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Episode 15: What's the Impact of Labeling Kids? - An Interview with Kaneka Turner

Updated: Oct 17, 2021

Desiree Harrison 0:00

There’s no doubt that we are social beings and for many people it’s a natural instinct to form groups.

In many elementary classrooms, teachers build on this idea and create ability groups, many times labeled as high, medium, and low groups even if given the disguise of colors or animals for kids sakes. And these groups, at first glance, really are appealing.

I know that I used them when I first started teaching - you have small groups of kids at one time, you can seemingly differentiate instruction in order to give kids what they “need”, and you as the teacher can more or less control what’s happening. The question though is - is this really what’s best for kids? And also - In what ways does ability grouping and labeling provide equal opportunities to learn? Or to develop a positive mathematical identity?

You might still be thinking that this grouping is not a big deal - you might even be reminiscing right now to your own schooling experience and how you were a part of the yellow or red group, and you’re right - “ability grouping is a pervasive practice in schools and districts” - but just because something is happening in a lot of areas, does mean that it is equitable.

Even with this, some people might critique this argument by saying that “well, ability grouping allows for differentiation, which another buzz word in education, and differentiation is supposed to be good right? But when applying a historical context to this idea of differentiation, we learn that from the start of public schooling in the United States (so thinking back to the beginning of the 20th century), differentiation and labeling have been used as code for maintaining the status quo and as “gatekeeping tools to sort and rank children by social class, race, and gender” (NCTM, 2020, p.27).

If students in your high, medium, and low groups are receiving different instruction and/or reaching different goals, then this is not equitable mathematics teaching.

Two of my own nieces who are in elementary school are a part of the green and red groups for their remote math classes. And while I don’t believe that they particularly mind being in these groups, I am saddened when I think about all of the conversations they are missing out on by not being in random groupings with more diversity of thought or engaged in whole group discussions with all of the members of their classes. I also wonder what opportunities to learn have they missed and how might this be affecting their mathematical identities?

The NCTM states that “while children’s degrees of mathematics progress or proficiency vary from one day to the next and from one mathematics concept to another, the labels assigned to children stay with them both inwardly and outwardly throughout their academic careers and have a long-lasting impact on how they see themselves as doers of mathematics.” In other words, there is a direct impact on their identity (NCTM, 2020, p.27). Diversity is a strength, not a hindrance, and it’s time that we stop using ability grouping in math.

In fact, a key recommendation of the NCTM’s Catalyzing Change book (2020) “is that early childhood and elementary mathematics should dismantle inequitable structures, including ability grouping and tracking. They go on to say that “any ability grouping in mathematics education is an inequitable structure that perpetuates privilege for a few and marginality for others (NCTM, 2020, p.27).

In today’s episode, we talk to educator Kaneka Turner to learn more about this impact of labeling students in the math classroom.

Desiree Harrison 4:49

Today's guest has over 20 years experience in education, including being a classroom teacher, a math coach, an adult learning facilitator, and an instructor of the Master of Arts in Math Teaching Program at Mount Holyoke College. She's also an experience speaker, a lead write for the Illustrative Mathematics Elementary Curriculum, and is the founder of ReImage Consulting, which exists to rewrite the negative narrative of math education and to promote and develop math education leaders. Welcome Kaneka Turner to the Kids Math Talk Podcast.

Headshot of Kaneka Turner
Kaneka Turner

Kaneka Turner 5:26

Thank you! Thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to be here with you.

Desiree Harrison 5:31

We're excited to have you! Because Kids Math Talk is about keeping the conversation about math active and positive and helping everyone recognize that everyone is a mathematician and that everyone needs multiple entry points to, to, actually, um, obtain that true conceptual understanding and you have such an impressive resume and it's all centered around mathematics and mathematics education and because of that, one might make the assumption that, ah, that it was always that way and that you were always the "strong" math kid while you were growing up. But as I was on your website, and I was reading one of your blogs on the, uh, ReImage website, I cam across a line that really struck me and here it is:

So, labels box students in. They don't allow learners to become in an authentic way. I was labeled a "high" kid for a long time and then a different school decided I was "low".

-Kaneka Turner

So that really struck me. That was a truly powerful statement. There's so many different nuggets to unpack - so can you please tell us more about this journey, about that quote, and about your views on how labels affect children.

