Achieving Success with African American Learners: A Framework for Culturally Responsive Mathematics Teaching

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Fondren Library, Rice University ]On: 10 November 2014, At: 11:58Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: MortimerHouse, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

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    Achieving Success with African AmericanLearners: A Framework for Culturally ResponsiveMathematics TeachingEmily P. Bonner aa Curriculum and Instruction, Department of Interdisciplinary Learning andTeaching , University of Texas , San Antonio , USAPublished online: 25 Jul 2012.

    To cite this article: Emily P. Bonner (2009) Achieving Success with African American Learners: A Framework forCulturally Responsive Mathematics Teaching, Childhood Education, 86:1, 2-6, DOI: 10.1080/00094056.2009.10523100

    To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00094056.2009.10523100

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  • Emily P. Bonner I Achieving Success With Emily P. Bonner is Assistant Professor, Curriculum and Instruction, I Department of Interdisciplinary

    of Texas at Sun Antonio. Learning and Teaching, University 1 African American Learners

    A Framework for Culturally Responsive Mat hematics Teaching

    F or decades, one of the biggest challenges facing the United States has been that of providing equitable education for all students. Today, more than 50 years after the famous Brown us. Board ofEducation Supreme Court deci- sion, which legally ended school segregation based on race, urban schools are more segregated than ever (Ladson-Billings, 2004). Large numbers of minor- ity students in impoverished neighborhoods endure the greatest injustices. The school buildings often are dilapidated and have fewer resources than those in wealthier neighborhoods, and the schools experience lower student achievement and higher dropout rates. Each year, these schools receive fewer qualified teachers, and seem to become more invisible to the school system (Kozol, 1995,2005). Student achievement data show the effects of this negligence, illustrating that students of color, particularly African American males, are falling behind in nearly every academic category (Ferguson, 2000; Noguera, 2003), regardless of their socioeconomic status.

    Within schools, dominant norms and ways of teaching are often based in white culture, mirroring Euro-centric norms. The resulting practices con- tribute to cultural incongruities in classrooms and schools, leading students of color to perform below their potential. In turn, teachers assume deficits in students of color (Delpit, 1992) and, over time, varied ethnic practices and ways of learning are deemed inappropriate. These negative beliefs may be validated, reinforced, and even exacerbated among colleagues, as the majority of the teaching force, particularly at the elementary level, is white, female, and middle class (Howard, 2006), and most have limited interactions with individuals from diverse backgrounds (Nieto, 1999).

    Inconsistencies in school versus home culture (eg., how learning is assessed, how information is acquired) contribute to students academic struggles (Boykin, 1986; Spindler, 1987). As such, teachers must consider that poor test scores and grades [among students of color] are symptoms, not causes, of achievement problems (Gay, 2000, p. 16).

    In response to low achievement among particular groups, inequitable tracking practices are adopted. Students who do not conform to a particular set of cultural behaviors are often placed in the lowest tracks. This trend is evidenced by the overrepresentation of students of color in special educa- tion (Gay, 2002), increased drop-out rates among students of color (Montecel, Cortez, & Cortez, 2004), and growing achievement gaps that exist between

    Within schools,

    dominant norms and

    ways of teaching are

    often based in white

    culture, mirroring

    Euro-centric norms.

    The resulting practices

    contribute to cultural

    incongruities in

    classrooms and

    schools.

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  • these groups and their white (European American) counterparts. These gaps are particularly marked in mathematics (Howard, 2006), and mathematics instruc- tion to students of color is often tarnished by lowered expectations, actions that reinforce racial stereotypes, and generally ineffective teaching methods (Irvine & York, 1993). Indeed, The mathematics classroom is one of the most segregated places in America (Stiff, 1990).

    CULTURALLY RESPONSIVE TEACHING Successful teachers of African American students have been shown to bring diverse family histories, value orientations, and experiences to students in the class- room, attributes often not found in textbooks (Pang & Gibson, 2001, p. 260), helping students to bridge the home-school cultural gap. These educators have strong ties to the black community (Ladson-Billings, 1994) and maintain a strong academic focus while helping students to develop self-awareness, self-confidence, and leadership skills (Foster, 1987). African American chil- dren have been shown to respond in a positive manner to warm demanders (Ware, 2006), or those teachers who engage students through the use of high expecta-

    tions, firm and authoritative classroom management, and culturally familiar communication patterns (Ross, Bondy, Gallingame, & Hambacher, 2008). Identifying these attributes is helpful; however, it has remained difficult to describe the whole practice of a culturally responsive teacher in the context of mathematics.

    AN ILLUSTRATION OF CULTURALLY RESPONSIVE MATHEMATICS TEACHING

    This article presents a working theory meant to help teachers and teacher educators conceptualize culturally responsive mathematics teaching (CRMT). Grounded in the work of Ms. Johnson (a pseudonym), a highly effective mathematics teacher in a largely African American, high-poverty school, this theory can guide teacher efforts to help students of color succeed in mathematics classrooms. Given the complexity of mathematics classrooms, it is difficult to capture every detail of teacher practice. Major themes in Ms. Johnsons teaching and practice, which were extracted through observations, interviews, and artifact collection, have been organized into the following graphic (Figure 1) in an effort to capture the complex and fluid nature of CRMT.

