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Episode 17: Why Does Representation Matter in the Math Classroom? - An Interview with Vada Gray

Updated: Apr 2, 2021

Desiree Harrison 0:00

Growing up I had a few favorite book series - with Judy Blume books and the Baby Sitters Club being two of my top picks. Every Saturday I remember sitting on the steps by our large window and visualizing in my mind the setting, plot, and characters as I read intently. And like my teachers had taught me to do, I became these characters while reading. The majority of the books had white main characters and so even though I knew I was a black girl, I grew up with an internal frame of reference that centered whiteness. I knew about Black inventors, activists, and scientists, but I wasn’t reading about them or seeing them represented in the texts that I was introduced to, unless it was for a special report or month of the year. But representation matters everyday.

So let’s start today’s episode by continuing to think about representation. Think about the books that you have either in your classroom library if you are a teacher, or in your home library for your children. How many of these titles center around characters that look like the kids that read them?

Out of the ones that offer a different perspective, how often do you explicitly talk about these differences with your kids or your students? Do you have an explicit plan to talk about what is happening in these books, to connect the setting, plot, and characters to the sociopolitical nature of today’s climate, and to celebrate diversity as a strength? Or are these books simply sitting and waiting for a child to possibly make these connections on their own?

I admit. Some of these are difficult questions. They might make you uncomfortable. But pushing through our discomfort is the only way for us to grow as individuals and to ensure that we are giving our children as many opportunities as possible. Right now you might be thinking that this discussion about books is best suited for language arts and why does representation matter in the math classroom? Well, as the NCTM and many other math organizations and scholars have stated, we teach more than math - we teach people and people have rich cultures and histories that follow them everywhere they go - even to the math classroom.

Children’s books offer amazing entry points into cultures and histories and I’m here to tell you that there are SO many fantastic kids books available that focus on many different backgrounds while also centering the field of mathematics. You can head to my website, for a list of children’s books to get your math library started.

Rich storylines and culturally relevant representations indicate to children that “I am a math person” and that people who are a part of my culture, as well as other cultures, are math people. When children can see themselves in what they are doing, emotional and cognitive engagement is sure to follow. I was always amazed with how much information my 3rd graders internalized after just one reading of a rich picture book - and equally amazed at how many questions they came up with after we read one of these books together.

And one of the keywords here is together - research has shown that making these connections doesn’t just happen with the simple act of adding more books to your library -this can’t be done in isolation or through osmosis - we as adults use books to help us have meaningful conversations about topics like bullying, kindness, and perseverance with with children all the time. We have to be brave enough to build our library and then intentionally plan a read aloud of and conversation around books that introduce societal structures as well as cultures, and histories. If this sounds like it will be uncomfortable for you - I encourage you to really think about what you believe about the teaching and learning of mathematics and to ask yourself why this would be so uncomfortable for you and is your own comfort more important than building identity and agency in children?

As the NCTM states, “equitable mathematics teaching develops both identity and agency by...encouraging children to view themselves as having ownership of mathematical meaning” (NCTM, 2020, p. 51). If we are not actively developing positive identities and agency for our students, then we are hindering their growth.

We can use stories about math and mathematicians to move toward more equitable spaces- spaces where we acknowledge and talk about race, culture, and what the world was like fifty, seventy, and one hundred years ago, as well as about what is happening in our world today and how one decade influences another. Toward spaces where all children see themselves as competent and capable.

With today’s guest, we start this conversation about representation and culturally relevant teaching in the math classroom in order to build positive mathematical identities for all learners.

Desiree Harrison 6:27

Our guest today has experience as an administrator, classroom teacher, and an instructional coach, totaling to almost 20 years devoted to the field of education. She currently serves as the consultant development manager for Math Solutions and she also has a website and blog called, Black Girl Math: Where Culture and Computation Connect. Vada Gray, welcome to the Kids Math Talk Podcast.

Headshot of Le'Vada Gray
Le'Vada Gray

Vada Gray 6:54

Thanks so much, Desiree! Thanks for having me.

Desiree Harrison 6:57

I was first introduced to you through the November 2020 NCTM Virtual Conference where I attended one of your sessions talking And math talk and how to engage, and strategies for creating that excitement with your own students. And, um, I would like to talk more about that in a few minutes, but first, I would love to learn more about your time as an instructional coach - because not only were you thinking about math, but your work also centered around literacy and science. And then all of that through a culturally responsive teaching framework. And sometimes we refer to this as CRT. So, please tell us about that work, what you learned from that work, and why shifting our own practice is so important from your viewpoint.

Vada Gray 7:50

Wow! That's a big question. In thinking about all of it, and, and, so as an instructional coach, it was really around, how to support teachers in schools with implementing culturally responsive strategies into their instruction. And so, I started out pretty early on just learning more and more about it as a classroom teacher myself, and just really supporting - and in a group of teachers we were able to really thinking about using literature in elementary school and literature that was focused on, and so that our students - I mostly had Black and Latinx students at the time - focusing on their culture, their backgrounds, so that they can see themselves. And how to bridge what they were bringing to the classroom, to being successful students and using their, what's now called cultural capital, into the classroom, and so that they can see it as a benefit and an advantage, so that they can use that in and move to successful students in the classroom. And so, as a teacher and as a coach, I was able to do that for other teachers across the country. And so, I started off in schools in Oakland, and moved across the country in various places in Missouri and New Jersey. And so, that helped me think about all of that and really focus on - cuz it was three different topics and content areas - and really focusing that into math once I joined Math Solutions, almost 10 years ago.

And so, all of that work - I learned so much. One, I learned how much you have to get to know your students. And in some ways, I learned it the hard way because of just struggling to bring myself to the classroom, and then also allowing students to bring themselves, no matter where they were. And so, I really learned about how to meet them in the classroom, and really that it was about them and meeting their needs so that they can see themselves, and be successful. And so, I take all of those lessons, even the hard ones, into my work, even to this day.

Commercial Break 9:57

Transcript in Progress

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