Kaneka Turner 6:51

Absolutely. So, my journey is one that I tend to mention often when I'm speaking before a group of people and even when I'm facilitating. And I think I do it too, to normalize myself because sometimes people can read, like you started off with. You can sort of, go to my website, or hear me speak, and you paint this picture, and that picture actually boxes me in! It says - This is sort of what, who you are, and what you know, and that sort of reflects my experience, so I try my best to paint myself as this person who's on a journey as opposed to this person who's arrived, and so my journey is that - well to just speak to that particular line, um, it really is about high school. Um, and prior to high school, I was this kid who got great grades in math and who was in the, air quotes you can't see, high classes, um, in math. I grew up in New York, um, on Long Island, and I, I experienced really positive experiences as it related to math and then we moved to the South and I don't think it's a North/South thing, but I think that this experience happens to students, it can happen in the same state, it can happen in the same town, when you move from one school to another, and so I moved, I happened to move from the North to the South and there was this big transcript thing, trying to figure out, where, sort of what credits I had taken and what the courses were, and I ended up in, what the math course that I should have been in per the trajectory of the credits and coursework I had taken. It was were belonged, however, when I got there, when they finally worked everything out, and I got into the class, it was a couple of days in I guess, it could have been weeks, at this point in my life I can't remember. But I do know that class had been taking place and I was in, I just was lost. I didn't know what I was doing!

It was Algebra III and Trig, was the name of the course, and I didn't know what I was doing, I was just struggling - I had all these questions, and everybody else just sort of knew it - it was a really small class. And, um, and so I ended up out of that class and in to another. It's a longer story but, the short version is I ended up out of that class and in another. And because I was an 11th grader, I knew about the Blue Jays and the Robins - like I knew about grouping kids, that had been happening since elementary school, so I was really aware of the fact that I was in this really advanced class with very few students and I ended up in this not as advanced class with tons of students in it, um, doing coursework that I had already done, but I sat in the class quietly and just did it because I just couldn't deal with the humiliation of just not belonging, just not, um, not excelling, yeah, so that's sort of that story.

Desiree Harrison 9:46

Wow. The not belonging piece is- I can relate to that. One of the very first podcast episodes, I talked a little bit about my journey. It didn't happen in high school, but in 8th grade I was actually moved up to Algebra and at first it was all praises, like, "Yes, this is the best!", and then in that same class, the label changed. Cuz you were talking about North to South or district to district, but it could be class to class, grade to grade, this was September to November in the same room, so that sense of belonging and not being afraid-you said you didn't want to be humiliated and that's so real for so many children unfortunately.

Kaneka Turner 10:38

Absolutely. And I think that I'll add on to that is, the adults in the equation. I did not receive a message, that doesn't mean that this didn't happen, but it didn't fall on me, the message didn't fall on me that I belonged there, because, like, "Kaneka, you belong here, look, this, this, this, and this have happened? This is the right space for you. This place would not be the right space because you've already done that. You did it here. So it's hard, but you can do it." That is not the message I got. The message I got was, "Ah, it's 11th grade, you might want to think about a change, because 11th grade year is a really important year," so, yeah, and that adds to like, "Oh this is gonna be a bad experience for me. I'm gonna be in there and I'm not gonna know." You know that message, that subtle messaging, well, and some might say it's not so subtle, but that messaging, totally rewrote my story. It caused a detour.

Desiree Harrison 11:35

And that's crazy to think that an institution, or another person can actually write your story, when it should be how you were talking about becoming, like it should be you, yourself, as the individual being able to write your own story, instead of having this - I don't think when I was in school, at least, that we had this language of fixed mindset vs. growth mindset, but going along those lines, thinking of, like that's just what it is, like, "Oh, somebody else is telling me this is what I can and can't do, then this must be it!" And we're here to change that - we're here to change that narrative.

Kaneka Turner 12:18

You know, when I was thinking about this story, I was thinking about this experience from - and maybe you have one similar - this experience teaching 4th grade as, so, in the district that I taught in, we were called catalyst teachers, we were teachers who had gifted certification, so we were certified to teach the gifted and so we would have like clusters of kids in our room with the gifted certification amidst a class that may have had, you know, a bunch of kids who weren't, and I just remember, to your point of walking out the expectations of other people, or other people rewriting your story and then you actually living up to that expectation that they have sort of set for you, I remember the interactions between my students who were certified gifted and my students who were not - who they chose to consult with as peers when they had a question, my gifted kids - they wanted to consult other gifted kids. They didn't consider their other peers as viable options for who they might speak with. And then, my students who were not certified, entered tasks really cautiously because they had this sense of, and I don't know that my classroom did this for them, so much as there experiences up to this point, that, "Oh no I'm not gifted. Like, I can't do what they can do. That's special. They do the special thing." And watching kids shift in that room because the expectation was, "well you're here. And I believe you can. Did you even try? Like, let's give it a try!" And watching kids realize what they could become or what they could do just because I believed that they could and gave them the opportunity and wouldn't settle for what they were kind of taught to believe about themselves. So, you're right! That narrative, we as teachers have the power to write this narrative for kids in teeny moves. And it's so important that we pay attention to these moves so that we can shape positive experience for them.

