Classroom Strategies

Writing and Implementing Culturally Relevant and Responsive Math Lessons

Teaching math with culturally relevant topics and themes of social justice.

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.

8 thoughts on “Writing and Implementing Culturally Relevant and Responsive Math Lessons

  1. Thank you for sharing your inspiration and evolution creating these dynamic culturally relevant and responsive math lessons. Your enthusiasm for providing instruction that is engaging, important, and topical is evident. Students eager to redo assignments, demonstrating their knowledge and skill must have been so rewarding to you as teachers — and students waiting at the door for class to start must have been exciting as well as motivating to all of you. Bravo to you and your learners!

  2. It’s often said that math education is teaching 19th century curriculum, in 20th century classrooms, to 21st century learners. That’s a problem. I love the reinvigoration of your topics to breath life to the mathematics; to see the mathematics serve the conversation, rather than the conversation serve the mathematics. Great ideas and such a helpful anecdote to breakdown the (often white) fear of culturally relevant topics being “triggering”.

  3. Achieving enhanced student engagement through culturally relevant topics seems like the ideal educational recipe. I applaud not only your ideas, but also your resolve and drive to carry this out. congratulations and even a bigger thank you.

  4. Enhanced student engagement through culturally relevant topics seems like the ideal recipe towards acquiring a fully dimensional educational experience. I applaud you for not only your ideas, but for your resolve and drive to carry this out. Congratulations and even a bigger thank you.

  5. Thank you for sharing this useful information. I agree with you that students would need extra help in learning. Math worksheets are a great option that helps students to practice more and get fun from it. I am using Beestar, which is similar to the one you use for your daughter. Beestar provides good math worksheets that are by grade level and topic. It is great for students to find out which level they are.

  6. Thank you for making Math REAL for your students and families! Wow, I always wondered what it meant to make make Math concepts culturally relevant for my students, and your article makes it obvious and interesting, involving your students, their families, administration, and other teachers. Thank you for your article. Keep up the hard work you are doing and please share with us. : )

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About the Author: Nichole taught middle school mathematics in the St. Paul Public School District in Minnesota. She is now a Teacher on Special Assignment as a Middle School Math Specialist for Anoka Hennepin Schools in Minnesota.

About the Author: Peggy taught English as a Second Language for over 20 years in St. Paul Public Schools. Currently, she is a Teacher on Special Assignment as an EL Math Specialist with the St. Paul Public Schools Math Department.