By: Evan Taylor
Now I can’t pledge allegiance to your flag
Cause I can’t find no reconciliation with your past
When there was nothing equal for my people in your math
You forced us in the ghetto and then you took our dads”
–Lupe Fiasco, “Strange Fruition”
They schools ain’t teachin us, what we need to know to survive
–Dead Prez, “They School”
I believe that mathematics education should be based on the individual’s community’s needs. Answering questions such as how can we provide for ourselves and our families? How can I grow a garden in this food desert? What makes my community a food desert? What makes my community, but no others a food desert? What does mathematics have to do with any of these questions? Am I a mathematician? Is my community filled with mathematicians?
In the Fall of my first year of teaching (2015) the president of the Illinois Council of Teachers of Mathematics, George Reese, reached out to me.. He called and stated that he would like to come out and observe my class because he had heard such great things about me and my mathematics instruction. He got this insight from two different programs that I worked with as an undergraduate, the first program being the CHANCE Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I ended up working with the CHANCE program accidentally due to a misread email. The program sent out a call for a mathematics teachers for a high school STEM Academy. I thought it was open to any who applied, but they were initially looking for a graduate student. After sending an email and having my faculty mentor, Danny Martin, vouch for me, I was offered the job to teach high school mathematics. I’d never before taught high school mathematics, but was merely interested in teaching and trying new ideas and concepts with mathematics.
Throughout the program I taught the students cryptology and some basic applications of cryptology in the real world when looking into careers and how the world was impacted by numbers. I talked to them briefly about how those in power control what narrative the numbers tell you. Most days, this would lead to in-depth discussions about mathematics and its relation to their lived experiences, alongside conversations about the music that I played as we encrypted and decrypted messages using algebra.
Later on that same summer, I reached out again to teach a small series of lessons to a group of middle school students. I decided that I would teach them about calculus and how it relates to their lived experiences. (Note: I have never taken Calculus, but I did take Precalculus and learning how to teach introductory calculus courses at UIC.) I began the lesson by playing Chance the Rapper’s, “Pusha Man” and had the students to think about the lyrics of the song where Chance analyzes Chicago’s summers. The weekend before was July 4th, and there were many shootings in Chicago. I asked students to hypothesize why more shootings happened around a particular time, but in analyzing their answers I had them to correlate their answers to a graph. The graph depicted the number of shootings (y-axis) and the time (x-axis). Students were able to vocalize and breakdown the graph easily when it was connected to their lived experiences and were more engaged as a result. We went on later to evaluate how I believe that calculus is really just storytelling using a graph. The job of the mathematician is merely to state what is happening at various points of the story. When this connection was made, students were then tasked to engage in various activities, graph their data and then retell the story of what happened at various points of the line on the graph. At the end of the mini-series, students were excited to know that they had known calculus all along but had never been shown it had anything to do with their lives.
In the fall of my senior year at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), I was afforded another opportunity to teach a series of lessons to a group of students within a STEM Academy. They could probably do higher levels of math than I could, so I made it my goal to have them analyze mathematical practices and formulas. I had the students engage in experiments about the Pythagorean Theorem, I pushed them to question all formulas and all things taught. One day I had all of the students sit on top of the tables, for nothing more than to destroy ideas and constructs of normalcy. I spent time teaching them lessons about how mathematics and justice coincide, and how they could use their mathematical gifts to help address injustices. I was pretty sure that I was going to lose my job after I spent a majority of class time getting students to change and question their seating arrangements until they found the most unsegregated arrangement possible. Students began to grow closer to each other through a new model and perspective of teaching and learning mathematics that focused more on community than memorization of theorems. I was also able to keep my job, and the directors of the program loved my teaching style and methodology.
In the winter of my senior year, I taught a lesson to the fifth graders in the classroom I was student teaching in about the idea that one does not always equal one. The discussion was predicated on our evaluation of the United States bombing of Hiroshima. The students were able to engage in in-depth conversations about whether the United States was justified in their bombing of Hiroshima. We analyzed numbers, ethics, and I even read an excerpt to them from John Hersey’s Hiroshima. Students were able to mathematically and morally dissect the numbers and did not merely take the numbers as they were. They had to dig in and analyze what stories the numbers were telling, but also what stories the numbers were not telling. In the same year, I had another lesson in which the students analyzed Hurricane Katrina and the morality of stealing during the hurricane. Students had varied responses which were all reflective of their own experiences.
It should be noted that as a student at UIC I concentrated in mathematics. Throughout my schooling I was very interested in mathematics. However, I was not one of the golden children who was gifted with insane mathematical abilities. I merely wanted to push myself and see what all the advanced and affluent children were engaging in. In middle and high school, I was often one of the only Black students in my Honors mathematics classes. Outside of mathematics classes, though, I was surrounded by my other African-American and Latino students who had no access to these classes despite their capacity to learn. It was not until I got to UIC and began to research ethnomathematics and the mathematics that is inside of people’s cultural identities. I then began to wonder how many more students would attempt challenging mathematical ideas and concepts that are connected to their lived experiences? How many more Black students would be interested in calculus if they understood applications it has to issues of justice or even its application to sports? How many more parents would spend time teaching their elementary aged children the cultural mathematics of dominoes or spades?
The previous questions and ideas are the reasons I believe I was chosen to serve as the Director-At-Large for the Illinois Council of Teachers of Mathematics. I want to foster a new view of mathematics education that investigates the mathematics within our cultural activities, giving power back to communities. Just imagine the value students would see in their culture when they realize the mathematics involved. Students realizing that they are mathematicians is predicated on our redefinition of what a mathematician is and what a mathematician does. Students must be able to see the local girls and boys playing basketball as mathematicians just as they see Albert Einstein as a mathematician. This work is already being done by many scholars, but I want to take it to the streets and use the work to empower communities to see how academic excellence has always resided within their cultural practices.
The Illinois Council of Teachers of Mathematics is affording me this opportunity to do so and I hope that within the year we can see changes happen beginning in Illinois and spreading across the state. I know I am starting this year by teaching my third graders first how to play Pokemon, dominoes and Yu-Gi-Oh and then having them to examine the mathematics involved. I know I will once again have my students consider the question what is a mathematician and what is mathematics, in hopes that they will answers stating themselves to be mathematicians and their everyday activities to be mathematical.
Are you a mathematician?
Is your answer based on what you consider mathematics?
Or is your answer based on what others deem to be mathematics?
I have a dream that we will all one day lean towards the former…
Evan Taylor is a second-year, third grade teacher at Roosevelt Elementary school in Dolton, IL. He currently serves on the board of the Illinois Council of Teachers of Mathematics as the Director-At-Large. He is pursuing his master’s degree in Instructional Leadership with a focus in Literacy, Language and Culture at the University of Illinois at Chicago.