Desiree Harrison 14:17

Yeah. And that we continue to talk about how we are so instrumental in writing those moves because even if we have, like, professional development around the teaching practices and being, and making sure that everybody has access-if we're not really digging in to what that looks like and how we ourselves with our own biases might be hindering what it might look like, then we're never gonna be able to make these shifts. So that, like the teaching practices - yes- I believe in those, like I talk all the time about Principles to Actions, Taking Action, like to anybody who will listen, but if we just have that list and we don't examine our own beliefs next to it, then it's going to truly benefit our students.

Kaneka Turner 15:06

Spot on. Spot on. A friend of mine, a sister consultant in my area, we did an exercise recently with some teachers where we pos- we shared some commonly used phrases and we own them. They were phrases that we used when we were in the classroom too and what we did was we looked at those phrases and then we thought about, What's the real- the hidden message in the phrase? We unpacked that and then we thought about - What's a way to reframe that? Like, so what's true in what we're saying? And then what's not true? Like, "my kids, these kids, can't"--

We happened to be working in a Title One school, but I won't use that as an example. I'll use exceptional children. So, like, "these are exceptional Kaneka. You don't know. They need..." Right. And so, we stopped and we're like yeah, "What's true about that? Like maybe there are things that students need right? But what's not true?"

What's not true is that every child who has been identified as exceptional for one reason or another will behave this way, or can do this, or cannot do that. Like those things are not true. What's true is that every child is different, and that in fact there are things that that student needs.

That was so powerful! That experience with teach- It was hard, but it was really powerful for us to walk away and say, "Okay, let's just rethink, let's just step back and reflect on the things that we say and we believe and think about a reframe."

So to your point of PtA (Principles to Actions) that's where that work came from. Our, Mary and I, kind of thinking about that part of that research.

Desiree Harrison 16:40

Yeah. Reframing. Reimagining. And we have to be vulnerable. And I really like what you said earlier about how, like might have used to have done, and, or, like when we started our career versus now, because it's not a like, "holier than thou" situation, like, when I first started, I know I was thinking about ability grouping, I was thinking about, "oh! These are my high kids, these are my medium kids, these are my low kids." And as I have become more vulnerable, and I've had more conversations and I've done more learning around thos- how harmful all those labels can be, the shifts have started. So, to anybody listening, it doesn't just come naturally; it's something that everybody has to continue to work toward.

I work with a lot of teachers who, some believe in ability grouping and some don't. But the ones who don't, used to, but they've had more experiences, or maybe they've had some personal experiences, maybe not in their math journey, but with the math journey of their child. And that has really changed their viewpoint about, instead of having everybody- the gifted going to the gifted-realizing that you need to have those heterogeneous groupings so that everybody can benefit from everyone's strengths and having a true strengths-based approach to our interactions.

I'm taking a quick break to remind all Kids Math Talk listeners about all of the wonderful math professional development books that are available through Corwin Mathematics. Head to to find amazing resources including the titles, Teaching Math at a Distance, Activating Math Talk, Building Thinking Classrooms, and more! And, use K-M-T-Ship, p as in Paul, all caps, at checkout, for free shipping. Now let's get back to the interview.

Desiree Harrison 18:50

Ah, so I want to just continue to think about this idea of labeling, but, I just am interested in learning more about your ReImage Consulting? And how that came about and just what it is.

Kaneka Turner 19:03

Sure. So, I think in 2017, after 18 years with the district I had been with, I, I had been consulting for smaller districts with other companies, which took me nationwide, but also independently with some local teachers and coaches that I built a relationship with in several different places and serving small district in professional learning.

And there was something consistent across the board - no matter whether I was serving for a company, serving for myself here in North Carolina, larger urban places, or in other states, there was sort of this, this running narrative for a lot of elementary teachers that was - I sort of mirrored my experience.

So, I'm a- what I described in high school. What I described- how I felt when I realized that I had this struggle and I believed that that struggle defined who I was.

I feel like, we met a lot of elementary teachers who let elementary education define who they are and what they know about math. And for some of us - some elementary teachers, myself included, we have had some traumatic experiences in math and those experiences are coloring what we do. So we say things like, "I would never teach middle school!" or "Oh my gosh! High School!" because we specialized in elementary math. We don't see ourselves as the math people our middle school and high school teachers see themselves as.

