Bridges in Mathematics

Announcing Bridges in Mathematics Third Edition!

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Corey Drake, Culturally Relevant Practices in the Elementary Math Classroom

Mike Wallus, Vice President for Educator Support

Rounding Up: Season 1 | Episode 1

There is a persistent myth in the world of education that mathematics is abstract and its teaching is not influenced by cultural contexts. This despite the fact that research and scholarship indicate that when students see how math applies to the world they recognize, they perform better. Today on the podcast Dr. Corey Drake , senior director of academic programs at MLC, talks about what it means to provide a culturally inclusive and relevant mathematics experience in the elementary classroom.

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If you’re interested in more on this topic, consider the following article for further reading:
Three Strategies for Opening Curriculum Spaces


Mike Wallus: There's a persistent myth in the world of education, that mathematics is abstract and its teaching is not influenced by cultural contexts. This, despite the fact that research and scholarship indicate when students see how math applies to a world that they recognize, they perform better. Today on the podcast, we'll talk with Dr. Corey Drake, senior director of academic programs at The Math Learning Center, about what it means to provide a culturally inclusive and relevant mathematics experience in the elementary classroom. This is a topic on everybody's mind, and we're excited to address it head on.  

Mike: All right. Hello, everybody. Welcome to the podcast. We are excited today to have Dr. Corey Drake with us. And the topic of the day is culturally relevant practices in an elementary classroom. So, Corey, welcome. It's great to have you on the podcast. 

Corey Drake: Thanks. Great to be here. 

Mike: Fantastic. So I want to start this conversation and zoom way out as a beginning place. So one of the things that I'm thinking about is that lately it seems like you hear terms—like equity, culturally inclusive, culturally relevant—and those are being used across the education space almost as like kind of a catchall, to the point where it seems like in some cases they've almost lost their meaning. So I'm wondering if to begin the conversation, and really give these ideas the depth of discussion that they deserve, If you'd be willing to unpack … When you think about culturally inclusive and culturally relevant practices, help paint a picture of that for someone who's a listener.  

Corey: Yeah. I think those terms do get used all the time in all kinds of different ways. And so I've been trying to think a lot about sorting them out and trying to think about a framework that makes sense for me, recognizing though that actually whatever the term is, I think the goals are the same, right? And so the goals of whether it be culturally inclusive, culturally relevant, culturally sustaining education, or to provide better experiences and more access to all students to high-level mathematics. So that's the underlying goal. And so I don't want to get too lost in the terms.  

Mike: Thank you.  

Corey: Having said that though, I think there are some important differences. I think if we think about things like culturally inclusive, we think about context representations that include all students so that every student can see themselves in curriculum so that students aren't excluded by the examples and representations they see in curriculum.  

Corey: So I would think about that as more along the lines of culturally inclusive. When we start to get to culturally relevant, and then culturally responsive, culturally sustaining work, now we're really starting to think about who our students are, what their experiences have been, what their interests are, the kinds of activities our families and communities participate in, and how all of that can provide access and bridges into mathematics. And then if we would get all the way, kind of on what I think of as the far end of the continuum, we really would get to terms like anti-racist education. We're really there. We're talking about systemic racism, systemic oppression and privilege, and ways in which mathematics can disrupt those systemic issues of, not only who has access, but the kinds of outcomes and opportunities that students have based on various characteristics.  

Mike: So let's unpack these a little bit.  

Corey: Yeah.  

Mike: I think one of the things that's really interesting is this idea of relevance and responsiveness … 

Corey: Uh-hm. 

Mike: … so, particularly because it made me think about the kids in my classroom when I was a classroom teacher, so it strikes me that a part of this work is like, as you said, like really getting to know your students. So paint a picture of what that might look like if I'm a classroom teacher, and I'm teaching fourth grade, what kind of process might I engage in? What does that look like as I'm getting ready to perhaps start a unit of study, or even as I'm just getting ready to start the year? Like, what might that actually look like for a person who's out in the field?  

Corey: Yeah, that's a great question. And it brings up a really important point, which is that cultural responsiveness cannot sit just in a set of materials. And it can't sit just in the teacher's actions, right? Cultural responsiveness happens at that interaction of curriculum materials and the mathematics and the teacher and the students. And it's in those interactions that cultural responsiveness happens. And so for the teacher, what that means is really getting to know their students. But also—perhaps even more and importantly, and as a way to get to know their students—opening up those spaces for student voice in a classroom, right? Where do students have opportunities to share their ideas, to make sense of ideas, to bring in the connections that they're making? To the extent that it's all about the teacher, we're never going to get to that cultural responsiveness, where the students are allowed to bring themselves and bring their cultures into the classroom, and then be able to make sense of the math. With that in mind though, teachers can be thinking about looking at, say, a new unit of study or a task they're going to work on and think about, ‘How do I open up the space within this task, within this unit, for that student voice to come in, for students to be able to make those connections?’ So the teacher is really opening the space versus making the connections, right? They're opening the space so that the students can be making those connections.  

