Making Sure Students Can Realize Their Potential in Every Subject

by | 06.24.19

Marian Dingle is a teacher in the U.S. Follow her on Twitter @dingleteach.

I’m in my 20th year of teaching, and I’ve long considered myself an advocate for equity work – but it wasn’t until more recently that I decided to really intentionally join conversations with my fellow teachers about building more equitable classrooms. There’s been a shift in me, and I feel that doing this work just in my own classroom isn’t enough anymore. So I joined Twitter in search of new teachers I could learn from.

I teach every subject, but I’ve always been fondest of math. So when I joined Twitter, I put “math teacher” in my bio. I wanted to find like-minded educators who were thinking about equity as part of their math practice. I was specifically wondering, “Okay, where are the people who are doing social justice in math?” And I had a hard time finding them. It just hasn’t caught on in the math world the same way it has in other areas.

There certainly are educators who have been leading equity work in math – José Vilson, Grace Chen and Rafranz Davis, for example – and I don’t mean to minimize anyone’s contribution. But I find that my fellow math teachers sometimes think conversations about equity aren’t in our domain. That these are topics for the English teachers or the social studies teachers. But math has been used as a tool of oppression and exclusion for marginalized students – and I want to help bring social justice conversations forward in the math world. 

One way of thinking about this is to look at the dynamics playing out in our classrooms and schools and ask ourselves: Do all our kids have the same access to a high level of success in all subjects, including math? How do our biases and choices impact those opportunities?

We all have to do work ourselves, first. All of us educators, no matter our race or background, have grown up in a system that has biases, and we have to examine what we’ve internalized. We can start by asking ourselves a simple question, like: When you think of an ‘A’ student, what picture comes to your mind? When you think of a kid with an IEP for social-emotional needs, what picture comes to your mind? What might our answers show us about our biases? 

Disrupting the thinking that goes behind procedures we take for granted is one way that we can build more equitable math classrooms. We need to take the time to seek out resources that help us grow our thinking. Sometimes, that kind of wisdom might come from a fellow educator – as in Alecia Ford’s Twitter thread on turning a math activity into a community-building conversation about race. Sometimes it might come in a self-examination by a public figure or celebrity, as in Utah Jazz player Kyle Korver’s reflection on his own privilege. Sometimes our learning comes through conversations, such as in the #ClearTheAir Twitter chat. And sometimes it comes through seeking out books such as Bettina L. Love’s powerful “We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom.”

No matter what level of math you teach, there are ideas you can pull in from the real world to create opportunities for students to connect to the curriculum. My kids know the lingo. They know what oppression is. They know what bias is. And yes, this is part of the math conversation.

As I think about equity, I’m not liking the word “diversity,” because diversity usually implies representation only – and it’s so much more than representation, though that is important, too. Equity is when every kid’s worth is affirmed. Equity is when every kid can realize their potential. And that includes their potential in math.

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