Classroom Strategies
Part 2 of Social, Emotional, and Academic Development in Math Classrooms

In Math, Equity Makes Total Sense

How SEL amplifies student brilliance

“I have a different way to do this. Can I show you?” This request was made by “Perla,” a 2nd-grade student during a cooperative learning math activity. Perla gracefully guided her team by sharing out loud her way of thinking on how to solve a graphing problem. Perla then asked her team, “Do you agree?” After a few minutes of active dialogue, they gave her the “thumbs up.” What is remarkable about this social discourse interaction is that Perla is an English Language Learner, has an IEP—and like many of our students—has experienced extreme trauma. Her resilience and willingness to take an academic risk is, in part, connected to her emerging identity as a mathematician and valued member of the group. 

Perla’s ability to engage successfully in social discourse about mathematics with her peers did not happen by chance. The classroom environment was strategically designed to make Perla feel safe to learn. In other words, her peers were taught how to nurture Perla’s strengths by truly listening to her ideas and encouraging her to take a chance.

This learning experience provided a way for Perla and her peers to move toward resilience and academic success while engaging in mathematics. Without a doubt, there are many instructional, sociocultural, sociopolitical, and personal influences shaping our students’ academic trajectories. The reality is that we as educators still struggle with how to advance the achievement of Black boys and girls and other groups who are currently marginalized or who have been historically marginalized. Teaching might seem like a daunting profession—no matter where you work, you will encounter children in turmoil and pain—but being an outstanding teacher means always seeing the best in your students. They may act out, but they are never inherently “bad.” Each and every student is full of potential. When they act out, get to the root cause of their behavior. The teachers who are most successful and who stand to gain the most are the ones who find innovative creative tools to meet the needs of all their students—not just the ones who are already ahead of the curve.

Building a culture of math learning does not magically occur. Highly effective math instruction involves creating conditions that encourage students to take academic risks, grapple with challenging concepts, and develop problem-solving skills on a conceptual level. The key to developing mathematical discourse is to allow students to share their thinking and critique the reasoning of others. Because of this, my students are given the opportunity to develop socialized intelligence. To disrupt inequitable patterns of student participation, these conditions must be explicitly integrated with Social, Emotional, and Academic Development (SEAD). Building a supportive inclusive culture will engage all students and create a safe environment for learning.

The reality of our profession is that policies and learning standards that govern schools prioritize skills and knowledge. These policies also dictate that teacher evaluations are tied to test scores, creating a climate of teacher stress and pressure. Since achievement scores have remained relatively flat for decades, we must depend on new research to guide the very practices which cultivate brilliance in all of our students, but most especially students who have been historically marginalized. Now, educators have the opportunity to merge their existing practices with research methods supported by SEAD. By doing so, students will have equitable access to grade-level content.  

Let’s return to Perla. During the pictograph lesson, Perla exchanged her ideas on pictographs and engaged in the reasoning of others. Perla was provided high-quality math instruction with standards through the lens of equity. I accomplished this by taking my existing lesson on pictographs and using the SEAD Lesson Plan for Mathematics Template from Stride 3: A Pathway to Equitable Instruction: Creating Conditions to Thrive (pages 13-14), incorporating the theme of discourse. Teachers are busy, so I was happy to find that I merely had to embed some talking scripts and prompts into my original lesson to help Perla be successful in constructing her arguments around pictographs. As I worked through the seven sections of the Lesson Planning Template, I found ways to scaffold the lesson to meet the needs of my diverse class. By explicitly embedding the discourse norms in SEAD, I created opportunities for ALL students to have their voices heard, affirmed, honored, and celebrated during the discussion of mathematics. Constructing lessons through the SEAD Lesson Planning Template is now my pathway for creating equitable math instruction. Once you do it, you will never return to your old way of just prioritizing math standards themselves! 

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About the Author: Bernice Wisnieski is a 2nd grade ESL teacher at Sibley Elementary in the Grand Rapids Public School District; she holds a M.Ed degree in Special Education, with teaching endorsements in ESL and Reading; Bernice’s educational focus is on achieving equity with children of color and poverty, recruiting/retaining urban teachers, and reducing school suspension/expulsion rates of children of color; she collaborates with Education Trust Midwest & Leading Educators, serves as a board member Student Achievement Partners; participates on GRPS Instructional Leadership Team, and serves as a Lead Mentor for GRPS New Teacher Academy; she recently wrote an article, “Circling Up for Equity” which was published in the online journal Core Connections; Bernice has created a free pedagogical tool for teachers to use based on the principles of social justice, peer mediation, and contingency management procedures, which includes a storybook titled, It Only Takes One Caring Heart: A Classroom Journey into Inclusive Education, and guided lessons.