Episode 2: Building a Positive Mathematics Identity

Updated: Jul 12

Episode 2 Sources


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Book Reference:

Aguirre, J., Mayfield-Ingram, K., & Martin, D. B. (2013). The impact of identity in K-8 mathematics learning and teaching: rethinking equity-based practices. Reston, VA: The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Inc.: 13-14.



What is your math story? Who are the main characters and what do they look like?


In Episode 2, we discuss how to help kids start to talk about and build a positive mathematics identity.


Mathematics identities are influenced by not only how someone sees themselves fitting into a mathematics space, but also how they are seen by others, including teachers, parents, and peers --as doers of mathematics (Aguirre et al., p.13-14).


Throughout my almost two decades in education, I have talked to so many other educators and parents who share a lived experience of being disconnected from math, never learning about mathematicians that look like them, and having a negative internal dialogue when entering math spaces.


In many instances, there is an exact moment or experience that adults view as the negative turning point in their love for math. For me, this disconnect was in 8th grade, when I just didn’t understand why we were using letters and trying to balance equations.

I never felt that I had a voice in that class, no one explained the basis of algebra to me and all my peers around me just seemed to get it. There was only one entry point for students in that class, and because I wasn’t understanding that one way of doing math, I wasn’t being celebrated or encouraged by my teacher or peers-and I began to craft a story in which I, as the main character, just wasn’t capable.


The teacher did not set me up for success and eventually stopped calling on me. I felt as if I became invisible -which signaled feelings of isolation and math anxiety. Many scholars refer to algebra as an educational gatekeeper and thankfully this 8th grade experience did not hold me back in my achievement. But the only reason I made it through was because my older brother helped me when he came home on breaks from college. He believed in me, my parents believed in me, but from that grade on, there was a major piece of my identity lacking because I never felt that I had teachers who believed in me. My internal dialogue had become one that convinced me that math was just another class that I had to sit through where my voice did not matter.

Now, I did move forward and continued to take math classes throughout high school and even graduated college with a math endorsement. But my identity as a true doer of math and finding joy in mathematics had been greatly damaged. Unfortunately, so many children don’t ever recover from this damage and end up turning into adults who say, “I’m just not a math person.” I almost became one of those people.My math story did not begin to bend back toward the positive until almost 15 years later when I began teaching 3rd grade.


When entering that teaching space, I had a choice to make - to only think about math when I absolutely had to during a one hour instructional block each day, or to embrace my past, think about the roots of my disconnect, and to try to find joy in math again. I chose joy and I am so thankful that I did. I wouldn’t be talking to you right now if I hadn’t.


I made the conscious decision to create and maintain a new narrative for children, one where their math experiences would be nothing like those which I, and so many other other adults, had growing up.

Children should never have any type of roadblock or gatekeeper in their education. They deserve to have experiences that lead them to believe that their voices are always heard, that they are valued and celebrated, that math is exciting, and that they themselves are capable.

I decided that I wanted to do everything possible to build a positive mathematics identity.


One way to amplify their voice and to truly start seeing how a child sees themselves fitting into a math space and what they currently believe about themselves as mathematicians, is by having them draw a picture. This is so simple and is especially helpful if children are still learning how to process and articulate their feelings.


Most kids from a very young age love to draw pictures- they can be creative and express themselves, it’s engaging and low stress, and it's also a highly accessible activity.


Children can of course write sentences to go along with their drawings, and that could definitely be something added on for older kids, but writing is not the main point of this task. The point is to humanize math and to begin to SEE children as they see themselves in their math stories.


I ended up teaching 3rd grade for 6 years before becoming a math coach and at the beginning of each year, I asked students to draw themselves as mathematicians.


My students usually had questions about if they could add shapes, equations, colors, or other people to their drawings, and the answer is yes - whatever comes to their minds in the 10-15 minutes allotted for the activity. They should just go with it, because you want the most authentic picture possible so that you can begin to understand the experiences that your students associate with math.


I got the idea for this after reading the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics book, The Impact of Identity in K-8 Mathematics, which I will reference in the show notes for you (see above). I highly recommend this book, especially if you are an educator striving for more equitable practices. There is even a section devoted to Rethinking engagement with families and communities.


The authors cite affirming mathematics learners’ identities as one of five equity-based teaching practices. We, as educators, and parents, can not possibly begin to know the impact an identity will have unless we first take steps to understand that identity.


The goal of Kids Math Talk is to keep the conversation active about mathematics and that includes talking about how students see themselves- their whole selves- interacting with math. This drawing activity is not something to be formally assessed - instead it is an activity to prompt their thinking of their own identity and to help you as a teacher or parent gain insight. For instance, Are they smiling in their picture? Are they alone doing the math, or with a group? Did they draw themselves at all? Or are they outside of their own math story? What pieces of their cultural identities are being expressed?


If we don’t talk about and celebrate our identities while in math class, then what message are we sending to our students? Do we really want to say that our culture - who we are- does not matter? That our experiences do not shape how we view mathematics and the world?


The questions that you can begin asking about their pictures are not necessarily to create a list of “good” vs “bad” but instead are for greater awareness so that you gain insight.


The truth is that we can’t separate from these questions when talking about math because math is a cultural event. We all bring our culture and personal experiences wherever we go and into whatever we do.


By the end of each school year, my students had completed this activity 3 times for their learning portfolios and each iteration truly opened my eyes as to who my students are, how they connect to math and how other aspects of their identities enter our math space. It was also a consistent check for me to reflect on how I am ensuring that my students identities are celebrated and incorporated throughout the school year.


Whether you are an educator or parent, I encourage you to do this drawing activity with your own children in the fall to help you to truly begin to see and celebrate. In person, you can give them a blank piece of paper. If you are a teacher and will be teaching remotely, you can have children use something like Google Draw, or they could still use crayons and paper at home and then take a picture of their work to send to you electronically.


Parents, I also encourage you to have a conversation with your child’s teacher about how they plan to affirm your child’s identity throughout the year.

If they do not have a solid plan in place yet, you can still do this activity with your own child about how they see themselves doing math at home. The drawing will still be a fantastic conversation starter about math and your own family heritage.


We can also help to build a positive math identity by reading about mathematicians.

There are so many excellent children’s books available that highlight people of all backgrounds and racial identities and their passion for the field of mathematics.


Exposing children to the mathematical lives of others who they can identify with on a human level - whether it is someone who looks like them, grew up in the same area, has the same religion, or some other connection - helps to position children to see themselves as competent learners and doers of mathematics. It is also important to remember that children need to know and believe that people who are different from them are also capable mathematics learners and doers. Read one of these picture books with your child for tomorrow's bedtime story or if you are a teacher, have it as a read aloud for your class.


Head to the kidsmathtalk.com website for a list of books.



So here in this episode we’ve only started to unpack the idea of math identity and this is definitely a topic we will be coming back to on the podcast.


In the meantime, take a few minutes for yourself and celebrate the fact that you are listening to this podcast and are on a mission to create positive Kids Math Talk. That takes courage, especially if your own math story has not always been positive.


A new page of a child’s math story is written each day based on the experiences they have. My question to I leave you with today is - What kind of story are you helping to write?

Share this podcast with your friends and colleagues to keep the Kids Math Talk conversation going.

You can always email me with questions or comments at kidsmathtalk@gmail.com You can head to my website, www.kidsmathtalk.com, to download questions to think about when looking at the drawings discussed in this episode (see above).


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Join us next week for another episode of the Kids Math Talk Podcast.


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