Erin Smith, Multilingual Learners for Success

Mike Wallus, Vice President for Educator Support

Rounding Up: Season 1 | Episode 4 

Multilingual learners represent approximately 10% of the US K–-12 student population, and they are the fastest growing subpopulation of students in the United States. Today Dr. Erin Smith, a mathematics education professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, talks about ways to position multilingual learners as competent doers of mathematics.

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If you’re interested in more on this topic, consider the following article for further reading:
Positioning Multilingual Learners


Mike Wallus: Multilingual learners represent approximately 10 percent of the U.S. K–12 student population. And they're the fastest growing subpopulation of students in the United States. That said, multilingual learners have been and continue to be underserved in mathematics. Today, we talk with Erin Smith, a mathematics education professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, about ways to support and position multilingual learners as competent doers of mathematics. Hey, Erin, thank you for joining us today on the podcast. 

Erin Smith: Thank you so much for inviting me. I'm really happy to be here. 

Mike: I was really fascinated by one of the concepts that you talked about your article . You referenced the idea of positioning, and I'm just fascinated by that because I think it has so much potential for how we support students’ math identities. Can you explain positioning and how you suspect it could impact students in the classroom? 

Erin: Yeah, absolutely. So positioning is a concept from positioning theory, which was developed by Rom Harré and Luk Van Langenhove. So when we talk about positioning or a position, we are really referring to a metaphorical position that you have in a conversation. So it's not necessarily like where your body is physically present, but a metaphorical position. So in the theory, they say that your position that you have impacts what is socially appropriate for you to do and say in an interaction. So in a classroom teachers and students have different positions. Teachers can do things that students can't. They can discipline students. They determine the classroom configuration. They select the tasks that students get to engage with. And in a lot of cases, teachers also get to select who gets to speak in the class, who gets floor time. So each of these decisions that teachers make can impact opportunities for students. And so when I think out positioning in particular and how useful it can be as a lens to look at how we as teachers position certain kinds of students in our classroom, and how we can use our position in the classroom to really call out the strengths of historically underserved students in mathematics, and then use that to position them as leaders in the classroom, while simultaneously also just challenging deficit narratives about who can do mathematics, who can be successful in it. And really what does it mean to do mathematics. 

Mike: You know, as you were talking, what struck me as positioning in some ways related to the status that a student either has been assigned or assigned to themselves. Is that a fair comparison? 

Erin: Yeah, absolutely. So in positioning we talk about both the positions that we take on ourselves and the positions that we assign others. So there is a lot of agency in that, both from a teacher perspective— like you have a lot of agencies to think about positioning—but also students can challenge the positions that you give them. And they have a lot of agency in that. So if a teacher positions a student as lacking some mathematical competency, the student can challenge that positioning by trying to demonstrate their competencies. 

Mike: It's interesting because I think when we shift this to talking about multilingual learners, my suspicion is that part of the challenge that we've had is that multilingual learners have been positioned as less mathematically competent. And the strategies that you're suggesting are actually ways that we can counter that prevailing positioning or status. 

Erin: Yeah. So we, in positioning theory, talk about storylines and these stories that permeate both at a larger, broader societal level, but also at a smaller individual level. So when you're talking about these stories that already exist for multilingual learners, more broadly in more social narratives, they're often really deficit-oriented. And so we can use our position as a teacher in a classroom to challenge how a particular student has been positioned in the past and also create spaces for them to carve out new stories. I think one of the things that I would like to clarify is in positioning theory, refer to them as storylines and thinking about how there are these different storylines that exist both at a societal level, but also in your classroom and at the school level that can influence the ways that you interact with students. So for instance, we have a lot of storylines about math mathematics in the U.S., what it means to be successful in mathematics. So as a teacher, you've got those storylines and your students also have those storylines that they might be drawing on. And so as a teacher, just being cognizant and aware of all these different storylines that might be percolating around and circulating, and you can help craft those stories and really call out or bring to the forefront the ones that you think are very valuable and important. 

Mike: You know, it makes me think of two things. I mean, one is part of the role and part of the work is interrogating the stories that you've brought or that you've absorbed about students or different groups of students. And the other is maybe being clear about, what are the stories that you want kids to leave with, as you just said. 

Erin: Yeah, I would agree that we're not walking into a classroom or an interaction with this blank slate. That's like, we have all these things that are entangled in ourselves that we're making sense of and negotiating and navigating in these interactions. 

Mike: Absolutely. You know, there's a quote that really jumped out for me when I was reading your article, and I'd just like to read it aloud. ‘Some people may think that multilingual learners must be proficient in English before participating in mathematical discussions. This is not the case. And ultimately puts students mathematical learning on hold.’ Can you talk about why you felt it was important to address this misconception? 

