Online Professional Development Sessions
Join Us Next Tuesday 2/2:
Partnering with Parents in Elementary School Math
Presented by Hilary Kreisberg and Matthew Beyranevand
In this session, you will deepen your understanding of parents’ needs and wants as they pertain to their children’s elementary mathematics education, as well as examine your own beliefs about partnering with parents. We will provide guidance for teachers and leaders on how to communicate with parents and caregivers, as well as offer practical tips that educators and school leaders can use immediately to systematically change their relationships with families.
To register for this webinar, click here.
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The Global Math Department and researchers at North Carolina State University are undertaking a study to learn about teachers’ learning experiences from participation in the GMD. You can participate in this study if you have participated in the GMD as a presenter, attendee of a GMD conference, or reader of the GMD newsletter.
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In my geometry courses, I loved teaching triangle center points
. (Thank goodness this is a group of self-defined nerds, or starting a post off with that might be a real problem). The idea that we can define center from multiple points at the same time defined by different constructions held deeper meaning. To me it signaled that when you measure from a particular perspective, you get a different result than other people who measure from a different point of view. The orthocenter, incenter, circumcenter, and centroid all result from measuring using different line segment constructions of triangles (altitudes, angle bisectors, perpendicular bisectors, and medians respectively). Each one of them has a different purpose within the triangle, and they each come with particular perspectives on defining “center”. Yet, some of them come with a rather peculiar placement within or even outside of the triangle body, like when you measure the orthocenter of a right triangle and it lands on the vertex. Calling these instances a “centerpoint” almost seems odd, and yet we know exactly what we’re measuring when we do so.
I have been wondering. What are the different centerpoints in math education? I believe each of us is measuring from some centerpoint. How do you justify your reasoning for measuring by the centerpoint you choose?
I believe that there are multiple centerpoints in mathematics education, just like within a triangle. I also believe that they *do not* nor ever will coincide in the same point. In my mind, each centerpoint of mathematics education, just like with triangles, measures something specific and different than the others. And, just like with the different centerpoints, there are benefits and consequences to measuring by the different points we choose.
For many months, I have felt this recentering occurring in math education. It’s as if we are making a collective shift. For the past ten months, many have been asking, “What even is standardized testing measuring?”. For some, standardized testing is a centerpoint. To these people, it represents teaching to a “standard”, that they share no responsibility in defining, yet use as a marker for knowing whether or not their students are learning. As the consistent call that students are “behind” due to virtual learning echoes loudly, COVID-19 continues to erode that measuring by any sort of “standard” at this point is only measuring the difference in resources, funding, and access to internet, food, and health care.
From a different angle, some might say that math education is centering the “be kind” movement, that as math teachers our ultimate job is to create kind citizens. This is important and inherently good. In the aftermath of the United States presidential inauguration and the events of January 6, we have to ask if centering kindness at the expense of justice measures the right thing. If, by trying to “be kind”, we become peacekeepers instead of peacemakers, we ultimately create “kind” citizens who are quiet when faced with overt acts of racism, sexism, ableism, and classism to maintain the status quo. For many, because they
are at peace, kindness is an easy centerpoint to use, as they disregard the lack of peace and justice for others.
One last centerpoint I see in math education is learning/teaching math for social justice. Dr. William Tate wrote, “Until recently, embedding mathematics pedagogy within social and political contexts was not a serious consideration in mathematics education. The act of counting was viewed as a neutral exercise, unconnected to politics or society. Yet when do we ever count just for the sake of counting? Only in school do we count without a social purpose of some kind. Outside of school, mathematics is used to advance or block a particular agenda.” (Tate, 2013) This centerpoint, then, measures math education as students’ ability to use mathematics to change their world for the better, to act justly with
We know what the other centers have brought us. Centering on standardized testing has brought us a system focused on viewing every child as a number, using math to do more harm than good, all in the name of comparison. The centerpoint is nowhere near the center mass, and in fact measures the outer edge of learning. Why are we surprised when standardized testing reflects back to us that systems of injustice exist and can be quantified?
Centering on the passivity of kindness allows more students to pass through our classrooms without being pushed to recognize the beauty that comes with diversity, that teaches students through the use of mathematics that “others” are whole beings worthy of respect and equal treatment. Why are we surprised then when “kindness’” is in reality a mask for whiteness, a mask quickly removed when moments of injustice occur?
