Educator Neven Holland has long focused on the importance of mathematics materials that convey why the subject matters in the real world and its potential to change students’ lives. In a new video, Neven shares his personal journey to the classroom, and why every student deserves access to grade level curriculum that is engaging and celebrates their experiences.


For most of my childhood, there was a dissonance between liking math and not seeing myself as a math person. In elementary school, it was just: Textbook – here’s number one. Solve the addition problem using the standard algorithm and now move on to number two. And then it was like, we are on to the next concept.

I didn’t really see anybody who looked like me who taught math. And it was too abstract for me to think that this could be something that was relevant to my life. When was math something I would use for something I actually cared about when trying to support my community? And quite frankly, it didn’t feel good. I didn’t feel smart. I didn’t feel prepared for math.

I was pursuing a degree in psychology and I thought I would be a forensic psychologist but I realized that I didn’t have a passion for the field that I thought I had. And this eventually led to a teaching program to see if teaching was for me since I did enjoy working with kids when I was in psychology. I felt like it was a big risk. But it was the best decision I made – it changed my life.

I was trained to be an elementary teacher by the Memphis Teacher Residency. And that’s when I first learned the beauty and the potential of mathematics and that just really changed my outlook on everything. The professors really encouraged multiple ways of thinking for us. They didn’t privilege some thoughts above others. They welcomed mistakes, and I never, ever had a math class like this. I was like, this is how math can be taught?

I wanted to teach in a way I wanted to be taught back then. All of our students bring some type of experience with them. So I think if you look at the materials, you want to know if the materials are honoring every child’s contribution to math learning. I think that’s key, no matter what language they speak, or where they may come from, just honoring what everyone brings to the table.

When you have that relatability of lived experience, it helps support the mathematical practices that you really want to see your students doing. You want to see them constructing viable arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others. And when math materials reflect the lived experiences of students, students are then able to make sense of the content, become engaged with the content, and become more confident.

In math classrooms, there’s always a context. Even if you’re not even thinking about culture, there is some context that is going to be centered. So you’re either going to be centering a context that has nothing to do with your students, or you’re going to be centering the context that has something to do with your students.

Consider where your students live and the community that you’re in. I knew where the local barber shop and local coffee shop was. There’s a local ice cream shop that’s right across the street from the school where I would go often and I would see my students. Just knowing where your students are coming from helps you know what your students will likely want to know about and learn about.

What is being put in front of kids is essential, but also knowing how to bring those materials to life, to wake it up. The teacher makes them come alive to ensure all voices are being heard and giving students what they need, how they need it, when they need it.