We knew our students’ test scores did not reflect their capabilities and potential. Since most students had spent their academic careers in our district, and we knew students, families, and teachers were working hard, we came to believe that the disconnect was due largely to not better knowing our students, their interests, and their concerns. We knew we needed a change, and cultural relevance and responsiveness could not have come at a better time. We steeped ourselves in literature, including Zaretta Hammond’s book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, and Dr. Kristopher J. Childs’ work in equity. To date, we have created 15 math units with culturally relevant topics and themes of social justice.
The first seventh-grade unit we created was on interpreting data in circle graphs, bar graphs, and histograms. As we were writing in a newly renovated, air-conditioned building, we wondered why our nearly 70-year-old building in a predominantly Black neighborhood didn’t look similar. After all, it was the same school district. And then someone in earshot was talking about crime and we had our idea: let’s teach circle graphs and charts and histograms by looking at data on crime in our districts’ neighborhoods!
Internet searches and research gave us a wealth of data. (Here is a link to one of our main resources.) We were both hooked! Slides were developed and strategies were implemented. Ideas for differentiation seemed to flow easier than ever before. Here’s an example of one of our lessons from our first unit.
Our district supervisor, Ishmael Robinson, was enthusiastic and encouraging. The more he listened to us, the more our ideas came. We developed our unit and thought we were all set. But we soon found out that educators were reluctant to implement the lessons and had lots of questions. Would this information be a traumatic trigger? Would it be too upsetting? What would families think?
We talked with our principal who supported our work, and then sent letters home to families explaining what we were going to try to do: we wanted to use culturally relevant topics to engage our learners. These letters were customized to match our students’ home languages — English, Hmong, and Spanish. Families were encouraged to reach out, and many did. All the families we spoke with were enthusiastic about our endeavor.
Anecdotally, we could tell you that we had better class participation than we had ever had before. On a typical day, even formerly reluctant learners were waiting at our classroom door. Data showed that we had better homework completion and more students wanting to redo assignments.
As the year progressed, we developed more units with these kinds of topics. Our work was shared with our district. Even still, many teachers were afraid to use these lessons, saying, “We like your work, but we worry it will be a traumatic trigger.” There was that phrase again.
We have come to believe that the traumatic trigger is usually felt by the teacher (and typically that teacher is White). Students and their families are already having conversations like this at home. Cultural relevance leads to cultural responsiveness. This leads to better relationships which leads to better teaching and learning. It’s really a win-win.
As the year progressed, we created units that leveraged topics like the US/Mexico Border Wall to teach Proportional Geometry, food deserts to teach radius and diameter (this led to a food drive), smoking and vaping to virtually teach proportional relationships (students created videos which were sent to the Truth.com: Ines’ video; Rajae’s video), and many more.
We had lots of moments we’d do differently. Like all good teaching, no lesson is ever really done. There are so many topics we still want to incorporate. Both of us would say that we cannot ever imagine not using culturally relevant topics and themes of social justice to teach math, however. We’d love to hear from any of you and further share our work and learn about what you’re doing as well.