Pamela Seda and Kyndall Brown, Exploring a Framework for Equity in the Math Classroom

Mike Wallus, Vice President for Educator Support


Today on the podcast, Pamela Seda and Kyndall Brown, authors of Choosing to See: A Framework for Equity in the Math Classroom talk about what culturally relevant mathematics instruction looks like and identify practical steps educators can take to start this important work in their classrooms. 

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

Choosing to See: A Framework for Equity in the Math Classroom


Mike Wallus: What does it mean to offer our students a culturally relevant experience in mathematics? This is a question on the minds of many, particularly elementary mathematics educators. Today we're talking with Pamela Seda and Kyndall Brown, authors of “Choosing to See: A Framework for Equity in the Math Classroom.” We'll talk with our guests about what culturally relevant mathematics instruction looks like and identify practical steps educators can take to start this important work in their classrooms. 

Mike: So, hello, Pam and Kyndall. Welcome to the podcast. We're so glad to have you with us. I'm wondering if both of you would be willing to take a turn and just talk a little bit about what brought you to writing the book. 

Pamela Seda: OK, well I'll start. This book really started with my dissertation research. And when I started my Ph.D. program, I was very well aware of the achievement gap and the lack of opportunities for so many students, and I just wasn't satisfied that there was a gap. I had to find answers. And so, my Ph.D. program was my quest to find answers. In the process of finding answers, I created this framework that came out of my study, and I had the opportunity to think about how to support teachers. Firstly, implement it in my own classroom and then figure out how to help teachers implement this. And it was just one of those things that I knew that there were a lot of people who wanted to do better for their kids, but they weren't quite sure how to do it. And so, therefore, this book was really kind of a nuts-and bolts place to start. 

Mike: And, Kyndall, if you can pick up the story, how did the two of you start collaborating around the book? 

Kyndall Brown: So, I met Pam at the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics Conference in Boston in 2015. I was doing a keynote presentation focused on equity and mathematics, and Pam was in the audience. And at the end of the presentation, she approached me and suggested that we start doing presentations together. So ever since then, we were collaborating to do presentations at national conferences. I had been approached by a publisher about writing a book focused on equity in mathematics. So often when those of us who've been doing this equity work over the years, what we hear from math teachers in particular is, ‘What does it look like in the math classroom?’ In language arts, you can read the literature that's reflective of your student population. And [in] a social studies class, you can study the cultures of the student populations in your classroom. But math teachers were always wondering, ‘What does equity look like in a math classroom?’ And so, one of the first things Pam did when we met was, she introduced me to her ICUCARE framework. It just made perfect sense to use her framework. I asked if she would like to collaborate. She said yes, and this is what we did during the pandemic. 

Mike: Well, I'm wondering if the two of you could just start and unpack the premise of the book and describe the framework that you all have proposed for people who may not have read it yet. 

Pamela: Well, ICUCARE is the acronym. The first part is, ‘I include others as experts; C, be critically conscious; U, understand your students well; and then the second C is, use culturally relevant curricula.’ Kyndall, you want to take it from there?  (laughs)

Kyndall:  (laughs) Sure. The next principle is, ‘Assess, activate, and build on prior knowledge; then comes release control; and the final principle is, expect more.’ 

Mike: You know, we could do a podcast episode for every component of the ICUCARE framework, but today we're really focused on using culturally relevant curricula. I suspect there are many educators listening who are kind of in the shoes that Kyndall was describing earlier, this idea that they're interested in the work, but they're not sure how to start, particularly in the math classroom. So, I'm wondering if you all could just spend a little bit of time talking about the guidance you would offer folks when it comes to culturally relevant curricula in a math classroom. 

Kyndall: Well, first of all, in order to make a task or your curriculum culturally relevant, you have to know who it is that you're teaching, right? You can't make assumptions and assume that you know who they are based upon some physical characteristic or some other information that you might have with your students. The first thing you have to do is get to know who they are, what their interests are, what their concerns are, and then you can begin to start making the curriculum culturally relevant. 

Mike: Hmm. 

Pamela: I always say, if we're talking about a task, let's start with something that is cognitively demanding; something that is accessible but also cognitively demanding. And so, oftentimes we describe that as a low-floor, high-ceiling task. And it's real important that students have that opportunity to be able to have cognitively demanding tasks. I say that's a good place to start. We can use textbook problems, we can go to websites—things like Jo Boaler and Achieve the Core and Bridges—those kinds of things. And that's a good place to start. And so, then you might say, ‘OK, well how do I know that's culturally relevant?’ Well, that's what we start with, the good task, and then we're going to take that and make it culturally relevant. And one way I say to take a baby step is, take that task and then just change the names and put some names in there that are meaningful to your students. 

