Last week I was asked how I take into account my students’ cultures and backgrounds in the classroom. I don’t think I gave a very good answer, and have been thinking about it since.
Ways in which I currently take into account culture in Maths lessons
- Every Monday we have Pi Club (hilarious), where we take it in turns to bring in a home-made cake for the class. Food always brings people together, but also allows students to celebrate recipes from their heritage. Lithuanian Honey Cake is amazing.
- One student recently travelled to Bangladesh to visit family, and returned with a souvenir for me, which I have stuck up in the classroom. Now, the class had pledged that each student, when they “return home”, will bring back something.
- In those moments before or after lessons, or in enforced brain breaks, I learn about students’ lives. About desperately trying to stay awake during a 6 hour Easter service. About how to tell your family you are no longer muslim. About the complexities of Latvian naming ceremonies or the intricacies of a circumcision ritual. Always fascinating!
- A handful of students have come to me seeking advice or disclosing difficult issues that they aren’t comfortable talking about to other teachers. I take this as a sign that the students feel safe in my classroom.
As you can see, none of the above examples explicitly embed a cultural awareness into the learning. It is obviously crucial that students feel comfortable to be who they want to be in the room, but I am nervous about attempting to link that to Mathematics. The study of infinitely small things or of higher-dimensional goemetry is beautiful enough in its own right, you can enjoy it as a distinct entity without needing to ground it on Earth.
Indeed, we have a phrase for this. At the beginning of the year someone jokingly referred to the classroom as “The Maths Temple” – the sacred place where only Maths exists. You wouldn’t take your phone out to text someone in a church, or gossip about the weekend in a mosque. So why would you do it in the Maths Temple, the place of worship of the religion of Geometry? There is something kind of great (for me as well!) about knowing that once you pass the threshold into the room that you must leave the outside world behind. It is like a surgeon going into an operating theatre – leaving the worries about the family and the mortgage at the door and focussing utterly on the task at hand.
The name stuck. Now students self-police. “Maths-Temple!” they sqwuak at each other when they notice distraction from the Maths. The long central table that we all work at together is the altar. We are all disciples of the beauty of proof.
Is this the correct balance?
In summary – I value the relationships and cultures in the classroom and nurture them informally, rather than explicitly through the learning of Mathematics. I am unsure as to whether this is optimal – what more could happen?
- Maybe we could explore the work of prominent Mathematicians from the students’ heritage? A reminder that not all mathematicians were/are white men.
- Next year we learn statistics, using a Large Data Set of information about all the countries in the world. Linking this to students’ experiences will definitely be worthwhile.
- Last year I ran a project where students used Maths to survey an abandoned alleyway in their local area, and designed uses for the space. Table-tennis alley? Garden alley? Local government red-tape prevented anything from actually happening, very sadly, but maybe I should dive once more into project-based learning, this time with older students?
Post-script: things to read
- Culturally responsive teaching and the brain
- Basing learning on who the students are promotes learning