If my younger self met me now, he would be very surprised that I ended up becoming a math teacher. He would probably remember how hard it was to feel connected to mathematics because the content rarely felt relevant to any personal experiences.
I can’t recall many (if any) teachers who conveyed why math mattered in the real world or the role it could play in my life. The instructional materials I had access to were mostly pages of problems and numbers and felt entirely unrelated to me, my family, or the community where I lived. I never had math teachers who looked like me or offered examples of how I could succeed in mathematics or who highlighted why my experiences were valuable and applicable to what we were learning.
Because I struggled to connect with the content as well as my teachers, I simply felt like I wasn’t good at math—I wasn’t a “math person.” Throughout my education, math remained a subject meant for others, for those who could solve problems exactly like the teacher did and who could see themselves in the materials.
So how did I end up as a fourth grade math teacher in Memphis, Tennessee? I was on a path to a career in forensic psychology but quickly realized this was not the career for me. I was searching for a real calling which ultimately led me to a teacher residency program. At the time, I honestly wasn’t sure about teaching, but I took a leap of faith and enrolled. It turned out to be the best decision I ever made.
During my residency I experienced the beauty and power of mathematics for the first time. The class was so different from any I had taken before. The instructor incorporated our experiences, asked us questions to probe our thinking, and pushed us to share our ideas. She encouraged mistakes and multiple ways of arriving at an answer. I began to see mathematics as a way to understand the world and creatively solve problems.
Not only did my time in teacher training help me to realize how much I loved math, I also came to understand that for all students to see math the way I now did, accessibility was key. I promised myself that I would teach math in a way that celebrated and incorporated my students’ experiences through high-quality, engaging, and culturally relevant content.
There are so many misunderstandings right now about what a culturally relevant and equitable curriculum means in the classroom. For me, it’s quite simple: creating a learning environment that honors student needs and experiences. And when teachers are supported with high-quality materials, they’re not only provided with a foundation of grade-level content, they can also leverage built in scaffolds and embedded assessments to ensure targeted supports for each student.
3 Ways to Center Student Experiences in Mathematics
When I talk about equitable mathematics, I’m talking about classrooms where students are centered in the learning while working toward the mastery of college and career-ready standards. Equitable mathematics ensures that all students have the same opportunity to engage in the content, that every voice is being heard, and that students have multiple avenues to access math learning.
This type of classroom can’t exist for students when teachers are not supported with high-quality materials or the mindset and environment to incorporate and celebrate student experiences. To be clear: quality materials offer a strong standards-aligned foundation, but it’s up to skilled teachers to bring the content to life and to connect that content to students’ actual lives.
I believe wholeheartedly that math can be a vehicle to understand the world, but only if students can connect to the skills and concepts and only if we show them how mathematics relates to their world. Here are three ways to get started today:
1. Bring student experiences and their local surroundings into problem solving.
In my first year in the classroom I showed my students a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge as part of a lesson and was met with blank stares. Most of my Tennessean students had never been to San Francisco. Then I switched it up and brought in the Memphis Pyramid and FedEx Forum—those little shifts made a big difference! My students were immediately more engaged in the lesson.
Quality materials are flexible and adaptable to local environments and student backgrounds. They offer suggestions and guidance on how to incorporate local context into the current skills students are building. Mixing in the familiar when introducing new concepts is one way to make math relevant for your students and help them feel connected to the learning.
2. Find ways to engage all students.
We know as teachers that it’s not enough to reach just some students. Without engagement, it’s unlikely kids are hearing a word you are saying. High-quality materials help teachers to honor every student’s contribution. For example, no matter what a student’s home language is, materials should be designed in a way that allows every student to access the content and learning. Strong materials also include built in scaffolds, differentiation guidance, and embedded assessments to help target the needs of each student.
When math materials reflect the lived experiences of students, they are able to make sense of the content and become more confident about what they are learning.
3. Encourage students to ask questions, talk with each other, and engage in math practices.
A key innovation from college and career-ready math standards is the concept of mathematics modeling. This practice utilizes real-world situations, and students determine how to best solve the questions in front of them. Not only does modeling ensure that lessons can be taught with multiple representations, but students are often excited to be leading their own learning. Mathematics can be about discovery rather than a predetermined answer they have to get right.
Anyone who remembers their own time as a student will not be surprised to hear that when kids feel that they belong—and when their experiences are visible and celebrated as part of learning—they perform better. (And building these strong relationships with students is good for our practice as teachers as well).
Investing in equitable math practices and high-quality materials are key actions that school systems can take to help every student become problem solvers who can think creatively to meet challenges inside and outside of the classroom. Instead of the world being divided into math people and non-math people, we can show students that we are all math people.
Neven Holland is a fourth-grade teacher for Memphis-Shelby County Schools (MSCS) in Tennessee. Neven is a 2022 Tennessee state finalist for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. He is an EdReports mathematics reviewer and a Klawe Fellow.