Culturally Responsive Math

Making Math Count in WHPS

What does it mean to be culturally responsive in our math instruction?

Culturally responsive teaching is creating a learning environment for students that is focused on mathematical sense-making. Students feel valued for who they are, how they make sense of mathematics, and how they contribute to the collective learning of the classroom community. (Ellis, 2018)


There are four elements that work together to create a culturally responsive math environment:

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Supporting Deep Mathematical Learning

The focus for deep learning starts with a commitment to deep understanding of the mathematics. We must foster understanding by giving students opportunities see multiple representations, connect these representations to each other and previous mathematical understandings, and then make meaning of new concepts before we ask them to develop procedural fluency. Teachers sometimes hesitate providing students with too many models or strategies out of concern that multiple representations confuse some students. If the representations are connected to student experiences and understandings, they deepen students' understanding. If new learning is presented without connections, it can feel like it is just more facts to memorize. Eliis, author of Knowing and Valuing Every Learner: Culturally Responsive Mathematics Teaching, says, "The culturally responsive mathematics teacher recognizes the potential in every student to engage in mathematical thinking and finds ways to elicit students' mathematical thinking." (2018) Ellis suggests the following questions to consider as you strive to guide students to deep mathematical learning:
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Engaging and Valuing Students' Identities

It is vital to reflect students' culture and the communities they belong to within their learning in a positive way. Consider the experiences of students when choosing tasks for learning. Also consider how students communicate individually and culturally. Look to the communities that students belong to outside of the school and inspiration for math problems. Ask students to look to their communities and identify how math is used outside of school.


Communication is an important part of cultural identity. Strive to build upon the students' communication skills and strengths. Allow students to informally discuss math ideas and learning, then introduce the academic language to explain the understanding. This allows all students to participate and they feel their voice is important to the learning conversation. Ellis identifies the following questions to consider as you work to develop positive student identities:

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Sharing Authority: Inclusive, Collaborative Norms and Routines

Sharing authority lets students know you value their contributions in the classroom. The challenge can be sharing authority while creating conditions for learning. Sharing authority does not usurp your authority as the teacher. You are the facilitator and manager of the space and time of the classroom. Sharing the authority means you choose to give students choice and voice about the learning. This can be done in structured ways that promote learning and responsibility.


You want to create opportunities for students to be the authors of their own learning in mathematics. One example is creating a reasoning wall where students can choose to share their mathematical thinking about a problem. This wall can be a resource for the class as they solve future problems. Routines such as Number Talks allow students to share their quantitative reasoning. Other routines that promote student efficacy in constructing understanding are collaborative conversations, choice over problems to solve, materials to use, or products to show understanding. Technology can assist in giving students authority through sharing of ideas and strategies with SeeSaw or choosing an assignment from Google Classroom. Learning is not a choice, but how students engage with the math or show understanding can be a choice. Here are questions from Ellis to consider as you plan for sharing authority:

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Using Mathematics to Investigate Meaningful Situations

Culturally responsive teaching requires really looking at the culture and our community in which we teach. We need to understand the values and experiences of the students and community around us and use this as the context for posing meaningful mathematical problems. Using the number of sunny days in Miami as the context for a math problem will not have much meaning to the students of West Hartford. Using data from the Hartford marathon may have more meaning for students. Gathering information about local businesses can provide interesting context for math that is meaningful for our students. For example, I contacted a local business and by the end of the day they sent me these facts about ice cream sold at A.C. Petersen's:


  • Off Season - 26 weeks a year - we buy about 65 (3) gallon tubs a week, or 195 gallons
  • On Season - 26 weeks a year - we buy about 125 (3) gallon tubs a week, or 375 gallons
  • Each 3 gallon tub weighs about 15 lbs, each gallon about weighs about 5 lbs.


There are so many math problems that can emerge from these facts!


Eliis suggests the following questions as you are planning for culturally relevant problem solving:

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According to Ellis, "Culturally responsive mathematics teaching aims to allow students to take ownership of mathematical knowledge in ways that empowers them to see themselves in the mathematics and to use mathematics to examine real-world problems, especially those relevant to their communities." (2018) It is our job to make every lesson relevant and engaging for our students.
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This article is based on a white paper written by Mark Ellis, Ph.D., NBCT (2018). Knowing and Valuing Every Learner: Culturally Responsive Mathematics Teaching. Ready Classroom Mathematics. Curriculum Associates.