We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.

― Martin Luther King Jr.


A fierce urgency ….

This is what I feel when I turn on the news when I watch my children as young adults facing the world of 2018, when I visit with friends and hear about their struggles, and mostly when I enter into schools. I feel a fierce urgency when it comes to leveling the playing field so that ALL students have equal access to learning mathematics.

It turns out success in math is a predictor of later successes in life. In a study in 2007, it was found that early math ability is the greatest predictor of later success in education. The study looked at preschool children’s ability in reading, attention, and social-emotional skills for their predictive effect of success in later schooling. What they found was that early math ability trumped all else. The result was so surprising that the study was repeated and confirmed 5 times.

Armed with this knowledge, we need to be sure all students have the opportunity to access the mathematics in equitable ways.

For some of our students, starting at that very young age, they begin school a step behind others. A college professor dramatically shows this in this video clip about a life of privilege.

So, how do we level the playing field? How do we provide opportunities for all students to be sense-makers and powerful problem solvers?

I know what we do not do … we do not take a one-size-fits-all approach.

The current state of testing in the United States provides us with high stakes tests and standards so that we can move all students along at the same pace, ensuring that all students have access to the same level of rigor. We set the bar high, and we aim for a particular score. And then we test all kids with the same measure to determine who they are as a student. And we call this steps towards equity and access. We operate and plan according to a narrative with statements such as “80 percent of the students will be proficient on a growth measure by a particular date.” But those are just stories that we tell ourselves. And, there is a flaw in telling stories - because what we are talking about children who are deeply complex, who are impacted by variables that are outside of our control. And we need to keep in mind that we are actually not teaching standards and benchmarks, we are teaching children.

Christopher Emdin, a professor in the Department of Mathematics, Science, and Technology at Teachers College, Columbia University warns us, Students quickly receive the message that they can only be smart when they are not who they are.

Ideas, conceptions, and expectations of students can be thought of as stories that we either hear or tell ourselves about students. We need to be aware of this background script that is playing on repeat as we plan for and consider our students because there is an inherent flaw in telling ourselves stories about our students. When we do so, we stand in the way of honoring who they are innately as a person. Let me give you some life examples of what I mean about storytelling, and then we will move this back to the mathematics classroom.

As a young person, my goal in life was to be a mom. This is the story I told myself about my one day daughter …. I would have a girl who would love to read, cuddle, and I could dress her up.

But here is who I got - a silly, active, pirate-loving girl.

There was no way that my daughter was going to NOT become who she was meant to be. It was clear to me immediately that I was not driving the bus here, and that she had other plans. Today, Jessica is a dedicated runner. She is an artist. And most importantly, she is joyful, kind and compassionate. She most definitely does not “match” the story I told myself. Thank goodness I got out of her way, facilitated her interests and talents, and provided the just right opportunities for her to grow. Had I stuck to the script of the story, who knows where she would be today.

In the following images, I’d like to confront the stories that some people may tell themselves about each individual .. what story might be told about each image? And, how might that story disrupt the future of the individual if someone sticks to the script?

I am not suggesting that everyone holds biases against the populations in these images, however, I am suggesting that the experiences of these people are impacted by bias, AND that as teachers we need to be vigilant of the stories, and work to erase them so that our students' opportunities are limitless.

We do that by understanding our students. From Christopher Emdin, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood... and the Rest of Y'all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education: We must “understand that if we have to learn with each other we should also learn about each other so we can bring each other up.

Deborah Ball spoke about this issue in the presidential address at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association on Sunday, April 15, 2018,  Just Dreams and Imperatives: The Power of Teaching in the Struggle for Public Education. “She focused on the enormous potential teaching has for contributing to the development of a just society and supporting the flourishing of historically marginalized groups—and the ways teaching instead often has reproduced inequality and reified injustice through the discretionary spaces that are inherent to teaching. Ball argued that working to make teaching a force that can regularly disrupt the injustices that persist in, and through, teaching practice requires facing and managing tensions between constraint and discretion, as well as between professional boundaries and autonomy.” - view her slides and video online.

I’d like to share with all of you some of the amazing disruptions to storytelling as shared through applications for the 2018 Nancy Davis Welch Memorial Scholarship. In these examples, notice how the story-telling about the students has been disrupted and notice the impact it had on the students.

>> “This year I have a student in my class that for sure needs reminders to sit down. To focus. To stay on track so that he finishes what he is working on. Historically, throughout this student's education these have been his reminders. As a result, he has labeled himself as someone that "just isn't good at school." Entering this year I had made a promise to myself, before even ,meeting my students, that I would not focus on the MCAS. I would celebrate growth, accomplishments, and successes. I would not let myself get dragged down by data, but enjoy every positive outcome my students had. So I have. This particular boy has blossomed. Every day he shows me his way of thinking. He explains to me how he got an answer. He shows me what he built or what he drew. This young man is now a leader in his math discussions and views himself as "a really good math student." t has been so exciting for me to see someone that always had the ability, gain the confidence to achieve.

>> “There are so many (impacted students).  Particularly in the case of troubled young men, he always helps them know that they are smart, capable, able to work in groups and be members of a team when they have not experienced this expectation or been told that they are not "team players" in other settings. His belief in those who are sometimes behaviorally challenged makes these students behave and learn math like model citizens. Additionally he always connects math to real-world situations so that they get a concrete view into how they can apply it.”

>> “A student came to my classroom one year and the school had known him be a difficult student. He was a struggling student and did not feel successful as a student. After a few months in my classroom he had made slow progress, but progress nonetheless. We celebrated that success as if he graduated. He was so proud of himself, and the class shared in his success and his attitude changed. He encouraged his peers and really excelled academically. He still struggles (3 years later) but he never feels defeated. He stops by my class from time to time to talk about his successes and to read to me. I feel as though his trajectory changed because of his experience in my classroom. He has a passion for learning that has been cultivated by other teachers he's had since me which inspires me to continue to develop the same passion for all students, especially the ones who struggle the most.

>> “J” comes from a dysfunctional home and he and his siblings were taken into foster care. J has many learning difficulties and reading is very difficult. Yet last year in grade 2 he showed great interest in math and proved to do well!! With a lot of extra work he has made great improvements!!! He checks in with me 2-4 times a day sometimes for a hug, to tell something good or not so good or to share an accomplishment!!! He has become very special to me!!!”

With inspirational stories like these, we know that we all can and are making a difference!

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