Equity in the Mathematics Classroom: MAA Invited Paper Session on Inspiring Diversity in Mathematics: Culture, Community, and Collaboration, talk #3

Good morning JMM!  I’m blogging this morning from this great diversity session, moderated by Pamela Harris of Williams College, Alicia Prieto Langarcia of Youngstown State University, and Chat Topaz of Williams College. I missed talks #1 and #2 this morning, but I’ll be here for the rest of the session.

Equity in the Mathematics Classroom

Michael Young of Iowa State University talked about equity in the K-12 classroom. With his Designing for Equity by Thinking program, they worked in Pittsburgh Public Schools, which are over 70% black students and over 70% white teachers.

We narrowed in on race, we narrowed in on mathematics throughout the entire project.

The purpose of the project was to decrease the opportunity gap: they wanted to educate the teachers about groups of students who didn’t have the same opportunities as their peers. Michael talked about how this project helped him as a parent, a community member, and a teacher personally as well.

We as mathematicians don’t do enough. We are doomed because it is impossible for us to do enough. But we have to keep doing the best we can.

The teachers went through a two-year program which consisted of a four week summer course and 60 follow up hours during the school year.  The teachers did math workshops and then discussed problems like what students experience within historical context, and solutions of how to change things in the classroom and community.

Michael immersed the teachers in strengthening their mathematical identities, recalling student perspectives, and gaining new instructional ideas. After trying to remember how students feel, they’d say things like “Now I know how I make my students feel dumb.” Michael said he tried not to take that personally (titters in the audience).

Many of the teachers learned the subject matter of their classes twenty years ago, and then never learned about new research or new techniques or new pedagogy from that time–not out of laziness, but it just happened.

Nobody wants to say they have status.

The teachers also considered equity and math equity. The program asks a lot of its participants. “What makes it difficult to be a teacher? What makes it difficult to learn math? What can we do to make everyone feel valued in our mathematics classroom?”

They also dove very deeply into race.  Once a week at one of the schools, children who were identified as gifted left the classroom for extra education in another venue.  It was mostly white students. So they had to ask more hard questions.

Who sits at the back of your class? When you see students in front of you, how do you determine which ones will be the good ones at math?

When Michael saw a list that the program participants put together of what to do with “disrespectful” students, it hit him that his daughter would be facing this when she gets to school.

He mentioned that disrespect differs between different cultures, and asks “do students have to leave their identity and who they are at the door when they come to the classroom?”

Some of his personal takeaways from the program:

  • Students need more voice in the classroom
  • Understanding mathematics as a teacher is not enough. He said, “I feel like I need a psychology degree to do the majority of my job.” After this project, he knew about things like microaggressions and other vocabulary words from the social justice world.
  • We mathematicians should be more involved in K12
  • Many people need math therapy!

People don’t hate math, they have had a bad math experience.

Now when someone tells him that they hate math, Michael responds “who ruined math for you?” and they invariably give him a specific name. Michael’s thesis is that people don’t hate math, but there is a lot of math trauma out there that mathematicians can help heal.  Here are some of his ideas of how to do that:

  • Create a network of mathematicians of color so we can have community and so we can be accessible for the public at large
  • Connect that network with other institutions: they pair a mathematician of color with a teacher who is geographically nearby so they can build a relationship and the mathematician can be integrated into the culture of the teacher
  • Create a repository of online stories, images, etc.

This all reminded me of visiting my friend’s majority-minority high school in San Francisco.  She has a wall of “What does a mathematician look like?” in the hallway with photos of people like John Urschel, Maryam Mirzakhani, and me with my kids!

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