Mike: So I love this idea of opening space. And I think I want to unpack this idea and just try it on. Is it fair to say that opening space, to some degree, is about two things? Part one is: How do I allow space for my students’ lived experiences and their cultural background, and those pieces to kind of come into the, the work? And then part two is: How do I open space in a task that may actually funnel student thinking or constrict the opportunity for kids to share their thinking? Am I thinking about that appropriately, Corey?  

Corey: Yeah, I think that's right. I think you open space for student voice. But you open space in ways … a main way that you would open space is by not overly directing, not overly restricting what that space is. So if I'm going to pose a task, I'm going to look for opportunities to bring in student voice and opportunities for students sense-making throughout that task. So I'm going to launch that task by asking students, ‘What is this context about? What does this make you think about? Can you connect this to other things you know?’ And then we're going to launch the task and we're going to get into the mathematics. And again, and I, as a teacher, am not going to be directing a particular way to solve a problem, a particular way to think about it. But again, opening up the space for students to make those connections, for students to make sense of the mathematics, and then providing opportunities for them to share and learn from each other. It's not a free for all though, right? It's not just bring in whatever you're thinking about, right? My goal as the teacher is to open that space and then facilitate those connections so that they really lead to the kind of sense-making that all students need.  

Mike: Thanks for that. You know, I actually want to shift gears a little bit because it was interesting as you described the continuum … you also were kind of talking about the idea that we could consider, like, a series of steps that we deemed—or you deemed—anti-racist. And you talked about those in, in relation to, kind of, systems that exist. Can you say more about that? Just talk a little bit more about the types of systems that we might be talking about when we're talking about taking an anti-racist stance.  

Corey: Yeah, absolutely. I think the two that come to mind right away are two that you mentioned, right? One is our around curriculum, and one is around assessment. And those are really tightly intertwined, right? So we have a curriculum that not only provides a set of standards, but provides a particular order and a particular path through which we think all students should reach the set of ideas that are represented in the standards. And in order to provide opportunities for all students, we need to think more broadly about that. We need to really think about, ‘What are the big ideas? What are those goals? And how do we provide opportunities for all students to reach those goals?’ … recognizing that what we know about student progressions and the way students get there have mostly been built on the progressions, honestly, of white, middle-class children. 

Mike: Hm. 

Corey: And so there's a lot we don't know, and it requires us to open up spaces. And I think assessment is probably the biggest. 

Mike: Yeah. Talk about that please.  

Corey: Yeah. So assessments are set up to label and categorize students, which is kind of inherently problematic. And I think even more problematic is that assessments and the assessment systems we have built tend to focus our attention on what students don't know, on what students can't do, right? So if we think about the various labels and categories we have for children, they're often around, ‘Well, they can't do this yet’ or ‘They haven't learned that yet,’ versus what is it that students can do? What do they understand? What are they bringing to the classroom? You know, I always tell pre-service teachers, like, something we know about learning is that new learning is connected to prior understandings. You don't learn new things in a vacuum. So if we don't know what students already understand, what they already can do, how are we going to help them learn new things? What are we going to connect it to? I can't connect new learning to the fact that you don't know X, Y, or Z. I can connect it to the idea that you do know this set of things, and I can help you build on that and learn the next set. And to me, that is a critical shift that we would need to make to really have a less racist, less oppressive education system.  

Mike: Mm. Yeah. Can you just expand on that vision a little bit, Corey? I'm still really resonating with two things. One, we learn new things when we connect it to prior knowledge. And two, the whole design of the system—and really kind of the intent, for lack of a better word—this is really to kind of categorize what don't you know. And to label that very, very specifically.  

Corey: Yeah. 

Mike: As opposed to a different kind of intent, which is: What do you, in fact, understand?  

Corey: Yes. And it starts with, we think about math tests we may have taken in the past, right? The focus was always on was the answer right or wrong? And when the answer was wrong, there was an assumption: ‘You don't know this. You don’t understand this.’ And that's how you got grouped or labeled or categorized. And we still do that to students. Versus looking at a piece of student work. You don't want to forget whether the answer in the end is quote, unquote ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ But what I really want to look at is how is a student thinking about a problem? How is a student making sense of this problem? What are the ideas and understandings they’re bringing to this work so that I know what to build on next.  

Mike: Absolutely.  

Corey: And so focusing much less on right or wrong. And here's where I think curriculum and assessment are intertwined. Because when we set things up as here's the endpoint, here's the standard we're trying to reach, right, that leads us to saying, ‘Yes, they got it’ or ‘No, they did not.’ Versus what's the path, what's the pathway they're taking? What are the understandings they're building along the way? 

Mike: So I'm imagining either a single teacher looking at their students’ work, or perhaps a team of teachers who are looking at it … it's an entirely different kind of conversation, right? Like it's almost an entirely different process of, I've got—I'm thinking old school—I've got students’ paper work in front of me … 

Corey: Sure. 

