Equity in Action: Culturally Relevant Teaching in the Math Classroom

  • Dr. India White

What is culturally relevant teaching (CRT) and how can educators incorporate culturally relevant instruction into the math classroom?


What Is Culturally Relevant Teaching (CRT)?

Culturally Relevant Teaching (CRT), defined by Ladson-Billings (1994), is “a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural references to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes.”

Through cultural relevance, teachers can connect math content to the lives of their learners using real-world scenarios, classroom discussion, and formative practice.

Let’s examine both student and teacher demographics across the nation in order to understand the importance of culturally relevant teaching.


Student vs. Teacher Demographics in the U.S.

Dramatic population changes over the years have impacted student and teacher demographics in the U.S. and, as a result, an increasing proportion of students come from homes that are more culturally and linguistically diverse.

According to NCES 2020, 50.7 million students attend public school from Kindergarten through 12th grade and more than 50% of these students come from non-white households.

In contrast to student demographics, the demographics for teachers in the U.S. are not nearly as diverse. According to NCES 2017-18, nearly 80% of teachers in the U.S. are white – a drastic difference from the student population.

Although teacher demographics are not aligned to student demographics, teachers can still arm themselves with culturally relevant teaching strategies to better relate to learners from diverse backgrounds.


Using “With-It-Ness” for Cultural Relevance

When teacher and student demographics are not aligned, teachers may feel disconnected from their students’ latest trends and cultural norms. To combat this, teachers may want to achieve “with-it-ness” to create buy-in from the students and a sense of comradery within the classroom.

When a teacher demonstrates ‘with-it-ness’, meaning that she/he is aware of cultural norms and modern changes in society, students can be more inspired to engage with their teacher and learning. Further, it validates the teacher as a meaningful educator in the eyes of the student.

In this NAEYC article, researchers talk about how incorporating cultural relevance into the classroom can help teachers with effective classroom management, which can help prevent disruptive behavior.

Demonstrating "with-it-ness” can help teachers gain ‘cool’ status among students. In return, teachers create synergy and interest in the classroom.

Activities to Promote Cultural Relevance in Your Math Classroom

Ready to put culturally relevant teaching into action? Here are a few activities to try in your math classroom to create a culturally relevant learning environment.


Using digital games

Incorporating digital games into the math classroom is a great way to strengthen communication between your learners and their peers. Additionally, digital games can be a more fun and approachable teaching style compared to traditional, everyday instruction.

  • Kahoot! – Use Kahoot to incorporate culture during a review before a quiz or test. Incorporate a Kahoot activity during transition from direct instruction into a whole class review as a way of keeping students engaged.
  • Math Bingo – As a way of enhancing collaboration and motivating learners, incorporate math bingo as a strategy to bring all learners from various backgrounds together in a way that not only reviews concepts but teaches learners ways to remain open-minded while creating a healthy social environment.
  • Prodigy – Help students relate to their own lives as they complete math problems online. While using prodigy, direct the focus and attention of students toward games that celebrate diversity. Pair students up with peers from different backgrounds and teach them how to have fun together in math.


Including culture in group projects

Group projects are a great way for your students to showcase their unique culture. This helps students not only remember the content displayed in their project, but it gives them a positive association of the math as it pertains to their culture. Lastly, it provides an opportunity for students to share a part of themselves that they value with their peers.

  • When students solve systems of equations, have them create scenarios that can be turned into two equations with variables representing an item (i.e., landmarks, fruit trees, food) specific to their cultures.
  • You can have students graded from teacher-made rubrics that have various categories to grade their work. Categories can include comprehension of math, along with a category for ethnicity/cultural representation as a part of the overall grade, so that students are aware of the expectations.


Having bell work discussions around cultural events

Start your class with bell work focused on cultural events. For example, use student names in bell work when referencing someone for students to connect to. They can also pull from someone in their community or a celebrity within the culture to help students feel a connection to their culture. When accurately implemented, you can increase your students’ respect for you and therefore increase the effort they put into their work.


Acknowledging culture through holiday celebrations

Students are always looking for an excuse to have a ‘party’ in their class. However, as educators, we want to make sure classroom time is spent being productive. Why not do both?

In their article, Cultural Responsive Instruction for Holiday and Religious Celebrations, Lundgren and Ponce (2019) state that, “given that research, test data, and anecdotal evidence repeatedly confirm that culture plays a significant role in teaching and learning, student diversity challenges us to explore ways to bridge cultural differences and develop culturally sensitive teaching practices that recognize and accept these differences.”

  • Highlight mathematicians of various demographics during a specific month as you celebrate a particular holiday.
  • Assign a class activity and decorate your handouts around a specific holiday being celebrated.
  • Have students create a song or poetry as a group that highlights a specific culture and teaches a main idea of the math lesson.
  • Assign posters with a cultural theme that students can teach lessons from in their peers.
  • Have students create art on a whiteboard or posterboard that celebrates various cultures and math that they can display at their desks and throughout the classroom.

When teachers apply culturally relevant content ranging from cultural influencers to traditions and holidays, students can better relate to the math as well as empathize with the real-life experiences of their peers.

About Big Ideas Learning

At Big Ideas Learning, we believe in the highest-impact teaching strategies to empower teachers inside the classroom, so we can inspire students beyond the classroom. With a singular focus in mathematics, we are uniquely qualified and committed to supporting you at every step along your mathematics journey.

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