Why do we keep centering math education on centerpoints that produce outcomes that we know are not fair? Not equal? That do not promote justice or goodness? That maintain the status quo? With the decades of centering math education in these known spaces, what would it take to get the main body of educators to recenter to measure a new space? What would centering on math for social justice look like? How would you justify its centering? I think that the mainstream of math education has never taught math for social justice, and therefore we don’t know what our collective power could be if we measured from here. Maybe it’s time to recenter the purpose of math education to see if we can measure something new.
A Few Lessons from Recent Research on Social Justice Mathematics
Because of the spotlight thrown on issues of racial injustice in the U.S. in the past few years, I have seen a renewed interest
among math teachers in integrating such issues into curricula. I welcome this turn, because “to be silent about tragedy that affects your students is to render their feelings invisible” (@ArisWinger
). However, I also wanted to share some of what we’re learning from research, because social justice mathematics teaching is not at all easy or straightforward
There’s been a strong coalition of math folks working for social justice for decades (see, for example, Marilyn Frankenstein’s work
, Gutstein & Peterson’s book
), but many teachers still report that they feel ill-prepared to do this work. One reason is that it often seems to require intense curriculum writing; there may not be a wealth of resources ready to insert into an existing course. Not to mention, it is not a simple matter of taking a mathematical topic, finding a real-world injustice application, and creating a lesson. Instead, it can require exploring and learning about entirely new fields, and responding to students carefully so that students leave the lessons feeling empowered rather than overwhelmed. You might have to navigate resistance
from parents, school administrators, and even students.
Nevertheless, there are many reasons to engage in this work. Bartell (2013)
argues that “the purpose of education is not to integrate those who are marginalized into existing society but rather to change society so that all are included” (p. 131). Math education, in this view, should prepare students to analyze and combat oppressive systems, strengthening their agency as change-makers. Moreover, research shows that social justice mathematics can help students feel empowered, both about mathematics
and about injustice in society. For privileged students, social justice math can help them develop empathy
Some recent research offers other important insights for getting started:
- Focus on issues that students care about. One teacher in my (2020) study has learned through experience that some topics may be overwhelming for students, and can produce strong emotional reactions. Kokka (2017) also found that students who had faced similar challenges to what they were studying, such as struggling to pay rent, had “strong emotional reactions such as anger, sadness, worry, and frustration” (p. 73). Nasriah Morrison (@nasriahmorrison) told a similar story in a previous GMD post of being exhausted and retraumatized by a lesson on police brutality, highlighting the harm that can come from “the prospect of any students being made to complete a series of tedious calculations with the goal of assessing whether their lived experiences were truly ‘valid.’” Instead of using math to verify, for example, an issue of racism that students know very well is real, I recommend starting by asking students what problems they want to use math to explore.
- Think about local, not just national, issues of injustice. You might ask what systems students see holding people in their community back, and what questions they have about them. This can open up opportunities to mathematize aspects of their world that students are curious about and ready to explore. Gutstein (2007) argues that members of a community “have a clear and critical understanding of the political forces allied against them” (p. 111), so problem-posing pedagogies that draw on local issues can help students work on issues they are already invested in, knowledgeable about, and want to get better at combating.
- Ask students and families about their comfort level with challenging topics. The teacher in my study who realized that some students had a strong emotional reaction to her lesson decided in the future to give a survey to both parents and students previewing upcoming topics, and asking about their comfort level in discussing such topics. She also prepared alternatives for students who may have too close a personal experience with an issue of injustice.
- Try to leave your own agenda behind. A teacher in Kokka’s (2017) study emphasized that her goal was not to change students’ minds, but rather to elicit students’ opinions and give them the tools to come to their own, mathematically-based conclusions. The teacher in this study asked strategic questions and encouraged students to gather mathematical evidence, only stepping in to guide when she needed to combat stereotypes or other harmful statements.
- Try to anticipate partial and problematic understandings that students may have. Another lesson that the teacher in my study said she had learned was that students may need scaffolding for not just the mathematical topic, but also the social injustice under study. In her first teaching of a lesson, she showed a brief video and then released students into groups to discuss a topic, only realizing later that students did not fully understand the topic and were discussing it in common but highly problematic ways. I recommend thinking about the worst narratives floating around society about that topic, and either preemptively providing information to combat those narratives, or at the very least developing a specific plan for how you’ll respond should they appear during your lesson.
- Find community! One of the most important lessons the teacher in my study stressed was that you should not try to go it alone in integrating math and social justice. She runs her lessons by her co-teachers and colleagues, but also recommends connecting with folks on twitter and at conferences. Many people have been engaged in this work for decades, and have much wisdom to share. Check out the Creating Balance Conference and the hashtags #SoJustMath & #socialjusticemath for starters.
Finally, here are some other resources for getting started with social justice math:
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