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Culturally Responsive Teaching Strategies for Inclusive Math

Culturally Responsive Teaching Strategies for Inclusive Math

By Karen Sloan | originally published by Carnegie Learning

Follow these 3 steps to make math relevant for every student in your classroom.

Traditional one-size-fits-all instruction often fails to address the reality of diverse student populations. This often results in disengagement and negative attitudes toward learning. When students don’t feel connected to the content, it’s hard to wrangle them back into active participation and confidence in math!

But don’t worry; we’ve got some pointers to help make your lessons meaningful to each kid. Culturally responsive teaching is the key to empowering all students to see themselves as “math people.”

Unsure of what culturally responsive teaching looks like in math? Start with the following explanation, examples, and steps.

What is culturally responsive teaching in math?

Culturally responsive teaching is an instructional approach that acknowledges and embraces the diversity of your students. It recognizes that each child brings their unique cultural experiences and assets to the classroom. These, in turn, are great starting points for instruction.

In math class, culturally responsive teaching goes beyond viewing the subject as numbers, equations, proofs, or diagrams. It involves integrating elements from different cultures into mathematical tasks.

This approach allows students to see themselves represented in their learning, making math more relatable and accessible. Students from diverse backgrounds feel seen and acknowledged when their teachers use culturally relevant tasks—not like outsiders struggling with abstract concepts detached from their lived experiences.

A fun example of a culturally responsive math lesson is introducing fractions using time signatures from the music of different cultures. The Bomba, a traditional dance rhythm from Puerto Rico, uses 5-beat cycles perfect for examining fractions like ⅕ or ⅘.

Using these culturally rich references reinforces the mathematical concept and values diverse heritages.

Start culturally responsive math teaching with these 3 steps

Exploring ways to make your math class more culturally responsive can be an enriching experience. While it may require some initial effort, these three steps will guide you in creating a more inclusive and engaging learning environment for all students.

1) REVISE FAMILIAR TASKS

The path to culturally responsive math teaching begins with the tasks you present to your students. A cognitively demanding math problem can bridge academic content and a student’s cultural heritage, making learning more meaningful.

And as Dr. Shelly Jones, a mathematics education professor at Central Connecticut State University, says, “Math is cultural. It’s not a question. It just is.”

To start, choose familiar math tasks you’d like to revise for cultural relevance. A Community Walk is a great way to tweak tasks so they’re relevant for your specific students.

Download our Community Walk Checklist to notice the math in your community. Not only will it help you take a purposeful look at the culture of your community, but you’ll also gather data to revise your tasks!

For example, you can create statistical questions for high school students from the data you gather during your walk. The questions will reflect their community and encourage engagement with meaningful mathematics.

2) WORK FROM TEMPLATES AND EVALUATE TASKS WITH RUBRICS

Rubrics aren’t just grading tools but also roadmaps that lay out clear expectations. They’re a great tool to guide your vision as you revise your already familiar math tasks.

A cultural responsiveness rubric can help you evaluate if your math problems resonate with diverse cultures. It lets you gauge whether the task acknowledges different perspectives or merely reinforces stereotypes.

In addition to rubrics, templates offer another way to ensure your teaching methods align with your students’ unique backgrounds. The right template serves as a blueprint to guide you through revising tasks without losing sight of cultural relevance.

Equitable Math’s toolkits, for example, give concrete ways to start implementing these changes in your lessons. They provide adaptable frameworks and exemplars to work from.

3) START SMALL AND IMPLEMENT GRADUALLY

Diving into culturally responsive teaching in math starts with a single step.

To get going, home in on specific segments of your content standards. You don’t have to do everything all at once! Start by incorporating small culturally relevant tasks into one unit. Then gradually increase their presence across other units.

The various geometric standards in each grade level are a great place to start. Geometric concepts easily link to concrete and visual cultural references.

For example, the beauty and complexity of Islamic geometric patterns provide an excellent opportunity for integration into the math curriculum.

Say you’re revising a hexagon pattern task for cultural relevance. You can connect it to Islamic patterns found in architecture and design around the world while still teaching calculating angles or identifying lines of symmetry. Including these patterns in your lesson would allow Muslim students (or any student interested in art and culture) to see mathematics as part of their cultural heritage.

Culturally responsive teaching in math is at your fingertips

Culturally responsive teaching allows us to bridge gaps between academic content and real-life experiences. It encourages active participation among all learners and empowers every student to know they’re part of the mathematics community.

Culturally responsive teaching may seem like uncharted territory, but it becomes more manageable with practical tools and support.

Karen Sloan
Karen Sloan spent 16 years teaching mathematics and social studies in Ohio classrooms. She has a passion for inclusive education and believes that all learners can be meaningfully included in academic settings from day one. As a former math and special education teacher, she is excited to provide educators with the latest in best-practices content so that they can set all students on the path to becoming confident “math people.”

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