Nataki McClain and Annelly Rodas, Cultivating Positive Math Identity

Mike Wallus, Vice President for Educator Support


Close your eyes and picture your childhood self learning math in elementary school. What memories and feelings come to mind? When you reflect on those memories, what unspoken messages did you absorb about what it meant to be good at math? And, how did those early experiences with mathematics shape your belief about yourself as a doer of math? Today on the podcast, MLC curriculum consultants Annelly Rodas and Nataki McClain talk about math identity and how educators can shape students’ math identities.

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Mike Wallus: Today I'd like to start our episode with a bit of a thought exercise. I'd like you to close your eyes and picture your childhood self, learning math in your elementary school. What are some of the memories and feelings that come to mind? And when you reflect on those memories, what do you think the unspoken messages you may have absorbed about what it means to be good at math were? And then, maybe most importantly, how did those early experiences with mathematics shape your belief about yourself as a doer of math? Today on the podcast, we're talking about identity; specifically, math identity. What is it? And how can we as teachers shape our students' math identities? Let's get started. 

Mike: Well, hey, everyone. Welcome to Rounding Up. I'm excited to have our friends Nataki and Annelly joining us today. And I think I'll just start by welcoming the two of you. It's great to have you on the podcast. 

Nataki McClain: Hi, Mike. Thank you for having us. 

Annelly Rodas: Thank you, Mike. 

Mike: Absolutely. So the two of you are currently curriculum consultants for the Math Learning Center. And I'm wondering before we get started with the topic of the day, can you tell us just a little bit about your teaching background and your experience in education? And, Nataki, I'm wondering if you'd be willing to go first? 

Nataki: Sure. Well, I have been in education in some capacity for about 25 years. I spent 16 years in the classroom. Fourth grade was my favorite year of all time. And then I spent eight years as a math specialist. This past year, I am now a curriculum consultant for the Math Learning Center. 

Mike: Annelly, how about you? 

Annelly: So I started my career as a pre-K teacher at a head start program, and then I moved to the New York City public school system, where I taught second grade and fourth grade. Later, I had the opportunity to work as a math coach at my own school. And I supported pre-K to eight. 

Mike: Fabulous. Thanks to both of you. So let's jump into the topic of the podcast: Cultivating a Positive Math Identity. Getting ready for this, what I found myself thinking about is that there is so much conversation in the field right now around math identity. And CTM has position statements about the importance of supporting a positive math identity. There's a ton of research that validates that need. I think I'd like to start by just asking you, from your perspective, how would you describe math identity to a listener who's new to this conversation? 

Annelly: I think that it is important to understand that math identity is our own personal view on how we engage with mathematics, right? And it has to do with our disposition and our beliefs on our mathematics ability. I know for me, this topic is really close to my own personal journey in mathematics because I grew up thinking that I was not a math person and that changed with my experiences really late in life. So it has become my mission that kids get to experience math in a different way, and that they feel comfortable engaging with mathematics. 

Nataki: And Nelly, um, I have to agree with you. I share a similar experience in that, I guess in my elementary school days, I didn't think of math as something that you got to either enjoy or not. It was just kind of, it's just there, and you do it, and you learn it. But then in high school, I did not have a positive experience. I was made to feel like math was not my thing. And so, Mike, to address that question about what is math identity, it really—to Nelly's point—it really is how you view yourself as a mathematician. And again, my experience in high school was such that I did not feel like I was a mathematician. So to everyone’s surprise, when I go off to grad school I'm studying math, and now I'm working at the Math Learning Center, right? It's kind of a big deal. And I think it's important that everyone feel like a mathematician. 

Mike: Yeah, gosh, you know what you two are saying, I suspect that it resonates with so many people who, whether they're teachers or parents or folks who are just kind of going about living their lives, think this resonates so much. I really resonate with what you said, Nataki, about this idea that math was just there. 

Nataki: Uh-hm. 

Mike: It was about a series of procedures that you do quickly and that you try to always find the answer as soon as possible. And get it correct the first time. And if you didn't, that meant something about who you were, and what your ultimate capacity as a mathematician was. 

Nataki: Uh-hm. 

Mike: And I think for a lot of folks, that really shapes their belief about what school math is and what math is in general. 

Nataki: Absolutely. 

Mike: Yeah. So I'm really curious when you think about the resources that helped you all build your understanding of math identity. What are some of the kind of seminal pieces of work that helped you begin to think about this idea? 

