waskosky for their contributions to this article and, more importantly, their contributions to our ongoing work of improving math outcomes for every student in St. Paul Public Schools.