Pamela: And I say, put your students’ names in there rather than just trying to come up with some ethnic-sounding names. Put your students’ names so that they can see themselves in there. Put your school's names, put the other teacher's names. The key is students need to be able to see, ‘I am a part of mathematics, that mathematics is a part of who I am, a part of who we are.’ And so, I think that's a very good baby step to take is just put meaningful names in there. I know that it was very effective. My students really enjoyed it. I could tell, like, even I purposely oftentimes would do that on tests to help reduce the anxiety level of taking a test. And my students, you would see them kind of smile and look around for the persons that they saw whose name was mentioned in the problem. 

Pamela: So, that's a good first step. And then I would say, the next thing you could do after you've changed the names is then change the context. Change the contexts to things that are meaningful. But as Kyndall said, this is going to require you understanding something about your students. And some things that you can do to understand your students: You can interview your students. And one of the things we talk about in our book is empathy interviews that you can do. You can have listening conversations. Just have conversations with your students in the hall. What are they talking about in the hall? What are they talking about at lunch? What are they talking about at the bus stop? Just pay attention to those conversations, those social conversations, to figure out what's important to them. And then just do community walks. Find out what's in the community. What are popular places that kids hang out, that they go? What's meaningful to them and their families? And incorporate those contexts into problems. And then after that, if you've gotten used to changing the context, then I suggest what I call go to a Stage Four Task. And then you try to engage their agency and help them understand that math can be a tool to use. 

Mike: I would love for you to—either of you—to talk a little bit more about that last bit that you mentioned, Pam, when you talked about ways to build up kids' sense of agency. Would you be willing to indulge and just go a little bit further down into that conversation? 

Pamela: Absolutely. So oftentimes, even if we have these wonderful contexts that students will solve problems and become engaged problem-solvers, there's always the question is, like, ‘So what now? What do I do with this? Why is this important to even get this answer?’ And it has to be more than, ‘Well, it's going to be on the test,’ right?  (laughs) And so, helping students understand and solve problems that help them see that they can be a part of solutions [to] things that are important to them. So, for example, I remember taking a problem. And it was something about increase in numbers. There was something about what percent did this increase? And I changed the context to the housing market because we had just actually had some storms that had come through our state and had created a lot of damage to houses and homes. And so, then the very next step was I started having them think about, ‘Well, how much might it cost to rebuild these homes? Were some houses damaged more than others?’ 

Pamela: And ‘What could you possibly do to help?’ Those are just some kinds of things to help kids understand that, ‘Oh, well, I'm not just trying to find percent increase or decrease, but there's some contexts here that matter, and it may cause me to do some more research.’ And even thinking about, ‘Well, if there are neighborhoods that were impacted, what are some things that I can do? Could there be some money that we raise? If I'm going to rebuild the house, how much might I need to spend? How much might I need to invest so that this maybe doesn't happen again?’ Those are just all different types of questions to help students understand that you can use math as a part of your community. I also talk about an example of how I was teaching a unit on regression equations, and I know this is an elementary audience, but it was just an example of the fact that we give tests all the time. 

Pamela: We give those state standardized tests, and I decided to use our district's data for the schools in our district, and things like that, to actually do the mathematics. And students care about that. They got to see their state scores, and they got to see the scores of their neighborhood, of friends who maybe go 

to a school down the street. And then not only did they get to do the math with that, then they got to have some input. I gave them that opportunity to basically talk to fellow students, talk to fellow teachers, talk to fellow administrators about, ‘What do you think should be different now that you've analyzed and looked at this data?’ 

Kyndall: And I would just add that Lisa Delpit, an education scholar, wrote this book in the early 2000s called ‘Multiplication is for White People.’ And that's an extremely provocative title, but it was actually a quote from an African American student of ours. And it kind of spoke to that student's math identity. The actual quote was, ‘Multiplication is for white people, addition and subtraction is for Black people,’ right? And so that speaks to what that student's identity was about. The ability of certain people to do math based upon their racial or ethnic background. So, it is very easy to go through the U.S. educational system and come to the conclusion that mathematics is pretty much the domain of mostly white, European men, right? 

Mike: Certainly.

Kyndall: When nothing could be further from the truth. There's an excellent book called ‘The Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics’ that shows very clearly that mathematics is a cultural endeavor. It's a humanistic endeavor that all humans all over the planet have engaged in. And that other cultures have made significant contributions to the field of mathematics. And so, we need to do a lot better job of exposing students to that so that we can make sure that they see mathematics is as much a part of their culture as any other racial or ethnic group. And they need to see examples of people that look like them in the math textbooks, on the walls of their classrooms, as another way to help build that mathematics identity. 

Mike: You know, and I think that is actually one of the things that I really appreciated about the way that you all structured the book. I know that I've heard other people who have read it say how much they appreciated being able to hear the stories from your own classrooms, the experiences that you had with students, and really being able to put those out there in a way that help people see where there might be pitfalls and where there might be opportunities. I'm curious if either of you would be willing to share a story about culturally relevant curricula and the impact that you saw on a particular student. 

