Mathematics Opinion

How Can We Help Promote Mathematical Identity?

By Contributing Blogger — November 14, 2017 4 min read
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This post is by Curtis A. Taylor, Sixth Grade Math/Science, High Tech Middle North County.

“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 sixth 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 dis-identify, as mathematicians. An indicator of this dis-identification 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 dis-identify 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 sixth 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:

  • Agency Warm-Ups provides students with a safe and accessible problem in which only noticings and wonderings are shared (no correct answer or methodology is expected here). Also, it allows students the opportunity to lead the class in discussion and build on each other’s thinking, starting from small ideas to bigger and more complex ones.

  • Accountability and Participation Quizzes gives students opportunities to discuss and depend on each other to solve mathematical tasks that provide a low floor and high ceiling access.

  • Status Intervention is necessary for our African-American and Latino students. They need to see that their ideas and voices are valued in a mathematics classroom. This can be done by spotting bright spots in students’ thinking, giving praise, or utilizing their ideas to help promote discussion.

Fast-forward to the beginning of the new 2017-18 school year. Angel, and a few of his peers, left a note that 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.

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