Nataki: Well, Annelly and I are reading this book. It's called Choosing to See. It's written by Pamela Seda and Kyndall Brown. And I have found that this is a relevant resource, especially to our work at the Math Learning Center, because it focuses on equity specifically in the math classroom. And as you're reading it, hopefully, you'll find, like we have, that the authors do a really good job in describing those instructional strategies that help teachers to build positive math identities for students. Right away in the introduction, Kyndall Brown outlines a framework for the principles that guide equity, agency, and also identity in the classroom. And he uses an acronym. I see you care. So it's I, the letter, C-U-C-A-R-E. And that stands for Including others as experts; being Critically conscious; Understanding your students; using Culturally relevant curricula; (Assess), activate, and also to build (on) prior knowledge; Releasing control, and Expecting more. And the idea here is to be intentional about what you see, to also be compassionate and purposeful enough to respond. And when we allow this mindset to be prevalent in our classroom, it really does help to support a positive student math identity. But it also serves as a guide to help the teacher understand what, particularly, is at stake. 

Annelly: And I love that resource. The two of us  are reading that book and always have conversations about it. But I also think that a starting point for a teacher should be examining their own journey with mathematics, right? Like, I talked about how I didn't feel as a mathematician. And I taught, at the beginning of my career, I taught the way that I was taught: very procedural. Expecting quick answers. And the more I started putting my students at the center of my teaching, I started realizing that I was not meeting the needs of all my students. So I would say another research—and I'm going to do a plug-in here for our blog—”A Summer Dive into Teacher Math Identity.” That might be something, like a starting point, right? We have to examine our own thinking and our own role before we can create those opportunities for students to develop a positive math identity. 

Nataki: I like that, Annelly, that's a good one. 

Mike: Hmm. Yeah. I think one thing that jumps out for me is, it would be hard for me to imagine that there's a lot of people who disagree with the aspiration of helping children build an identity about mathematics. That's positive. But I think what's hitting me is you all are kind of highlighting that there are actual practices and things that one does that actually help build that. And, Annelly, I think I'm really struck by the statement that you made, where you said, “I realized that I needed to put kids at the center of my instruction.” And I'm wondering if you can just talk a little bit about, for you, in your journey as a math educator, what did it look like to do that in your classroom? 

Annelly: What happened to me was that I started exploring my own math identity at the same time as I was teaching. And one of the things that I noticed is that for me, I need processing time and I needed visuals. So I started playing with that in the classroom to see what my students needed, right? I started bringing in visuals, and we started thinking about—I started thinking about—like, processing time for my kids, giving them time to think, slowing down their thinking. And that made a huge difference for my kids. And it provided a lens where I was pushed to, to think about and really pay attention to, what are the other things that they need? How can I open up space for them to share their thinking? And also, where are the opportunities for them to develop that agency as well? Where they can feel like, “I can tackle this,” even though it's hard. 

Mike: Hmm. Nataki, I, I was going to also offer, like, from your perspective, what did this journey look like for supporting students? 

Nataki: Well, kind of similar to Annelly, you know. When I, when I am reflective of my own experiences as a math student, but also reflective in my practices as a teacher, one of the things that I noticed that was missing is the element of fun, right? And also how that fun factor makes room for accessibility. When students start having fun, then the math is accessible to them. And so one of the things that I can say that absolutely was consistent in my classroom, is that we were having fun. Now, of course, fun looks different for different people. And for me, it wasn't just, “We're being goofy and being silly.” But fun meant that we are enjoying thinking about the math, doing the math, talking to our friends about the math, looking at math in different ways. In fact, I remember many days when we were at recess and students would come up to me with something that they'd noticed on the playground, right? Being that, “Oh, you know, Ms. McClain, that this merry-go-round is a circle. And it's going around and around and around and around. And it spins in the same, in the same distance from the center all the time.” That's something that I didn't teach them. It was something that they noticed because they were having fun on the playground. And they were able to bring in the math concepts from the classroom into their own fun spaces. 

Mike: You know, one of the things that I find myself thinking about is a really old piece of research. And gosh, I forget the actual researcher. But this idea that teaching is a cultural experience, right? That there are certain cultural narratives around mathematics education that exist just under the surface for lots of people. They're the scripts that they learned when they were in childhood. And that's the picture that shows up in people's heads when they think about math education. So part of the work really is offering kind of a counternarrative to that cultural script. Where I'm going with this is, my cultural script is: Teacher stands in front, shows me what to do, we practice it, and then I go and I sit and do 15 problems, and then two story problems at the end. And that's kind of the cultural script. 

Nataki: Right. 

Mike: And I suspect that it's fairly difficult to make that kind of cultural script fun. So it makes me wonder, “What did your classroom look like to make things fun?”

