Culturally Responsive Teaching and Math

By Asya Howlette, Director of Mathematics and Science at Thurgood Marshall

Raise your hand if you have been perplexed by professional learning that told you your class needs to be culturally responsive, but left you completely unsure about what that means in a math class. Yup, been there, done that! Often the techniques, tools, and suggestions are aimed at courses where, traditionally, students write many papers and have robust discussions about the world—the humanities. I, like many other math teachers across the country, have found that this may stem from a misconception about what culturally responsive teaching is. There are universal methods for integrating its tenets into our teaching practices. Educators teaching with IM K–12 Math are fortunate because IM’s language and instructional routines support culturally responsive pedagogy. This can open a door of opportunity for us to prepare students for active citizenship—to be able to critically analyze society. 

As described by Zaretta Hammond, culturally responsive teaching is about “rebuilding trust with [students] through a learning partnership, and using that rapport and trust to get permission from students to push them into their zone of proximal development.” For too long we’ve had culturally responsive teaching simplified to being about employing strategies for engaging students or solely building race-based connections. Although elements of this may exist in a culturally responsive learning space, they are topical and alone are not culturally responsive. Gloria Ladson-Billings, an American pedagogical theorist and teacher educator has identified three elements that must be true in culturally responsive learning spaces (1) students must experience academic success, (2) students must develop and maintain cultural competence, and (3) students must develop a critical consciousness through which they challenge the status quo of the current social order. (But That’s Just Good Teaching!)

IM K–12 Math has several features that support culturally responsive pedagogy, including focused and coherent courses of study, attention to the selection of real world tasks and contexts, and the way lessons and activities are structured. In this blog post, I am going to focus on the way that instructional routines and activities are structured. We can use our students’ cultural learning styles and tools to leverage the brain’s memory systems and information processing structures. Three strategies that Hammond suggests accomplish this are “gamifying, make it social, and storifying it” and I think we’d all be pleasantly surprised to know that examples of this exist in Illustrative Mathematics’ instructional and language routines.

When an assignment is “gamified,” students use repetition, solve a puzzle, or make connections between things that don’t seem to be related. Specifically we are catching students’ attention while building their academic skills. Information Gap is a curriculum-based routine that does just this. In this routine, students follow a structured pattern of asking questions and responding with answers in order to solve a problem.  Throughout this ping-ponging conversation, students pose and answer questions, clarify what is asked and happening in a problem, build common understandings, and share experiences relevant to the topic to then be able to solve the math problem. For anyone who has done this routine, we know that it is challenging for students. By playing with a partner, the stakes are lowered and the process is valued alongside the answer.

The second strategy we can use is to “make it social”. IM has been intentional about shifting from the traditional I do, we do, you do and instead has flipped the experience to be you do then we do, ending with the teacher and students stamping the learning. Changing this orientation allows students to come to conclusions for themselves and then build understanding with and from their peers. In addition, a few language and instructional routines also create a communal environment for learning. Stronger and Clearer Each Time has students think or write individually about a response, use a structured partner strategy with multiple opportunities to refine and clarify the response through conversation, and then finally revise their original written response. Collect and Display is another routine that stabilizes the fleeting language that students use during partner, small-group, or whole-class activities in order for a student’s own output to be used as a reference in developing their mathematical language. The teacher listens for and scribes the student output using written words, diagrams, and pictures. This collected output can be organized, revoiced, or explicitly connected to other language in a display for all students to use. 

Lastly we have opportunities to “storify.” The brain is wired to remember stories and to use narrative structure to make sense of the world. All students learn content more effectively if they can create a coherent narrative about the topic or process presented. One of my favorite routines is Three Reads because it helps students reframe how they approach word problems. The first read is about students being able to make sense of the word problem in students’ own language, without considering the numbers.  Simply, what is happening in this situation? The second read is when students, who are familiar with the story from the first read, now attend to the numbers. In this way, students are able to understand the numbers in context to make sense of their relationship to each other in preparation for the third read, where students decide how they will approach finding the solution. Word problems are a way of storifying equations which is essential in preparation for courses like algebra, where students make sense of multiple representations (graphs, tables, equations, and writing expressions). 

Hammond’s three tools give us a framework for students to experience academic success, which is one of the three elements needed for a culturally responsive classroom. Maintaining cultural competence and developing a critical consciousness then becomes the work of the practitioner; this should be tailored for your students. Maintaining cultural competence means that teachers and classrooms need to be a place where students’ whole selves are welcome. Consider the music played in the background while students are working, and the names and places referenced in word problems. Students need to be able to be themselves and be in an environment where excellence is seen as an extension of who they already are. 

The last element of a culturally responsive classroom is building critical consciousness to challenge the status quo. Personally, I think this is one of the greatest gifts in teaching a culturally responsive math class. When students ask why something is important to learn, I can with confidence always answer that math is about all of the ways we can creatively solve problems. In math, we consider the connections between abstract understandings, explore multiple ways to approach an understanding, analyze information that is offered, and work collaboratively to find solutions. As educators, our work is to then offer opportunities for students to use these same skills to make sense of the world beyond the classroom. This means that our classrooms and schools need to be learning environments that can evolve and respond when challenged by students who are developing their critical thinking. As educators, we have to be open enough to realize that when we immerse our students in a culturally responsive learning environment, they will be looking to see those values reflected in the overall culture of the school.

Next Steps

Where do you see opportunities in IM K–12 curricula to gamify, storify, and make it social? What does it look like to maintain cultural competence within the math classroom? How can you support students in building critical consciousness?

Read more about culturally responsive teaching and IM curricula in the following blog posts:

You can also view the webinar IM K–5 Math as a Support for Culturally Responsive Pedagogy, with Dr. LaToya Byrd.