Kyndall: Well, Pam has a couple of really good stories in that chapter, so I'm going to let her … 

Pamela:  (laughs) Yeah. So, one of the things I talk about is Jasmine. Jasmine was one of my students who, we’ll just say we didn't see eye to eye on most things  (laughs). Jasmine was very openly hostile towards me, and I was expending a lot of my energy just trying to get her to do anything. And she just 

made it very clear to me she wasn't interested in doing anything I asked her to do. And so I gave her that project that I talked about, where we decided to look at our test scores, our standardized test scores throughout the district, and applied the math content of the standard that we were using to this, to where she got to make an analysis and be able to see if there was a relationship between the percentage of Black students in our school and then our college and career readiness index, and those kinds of things. 

Pamela: And I was just really amazed about the transformation that happened with her. Because previously, not only was she not willing to work with me, she didn't want to work with her classmates either  (chuckles). 

Mike: Mm. 

Pamela: And she, as a result of working on this project, asked to be a part of a group. When she found out that she had made some mistakes on some of the data, she willingly stayed after school to fix her mistakes. And I even remember the day that the project was due. She stayed late to put her finishing touches on it. And so, I just was amazed. She was just … became pleasant. And as a result, I wanted to 

talk with her about the impact that this project had on her. And she said she really wanted to do it. It wasn't like it was just for a grade. She really wanted to learn the information. And the other thing that was kind of interesting is she didn't really see it as math. She didn't really think that what she was doing was really math, even though she was using Excel spreadsheets and she was using formulas. What that told me was how her perception was that school math wasn't what real math was, and that what we were doing that was connected to her community didn't feel like math. And I felt like that's something that we really need to change. 

Mike: Yeah. Kendall, I saw you nodding on the other …

Kyndall: Well, I think the general public has come to believe that the only thing that counts as math is what you do in school, in a math classroom, right? 

Mike: Uh-hm. 

Kyndall: That all of these ways that people are engaging in mathematical thinking and reasoning all day, every day, they don't see as math. And so, they don't see themselves as math people, right? Because they were not successful at school math. Right? 

Mike: Right. 

Kyndall: And so how do we undo that perception and get people to recognize the myriad of ways that they're engaging in mathematical thinking and reasoning all the time? 

Mike: Absolutely. Yeah. I was just going to ask you if there's anything in particular you think might be important for an elementary math educator to be thinking about when they're trying to apply the ideas, some of the suggestions that you all have when it comes to ‘Choosing to See.’ Is there anything in particular that folks who are operating at the elementary level might consider or might think about that has come to y'all as you've brought the book out into the world and had people interact with it? 

Pamela: Well, one thing that I've come to understand is that, while we do need to have good tasks—and the work that we ask students to do needs to be meaningful and needs to be accessible—tasks don't teach kids. And we need to think about how do we structure how kids experience the mathematics in our classrooms? And that to me is what the framework does. It's a lens to help teachers think about, ‘How do I engage my students? How do I structure the instruction so that kids have a positive experience around the mathematics?’ So, it should not be thought of as, ‘Oh, this is just once I get the math, then I'm going to go and think about this as a add-on.’ 

Mike: Hmm. 

Pamela: There are myriads of strategies out there. It's not saying that you should throw out everything that you've ever done before. It's just look at the strategies and the things, the rituals and routines that you've been using in your classroom. And think about them in terms of this lens. If you're getting ready to do an activity, you might say, ‘OK, here's a routine that I normally have. How can I adapt it so I can 

include others as experts, so I'm not the only one that's doing all the talking? How can I engage my students so that I expect more out of them?’ Right? So that they're doing more of the work? So, it's really a lens of how to think about the work that you do and the work that they do. 

Mike: That totally makes sense. 

Kyndall: Right. And the research shows that tracking begins very early in elementary school, right? And so elementary teachers need to be conscious of all of these different issues so that they can be on guard at the very early stages to not allow that tracking to begin. 

Mike: For educators or instructional leaders who are new to the conversation, in addition to reading ‘Choosing to See,’ are there other resources that you think would be helpful in supporting people in learning more about equity in the mathematics classroom? 

Pamela: Well, yes, I know that I've just started reading recently, it's a new book this out called ‘Engaging in Culturally Relevant Math Tasks: Fostering Hope in the Elementary Classroom.’ And it's by our good friends Lou Edward Matthews, Shelly M. Jones, and Yolanda Parker. It's at Corwin books, and I definitely recommend that that is a great resource. 

Kyndall: There's a new book that just came out. It's called ‘Middle School Mathematics Lessons to Explore, Investigate, and Respond to Issues of Social Injustice,’ by Robert Berry and his colleagues. In 2020, they released a high school version of the book. And in the fall of 2022, they're planning on releasing an upper- and lower elementary version of these books. And the first section of the book is really talking about the kind of pedagogy needed to implement social justice tasks. And then the second part of the book has lessons aligned to the different content strands that are social justice focused, a lot of digital resources. And so, I think that is an excellent resource for teachers. 

Mike: That's fantastic. Pam and Kyndall, I want to thank you both so much for being here with us today, for sharing the book with us. It's really been a pleasure talking with both of you. 

Kyndall: Thank you. 

Pamela: Well, 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.