Tuesday / June 25

Teaching Students Not Content

Three Ways to Keep Student Identities Front and Center in the Mathematics Classroom

While our jobs as educators involve teaching content, it is also true and equally important to remember that we teach people. Students come to us with their own history, background, and life experiences that influence how they learn. It is a background to which we must attend, to ensure that our teaching of content is not wasted. In my case, I teach mathematics, and many are surprised to find that there is ample space in a mathematics classroom to incorporate students’ identities and realities. I will share examples from mathematics classrooms, but this holds true regardless of what subject(s) you teach.

The researcher William Tate IV showed the need to attend to identity masterfully when he wrote about a class of students engaged in a mathematical task about metro cards. The students were given the price of a weekly card where they could ride the subway an unlimited number of times or a pay- as- you- go card, where they paid for each trip separately.  They were told that their parent would use the card to commute to and from work and asked which was the better deal. According to the teacher’s calculations, the pay- as- you- go card was best, but many students chose the unlimited card instead. Upon investigation, he learned that the students were not wrong in their calculations, they were merely bringing their life experiences to the problem.

The teacher had assumed the parent would travel to and from work twice a day for 10 trips a week. Like the textbooks we use that tend to focus on context that is specific to white middle class people, this teacher had made certain assumptions that led to a certain mathematical answer. Yet, for some of these students, the assumptions were false. Some had parents who worked multiple jobs, or jobs in multiple locations, and so commuted much more often than the ten trips per week. Further, parents often shared their cards with other family members, adding to the number of trips used (Tate, 1995).

Today we will explore three ways to keep student identities front and center in mathematics classes. First, is finding ways to learn about student identity.

There are many quite simple ways to learn about our students’ histories, background, and life experiences.

You can: 

  • Ask students to write a biography detailing their experiences with the discipline you teach (younger students can draw a picture of themselves engaged with that discipline)
  • Have students answer the following:
  • The best thing about math (or whatever discipline you teach) is…
  • The worst thing about math is…
  • Learning math is like…
  • Conduct family interviews or send home a survey for parents/caregivers to fill out about their student and their everyday life

Yet it is not enough to know about students’ lives. What we do with that knowledge is equally important. A second way to keep student identity front and center in mathematics class is to use your knowledge of students’ histories and experiences to craft problems or projects that revolve around these.

For example:

  • If you use recipes in story problems to teach fractions, ratios, and proportions, consider having students bring in their own family recipes. Then the problems that are crafted are centered on your students’ lives.
  • Are you teaching area and perimeter? Consider having students bring in the flags of the countries their families come from and use them to determine the area covered by the various colors or head on over to the basketball court or sports field and use the court/field to determine the area of the different shapes found on it.
  • When teaching probability and statistics consider using data from the class. The number of letters in students’ names, the number of minutes in their commute, and the number of siblings they have are data that are easy to collect and can result in rich discussion. Also consider creating a scatterplot using their heights and shoe sizes which will result in a beautiful linear correlation steeped in their identities.
  • If you work with younger children, consider asking them mathematical questions as you read books about their holidays and traditions. How many people did the main character invite to their home for the party? If each brings two gifts how many would there be? Is there more pudding or more bread on the table? How do you know? Which slice of pie is smaller? Who got to the party first? Who got there last?

You can start small by choosing one area to focus on and craft a question or activity around it.

A third way to keep identity front and center is to offer students choices. The same mathematical content can be applied to several different contexts so why not present those contexts and have students decide which to work on? A related idea is to have students decide what issues they wish to explore mathematically. If you are working on statistics, you can have students collect data on an issue that is important to them. If you are exploring percentages, you can have students look through the newspaper or online news sites and bring in instances of percentages being used. Then use those articles and the contexts from which they come to craft mathematical questions further explore. If you are working with younger students, consider presenting them with a few texts to read and let them vote on which one they want to hear. Consider having multiple activities to engage in at several stations around the room and let them gravitate to the one they wish to engage in or rotate amongst a few. In this way students’ interests will drive the decisions as to what mathematics they engage in.

Before moving away from this post take a moment to sit and reflect on the following questions:

  • How do you attend to the identities of all students in your class?
  • How do you acknowledge their life stories?
  • How do you build on what students bring to the classroom?

Write your answers down and re-read them in a few days. Consider sharing them with your colleagues and start a conversation about how to best teach the students in your classroom and not just the content.

Keep the three strategies in mind as you go about the coming week:

  • Find ways to learn about students’ identities
  • Weave student identities into mathematical problems
  • Give students choices over the work/activities they engage in

For if we attend to student identity, we will strengthen our ability to teach content as well.


Tate, W. F. (2005). Race, retrenchment, and reform mathematics. In E. Gutstein & B. Peterson (Eds.), Rethinking mathematics: Teaching social justice by the numbers (pp. 31–40). Rethinking Schools.

Written by

Lidia Gonzalez is a Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at York College of the City University of New York. A first generation college graduate her research focuses on the teaching of math for social justice, the development of teacher identity, and teacher professional learning. 

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