When I first began teaching math in 2014, after introductions I asked all students who loved math to raise their hands. They seemed confused by my question, so I repeated it. After a few chuckles, two out of 24 students raised their hands. When I asked who was not looking forward to math this year, the other 22 hands shot up immediately and laughter overcame the group. This would take place every year on the first day of class during the academic year, as well as during summer enrichment programs. One thing was clear — kids didn’t like math.
But what became evident in their reasoning was that it wasn’t about fractions, long division, or solving equations. Instead, it was about trust: Students wanted to know their teacher would meet them where they were, would teach them multiple ways of finding solutions, and would let them make mistakes when solving problems. Students wanted a classroom that reflected their culture and identity, rather than one that served to reinforce the oppressive racial hierarchy.
To build this kind of trust, educators must be more creative and flexible in the ways they present math to students and allow families into their classrooms to enhance student engagement. Here are a few ways to get started rethinking math instruction.
Math is More than Numbers
Math is deeply connected to one’s sense of self since it requires vulnerability and the ability to make mistakes. But not all students arrive prepared for that challenge. As a result, math educators need to create classroom spaces that are both affirming and motivating, while providing students with opportunities to collaborate and independently problem solve. Educators should focus not only on increasing critical thinking, efficiency, and collaboration, but also on developing empathy, self-care, and critical consciousness. Establish the necessary trust by:
- Investigating the relationships students had with their previous math teacher(s).
- Engaging students in conversations about their interests, culture(s), and beliefs.
- Steeping math in contexts they are familiar with to enable a deeper connection to the content personally and academically.