As school systems come off another disrupted year of teaching and learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, attending to equity is more important than ever before. One key lever to accelerating learning is ensuring all students, particularly those who have been historically marginalized, have access to high-quality instructional materials that provide a clear vision for a meaningful and engaging math experience.
Director of mathematics Tim Truitt had a chance to speak with Georgina Rivera, incoming 2nd Vice President of the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics (NCSM), about the importance of creating equity in math classrooms. Georgina has been a mathematics educator for more than two decades, and in part one of our two part interview she shared her thoughts on the role quality curriculum plays in supporting teachers as they inspire each and every student to learn.
Tim: Can you talk about your education journey? What were some of the most important experiences you had as a math teacher and math student?
Georgina: I went through public schools until the 12th grade, and my experience was really shaped by the fact that I was an English language learner (ELL). When I was in school, there were few supports so as a result in some classes I wasn’t able to access all the language and I couldn’t always understand the content. I often felt invisible due to the lack of representation in the teachers I had and the classrooms I was in. I never saw myself in the mathematics classroom or within the curriculum itself.
In seventh grade, I was recommended for an honors level math class, and I was really excited to be there. But when I got there I found the teacher would just lecture, assign work, and then lecture again. Because of the lack of student discourse and math language supports it was difficult to access the content, so I was exited from the class the following year. As a result of not being successful, I was never able to enter any other accelerated classes after that and my parents couldn’t advocate for me due to both language barriers and understanding what I needed to be successful.
That was really a defining moment. I felt like I needed to create something better for students than what I had experienced. It really solidified the fact that I wanted to be a teacher, and a different kind of teacher. So even though it didn’t feel good at the time, that experience really showed me that good instruction is imperative when ensuring all students have access to high levels of mathematics.
Tim: Thank you for talking about your journey and sharing some of those stand-out moments. So now as you continue to work within math education, what’s your vision of an ideal math classroom? What does it sound like? What are you seeing?
Georgina: I used to have this sign on my door that said: “Mathematicians at work. Expect noise.” That was always my saying. I went to school in silent classrooms. For me, the ideal classroom is when you see students engaged in interesting tasks, discussing ideas, and reasoning about mathematics—sharing ideas together like a community of learners to build a shared understanding while growing them as mathematicians.
The ideal classroom builds students’ identities through showcasing their work, pictures of them doing the mathematics and posters of diverse mathematicians. What we put on our walls and our boards matter and should represent their thinking, their ideas, and their interests along with the mathematicians they aspire to be.
The other piece to look for is whether or not students are engaged in rigorous mathematics. Is the content at grade level? Are we treating them like intellectuals and first looking at their strengths and what they know about a topic before assuming they are empty vessels? Are we expecting students to not only think about but also write about mathematics at a high level?
And finally, are we engaging them in the mathematical practices and cultivating their genius and the skills they need when they move into careers? When I think about the skills I use in my job all the time—I can pivot, I can talk to people, I can organize, analyze, and look at patterns—that’s what I would want students to be doing: developing those math practices in engaging ways so they walk out and feel confident believing ‘I’m a mathematician.’
Tim: And how do instructional materials play a role in this vision you just outlined?
Georgina: Having high-quality curriculum that has coherence and focus built into the materials is important because as a teacher I can’t guess as to what the standards are saying or the order they should be taught in. Teachers need strong instructional materials they can use to help them understand the depth of the standards, the meaning of the standards, and how students engage in meaningful tasks. When our curricular materials are high quality, they serve as both professional learning and our guide.
If I don’t have a curriculum that’s coherent and has focus then I’m not going to have the tools to teach mathematics conceptually and coherently for students. Materials are also really important in terms of developing equity—ensuring all students have access to the same high quality grade-level materials, with supports for both the teacher and the students to meet the needs of all the learners in the classroom. No one material may have that, but selecting from research based materials and using research-based practices that are high leverage is critical. We have limited time with our students, and we have to put the best in front of them at all times.
Tim: You brought up equity and talked about equity for students. What does the term “equitable mathematics” mean to you?
Georgina: Equitable mathematics and instruction is giving each and every student exactly what they need to meet the essential grade-level standards and providing supports to ensure all kids get there. And it’s not something that’s done on your own—it’s done with teams of teachers working together to understand what is the rigor of the standards and what scaffolds can be used in real-time to get to the rigor of the standards.
I want to get to the point where all students are learning mathematics at high levels and to a place where we no longer refer to special education students or ELL students as ‘subgroups’ of people. When we use deficit terminology it means we aren’t holding all students to the same high standards.
The research is out there, the materials are out there, and people want this for kids. It’s a matter of us all working together to create comprehensive plans that really address each individual student.
Georgina Rivera and Tim Truitt continue discussing equitable math classrooms and how cultural relevance and supports for English language learners can bring math to life in part two of their conversation.
Georgina Rivera is the incoming 2nd Vice President of the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics (NCSM)
Tim Truitt is the Director of Mathematics for EdReports