#blackbrillance + social justice + problem-based learning

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One of my summer reads has been The Brilliance of Black Children in Mathematics by Jacqueline Leonard and Danny B. Martin (inspired by Annie Perkins). I’m almost three-quarters of the way through it. It is rather dense because it’s packed with research, but I’ve been enjoying it.

Chapter 6 has stood out. It focused on the development of culturally relevant, cognitively demanding (CRCD) mathematical tasks. The authors of the gave this definition of CRCD:

Culturally relevant, cognitively demanding tasks should be mathematically demanding tasks and embedded in activities that provide opportunities for students to experience personal and social change. The context of the task may be drawn from students’ cultural knowledge and their local communities. But, the use of context goes beyond content modification and explicitly requires students to inquire (at times problematically) about themselves, their communities, and the world around them. In doing so, the task features an empowerment (versus deficit or color-blind orientation) toward students’ culture, drawing on connections to other subjects and issues. CRCD tasks ask students to engage in and overcome the discontinuity and divide between school, their own lives, community and society, explicitly through mathematical activity. The tasks are real-world focused, requiring students to make sense of the world, and explicitly critique society — that is, make empowered decisions about themselves, communities, and world. (p. 132)

The authors go on to caution the reader that finding/creating a CRCD task isn’t enough:

It should be reiterated here that task creation is by far only the beginning. Culturally relevant pedagogy necessitates that teachers learn about students, their culture, and their backgrounds. Ladson-Billings (1994) indicates that the teacher must be the driving force to creating a culturally relevant classroom. The contexts of the tasks alone will not necessarily make for the culturally relevant environment. It is the thinking behind the tasks and the actions during the implementation that make them culturally relevant. Without the appropriate set up of the task and the accompanying discussion and connection to the students and/or their communities, the task although created as culturally relevant, will lose its relevance. (p. 134-135)

This all got me thinking about all of the problem-based learning that I did last year with my kiddos. Our focus all year was thinking about, discussing, and solving problems that built on each other. As such, the big ideas of the algebra 2 curriculum were slowly uncovered through the problems. I used a range of pedagogical approaches but mainly leaned on whiteboarding (VRG and VNPS) to foster small and whole group discussions. On top of all this, back in June, I learned of Brian Lawler, who has done work around how teaching mathematics equitably requires problem-based learning. It’s an interesting take and learning from him provided even more incentive for me to improve my PBL approaches. Here are the slides to a presentation that he gave at the PBL Summitt in 2016.

So reading through chapter 6, it hit me that the PBL setting that I’m constantly improving affords my kids frequent, bite-sized opportunities to have meaningful discussions about relevant, empowering mathematics — exactly what I didn’t do last year. I centered all of the problems in contexts typically found on the Regents exams, which surely has its place, but when considering that 90% of my students are either Black or Latinx, it is an issue. The bottom line was that there was a strong disconnect between the problems I curated and my students’ lived realities. Here’s an example from last year’s problems (I could have chosen many more):


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While fairly procedural, it’s a pretty standard Regents problem. Most algebra 2 teachers in New York wouldn’t complain too much about it.

Other than the unrealistic nature of the problem, what I’m coming to grips with is that the discussion we have a problem like this involves just mathematics, not the implications of the mathematics and how it directly affects how my students view themselves and/or society. The challenge I’m setting forth to myself now is to find ways to change the narratives that my problems present to my students that will help us have more meaningful, transformative conversations.

For instance, after combing through the website Radical Math, I found myself thinking about all those payday loan joints that are everywhere in the city, especially in Black and Latinx communities like where my school is located (and where I myself live). With interest rates as high as 400 percent, they help create a wicked cycle of debt that cripples many folks who are struggling to make ends meet — some of whom are quite possibly parents of my students. In addition, they target people of color. I’m thinking that instead of focusing on Bella, Ella, and their mythical interest rates, I could help my students explore about the damaging impact these lenders have our communities through introducing data from the above sources and through a series of problems that they grapple with. It’s not perfect, but here’s an example:


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I’m pretty bad at using math to generate discussions about broader social issues like race. But then again, apart from beyond the white dudes, I’ve never had math problems to catalyze such discussions. I hope I’m better with facilitating discussions about problems like this, to help students see how they can better identify with math. If so, the result could be something important, relevant, and empowering.

This is a long post.

Last thing. The authors shared some examples of these sorts of problems that were created by graduate students who were also teachers. What was interesting was that, after studying the problems, the authors found that “very few of the teachers used race as a basis for their culturally relevant tasks.” Instead, the primary culture the teachers relied on was age. For me, it’s easy to get excited about some other aspect of problem set and get swept away in White culture, so this is a reminder to deliberately seek to address race in the problems and activities I use.

Through all of this, I feel like I’m getting closer to where I need to be, but I’m still left thinking about the many ideas in algebra 2 and how I might address them in the midst of the looming Regents exam.

 

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Takeaways from the smartest kids in the world

Smartest Kids in the World Book

I recently finished reading Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley. Takeaways:

0. Finland, Poland, and Korea don’t believe in flooding schools with funds as a way to improve them. Nor do they believe that lowering class sizes or increasing teacher salaries are solutions. These are all essentially stated facts in U.S. schools as a means to improve student performance.

1. We think we have high stakes testing. Oh, please. In Korea a student’s future is entirely dependent upon their performance on one exam that they take once. They are practically guaranteed a high paying career and a superb education if they perform well on it. And if they don’t? Well, their future isn’t that bright. That’s high-stakes.

2. How surreal Korea’s hagwons are. The ministry of education completes sweeps to remove students that are being taught beyond 10pm. Korea cannot seem to keep their students from wanting to learn. I had to reread that chapter. Not surprising, as this is a direct consequence of (1).

3. How lackadaisical is teacher preparation in the U.S.? Almost anyone can become a teacher – with comparatively little effort. Countries like Finland select the top 5% of high schoolers to enroll in teacher education programs and their programs are tough. This inherently maintains a culture of high expectations for their students. If the U.S. had a similar system when I graduated high school, I’m not sure I would have been able to become a teacher.

4. Extracurricular activities are almost shunned upon in the highest achieving countries. Academics are absolute priority. I think about how many of my students would be lost without the varsity basketball team. Does this go back to the educational norms that have been established since grade school?

5. Instead of attending PTA meetings, organizing bake sales, or dropping everything to attend parent-teacher night, parents should put more effort into spending high-quality time with their children. Ask about their school day and what they learned. Discuss social issues and current events. Read to them when they’re young and encourage them to think. Studies show that these things have lasting impacts on our kids and how much success achieve.

6. This book is an absolute must-read for any teacher.

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Reward systems? Grades? I’m not sure anymore.

I’ve started to critically reflect on all the rewards systems I’ve ever used. Including every single grade my students have ever earned.

I am currently reading Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn. The basic premise that Kohn makes is that “rewards” as we know them (token economies, grades, etc.) are not only ineffective, but can even be detrimental to the growth of students. Often times, teachers, including myself, use these systems because they “work” and rarely question them. (In fact, this is true for many things that we take for granted.) I have been relating this reading directly to my classroom economy that I have instituted in my class for several years, along with the many other positive reinforcement strategies that I have come across through the years. But even more drastically, I have begun to question every grade that I have ever assigned to an assignment or report card. Grades are essentially rewards for the work that students complete.

Instead of focusing on reinforcement strategies, which only focus on what students do, I could allow systems and feedback to drive my classroom practices. Instead, this would focus on who students are and what they actually understand.

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