Erin: Oftentimes we, as teachers, conflate language competency with math competency. And I've even done this myself in my former life as a math teacher. So we might assume that because a student is at their early stages of developing a language competency, that they're also at the same time at the early stages of developing their math competencies. And we know that's just not true (laughs). That's not how math and language learning work. They occur at different speeds. And one does not indicate a competency in the other. And so I think it's really necessary and important to call out this assumption and also provide readers with an opportunity to reflect on like, ‘Am I holding this assumption? Am I holding some of my students back? Am I doing harm for them because I'm cutting off mathematical learning opportunities because I'm conflating their language competencies with mathematics.’ 

Mike: Sure. So I think one of the things that also jumped out for me was the ways that teachers can set multilingual learners up for success. And one of the strategies that jumped out is the idea of rehearsal. And I'm wondering if you could talk just a bit about what you think rehearsal might look like in an elementary classroom.

Erin: So rehearsals are really a great strategy to help multilingual learners prepare to present their mathematical ideas to the whole class, especially if they are demonstrating some hesitancy or maybe they're from a culture where standing up and presenting your ideas in front of the class is not a norm. And so in an elementary classroom it might look like telling one of your multilingual learner students in advance that you want them to come to the board and share their strategy with the class. And you give them some time to rehearse and practice what they're going to say. So that could be something like you and this student are just having a conversation, and they're getting a chance to practice like that with you. Or it could be that they're practicing with a peer. It could also be something like you're asking them to write down what it is they want to say, and maybe they also have that scaffold if they need it, when they walk to the front of the classroom. You know, one of the things also that I think is really nice about this is that it doesn't need to be used in a way that is really targeting and calling out the multilingual learner, saying that they specifically need the support. And you might give your whole class, maybe a couple of minutes to like, OK, ‘I want you to practice. If you were gonna come to the board and share your strategy, what would you say? I want you to practice that with your partner or your group table mates.’ 

Mike: Absolutely. Like great practice for everyone even if you're intent, as a teacher, is that you want to position one of those students or set them up to successfully share their thinking. 

Erin: Right, right. 

Mike: So one of the other things that I thought was really interesting is—and again, I think it feels like a strategy that is particularly powerful for multilingual learners, but just good practice—you really highlighted the idea of assigning student ownership to mathematical ideas when there's a conversation happening. So what does that mean and what might that sound like or look like in a classroom? 

Erin: So assigning ownership means that you are publicly acknowledging the mathematical ideas that a multilingual learner possesses. I've seen teachers do this in a range of different ways. It might be something as simple as, we're having a Notice & Wonder routine and a student shares their noticing, and I'm writing their name or initials on the board. So that idea is linked to that student. That doesn't take a lot of extra work for me. It could be referring to a strategy as a student strategy, like asking the class who else used Marco's strategy and asking students to raise their hands.  

Mike: Uh-hm. 

So you’re naming that Marco's strategy. It could be asking your students to write story problems and then putting their name next to it. So like, this is Mary Ellis’ word problem that she wrote. And so you're publicly acknowledging this student has created this word problem. When teachers assign ownership of mathematical ideas to students, they're really using that as an opportunity to shift mathematical authority in the classroom off of them and on to students. And so when students have those opportunities where they become authors of mathematics, it can positively impact their mathematical identity. And it also can encourage them to continue coming up with mathematical ideas and being willing to share those mathematical ideas publicly. 

Mike: Absolutely. So one of the last strategies that really struck me was something that I've seen teachers do. And I think I've done it, too, but I'd never actually had words for it. You talk about this as something called the prefacing statement. Can you explain what a prefacing statement is and why it's powerful and maybe even what it might sound like?

Erin: Yeah. So in one of my research projects, I was examining this teacher's practice, and she did this, and I noticed her doing this. And then I try to think of like how to name and capture this. So I landed on prefacing statements. And I used that word to refer to what a teacher says before a student shares their thinking or their strategy in front of the class. And so the teacher is using that as an opportunity to set the stage for the student who's presenting. And it also cues the class into what is important about what the student is going to share or (is) unique about it. And so, for example, I've seen a teacher do this, where she selected a multilingual learner to come to the board to share their strategy. And the teacher says, ‘I selected Mohammed’s strategy because he drew a really efficient picture.’ And so, naming in advance, like, ‘He drew this efficient picture. I want you to look at this and notate how great this is and how representative of an efficient picture this is.’ 

Mike: Yeah, I mean, in that case kind of really pointing out to them, ‘There is some feature that I want you to attend to,’ and then also assigning the ownership of that to the student. 

