By Pamela A. Seda
I’ve met many math teachers who have a desire to use culturally relevant tasks but simply don’t know where to start. One place to start is with a working definition of what it means to be a culturally relevant mathematics teacher In our book, Choosing to See: A Framework for Equity in the Math Classroom, we state that “being a culturally relevant teacher means using instructional materials in ways that help students see themselves as doers of mathematics and help them overcome the negative stereotypes and messages regarding who is—and who isn’t—mathematically smart.”
Finding culturally relevant tasks starts with understanding your students. Find out what they are interested in, what’s important to them, and what they value. Some ways that I did this was by administering surveys and by listening to their conversations with their peers. Once I learned about my students, I could then think about how I could give them math tasks that connected to their interests.
Creating culturally relevant tasks doesn’t have to be overwhelming. If you are thinking that you don’t know where to start, you can start small and work your up. I suggest starting with Stage 1 tasks and work your way up to Stage 4 tasks.
A Stage 1 task is any math task that invites students into doing the thinking and reasoning, and not simply mimic a procedure previously taught to them. Illustrative Mathematics, Youcubed, Achieve the Core, Nrich are good sources for low floor high ceiling tasks that are both accessible and stretch all students. Making sure that ALL students are regularly exposed to these types of problems is super important for creating equitable mathematics instruction.
A Stage 1 task can be changed into a Stage 2 task by adding names that are meaningful to your students to the original problem.
The robotics club at your school is hosting a fundraiser and plans to sell a slice of pizza with a cup of water for $1.10. If a slice of pizza costs $1 more than the cup of water, how much should each item cost separately?
Corresponding Stage 2 Task – After finding out who in your class is interested in robotics, enter their name(s) and more specific context below.
The robotics club at Woodlawn High School is hosting a fundraiser. Syretha plans to sell a slice of pizza with a cup of water for $1.10. If a slice of pizza costs $1 more than the cup of water, how much should Syretha charge for each item separately?
A Stage 3 task is one where the context has been changed to one that is relevant to your students. Either you or your students can create a Stage 3 task. I noticed that many of the girls in my class like to braid hair. The context of the previous problem can be changed as follows:
Rochelle, who owns her own hair salon, has developed a braid spray to help her customers keep their hairstyles longer. Rochelle charges $110 for cornrows along with her braid spray. If the cornrows cost $100 more than the braid spray, how much should Rochelle charge for each item separately?
A Stage 4 task begins with your students and their communities. You can begin to build a Stage 4 task by asking your students what are some problems that they care about. Students in a New York elementary school were concerned about the number of altercations that happened in the hallways. They suspected that overcrowding might be a cause. After using mathematics to confirm their hypothesis, the school board complied with their request to decrease their student population. Areas like criminal justice, voting rights, zoning laws, climate change, poverty, etc. all provide ripe contexts for using mathematics to address issues that your students care about.
Creating culturally relevant tasks is not as daunting as you might think. Starting with Stage 1 tasks and working your way up to Stage 4 tasks will give you the time and space you need to learn, grow, adapt, and respond to the needs of your students. Be encouraged. You got this!
Seda, P., & Brown, K. (2021). Choosing to see: A framework for equity in the math classroom. Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc.
Turner, E. E., & Strawhun, B. T. (2007). Posing problems that matter: Investigating school overcrowding. Teaching Children Mathematics, 13(9), 457–463. https://doi.org/10.5951/tcm.13.9.0457
Dr. Pamela Seda is a veteran math educator with over 30 years of experience. She is a wife, a mother of 4 adult children, the owner of Seda Educational Consulting, creator of The VANG Game math card game, and co-author of the book, Choosing to See: A Framework for Equity in the Math Classroom. She has held various positions in math education including high school math teacher, instructional coach, college math instructor, and district math supervisor. Dr. Seda is passionate about changing how students experience mathematics, especially those from marginalized groups, and advocates for mathematics instruction that develops all students as mathematical thinkers and problem-solvers.