Whose Math Practices?

This morning, I stumbled upon a video clip of two students double counting. These students were immersed in an authentic problem – how do we read two counts? I loved hearing their two voices and watching their gestures as they navigated two counts, uninterrupted by adult conversation.

This video reminded me of a question that I have been mulling over for months now: How do students construct a mathematical identity that is rooted in the context of who they are and who they want to become outside the classroom? In particular, I wonder, how does the way we teach students to construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others nurture or neglect their identity as a whole person?

The predominant ways that I have seen students taught to engage in this math practice have been:

  • sentence stems like “I disagree because…”.
  • hand raising
  • orchestrated turn taking

I think these structures and norms are used with the intention of giving students equal opportunity to participate and feel like their ideas were heard. But do they work? Does each student feel like the opportunity to argue for something they believe to be true has been genuinely presented to them? Does each student feel like their true voice is heard? When I think about the word “argue”, I think about passion, frustration, and joy. I also think about family and community. What does a productive argument look like in the lived experiences of each of our students? Are there sentence stems, raised hands, and orchestrated turns taken?

I am not saying that we should abandon structures and norms in our classrooms. Structures and norms are intended to ensure that arguments are productive. I wonder if we need to reconsider how the structure and norms come to be. Who benefits from the structures and norms?

When I watched the video of these students double counting, I think I saw passion, frustration, and joy, but I don’t want to project my thoughts and feelings onto the students. I saw back and forth conversation, ideas being exchanged, and thinking being revised, all while an adult observed.

This video clip was a spring board -a push- for me to re-examine classroom norms and routines that I always used and accepted as “good practice” for all students. I am going to sit with the questions:

  • Where did our classroom norms and routines come from and who do they really serve?
  • Whose culture have I preserved when I cultivated and enacted classroom norms and routines?

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