And so, a dear friend of mine, Marta Garcia, actually was the person who sort of took me under her wing and supported me and nurtured me around helping other people.

So that - she is a gifted coach and she - I coached alongside her as she coached me in thinking about other people and helping people sort of develop themselves out of that by way of professional learning.

And in 2017, she encouraged me - she was like, "Kaneka, you can do this! You could just do this if it's what you wanted to do."

And so I took a little bit of a leap and I started ReImage. And the premise is, yeah, let's write a new narrative. Let's stop the chatter that's negative in our minds as teachers. And, in working with middle school teachers with IM, I realized, it's not an elementary thing. Middle school teachers do it too. And high school teachers do it too. They just speak about it in terms of elementary.

So, elementary is sort of the area that they don't want to talk about - like, "nope, nope, let's just-" right.

So, we all sort of have it but we don't believe that the other groups have it. And so, by way of professional learning, doing that simply- doing math together, thinking about students together, making mistakes together, and recovering from those mistakes - we build muscle and we begin to feel better about ourselves as mathematicians, for those who identify as such. As teachers of math, as learners of math, and we're better teachers as a result.

And for me, a better parent, also, and I find to be a better friend and a better person, because it just reshapes the way I encounter struggle.

So, that is sort of what brought me to ReImage, that is what ReImage is about -it's got different legs. I have this heart for supporting and coaching teachers who are seeking to lead from the classroom and beyond the classroom if you desire to leave. That sort of - I have this heart for that.

I feel like, in many ways, this is another conversation, but in many ways I feel like I was gifted,, sort of, by a fairy godmother, who just kind of had a wand and said - "Op! There you go, Kaneka, here are these opportunities for you to learn and grow!"

And everybody doesn't have those. So, you know, it's dependent on resources at a school or in a district and I thought -

How can I make that available to people? How can I support people who might otherwise never get the message that there are resources here for you. There are opportunities here for you?

So that's the coaching leg of it. And then, there's this sort of identity piece that has become my heart. I didn't sign up for it initially because my trauma is very personal and so - and it has sort of a strong emotional attachment and so I like to keep that to my myself and keep upfront the things that are more comfortable for me, but I - it won't let me do that. So, identity and access and professional learning around that is sort of at the heart of ReImage as well. And then, your general sort of content knowledge development, strong pedagogy, and what it means to teach math so that all students have access to it is sort of the other leg.

And I believe that all of those things sort of work together.

You begin to believe in yourself because of the math that you're learning and doing.

You see that you're able - that leads to leadership.

It's just sort of a situation that - or a set of ideas that flow in and out of each other.

Does that make sense?

Desiree Harrison 24:28

Yes, it does. And what I was thinking about as you were speaking to that is how I see ReImage Consulting as building community and using communities to help break down labels and to build positive identities and to build a stronger community and within that community, a stronger you. Whoever that you in that community is.

And that's just - it's so needed. Whether we can be in person or not right now, you can make that happen.

Kaneka Turner 25:04

I love what you said. I think. I'm going to rewrite my slogan. I love it! I love the way you said it.

I am highly relational and I think that education is about communication and relationships.

There are all of these other things that are there that are important, but, those two are the most important. And those are key elements of community. That I hear you, that I listen to you, that I let you know that I'm hearing you and listening by way of my communication so that we can go back and forth with each other to create new meaning.

That feels like what math is all about - but it's not just math, right. That's literacy, and science, and all of the areas. Although, math seems to be reduced to something much, much smaller than that. That's a beautiful, powerful thing!

But, sometimes what math gets - the image that we get of math is very cold and personal, non communal - like it's individual. And that is not at all the way I see it or have come to know math. And so, yeah, that is what ReImage is about. It's about putting that image forth - the image that I think moves math forward and helps everyone to be invited to it.

Desiree Harrison 26:20

We all need invited to - you were talking about the relationships and I think about how important it is for teachers to develop relationships with their class, but they also need to develop their own relationship with math. And realize - if they have a traumatic relationship or unhealthy relationship with it, then they themselves need to ReImage. I love that name. It has so many layers of meaning.

So thank you for digging through that with us and talking to us about that.

So at Kids Math Talk we are focused on helping educators and parents come together for this positive math talk.

So, what's one piece of advice that you have for parents and educators - particularly in how to avoid these labels that we've been talking about.

