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Juan M. Gerardo is a Doctoral Candidate in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His interest is working with pre-service mathematics teachers and supporting their efforts to teach for equity and social justice. You can follow him on Twitter @mrg9605.




Before I begin this blog post, I have a question for you: What is mathematics?


You probably thought of numbers, variables, and equations, or maybe geometry and geometric figures. Some of you probably thought of how it applies to the real world via computer science, engineering, and architecture. What about history and culture and mathematical practices by the Greeks, Mayans, and Chinese? Did you consider culture, language, race and ethnic identity? Equity and social justice?


“By virtue of mathematics being political, all mathematics teaching is political” (Gutiérrez, 2013).


As a mathematics methods instructor, I believe that mathematics is not only a cultural practice - it is political. Too many Black and Latin@ students have been underserved and limited numbers of these students go on to participate in STEM majors and careers. Yet beyond the schooling and economic opportunities, what are ways that teachers can build upon historically marginalized students’ identity, community knowledge, and lived experiences? By doing so, could students develop the mathematical know-how to “read and write the world” (Gutstein, 2006) and advocate for justice in their communities?


Daunting task, isn’t it? Even the American Mathematics Teacher Educators, in its recently published standards, makes explicit the expectations for mathematics teacher educators to help beginning teachers “understand the roles of power, privilege, and oppression in the history of mathematics education” and equip beginning teachers with the ability to question existing educational systems that produce inequitable learning experiences and outcomes for students (AMTE, 2017, p. 23).  Where does a graduate student instructor even begin?


I don’t claim to have the answers but I will share some experiences and goals I have to discuss the topic of equity and social justice in a mathematics methods classes. I think this topic fits in nicely with the kinds of advice previous GradHackers have provided regarding teaching courses: creating an inclusive classroom or a Universal Design Classroom. My goal is to challenge future teachers to think about promoting a classroom that is equitable to their future students.


"In our work as teachers of future teachers, it is out expectation that prospective teachers will respect our ideas and want to learn from us. For this to occur, I believe that we need to model the types of behavior that we would hope future teachers would utilize with their students... At the core of this work is developing professional relationships with futures built on trust and respect” (Kitchen, 2013, p. 259).


I will outline a few of the ways that I try to “model the types of behavior” and build “trust and respect” with pre-service teachers.


Be Vulnerable

Early in the course, I let students know that I was undocumented. I only recently started to do so because I wanted to share something deeply personal. I feel that most pre-service teachers don’t exactly respond to my story but student-teachers of color resonate with my story. By modeling vulnerability, your students may be willing to let their guard down also.


Courageous Conversations About Race

I was recently introduced to the ground rules recommended by Singleton and Linton (2005): Stay Engaged, Speak Your Truth, Experience Discomfort, Expect and Accept Non-closure. I will admit to the pre-service teachers that I am nervous and uncomfortable as I begin the discussion. I tell them I have facilitated many conversations related to education, race, gender, class and that these are not easy to discuss. What I emphasize is that we all try and “step out of our comfort zone” and that a “safe space” is one where it’s okay to be uncomfortable.


Trust and Respect

The majority of the pre-service teachers I work with are White middle-class females. I also have students from rural parts of Illinois. I assure them that they are “cultural beings.” They have a wealth of cultural and lived experiences. Teacher educators tend to emphasize that teachers are learners of students yet I remind the pre-service teachers that marginalized students can learn much from them. Just as teachers have conceptions of students, students have particular conceptions of White teachers. I want to remind White pre-service teachers that they have something to contribute to conversations about class and race with their students.


Respect Part II

I beseech pre-service teachers to ask classmates and myself questions. I believe that the value of our conversation about race and class is directly proportional to the number of questions they are willing to ask. Again, I reiterate the norms of our “courageous conversation” to feel comfortable asking ANY and ALL questions and that we will respect to anyone willing to ask an “uncomfortable” question. Even if I disagree with an assumption or I feel uncomfortable, I need to model and respect students’ courage to ask their questions.


“Accept Non-closure”

I admit to pre-service teachers that this is but one instance of an ongoing conversation about teaching mathematics for equity. Perhaps they have already incorporated equity and social justice in mathematics teaching, perhaps they have not. I let them know that we at least engaged in this conversation and that they are left to make sense of our conversation. I warn them that they might be asked about equity during a job interview. Perhaps the school they will teach is not “diverse” but, with the current demographic changes in the U.S., that may change in the near future. Lastly, I want them to consider how to create an equitable classroom for their students. I also advise them that if they were to return to teach a majority White middle-class student population that they too ought to engage in conversations about equity and social justice.


Some Nuts and Bolts

The “nuts and bolts” of what I do in the class vary. I have used in the past a Latin@ USA podcast that discusses how Black students have not felt welcomed in their classrooms and how some White teachers attempt to have culturally relevant classrooms. I have pre-service teachers read passages from testimonies of Black male students in school. Once we have discussed these, I have them read the positive experiences of Black students in mathematics classrooms (and this one). All the while, I answer questions, I go over the latest NAEP scores, and I introduce them to a variety of professional organizations that focus on equity and social justice in mathematics teaching (e.g., Radical Math, TODOS, The Creating Balance Conference). Pedagogically I use the think-pair-share approach to make sure students have an opportunity to gather their thoughts and discuss them and reduce the anxiety of talking to the whole class.


My Commitment

I will admit that I discuss equity and social justice conceptually. I try to model these practices and discuss research on the topic. What I have not done yet is engage them in social justice mathematics lessons or have them develop social justice mathematics lessons. I am committing to doing more with pre-service teachers to doing more with teaching mathematics for equity and social justice.


If you are still wondering about what equity and social justice have to do with mathematics and mathematics teaching, I leave you with this thought:


“Why insist on education and mathematics education, and on doing mathematics itself, if we do not perceive how our practice can help to achieve a new organization of society, a planetary civilization anchored in respect, solidarity, and cooperation?” (D’ambrosio, 2006)




What have you experienced teaching / facilitating / engaging in “courageous conversations?”


[Image courtesy of Flickr user Yoni Sheffer and used under the Creative Commons license.]