“For all of us, knowledge of the ideas of others can enlarge our view of what is mathematical and add a more humanistic and global perspective to the history of mathematics. This enlarged view, in which mathematical ideas are seen to play a vital role in diverse human endeavors, provides us with a richer and fuller picture of mathematics and it’s past.”1
This ten-lesson unit aims to help 9th grade Algebra 1 students reframe their thinking about studying mathematics through two simultaneous and equally important strategies. First, students will spend time reflecting on their own mathematical stories and heritages culminating in a project where students write personal math narratives, which they will submit at the end of the unit. Second, the unit focuses on the history and very nature of mathematics. Students will spend time writing and thinking about the infinitesimal and infinite, patterns, irrationality, and the history of humanity’s interactions with these concepts. Through individual writing and thinking as well as small group and full class discussions, students will unpack their own mathematical histories and rebuild their frameworks around the discipline in ways that will serve them throughout their high school mathematics endeavors. The role of the educator throughout this unit is to intentionally reflect on and present to students the ways that racism has intertwined itself into the mathematics classroom. As Battey states, “Naming white institutional spaces, as well as identifying the mechanisms that oppress and privilege students, can give those who work in the field of mathematics education specific ideas of how to better combat racist structures.”2
Many American children are struggling in the mathematics classroom. A recent international exam given to teenagers ranked the USA 31st in math literacy out of 79 countries.3 Often a student will enroll in their first course of Algebra lacking the arithmetic skills to be successful in the course. They can logically determine what they need to do to solve an equation and they can think abstractly as one needs to do in Algebra. However, they are not sure how to add, or subtract, or they forget what happens when a negative is divided by a positive. Additionally, students lack mathematical enthusiasm and general anxiety about studying mathematical topics often has negative impacts on their ability to learn. “Classes often focus on formulas and procedures rather than teacher students to think creatively about solving complex problems.”4 One goal of Ethnic Studies classrooms is to remove the teacher from the center and replace it with student voice and empowerment.5 Thus, progressive mathematics pedagogy and Ethnic Studies are a perfect fit and complement each other as they both have the goal of making student voice the center of the curriculum.
Low standardized test scores and unhealthy relationships with mathematics are common amongst many learners. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students are struggling to excel in the math classroom, particularly when their teachers are White. This dire situation is not new, in fact, it has been the case for more years as noted by David Stinson in his writings on equity and justice in mathematics education: “too often policy and reform efforts do not address the needs of marginalized learners but rather reinforce the economic, technological, and social interests of the powerful.”6
The issues of the American Mathematics classroom have been exacerbated by the disruptions and inequity of the pandemic school years, which as of 2022, number three years of disrupted learning. It is more imperative now more than ever for students to see that thinking mathematically is intimately tied to being human. Frances Su states “To do mathematics means more than just learning the facts of mathematics—it means seeing oneself as a capable mathematical learner who has the confidence and the habits of mind to tackle new problems.”7 Algebra is often referred to as the gatekeeper for the study of higher-level mathematics. If students can succeed in Algebra they are promoted onto geometry, calculus, statistics and beyond. However, if Algebra is a struggle, they are often taken down a path of remedial math classes. These courses earn students’ credits towards their High School diploma, but do not open the doors to the beautiful world of higher-level mathematics.
A student's arithmetic abilities often correlate to their ability to thrive in the elementary and middle school classrooms. Arithmetic skills work in conjunction with number sense to develop a learner who is truly ready for the abstract world of equations and algebra. If a student arrives in high school classrooms deficient in these areas, it can become daunting to recover. These high stakes are only aggravated by the fact that many classrooms are organized such that there is only one narrow path that is considered the correct way to learn. This idea is summarized well by Frances Su as follows, “We often signal to others that there’s only one way to be successful in mathematics—by forcing kids to do math quickly, or rushing students into calculus in high school, or telling professionals that they aren’t “real mathematicians” if they don’t do research. There are multiple ways to be successful. Mathematical achievement is not one dimensional, and we must stop treating it like it is.”8
All too often mathematics is considered a neutral discipline set apart from the other areas of study when it comes to looking at curriculum with a critical social lens. Math classrooms and math teachers are given a pass on being culturally responsive because their subject matter is considered to have equal access to all. However, “Schools and mathematics classrooms are not exempt from the ubiquitous impact of racism. Both racism and mathematics have an omnipresence.”9 The general argument for a culturally neutral math classroom is that if a student shows up to class, pays attention and works hard, then success should be easy to obtain. During the Spring of 2022 the Department of Education for the state of Florida rejected math textbooks that included lessons on critical race theory. The Governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis ordered text be sent back to publishers with the command to “take the nonsense out of the math books.”10 This rejection of historical facts and top-down push for a color-blind mathematics classroom hurts all students, including White students.
American students, and particularly Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students, are not thriving in their math classrooms. Berry explains tension between reform and the color-blind mathematics classroom as follows: “This brief review of policies and reforms in mathematics education suggests that economic, technological, and security interests were, and continue to be, drivers of many policies and reforms. These policies and reforms situated mathematics education in a nationalistic position of being color-blind, in a context where race, racism, conditions, and contexts do not matter. This positions schools and communities as neutral sites rather than cultural and political sites.”11 The curriculum and the instruction far too often fail at bringing in diverse stories and recognizing that getting the correct answers, and getting them quickly, should not be the only outcome to be praised.
Arthur Powell and Marilyn Frankenstein make the following argument against a Eurocentric math classroom in their writings on Ethnomathematics: “Institutionalized Eurocentric curricula constantly reinforce the racial and sexual inferiority complexes among people of color and women. The dominant curriculum in use today throughout the United States is explicit in asserting that mathematics originated among men.”12
Ethnic Studies refers to course content and an approach to teaching and learning that is collaborative and builds relationships. Teaching math with an Ethnic Studies lens requires the educator to adjust their presentation by revealing the histories that have been in the curriculum the whole time. “Some have argued that social justice should be a primary goal in mathematics education.”13 Math educators should develop an antiracist stance that recognizes historical biases and focuses on helping every student succeed in math. “Too often policy and reform efforts do not address the needs of marginalized learners but rather reinforce the economic, technological, and social interests of the powerful.” By making math more relevant, powerful, and exciting to students educators can bring those who have been marginalized into the fold of successful high school mathematicians.
Whose mathematics is taught and what mathematics is ignored is political and has never been neutral. Educators should be asking if their Mathematics classroom is being used to examine the social world and make it more just or to replicate the current unjust social order. “The mathematics Black students engage in must help them understand how issues of race, and racism impact them, their families, Black communities, and the masses of Black people locally, nationally, and internationally. The goal must be the collective betterment of Black adults and children’s lived realities and education, especially in mathematics.”14 This can include making space for students to explore why solutions work and making connections between the elementary and high school curriculum. “We don’t realize what we might gain by having diverse people, new expertise, fresh ideas to draw from. The field of mathematics is itself poorer because of the voices that are not present.” The math education professor Rochelle Gutiérrez reminds us that math needs a diversity of people in order to grow in new ways, not just that people need math: “The assumption is that certain people will gain from having mathematics in their lives, as opposed to the field of mathematics will gain from having these people in its field.”15