Kaneka Turner 27:11

Sure. I think my #1 piece of advise right now is for all of us who are parents, is not to project our lived experiences on our children. And I am guilty of that as a parent, and I am learning everyday with my - I have a junior in college and I have a junior in high school. And my high schooler was in the floor - I took a picture of it and posted it - he was in the floor of my office with his computer and his notebook, asking me calculus questions - pre-calculus questions. And I thought, I'm gonna be honest you guys, my first reaction was, "No! I can not help you!"

"I can not help you my friend. Let's call someone."

But my son, that was sort of my visceral reaction. But my son was like,

"Mom, what are you talking about? You're math! What are you talking about?"

In his mind, it was like, "Of course she would! If you don't know you can figure it out because that's what you do."

And together, we asked some really interesting questions. We did ask questions of mathematicians that I know, and we were able to sort some things out.

And, imagine how differently that story would have gone, had I turned to my son, "You know what, Caleb? Your mom struggled in math around that age when I was a junior, I was struggling, that's sort of where it all went bad for me and it sounds like that's what's happening with you so look, I don't know what to tell you. You're just like me."

That puts a period on his story. He closes his computer and he walks away from it.

So that's my advice, that we do not project our lived experiences on our children, but we invite them, or we reimagine their experiences different from ours. And we help them to do the same by not sharing those negative experiences as though it's inevitable.

Desiree Harrison 29:08

Great advice and so important and it takes practice to do.

Kaneka Turner 29:12

Everyday. Everyday.

Desiree Harrison 29:13

And like you said, if it happens anyway because that's just our natural instinct- to just own that and say, "You know what? We're going to move through this because that's not the way that it has to be."

Kaneka Turner 29:24

Absolutely. And so, that piece I think is critical. I'm learning from kids in 6th grade up to 12th. I think it's important to elementary kids as well, but I think in 6th through 12th, our kids start making the mistakes that we made and we can see them pretty easily. Sometimes, we're pretty detached from what happened in those formative years of K through5. But 6 through 12, we start to see some of those mistakes and so we can own some of that and say,

"So yeah, this is how that sort of went down for me, but this does not have to be your story. We can do this differently. And I wish that it wasn't mine. I wish that someone had come beside me and helped me to reImage and think about things differently."

I'm with you 100%. I think that's so powerful.

Desiree Harrison 30:14

Yeah. Just being able to talk through that with your kids can help lower their anxiety and give them. if they do come across anxiety in the future- it gives them some self-talk to help lower that anxiety when it comes back.

Kaneka Turner 30:38

I was thinking about educators and so we were really explicit about what's the thought for parents - what's the one thing.

And I think just punctuating what you said earlier around the one thing for us as educators and taking a step back and thinking - and a way to think about it might be this -

Think about the thing you'll say about students in the staff lounge that you would never say about them in front of them. And then to step back and think about why you would never say that about them in front of them.

And then a step back from that to say, "And so why would you say that? What is the thing that you could say in front of them that is true? That wouldn't do whatever you were worried about in not saying it in front of them?"

I've been thinking about that per our conversation with a group of colleagues that I meet with - I call them my math oasis - that's sort of our thing. We're now thinking about that for ourselves as educators. And I think if I were to say one thing for us as educators, that would be the thing I would say.

Desiree Harrison 31:47

That is really important because conversations do change depending on who's in the room and where you are.

Kaneka Turner 31:56

And they reflect our beliefs. They say what you believe when you won't own it in another space. If you just reflect on the words that come out of your mouth - you may say you don't believe that about kids, but people who believe this - like these are the kinds of things that they say and do.

So, like, when our actions and words don't align with our beliefs, we need reevaluation and we need to recalibrate to get them to where we believe we would like for them to be.

Desiree Harrison 32:22

Thank you for brining your insight and your experience and your personal journey to Kids Math Talk. We appreciate it.

Kaneka Turner 32:30

This was a delight. Thank you so much so much for having me. It was a joy to talk to you.

Desiree Harrison 32:37

Labeling children stems from an unproductive belief and effects how children see themselves as doers of mathematics. This interview was our first dive in the concept of labeling and ability grouping. Thank you for being brave and listening along. We will be talking about this topic in future episodes of the podcast. Until next time, stay safe and be well.



Kobett, B. M. & Karp, K. S. (2020). Strengths-Based teaching and learning in mathematics: 5 teaching turnarounds for grades k-6. Corwin Press and NCTM.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). (2014). Principles to actions: Ensuring mathematical success for all. NCTM.

---------------------------------------------------------. (2020). Catalyzing Change in early childhood and elementary mathematics: Initiating critical conversations. NCTM.

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