Erin: Right, right. So another way it could go is, like, ‘I selected Shin Hin's work to share because he represented his thinking in three different ways. So really calling out what is important mathematically about what the student is sharing. And I think that's really the important piece of, like, you really want to be specific about what it is that you're calling out in your prefacing statement, in terms of what does it mean mathematically? And what about this is a mathematical strength? 

Mike: I mean, in some ways, as you say that, it really plays two roles: You're actually helping kids to attend to really specific, small, grain-size features of either the thinking or the representation that are important. And again, you're assigning the contribution clearly to the student that you're talking about. 

Erin: Yeah, exactly. 

Mike: Uh, you know, as I was reading this, I'm struck by the fact that these strategies have the potential for a couple things. On an individual child level, they have the ability to help a child reposition themselves or to think differently about their mathematical identity. But just on a classroom level as well, they really have the ability to push back on some of the narratives that we were talking about earlier, where marginalized kids have a particularly low status in a classroom, their ideas are kind of preset to matter less. And this is really a way to use some really practical strategies to push back on that. 

Erin: Yes, absolutely. 

Mike: So one of the things that jumps out is that, in addition to being powerful strategies that you can use in the moment, it seems like these are things that you might actually begin to intentionally plan when you're setting up a lesson. 

Erin: Yes. So one of the things that I think is really important about understanding that there are a range of ways that you, as the teacher, hold power in the classroom. And you can leverage your position to create opportunities for students and also publicly acknowledge their competencies. So in planning, you should be considering, ‘How am I going to ensure that I'm productively positioning multilingual learners in my classroom?’ And then, ‘What are some specific things I can embed in my lesson to ensure that happens?’ So, for example, if you—going back to the earlier stuff—if you want one of your multilingual learners to present their strategy at the board. And you know from some prior classes that they're a little hesitant and reserved, so you might intentionally carve out the last five minutes of the student exploration stage for students to rehearse what they would say to a class. And so you're building in that time into your lesson and being very intentional in that work. And this might also align to your goal that you might have, that every student shares their strategy at the board. And so that's going to help you achieve that goal for each of your students. I think another thing that's important to keep in mind more broadly is that it's important to hold the same expectations for multilingual learners in your classroom as you do for your other students. And so this is also another way to think about, ‘What are some things that I can do as a teacher in my classroom to ensure that, 1) I'm holding the same expectations. And 2) I'm providing appropriate scaffolding that's going to help the student reach those expectations.’ 

Mike: Absolutely. You started to hint at the next thing that was on my mind, which is that positioning isn't necessarily just something that happens via language. It happens via some of the other decisions like creating space and time. Are there other things in your mind that really support the idea of positioning students in a classroom? 

Erin: Yeah. I think every decision that we make as a teacher can be an opportunity to position. So in thinking about just the physical space of your classroom, who is sitting where? How are seats figured? Who is sitting with who? Where do you, as a teacher, position your body in the classroom? How we structure our lessons, what kinds of pedagogical practices we decide to use … the kinds of questions that we ask. Are we asking really open-ended questions? And who are we asking those of? Are we asking those open-ended, rich questions of multilingual learners, or are we only reserving specific kinds of questions for them? Towards the end of the article, and I try to emphasize, like: We position in every interaction. We are constantly negotiating these positions, both within ourselves, the way that we position ourselves, but also how we're position and how they're responding in turn. We can use these situations to really think about the kinds of stories that we want to foster for each of our students. So what can I do in the classroom to tell a productive or a positive story for this student in mathematics? 

Mike: Hmm. That's powerful. One of the questions I think that I wanted to ask before we close, ‘If someone were listening to this podcast and they wanted to continue learning about support from multilingual learners, or even the idea of positioning more broadly, are there particular resources that you might point them to?’ 

Erin: Thank you so much for this question.  

Mike: (laughs) 

Erin: (chuckles) Um, I would first direct them to my recently published book with my co-authors, called, ‘Teaching Math to Multilingual Students, Grades K–8: Positioning English Learners for Success.’ So it came out in 2021, co-published by Corwin and CTM. So that would be like a really good first place to look. And it's designed for teachers to really think about their practice and their own positioning of multilingual learners. And so I think the next step would be really engaging in some professional development with scholars who have been thinking about and doing some work with positioning in general, and then maybe directing more towards some of the original work of positioning theory as a way to kind of get a hold on, like, these different concepts of the theory. 

Mike: Oh gosh, this was super fun. Erin, thank you so much for joining us today. Erin: Thank you so much for inviting me. It was a pleasure talking with you today.

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.