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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Mathematics Opinion

Twelve Ways to Make Math More Culturally Responsive

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 17, 2020 14 min read

(This is the first post in a two-part series)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are specific ways educators can make teaching math more culturally responsive?

Especially in light of the filmed police shootings of African Americans this year, more attention is being paid by educators toward culturally responsive teaching. It might be a bit more obvious about how to apply that concept in English and history classes than in math, but it’s also very possible—and necessary—to do the same in that subject.

Today’s guest contributors are Chiquita Jenkins, Autumn Kelley, James Ewing, and Cindy Garcia. Chiquita, Autumn, and James were guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Community, connections, & collaboration

Chiquita Jenkins teaches 2nd grade in New York. She is a doctoral candidate at St John’s University and will be graduating in May 2021 with a Ph.D. in educational literacy:

In order to reach learners, creating instruction that is comparative and applicable to students’ experiences can be a treasured tool. Students may be captivated by an understanding that math exists all around us. From the arrangement of rows and columns seen in a neatly planted rose garden to algebraic formulas used to build sturdy homes, bridging the gap between math and the real world can introduce students to learning in a more culturally responsive way. Culturally responsive instruction as defined by Geneva Gay as “using cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant to and effective for them.” Components of culturally responsive instruction can be addressed within math practices when the following steps are put into place:

  1. Building Community

The most important aspect of being a culturally responsive educator is building relationships with culturally and linguistically diverse students. Instead of viewing variances amongst students as shortcomings, educators can foster relationships with students in order to achieve a culturally sustaining instruction. Strategies such as talking with students in both structured and nonstructured conversations and talking with students’ parents can increase students being placed at the center of learning to increase engagement in ways that are culturally responsive.

  1. Real-World Connections

Putting acquired math skills to use in real-world situations is a great way to help students connect diverse culturally experiences and become excited about math. Designing a standards- based math lesson that connects students’ language and cultural aspects of students’ background can foster mathematical identity development. For example, students can role play a real-world math scenario in which a peer is trying to determine the better deal for traveling to school and home for a week—paying the daily fare of $2.75 or buying a weekly pass for $33.00. Incorporating real-world connections into math practices in a culturally responsive manner can elect responses from students in ways that incorporate diverse ways of thinking, learning, and communicating.

  1. Student Collaboration

Research affirms that students’ achievement drastically improves when students have opportunities to collaborate (Kagan 2010). Cooperative learning demonstrates the positive effects of interdependence while highlighting the importance of personal accountability amongst students. When students respond to small groups or in pairs, they may experience far less pressure because their responses are more private. For example, turn and talks allow for variations in how students from different cultural groups desire to communicate. In math application, students acquiring English can receive assistance with interpreting and understanding math equations from their partner while also eliciting language and communication.
If teachers want to be culturally responsive, they must invest the time to study their culturally and linguistically diverse students. When planning for math instruction, teachers can increase its culturally responsiveness in ways that can connect students to their lives and experiences inside and outside the classroom.


Gay. G. (2010). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.) New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Kagan, S. (2010) Excellence & equity. Kagan Online Magazine. Retrieved from www.kaganonline.com/free_articles/dr_spencer_kagn/266/Excellence-amp-Equity


“Make it social”

A Washingtonian, a happy member of the D.C. public school system, with graduate degrees from Harvard School of Education and Johns Hopkins University, Autumn Kelly’s digital island of resources can be found here:

The goal of every teacher is to reach every child. Instructional techniques that are culturally responsive support teachers as they build math achievement in diverse classroom settings. Here are four ideas to make K-12 math instruction more effective among culturally diverse math groups.

Build Bilingual Communication Into Presentations of Math Instruction

Teachers can present elements of a math problem—street signs, grocery list, or directions within a recipe—in students’ native language. Linguistically familiar presentations of math content will build interest. Students are often willing to channel effort to address a challenge to which they can relate.

Language familiarity for students who speak English but use vernacular that is different from traditional print can also be reached with these methods. Presenting word problems in the form of text messages between two people would allow a teacher to incorporate the use of slang or popular regional terminology in the content of the math problem. The use of culturally sensitive language terms can be used to reach students from diverse backgrounds.

Make It Social—Create Math Experiences That Connect With Others

Students from culturally diverse backgrounds relate well to experiences that involve making connections with others. Have students work in pairs to either solve math problems or create math problems. As the teacher, when you match the pairs, open the work time with a quick “get-to-know you” activity to really build a personal bond between students in the math groups.

Embed the Local Community Into Your Math Instruction

Students who are culturally grounded are often deeply connected to the community they live in. Community connections can be a powerful way to integrate math into a student’s world as well as build personal investment in the student’s ability to use math to solve social problems.

For younger students, teachers might have students look at photographs of their neighborhood (grocery store, houses, mailbox areas {within apartment buildings} and inside of local stores) for price marking or signage and other community areas that feature numbers. Students can then use these photos to identify numbers and relate the message or meaning of the numbers to the familiar areas around them. This technique empowers young, culturally diverse learners to see the abstract nature of math as an integral part of their daily lives.

Older students can use community elements such as the local carryout menu and current or local ads from a car dealership. Students can apply math concepts to problem solve local math questions. Examples of local math problems in student communities could include designing a local playground or redesigning a housing unit. These kinds of activities let students apply math formulas to problem solving.

Oral-Based Instruction for Math Concepts

Culturally diverse students often come from a rich heritage of oral communication. Over generations, many cultures have used the power of the spoken word to share knowledge and preserve important ideas.

