Dismantling the Math Hierarchy: Creating A Space Where Everyone Can Thrive

By Dwaina Sookhoo, Guest Author

At the end of every school year, I have often felt my mindset shift from “How do I get through this?” to “How did I get through this?” From my first year teaching mathematics, I knew my purpose and drive was to improve the learning experience for my students by engaging them meaningfully in their learning process. As the years have gone by and my contexts have changed (different schools, different administrators, different grade levels, different iterations of standards), my resolve remains to engage my students in taking ownership of their learning. Each year, even eleven years later, feels like a fresh start to reimagine my teaching and what I’m asking of my students.

I’m a woman of color who attended an independent school for both elementary and secondary school and interacted with staff and students who were predominantly white. From as early as possible I remember being tracked and the language that was used to discuss our academic standings within our grade level. Students who were on the lower track were referred to as being in “dumb math” and more often than not that’s where they stayed. Students who were in the more advanced classes were said to be in “high math”, where fluctuation in the standings was more likely to occur. The higher the level, the whiter the classes, and the more difficult it felt for me to be seen by my teachers and my peers. 

The Importance of Struggle

My pivotal mathematics experience was in pre-calculus class during my junior year. I had made it almost to the finish line of graduating high school on the advanced math track but felt my progress slowing. Being taught almost exclusively using direct instruction and repetitive textbook practice, I spent a lot of time teaching myself the concepts. The individualistic nature of the course meant there was no value in working with my peers or asking for help. As one of the few Black students, I felt my embarrassment grow as I stood out for all the wrong reasons compared to my white peers. My love of math quickly slid into disdain as I spent the year test after test getting closer and closer to failing. Despite attending early morning office hours and using supplemental texts, I wasn’t able to perform and at the end of the year, I was counseled out of the advanced track. I thought I had lost my math magic. I was begrudgingly placed in “regular” Calculus, while my peers were put into AP.

As a teacher now I reflect on that experience and share it often with my students as a means of expressing the importance of struggle. Though I was disappointed in myself and my math performance, I felt so much safer and seen in my senior year Calculus class. Without the pressure of an AP exam, my teacher used our time in this class to build our understanding through collaboration. Interestingly enough, the class was more diverse but just as rigorous and fostered a feeling of safety amongst students and teacher. 

Equitable Practices

As the conversations around equity in the classroom grow across the country, I have been reflecting on how I’m bringing equitable practices into my courses. At the beginning of my career, I thought equity looked like having students sit in groups and facilitating turn-and-talk check-ins throughout the period as they worked through problem sets. I would encourage one or two students to come to the board and collect exit tickets at the end of the period. I would periodically ask them to rate their understanding of the lesson.  

As I learned and grew in my own understanding and attended professional development around complex instruction and racially relevant pedagogy, my equitable classroom practices shifted. Through the Knowles Teacher Initiative, I spent a week at the University of Washington in Seattle taking a Complex Instruction (CI) course that culminated in each small group of teachers facilitating a mini-lesson. In thinking about how status perception impacts our ability to show up and contribute to a group, I’ve shifted how I engage with my students in order to shift how they engage with each other. My original understanding of cooperative learning was a great foundation for equitable instruction, but what I needed to explore more was who was showing up in the space and what each individual needed to feel safe to contribute.  

In my continued exploration of CI, testing out what changes I could make was the first step in thinking more equitably about math teaching. Actionable norms including “Work Persistently”, “Communicate Productively,” and “Take Risks” were guidelines for how I wanted students to work together and speak to each other. I hung posters for each norm around the room and used them in my conversations with groups when I circulated around the room. 

To get students into the practice of thinking meaningfully about their group interactions, I used stamp quizzes as a non-graded assessment to provide feedback. I noticed a few things when I implemented the actionable norms and ‘graded’ students on them. The first thing I noticed is that students knew what I was looking for and played into the norms whenever they noticed me come nearby with the stamp. They would look at the posters around the room and use the sentence stems, sometimes in an overly dramatic way. The second thing I noticed is that students were talking more amongst each other to solve group-worthy tasks in response to the sentence stems. Whether or not I was nearby, students were asking each other's opinions and giving each other space to share their thinking. The third thing I noticed is students started internalizing the norms and the language and using them without the prompting or reward of a stamp. Even when seating charts changed, they were taking risks and communicating productively and working persistently.

Student Contributions

I am still fine-tuning what equitable mathematics teaching looks like to me. This past year I took on the Thinking Classroom by installing whiteboards on every wall, using Math Medic Algebra 2 curriculum and having students do all their practice work standing in groups. I still enforce the norms while they are having conversations and passing the marker. I check in with each group multiple times and scaffold questions for those who need more support. I change my seating chart weekly using a random generator so that they work with anyone and everyone. I enforce the idea that everyone has something to contribute, regardless of their perceived ability. I ask for in depth feedback after each assessment to know what’s working and what can use some improvement. I value student voice and emphasize its importance in our learning space. There are many days where I am facilitating the lesson, but students are doing all the heavy lifting to understand the content. Students experience first, formalize later, and are learning the value of collaboration in the process.  



Dwaina Sookhoo, Guest Author

Dwaina teaches mathematics at the NYC Lab High School for Collaborative Studies, a public school in Chelsea, NY. She has spent the last eleven years of her career in both middle and high school contexts, encouraging students to take ownership of their learning, and building her understanding of becoming a facilitator of that learning. Notably, Dwaina is a Math for America Master Teacher, a Knowles Senior Fellow, and an NYS Master Teacher. She has a Master's Degree in Mathematics Education from Teachers College Columbia University and is currently working on her EdD at Hunter, City University of New York.


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