teach students in light of who they are - professional development

These are powerful words that I heard when attending the Teachers Development Group annual math professional development conference in Portland, Oregon.This has become my mantra. These words are desperately needed in the current political and educational climate. As educators of mathematics, we are uniquely positioned to disrupt and challenge the status quo and to provide opportunities for all learners to achieve at the highest of levels. In particular math classrooms in the United States have definite cultural, gender, and racial biases that exist regarding who can and cannot “do math.” It is imperative that we break the cycle of bias, and work consciously to convey to students that we honor who they are and that we believe that they can succeed. I feel a sense of obligation and urgency as we work with young children who are forming their ideas about who they are and what they are capable of achieving.

There are three action steps that we can take to move in this direction.

  1. Get to know our students on a deep level.
  2. Explicitly plan to provide equity and agency
  3. Change our language

1: Get to know our students

One of my favorite activities when getting to know learners is to ask them to write their Mathography. From a teacher, Mrs. Frieberg, we have a template and prompts for asking students to write their mathography. She explains, “Whether we like it or not, good or bad, we all have a history with mathematics. In your quest to learn mathematics, I am asking you to reflect on your history with mathematics and experiences in math classes by writing a mathography. A mathography is similar to an autobiography except it is focused on your personal history with mathematics. This is a chance for you to reflect on your personal history with math and also an opportunity to share your mathematical experiences with me.”  

Beyond this activity, we need to convey a sincere interest in creating a space of belonging where students feel honored, trusted and valued. We do this through small things which may not even happen during the math period. Things such as standing at the doorway greeting all students by name as they enter the room; by providing a space to listen to their stories, and by noticing how they look when they arrive to school – do they look tired? Do they look disorganized? Do they seem excited about something? Have they brought something new with them? I personally want to honor all of the educators who I see doing this on a very regular basis. You are making a difference.

2: Explicitly plan to provide equity and agency

Educational researchers out of UC Berkley and Michigan State have created a tool, the TRU (Teaching for Robust Understanding) framework, to help accomplish this goal. This “is a framework for characterizing powerful learning environments in crisp and actionable ways. It provides a straightforward and accessible language for discussing what happens (and should happen) in classrooms, in professional preparation and Professional Development (PD). Central to TRU are the 5 dimensions of classroom activity. Classrooms that do well on these 5 dimensions produce students who are powerful thinkers.”



In particular, we can use TRU to consider the dimensions of Equity and Agency. The framework describes the core questions, “Who does and does not participate in the mathematical work of the class, and how? What opportunities do students have to see themselves and others as powerful doers of mathematics? How can we create more opportunities for each student?”

And to reflect on this idea, we are given bullet points for discussion:

  • Which students participate and in which ways?
  • What is the range of ways that students participate (talking, writing, learning in, listening hard, making diagrams, using manipulatives, etc.)
  • Which students are the most active and when?
  • What opportunities do various students have to make meaningful intellectual contributions?
  • What are the language demands of participating in the intellectual work of the class?
  • How can we support the development of students’ academic language?
  • What teacher moves might expand students’ access to meaningful participation?
  • Who generates the ideas that get discussed?
  • What kind of ideas do students get to generate and share?
  • How deeply do students get to explain their thinking?
  • How does the teacher respond to student thinking?
  • Which students see themselves as powerful thinkers right now?
  • How might we create more opportunities for more students to see themselves as powerful thinkers?

3: Change our language

Lastly, and perhaps the most difficult is that we have to push back on systems and protocols that asks us to sort and label, and then “fix” our kids because of where they are deficient. We have to insist that people change their language around how we refer to students. We have to honestly confront the kinds of things that we say about our students. We can start by acknowledging the inherent bias in some common descriptors. When we label our students, we create a perception which eventually becomes a reality. I wrote about this in an earlier blog, but it bears repeating. It has become the norm to sort and label our students as low, average, or high. While I can appreciate that some students demonstrate more success than others as measured by conventional standardized tests, this can not continue to be how we refer to students. We need to rethink the practice of labeling and the assumptions that go along with the labels that we give. In order to do this, we need to change our language.

Here are some more helpful ways to think about students – concrete learner, visual learner, social learner. We can consider labels that enhance the positive – creative thinker, leader, thoughtful and meticulous, prefers to work independently, etc. These types of labels connect to how children learn in light of who they are. Next time you find yourself, or hear others talking about low and high students, try the activity of writing down the strengths of those particular students. Notice how that shift of language to referring to a student by his or her strength changes perception, and in turn, can change the opportunities that are planned and presented.

I believe the stakes are high. I believe that all students are capable of high-level mathematics. And I believe that all educators have an obligation to tirelessly pursue these goals. When we truly see students in the light of who they are, they will shine!

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