Math instruction in the classroom setting can be channeled into the traditions of oral communication to make it culturally relevant to students from diverse backgrounds. Using memory strategies such as mnemonics to learn formulas or key concepts, connecting math strategies to rhythm and music, partnering the recitation of math facts to movement/dance, and incorporating games which require active oral processing for participation are powerful ways to use the tradition of oral language as a path to mastering math content.

Experiences of community, traditions of oral language and dance, and incorporating elements of local and native language are all ways to deepen the connection between math instruction and culturally diverse students.


Role models, manipulatives, and literature

Dr. Jim Ewing is an assistant professor and author of the book Math for ELLs, As Easy as Uno, Dos, Tres. Jim provides motivating, relevant, and strategy-driven workshops for teachers that get results. To learn more about his workshops and book, go to EwingLearning.com:

First, let’s briefly discuss why it is so important to be culturally responsive in math. In Jo Boaler’s bestseller, Mathematical Mindsets, she explains how each and every student should have the belief that they can do math. However, if educators are not culturally responsive, some students may develop the belief that math is for “others,” not for them. Bottom-line: If we are culturally responsive, each student will feel like they can be successful.

Being culturally responsive is making students feel valued by celebrating their culture. We need to get to know our students, but we have to be careful of stereotypes. For example, when I was a child, our family moved to Wales for a year. Many of my new friends asked me how many TVs I had in my house. They assumed that since I was an “American,” then I would have many TVs—in fact I grew up without a TV in my house. In other words, while it is imperative for educators to learn about students’ customs and cultures, we have to be careful with assumptions. With this in mind, here are three strategies that educators may consider when teaching math.

Select relevant role models. Take 30 seconds and think of as many superheroes as you can. How many of those superheroes are not white men? The point is that we need to go out of our way to offer students role models that look like them. We should examine the posters we have in our classrooms and the videos we might show. Are we showing our students examples of Latinos doing math successfully? For example, the Aztecs were good at math and even used fractions centuries ago. They could be positive role models for our students. For motivation before a lesson, educators might say, “Let’s pretend we are Aztec mathematicians while we solve these fractions.” By being more inclusive, we can empower our students

Use culturally responsive manipulatives. Most educators know the value of using manipulatives, but have we ever considered what kind of manipulatives we use? For example, instead of just randomly using multiple colored counters in math class, we could purposefully celebrate our students’ cultures. We can make Mexican American students feel special by using red, white, and green counters and point out that those are the colors of the Mexican flag. Another way to celebrate Mexican culture in math is using “frijoles” for counters.

Incorporate culturally responsive literature. It is becoming common practice to engage students in mathematics by reading books to students at the beginning of the lesson. This is beneficial because it develops students’ academic language, which is imperative in all subjects, including math. However, we also need to consider what books we are reading to our students. The books we choose must be culturally responsive and “talk to” the experiences and backgrounds of our students. I have seen many books in classrooms translated into Spanish with storylines about white, middle-class children. The Spanish-speaking students may appreciate hearing Spanish, but the books should also be about the students’ cultures. Being culturally responsive should be an integral part of our curriculum and done on a daily basis.

Educators, try using the strategies above. You might find they are as easy as “uno, dos, tres.”


Including challenging and complex work

Cindy Garcia has been a bilingual educator for 15 years and is currently a districtwide specialist for PK-6 bilingual/ESL mathematics. She is active onTwitter @CindyGarciaTX and on her blog :

One of the main ways to make mathematics more culturally responsive is by leveraging the natural way that students learn. Our students do not come to school as a blank slate, they have life experiences and funds of knowledge that can be an asset in the mathematics classroom.

For example, sometimes we are in a rush to teach students shortcuts such as the standard algorithm for addition, and students struggle because it doesn’t make sense. If you ask a first grade what is 12 and 5. They might say 5, 10, 15, 16, 17. They might come from a culture where music is important and they might be used to songs, rhymes, and chants that make skip counting an intuitive strategy. However, as soon as students are taught that the standard algorithm is the right way and don’t take into account the strategies they already knew, students will line up digits and only use a method that is not always the most effective. How can we find out what strategies and methods students already use? What are some common effective strategies that are employed by groups of students in our classroom?

In order to be culturally responsive, facilitated lessons must be composed of challenging and complex work. Our students need to be constantly engaging in rigorous work, and it cannot be watered down. Rigorous work does not mean more work. It does not “drill and kill” by having students complete numerous pages of simple word problems, multiplication facts, and computation worksheets. Students need to take part in tasks and lessons that engage them in conceptual and procedural understandings. For example, 3 Act Tasks prompt students to analyze and solve a real-life problem by using their estimation skills and collaborating with their peers. Routines such as Which One Does Not Belong prompt students to make connections to real life, their culture, math concepts, and other content areas.

Going beyond having a growth mindset is necessary to having a culturally responsive mathematics classroom. Students have grit and are capable. What might be missing is the structure that allows students to feel challenged, safe to share their thinking, and value their voice. Independent learning stations or workstations allow students time to work on their own or with a partner without the teacher. Students take ownership of their own learning by applying and practicing what they have learned. Flipgrid is a free online tool that allows students to record their thinking to a prompt or task, and then students can respond to each other. This type of activity helps students feel valued, and they gain confidence hearing feedback from their peers.


Thanks to Chiquita, Autumn, James, and Cindy for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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