Mike: … I'm looking at it. I'm almost kind of thinking to myself, ‘For someone who's new to this idea, what might that look like if you and I, and a couple colleagues were sitting together, looking at our students work?’ What does that conversation sound like?  

Corey: And how great would that be, right? 

Mike: It'd be amazing.  

Corey: We have these kind of data meetings and things like this in schools. But so often we're looking at printouts from standardized tests … 

Mike: Right. 

Corey: … that don't really to give us insight into the thing we would pay attention to if we sat around a table, looking at student work, is ‘What do you think this student was thinking about? Oh, and where did they get that 10 from? Oh, I see they broke this number up this way. So that shows me they understand some things about place value. They understand something about the structure of numbers. I can see that here, they had a really interesting strategy, but they just miscounted at the end.’ So I'm thinking, ‘This show's really rich understanding.’ And so we could have those kinds of conversations. 

Mike: And those things are actionable, too, right? 

Corey: Absolutely.  

Mike: I, I mean, that's the challenge of having sat in so many data meetings is, like, what's actionable about what you're looking at? 

Corey: Exactly. 

Mike: It's really hard when you're actually trying to get into students' heads and think about their thinking. You, as a teacher, you have some agency, you can do something. So it's, it's like, wow, that's really powerful.  

Corey: Yeah. It just lends itself to this next idea. OK, if I know that this is what this student is thinking about, and maybe this group of students is thinking about it this way, and this group is thinking that way, it supports also this idea of, like, teaching is inquiry, right? Because what we always want to do, we don't have the magic next step. But we could look at a piece of student work and say, ‘Huh, I wonder what would happen if I posed this problem next? Or what if I changed the numbers in this problem? Would I still see this kind of thinking?’ And that's what we want teachers to be doing to support student learning. To say, ‘Here's what I see happening. Let me try this problem next and see what happens’ And building that pathway for a student over time.  

Mike: Which to me, actually, the connection I think I'm making is, that's actually almost like a generative path, right? In some ways that leads us right back to what you said at the beginning, which is, ‘What's the role of the teacher when they're trying to provide a culturally relevant experience?’ 

Corey: Absolutely.  

Mike: It's like, this is the pathway to get there.  

Corey: Yes.  

Mike: Yeah. That makes a ton of sense. Um, well, before we leave things, Corey, I guess the last question I wanted to ask is: If I'm a teacher who's new to this conversation or new to thinking about these ideas, do you have any references that you might share with folks? Things that would help them kind of continue to think about this, continue to think about how it shows up in their classroom? Is there anything you'd recommend?  

Corey: Yeah, absolutely. There are so many great resources out there right now. I think the main problem is making sure we have time and space to be able to, to learn from the great work that's happening out there. I would say a book that's been really influential for me recently is actually in English language arts. But it's by Gholdy E. Muhammad and is called ‘Cultivating Genius.’ And she talks about what it would look like to build a historically and culturally relevant curriculum in ELA. And I think there are a lot of parallels with math. We've also been reading lately, ‘Choosing to See,’ by, um, Pam Seda and Kyndall Brown. And I think that has very actionable steps. It's really written in a way that teachers, either on their own or in a small group, could take it up and really think about some of these ideas shifting. It's these small shifts in curriculum and assessment, and just our orientation to children, that really makes such a big difference for the experiences of students. 

Mike: Totally agreed. I read that and just felt like, ‘If I'm a teacher, I can do something with this tomorrow.’ 

Corey: Yes, yes, absolutely.  

Mike: Absolutely. Definitely. The other one that jumps out for me, and I'm wondering if you add some commentary, is just, ‘Smarter Together,’ which has been around for a while.  

Corey: Yeah.  

Mike: But has got some really powerful work inside it as well.  

Corey: Absolutely. So ‘Smarter Together’ really helps us think about—within groups of students— thinking about status and privilege and how teachers can really bring to the forefront and, and hold up the different ways in which students are smart in mathematics. And I think that's a really important shift, which is that all students are brilliant, right? And it's taking that as a fundamental tenant and saying, ‘The ways we've tended to think about what it means to be smart in math have been so narrow. They've been about being fast with your facts. Or being able to memorize things.’ When really, the range of ways in which you can be and need to be smart in math are so much broader than that. And so, ‘Smarter Together’ really helps us think about, ‘What are the range of skills and knowledge and interests that students would need to bring to really do well in mathematics?’ 

Mike: Sounds like we have another podcast on our hands.  

Corey: Love it.  

Mike: (laughs) Thanks so much, Corey.  

Corey: Yep. 

Mike: It was great to have you on the podcast.  

Corey: Thank you.  

Mike: This podcast is brought to you by The Math Learning Center and the Maier Math Foundation dedicated to inspiring and enabling individuals to discover and develop their mathematical confidence and ability.