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  • Knowledge Clearly, teachers must have vast funds of knowledge. In mathematics, pedagogical content knowledge is es- sential. Ms. Johnson exhibits a deep understanding of mathematics, making it possible for her to deconstruct difficult concepts, analyze student errors, and contex- tualize important mathematical ideas. Moreover, this knowledge is often accessed in action, and mathemati- cal knowledge is activated in the course of teaching (Ball & Bass, 2000) in appropriate ways that allow for student-driven changes in direction and maximum student understanding.

    Also evident in Ms. Johnsons knowledge base is a clear and profound understanding of her students lives, cultures, and interests. It has been shown that successful teachers of African American students often use their cultural knowledge to refer to metaphors and family ties when presenting material, indicating a strong, almost familial, relationship with their students (Foster, 1997; Ladson-Billings, 1994). A product of the neighborhood in which she teaches, Ms. Johnson is able to relate mathematics to student lives in a non- superficial manner. For example, when describing to students how to find a least common multiple or denominator, she refers to the two numbers in question as big brother (8, for example) and little brother (4, for example). She then relays a story about big brother coming to the school to pick up little brother and the two walking home together. When you see them com- ing down the street she says, who do you see first? The children respond in unison, Big brother! She continues, So what is the LCM? to which the children respond, 8! She probes the students for reasoning, asking, How do you know? to which the students respond, Because they are related! When asked for a specific strategy that shows how they figured out that the two numbers are related, the students chant, When you count by 4s you say 8!

    Ms. Johnson has tapped into several cultural realities of her students lives. First, in this neighborhood, the older siblings frequently care for the younger siblings. She has based her story on an understanding of a famil- ial tie that is central to many of these childrens lives. Connecting related numbers to related family members is effective for this population, and strategy repetition helps students to make this connection. Furthermore, Ms. Johnson has employed a call-response structure, engaging the whole class at once and maintaining a clear academic focus.

    Communication Ms. Johnsons cultural knowledge allows her to effec- tively communicate ideas to students. She uses a specific vernacular when speaking with students, and employs familiar patterns of interaction in her mathematics les-

    sons. This helps to lessen the cultural disconnect that many African American students face in school. As demonstrated in the above example, use of chants and call-response techniques can be effective. Ms. Johnson also uses rhythms, music, and dance in her teaching, helping students to remember mathematical concepts in culturally relevant ways. In order to choose music for her lessons, Ms. Johnson consults with students to determine what songs are currently popular. If they can sing along with the radio and learn all those songs, she says, they can learn math in the same way. This interconnection of culture and cognition is believed to lead to academic success and empowerment (Allen & Boykin, 1992).

    Deeper societal issues are also communicated in Ms. Johnsons classroom. It is clear to each student in her class that she genuinely cares for them and has their best interests in mind. Her caring attitude is complemented by a demanding and strict environ- ment. This type of instruction is often referred to as warm demander pedagogy (Ware, 2006), and has been shown to be highly effective in evoking positive responses from African American students. These communication patterns mirror those that students experience in their own homes. It is clear from the first day of school that Ms. Johnson has high expecta- tions for her students. She begins teaching from the back of the book so that students will encounter the most difficult concepts first. Students who are not striving for excellence are immediately set straight. If a student in Ms. Johnsons class forgets his math journal, for example, she immediately walks the child to the office to call home and gives the student a choice. If they know where the binder is, they must ask someone to come bring it to the school. If they do not, they must tell their parent that they came to school unprepared and then hand the phone to Ms. Johnson.

    Students respond to this type of demanding behavior because they realize that Ms. Johnson believes that they can do more and can excel. In turn, students be- gin to believe it of themselves. This corroborates the idea that a teachers belief that his or her students can achieve success in making sense of complex ideas has a positive effect on students long-term achievement (Love & Kruger, 2005). Ms. Johnsons students clearly gain confidence throughout the school year, and often leave 5th grade as empowered learners and individu- als. Such transformations are hallmarks of culturally responsive teaching (Gay, 2000).

    Relationships/Trust Over time, Ms. Johnson has built relationships in the community surrounding the school. She has taught several generations from some neighborhood families,

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  • and often visits student homes. She is also very active in her church, which draws from the same popula- tion. Moreover, her record of success has brought a new sense of empowerment to the community. After learning with Ms. Johnson, students who had been placed in lower tracks throughout their education are suddenly in honors classes, and students who have never spoken in class before are singing and chanting along with Ms. Johnson. She demands a lot from her students, but the pride she shows in them in return alters their self-perceptions.

    Successful practices in the classroom, coupled with community involvement and familial relationships, have resulted in an immensely trusting relationship between the neighborhood and Ms. Johnson. Parents trust that Ms. Johnson will do whatever is necessary to help the children succeed, and they know that their students will emerge from the demanding en- vironment as stronger individuals and learners. Ms. Johnson ensures that students will be able to get help with math homework at home by holding evening classes for parents. She teaches the parents using similar mathematical strategies so that they will be on the same page as their children when working at home. Further, parents gain essential knowledge that they might not otherwise have had access to, creating a more academi...

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