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

Updated: 5 days ago

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.

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 us.corwin.com 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, um, after 18 years with the district I had been with, I, um, I had been consulting for smaller districts with other companies, which took me nationwide, but also independently with some local teachers and coaches.

Transcript in Progress


Kobett, Beth McCord & Karp, Karen 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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