Nataki: Well, one of the things that was really important to me is that students could see themselves in the math that we are doing. So there wasn't a division problem that wasn't accessible to all students in the beginning, right? So we had to make it accessible. And then I would always find ways to turn everything into a game. To provide, again, that level of fun for kids. So whether it's that I've watched a game show like Jeopardy … well, “How could I use this game show to create a math lesson or a math event or an experience for students?” And so sometimes I could do that in the planning stages. OK, thinking about the content that I wanted students to learn, and then, “How can I make it fun? How can I make it engaging?” And then sometimes it just happened in the moment. You know, if you read the room and you discover that, mmm … they're not really having a lot of fun. And again, fun looks different for different people. And for me, I knew that it was fun when all students were engaged and all students had access to the learning. 

Mike: So you all are really making me think about the fact that part of building identity is task structure, right? The way that you design tasks, the context that you provide that helps kids connect to it, and also really knowing your kids and knowing the fact that if I'm in second grade, you know, having the agency to actually use some of the materials and have choice around that, that's part of being fun, right? I have a question for you. When you all think about the fact that you also supported a Bridges implementation, what's your lived experience with the places where you see opportunities for building math identity within the structure of the Bridges curriculum. Um, how did that play out for you? How did that connect to the story that you're telling about your own journey? 

Nataki: Kids would come barging in the room expecting Number Corner to happen. They were just so excited to discover the next pattern. Or, what are we collecting this month, right? And then, I mean, talk about fun. Work Places was just a natural place for that fun to happen. So I would say Number Corner and Work Places were the places in which I saw kids just really engage. And it was also a great time for teachers to help build that math identity in students, right? To offer support or just to be there next to students, watching them as they're playing the Work Place games. Those were two components where I saw the most where students really were engaged and having a lot of fun. And not only students. Cause I have to admit that I might have been on a couple of floors, and I might have been caught playing a couple of games, and laughing and chuckling myself  (chuckles). 

Mike: (Chuckles) Annelly, how about for you? Because I know that you actually, you were not only a Bridges teacher for quite a while, but you also supported the implementation in your building. 

Annelly: I think that something that we saw when we implemented Bridges was the opportunity to allow kids to show their thinking. And I think that was so big, right? Like in thinking about, “There are so many subtle ways.” Like when we ask kids, “Can you show me eight on your number rack,” right? We're not dictating how they should think about it. They're jumping in and creating their own strategies and their own learning. And I think that that's an important way to develop that math identity. Because we are telling kids, “You can do it. You have all of the skills to do this.” So I see it in that. I see it also in, when we ask kids to write their own math problems—this is something that I've been thinking about a lot—like, when we give kids the opportunity to become authors in the math classroom, we want to hear their ideas and their strategies. 

Nataki: Uh-hm. 

Mike: How does the role of the teacher shift in a classroom that's really supporting a positive mathematics identity? Part of what's on my mind is that idea of a cultural script, where the teacher is the knower and the place where all of the knowledge lives. And then it's really just kind of beamed out to the kids. What's the shift? If I'm trying to just reconceptualize what teaching looks like in a classroom where I am actively building a positive math identity for my students, how would you describe that? 

Annelly: Like, I think that for that, I'm going to connect to my years when I was a coach. I used to love going into classrooms where I wouldn't know where the teacher was. 

Nataki: Right. 

Annelly: And it's even physical, right? The teacher is not in the front of the room. The teacher might be, like Nataki said, on the floor, playing with the kids. Or at a table, meeting with them. And I think that's a sign that shows you how the teacher is moving away from a teacher-center into a more of a student center. Also, when we can see kids thinking. Where we can see strategies being named after kids. Again, it seems as something so simple, but it's so powerful for them. It gives them validation that what you are thinking is important. I value your strategies. I used to say, “Even if they take you down to a rabbit hole value, they’re thinking…” 

Nataki: (Laughs) 

Annelly: (Laughs) 

Mike: That is really powerful. And, Nataki, how would you answer that question? 

Nataki: Everything that Annelly said, I 100 percent agree with. I also think where there are opportunities to ask questions of students, to take those opportunities. Particularly when you have a student who doesn't always get to shine in the class, you know, when that student does something that you think the entire class should hear, find time and find moments to highlight that again. That's giving the student a different feeling about math and a different feeling about where that student finds himself or herself in that math classroom. It makes them feel like they are a mathematician. So I think asking questions and finding moments to allow all students to shine. 

Mike: You know, I'm trying to put myself back into the world of a classroom teacher. I wonder if for a lot of folks, part of the hesitation is this fear of, what happens if kids say something that quote unquote is wrong or incorrect? And especially if that happens publicly in front of other children. I think there's this hesitation on the part of people. Because, again, the cultural script is, “I'll correct that and show you and tell you exactly what to do.” And I wonder, when you've been faced with that spot where you have used questioning, you've been building discourse, and something just comes out of left field… When you think about a classroom again, where you're supporting identity, what does it look like in that moment for a teacher who's working to support identity, and they have some information that kids are putting out that they're concerned? Like, what do I do? 

