“I know that you are capable, and you will be more than excellent.”
This is what my seventh grade math teacher, Mrs. Ballew, told me when she decided to place me into Algebra 1, an advanced course, for eighth grade. I, a young Black male, who struggled through math during my elementary years, soon took an interest in mathematics. My dedication to learn math and develop a mathematical identity began to grow because of one teacher’s belief in me. When I became a math teacher, I wanted to do the same for my students.
The beginning of every school year is one that is filled with excitement, nerves, and vast possibilities. Although I am becoming more of a seasoned educator, I continue to experience these feelings myself. Last year, I stood in front of my classroom door to welcome a new group of enthusiastic 6th graders. I was stopped by one student, Angel, a young Latino student, who said, “Mr. Curtis, I am really bad at math. I am hoping that you can help me this year.” I wondered how many of his peers felt the same? How many students were coming into a new year with a fixed mindset around math? How many were experiencing low mathematical agency? But, the question that weighed the heaviest on me was, are our African-American and Latino students seeing themselves as mathematicians?
Researchers assert that a mathematical identity is created from a student’s belief about their mathematics ability, belief about the instrumental importance of math, beliefs about constraints and opportunities that affect their participation in math, and their motivation to obtain mathematics knowledge. African-American and Latino students find it challenging to identify, or they disidentify, as mathematicians. An indicator of this disidentification is reflected in the 2015 CAASP scores, which report that African-American and Latino students scored approximately 31 points lower than their White peers in mathematics. Students of color disidentify as being mathematicians from the lack of representation in the field, absence of relevant mathematics instruction, teacher misperceptions of student ability often fueled by deficit-based mindsets. Math education researcher Jo Boaler states that “minority students are often denied access to high level math, through discriminatory tracking and course placement and that one of the most damaging ideas in math education, held by some teachers and students, is the idea that only some students can be good at math”. All of these factors can impact a student’s mathematical identity, but what happens when our students of color are presented with positive mathematical experiences? And how do we as educators design learning opportunities to meet that aim?
Teaching 6th grade at High Tech Middle North County for the past four years has allowed me the opportunity to create projects that integrate mathematics, and provide students with relevant instruction. Yet, what has been the most impactful within my pedagogy is being a part of a wonderful network of math educators in San Diego. The Mathematical Agency Improvement Community, or MAIC, is a dedicated community of around 60 teachers who are looking to not only improve mathematics instruction, but to abolish the phrase “I am not a math person.”
MAIC is driven through the Improvement Science model, which is the implementation of quick iterative learning cycles. Our primary drivers for improvement focused on marginalized students developing a growth mindset, valuing what they are learning, and feeling like they belong (which is essential for mathematical identification). Through this model, a colleague and I were able to create multiple PDSA (Plan, Do, Study, Act) cycles that would allow us to focus on certain change ideas or, a collection of ideas shared/created by other math educators, within a short time frame. In addition to collecting improvement data, the process also provided an opportunity for my African-American and Latino students to voice and reflect on their learning as a result of their daily mathematical experiences. I began to see amazing growth within these students that lead to a shift in my classroom environment. Students were introduced to change ideas, such as agency warm-ups, accountability and participation quizzes, and status intervention. Through these change ideas, my African-American and Latino students grew to feel comfortable sharing their ideas in daily discussions. Below is a description of each:
Fast-forward to the beginning of the new 2017 school year. Angel, and a few of his peers, left a note which read, “Thank you, Mr. Curtis for making math easy for me. Thanks.” I will be honest and admit that I immediately became teary-eyed. Angel, and his peers, attained a higher level of confidence in their math ability because they were immersed in a mathematical community built around growth mindset, complex instruction, and belonging. This created space for deeper learning and established the foundation of their mathematical identities.
Boaler, J. (2016). Designing mathematics classes to promote equity and engagement, Journal of Mathematical Behavior, 41, 172 - 178.
California Department of Education (2016). Data & Statistics. Retrieved from http://www.cde.ca.gov/re/pn/fb/
Martin, D. (2000). Mathematics success and failure among African-American youth. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Stinson, D.W. (2013). Negotiating the “white male math myth”: African-American male students and success in school mathematics, Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 44(1), 69 – 99.
Curtis A. Taylor
I am a 6th Grade Math Teacher, who deeply believes in the constructivist model of learning. I am a proponent of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and its impacts on students of color math achievement. I have been teaching for 9 years and, currently, working on my Doctorate of Education at University of California San Diego.