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Equitable and Trauma-Informed Math Teaching

By Dr. Hoyun Cho

Being treated differently because of skin color? I never had or heard about that until I came to United State to study from Korea when I was in my 20s. I had watched so many incidents of this happening that I can’t tell you how hard they were to watch. But the recent incidents in Minneapolis, Louisville, and Brunswick, Georgia, we’ve seen on television and social media, are different. I have a 13-year-old daughter, and she asked, “Daddy, will those incidents happen to us because we are not white?” A few seconds later, my heart was broken because those incidents were impacting my daughter and will have an impact on the social and emotional well-being of our students in daily life and in classroom learning.

For last ten days, I thought more about our Black students, about how to help them, and about how to help my preservice teachers be prepared to help their students of color. I have been reading many different articles and blogs, and one message stood out to me that I want to share with all preservice teachers. The message is from Dr. Robert Q. Berry III who is a Black mathematics educator and National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) President. Here are three suggestions from him:

1. Teachers should have an appreciation of their students’ cultures, understand the development of knowledge within students’ cultural frameworks, and recognize that the interpretation of information and mathematics happens within students’ cultural and experiential frameworks. He said:

“I would have added that opportunities to learn mathematics have significant impacts. Black learners are less likely to receive mathematics teaching consistent with high-quality mathematics teaching practices, and they are less likely to be exposed to rigorous mathematics content. The lack of exposure to high-quality teaching and exposure to content impacts their mathematics achievement.”

This is related to culturally responsive mathematics teaching (CRMT). CRMT is about inviting all students of color into mathematics as participants because their ways of thinking and reasoning are worth sharing. It’s about ensuring each and every learner not only has success with mathematics, but also comes to see mathematics as a tool to examine the world.

2. Teachers should believe in the brilliance of Black children in mathematics. This is the foundation when working with Black learners, and it must be acknowledged in the ways one interacts with, talks about, and embraces the cultural knowledge and resources Black learners bring to schools and classrooms. Dr. Berry suggests reading three books that were foundational toward getting him on the path to unpack the nuances of Black learners’ histories and contexts with mathematics teaching and learning.

  • Challenges in the Mathematics Education of African American Children: Proceedings of the Benjamin Banneker Association (1997) edited by Carol E. Malloy and Laura Brader-Araje and published by NCTM.

  • Changing the Faces of Mathematics: Perspectives on African Americans (2000) edited by Marilyn E. Strutchens, Martin L. Johnson, and William F. Tate and published by NCTM.

  • Mathematics Success and Failure among African-American Youth: The Roles of Sociohistorical Context, Community Forces, School Influence, and Individual Agency (2000) written by Danny Bernard Martin and published by Routledge.

3. Teachers need to know and understand the resources of Black learners and find ways to incorporate these into mathematics teaching and learning. He said:

“Black learners are not melanated replicas of the dominant culture; consequently, we must be nuanced in our practice. Too often, policies and practices take on race- and context-neutral approaches that default to normalizing the mathematical experiences of White learners. My point here is not meant to imply that all policies and practices are detrimental to Black learners; instead, it is necessary to be thoughtful about the impact that policies and practices have on the experiences of Black learners.”

Here is an example from him:

“I, (Dr. Berry), grapple with the mathematical practice of constructing viable arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others and whether this practice puts Black children at risk when it occurs in spaces beyond the mathematics classroom. When Black learners construct arguments and critique the reasoning of those in authority or engage in this practice outside of mathematics classrooms, this may put them at risk of negative consequences. I understand and appreciate the intent of this practice and believe that engaging in mathematical argumentation is valuable for mathematics learning. However, mathematics educators must be mindful of the ways this practice is framed within mathematics with the knowledge that learners may engage in these practices outside of mathematics. Engaging in mathematical argumentation may involve the projection of voice, tone, positioning of bodies, proximity, and so on. The potential risk for Black learners engaging in argumentation is when their ways of engagement do not align with perceived ways of participating in this type of discourse, thus creating the potential of negative consequences.”

Below are some resources he believes are helpful for educators who want to support Black learners in mathematics. These resources are intended to provide some foundational support for building depth in understanding.

  • Bonner, Emily P. 2010. Unearthing Culturally Responsive Mathematics Teaching: The Legacy of Gloria Jean Merriex. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

  • Clark, Lawrence M., Eden M. Badertscher, and Carolina Napp. 2013.“African American Mathematics Teachers as Agents in Their African American Students’ Mathematics Identity Formation.” Teachers College Record 115, no. 2 (February): 1–15.

  • Frank, Toya Jones, Deena Khalil, Beyunka Scates, and Symone Odoms. 2018. “Listening to and Learning with Black Teachers of Mathematics.” In Rehumanizing Mathematics for Black, Indigenous, and Latinx students, edited by Imani Goffney and Rochelle Gutierrez, pp. 147–58. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

  • Id-Deen, Lateefah. 2018. “‘It Will Help Me Do Better in Mathematics’: Building Trusting Relationships with Black Students.” In Access and Equity: Promoting High-Quality Mathematics in Grades 6–8, edited by Anthony Fernandes, Sandra Crespo, and Marta Civil, pp. 131–42. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

  • Jett, Christopher C., David W. Stinson, and Brian A. Williams. 2015 “Communities for and with Black Male Students.” Mathematics Teacher 109, no. 4 (November): 284–89.

  • Joseph, Nicole M., Meseret F. Hailu, and Jamaal Sharif Matthews. 2019. “Normalizing Black Girls’ Humanity in Mathematics Classrooms.” Harvard Educational Review 89, no. 1 (Spring): 132–55.

  • White, Dorothy Y., Kanita K. DuCloux, Ángel M. Carreras-Jusino, Darío A. González, and Kirsten Keels. 2016. “Preparing Preservice Teachers for Diverse Mathematics Classrooms through a Cultural Awareness Unit.” Mathematics Teacher Educator 4, no. 2 (March): 164–87.

  • Wilson, Jonee, Mahtab Nazemi, Kara Jackson, and Anne Garrison Wilhelm. 2019. “Investigating Teaching in Conceptually Oriented Mathematics Classrooms Characterized by African American Student Success.” Journal for Research in Mathematics Education 50, no. 4 (July): 362–400.

I encourage preservice teachers to invest their time in those readings so that they have a better understanding of Black learners in mathematics. Also, we must engage in anti-racist and trauma-informed education in our daily practices as processes of learning and adjustments. It estimated that nearly half of all children in the US suffer from some form of trauma, with the number higher among children living in poverty (Child & Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative, 2017). Anti-racist and trauma-informed education not only raises our awareness of racism and trauma experienced by Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, and all marginalized peoples, but it also recognizes that we must be purposeful in addressing racism and trauma.

Dr. Hoyun Cho is an associate professor of education at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio and a member of the Tales from the Classroom team.