Nataki: Right. 

Mike: Yeah, tell me about your thinking on that. 

Nataki: Before we start to build discourse, we need to take some time at the very beginning to build a classroom community where everyone in the room feels free to share their thinking. No matter if it's quote correct or incorrect. And I always find opportunities to kind of press more when those incorrect answers come out, because we can learn a lot from those incorrect answers. We don't just learn from the things that are right. We learn from the things that are incorrect. So can you tell me more about that? Or maybe we could write the ideas on sticky notes and revisit them, right? If there are conjectures, which we talk a lot about in our classroom. Conjectures are always meant to be proven right or wrong, not just in that moment, but for as long as we are in the classroom. We're going to be thinking about the conjecture that Sally made. And the students love—and it's fun for them—when they can prove or disprove Sally's conjecture. That's fun for them. But because we've built the community, it's safe to do that. 

Annelly: I love that, Nataki. I think that also creating a culture where it's OK to make a mistake and also modeling from teachers, right? Modeling that, “Oh, I made a mistake.” But what I love about math is that I just think, “Cross it out and, and kind of like, think about it again.” The one tip that I will give teachers that are just starting with math discourse, and they're afraid to get into gray areas: Do a turn-and-talk and listen to your kids before you ask them to share. And then you can kind of like select which kids are going to share, and you know where they're going. The other thing is that you have to do the math before you do the lesson, right? So that you know where they can go. One of the things that we used to do is, uh, we used to sit down and think about all the different ways that kids can answer a question, like a problem string. What are all the different ways kids can tackle problem strings? And then that gives you kind of like the foundation, right? Granted, you might have some kids that want to be really creative, and they might break it apart into ways that you were not even thinking about. But I think those two are, like maybe two tips, that open up the space for kids to share their ideas. 

Nataki: And, Annelly, I think that's an important thing to mention because that anticipation of student responses that comes in the planning. And so it's important for teachers to remember that planning is part of your teaching. That we just don't show up and just start teaching, right? That there has to be some thought that we're giving to the anticipated responses. 

Mike: Yeah. I mean, I think when you say that you, gosh, I'm so glad that we talked about this question. I mean, a few things jump out: 1) the idea of positioning student thinking as not being immediately judged right or wrong by the teacher, but as an opportunity to actually build an understanding, to actually have kids justify, to have kids turn to one another and talk about, “What is your understanding of this?” And then to build the conversation. So again, it goes back to agency, right? 

Nataki: Uh-hm. 

Mike: You are not the source of right or wrong. You're actually asking them to engage in thinking about that. But I think, Annelly, I'm really keying on what you said earlier about the idea that you have to anticipate where kids might go, because it actually means something. Regardless of whether they've arrived at the correct answer or whether they've arrived at something that shows partial understanding, they're telling you something, and you can use that place to help build an understanding for the whole group. Cause if one kiddo says it, it strikes me that there's probably a fairly good amount of other kiddos who might be thinking the exact same thing. 

Annelly: And I think that's another way to build that math identity when we tell them, “It's OK if you just have the beginning of an idea…”

Nataki: Uh-hm. 

Annelly: … Right? “Can you share with us? And we can build on that.” Because what Nataki was saying before: We have the power to position kids in a positive light with the rest of the class… 

Nataki: Uh-hm. 

Annelly: And that it's also so important. 

Mike: I just want to thank the two of you for joining us and sharing your thinking. One last question, I think before we have to close things out. You know, if I'm a listener, we've covered a lot of territory in the last bit. If I'm thinking about taking some steps in my classroom, where do you see opportunities for people to get started? Particularly if they're using the Bridges curriculum. 

Nataki: I'd say one of the first places—not only a teacher, but any person in, in a school building could start—is taking a look at the blogs that are posted about math identity. One of the blogs, I think Annelly mentioned earlier is, helping teachers to be reflective of their own math journey. And I think that's an important step. So reflection, I would say, is a great place to start. And it starts perhaps by reading the blog. 

Annelly: I would say don't be afraid to have conversations with your kids. And letting them lead some of those discussions. 

Mike: Hey, thanks so much to both of you for joining us today. It was really a pleasure to hear your thinking and to have you on the podcast. 

Annelly: Thank you, Mike, for having us. 

Nataki: Yes. Thank you, Mike. This was a lot of fun. But listen, next time … can you bring cookies? 

Mike: Hey, you got a deal, my friend. Thanks so much. 

Nataki: Thank you. Bye now.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.