Culturally Responsive Teaching in the Math Classroom

If you are a seasoned educator, then you’ve probably heard the term “culturally responsive teaching” before. But, what exactly does this mean and how can we apply this to a math classroom? For three years, I have grappled with these same questions. However, this year, even among the many challenges that COVID-19 has presented, I really feel as though I have begun to understand how culturally responsive teaching can be presented in math classrooms. I believe that it simply begins with student choice. 

I have been teaching CPM for the last six years and truly love the development of the low floor, high ceiling questions that the curriculum provides. My ultimate goal this year was to see how I could make these questions more relevant, engaging, and interesting for the students. With the fact that COVID-19 has forced me to re-examine learning targets and main goals for students to become proficient in, I have used this opportunity to think about the learning targets in sections, rather than daily lessons. For example, in the Core Connections 1 text, the second and third section of unit 2 deals with varying graphical representations where students learn about stem-and-leaf plots, histograms and bar graphs and determine how each one presents different information. As a result, I had students think of this in a larger picture. I also wanted to make the information relevant and exciting in an attempt to be responsive to each individual student’s interest level. 

I had each student choose a question that they wanted to ask their peers. This could be anything from favorite ice cream flavor to how many siblings each student had. Being this is the second month of the school year, I wanted the question to be low-risk, but fun. I then had each student create each type of graph from their data: bar graph, histogram, stem-and-leaf plot, pie graph, Venn diagram, and dot plot. Students were asked to put each graph on an 8 ½ X 11 paper with color so a group of students could view from the front of the room. Then each student presented their six graphs. During the presentations, I asked many different types of questions in an effort for students to realize that different graphs would be useful for different analyses. The students genuinely seemed to enjoy and engage in this process.

At the conclusion of the activity, I asked students to reflect on why they thought I had allowed them to choose their own question for this activity. Here are some student responses: 

Lincoln C. – …so that we are more engaged.

Keegan F. – …so we can choose a question we feel comfortable with.

Rowen F: – …so we could make it interesting for us, and find things we want to make graphs about.

I was really excited to see that my goal was met without explicitly teaching the students about culturally responsive teaching! Ultimately, I wanted the students to feel comfortable with the information, increase engagement and show interest by having them choose the question to ask their peers. 

Even though culturally responsive teaching seems like a large undertaking and difficult to infuse into our everyday practice, I was reminded that we simply need to start small. Zaretta Hammond, in Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain states that a culturally responsive classroom involves building a community of learners and learning environment that is intellectually and socially safe for learning, is open for student voice and agency, and occurs when learning is student-centered around communal (sociocultural) talk and task structures. I have plans to continue this work throughout the school year by discussing “acceptance” of other’s work and ideas, and eventually coaching students to utilize mathematics to push for social change around the area of acceptance of everyone.

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