Exploring Identity in Math Class

“Why are we doing this, it’s not history class?”

This student’s critique of today’s lesson spent on identity is one which will sit with me for some time.  I want to deconstruct it in my own head and discuss it tomorrow in class.

For now, here is a very brief summary of how and why we talked about our identities today in 8th grade math,  honoring the work of Jess Lifshitz and Sara Ahmed

Screen Shot 2019-08-27 at 12.55.11 PM

Today was Day 2 of school.  Students arrived into class with this on the board.  Their questions and observations were so rich and in 2 class periods students assumed it was a play on words for “square root” which cracked me up as it was something I hadn’t even considered.

One thing each class period noticed was how rare it is to see a tree’s roots and al the ways this photo is very out of the ordinary. I used that as an opportunity to talk about how we each bring to class a huge amount of roots, that define us and make us who we are.  But often, that person sitting next to you in class only sees you in the chair, but knows nothing about all the factors that make you who you are.  I explained that feeling safe and respected in math class means that the people around you know enough about you to respect your roots and who you are inside.

IMG_7202I then read The Day you Begin which is such a wonderful book about our identities, assumptions we make about one another and how often we have more in common with people than we realize.  But we have to have the courage to talk about ourselves so people can get to know us.  My students were REALLY into the story. I joked about ‘when life was fun and easy’ in 2nd grade and we reminisced about coming together on a rug for story time when their bodies were much smaller and there were far less of them in a classroom at the same time.

From there we did this activity from Teaching Tolerance which had been recommended to me by Shira Helft.  I modeled it by writing my name in the center circle, and talking about how arrows pointing outward are places to write things about yourself that you’d like for other people in math class to know about you.  Arrows pointing inward are assumptions people make about you (whether true or false) without really knowing you.  Their work was thoughtful and powerful as evidenced here.


Finally, we used visible random grouping for the first time this year.  Students were paired up and asked to do the following:

  1. Introduce yourselves if you don’t know each other’s names.
  2. Using your paper, read 1 thing you wrote.  Choose one sentence starter to use:  “One thing you should know about me is…”     OR  “One assumption people make about me is…”

I changed pairs several times so that they had the opportunity to do this with more than 1 partner.

Later this week, I have a slide show of images that are up around my room which represent my values as a teacher.  We’ll use this in conjunction with writing and sharing along this prompt:

What I need from my classmates to be successful in math class is…

What I need from my teacher to be successful in math class is…

Which gets me back to the critique of today which was shouted out by a student: “Why are we doing this, it’s not history class?”

I plan to honor this question and ask it to the class later this week, hoping that together we have a more solid understanding of why…



6 thoughts on “Exploring Identity in Math Class

  1. Which gets me back to the critique of today which was shouted out by a student: “Why are we doing this, it’s not history class?”

    It’s interesting to me that this kid takes it as obvious that this has a place in history class. Not obvious to everyone!

    Do you think there are versions of the activities you did today that are more integrated with mathematics? Or is it important to keep mathematics out of the spotlight to focus on identity?

  2. Michael-I’m sure there are plenty of ways too center mathematics along with identity. I really loved each of these mini-activities (the image of tree roots/the childrens’ book/the teaching tolerance worksheet) and meshed together they made a perfect 51 minute period. It’s a good question to post-but I never purposefully decided to keep math out of the lesson, it was more wanting these elements in the lesson. This week students also write mathographies where I get to read and learn a lot about them as math students. Your comment makes me think about reading some anonymous quotes from those next week as a way to explicitly talk about math identity.

  3. @Michael – I’d hazard a guess, that yes various discussion of identity are very common in Middle School Social Studies. They definitely are here. I’m just speculating but if this were me I’d actually be tempted to go and talk with the other teachers and see if you can piggy back on the approach taken in another room. The teaching tolerance materials for instance are really well known. Are they being used in other classrooms?

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