Belonging in Math Education Spaces

(A lengthy Blog Post for #VConHR, including an extended response from last week’s blog and in response to @PaiMath, and furthering the discussion with @ddmeyer around belonging. I am responding to the Week 2 mini prompt: “Ilana Horn, in her book Motivated, writes: “When I observe in math classrooms, I can usually gauge students’ general sense of belongingness” (p. 30) and then describes actions that she’s observed. What are specific kinds of things that you see and hear that show “belongingness” in classrooms (whether it be your own or others)?”)


My intentional, personal journey with the idea of ‘belonging in math ed spaces’ started in March of 2019. A picture was posted on Twitter, showing four presenters for a state math ed conference. All four presenters were white. The twitter conversations that followed noticed that all the presenters were white and wondered why. Basically, the picture illustrated what frequently happens in math ed spaces (classrooms, teacher cohorts, school staff, higher ed staff and college professors): the picture does not represent the true diversity of math ed spaces and/or BIPOC are not included in the spaces. This issue is not new. The newness was in my learning about it, understanding it and hearing the stories and experiences from BIPOC. For this particular blog post that is focused on the strategies used to create belongingness, I use the words from Dr. Robert Berry (below) to help ground me in the idea and relationship between inclusion, diversity and belongingness.

An extension of these conversations is hosted by @mathedmatters and @berealcoach under the #MathEdEquity starting again this fall (look for a tweet soon).

An extension of these conversations is hosted by @mathedmatters and @berealcoach under the #MathEdEquity starting again this fall (look for a tweet soon).

The twitter discussion that followed was the impetus for my focused learning around the concept of belonging. Last year, I had had the honor and privilege to use Ilana Horn’s book, ‘Motivated: Designing Math Classrooms where Students Want to Join in,’ to facilitate PD for K-4 teachers. This summer, I also used this text to provide professional development for a small group of HS Math teachers in rural MN. (Basically, your book is very versatile, Ilana!) I spent days aligning an 8 hour session to the book, using her resources and applying everything to HS math classrooms. The feedback from the teachers was very positive, including wanting to document some of the strategies in the online district curriculum (different from past feedback).

My goal for this specific blog post is twofold: share how I create a sense of belonging in PD sessions and name specific ideas for classroom teachers. These ideas are from the numerous teachers and educators I follow, listen to, observe and learn from as well as new learning from twitter talks, specifically from #ClearTheAir. I hope something shared in this post resonates with you and you have new questions to ask.

Let’s play with MATH!

Let’s play with MATH!

Welcome! (slide 1): When facilitating, the welcoming slide has an actual picture from the host site or a cartoon gif. For the HS Math PD this past July, I used the graduation picture from the previous spring to, first and foremost, personalize the PD. In addition, we ultimately want our students to successfully graduate from HS. Therefore, I wanted something (pictures are usually low risk entry points) to inspire the teachers (especially over the summer) and remind them of the long-term goal. Graduation is always a celebration. When I do general PD at a conference, I use a comic gif (like the one shown) to, again, reduce the risk of engagement and initiate the idea that we can use humor and play in math…ALWAYS!

Land Acknowledgement (slide 2): To further the idea that, to belong, one must be included, it is important to acknowledge that all the land on which we stand in the U.S. was taken from the indigenous peoples in the early years of our nation. Therefore, I have tried to create land acknowledgements for the places where I present. If you are interested in doing a land acknowledgement, DO YOUR RESEARCH. I gathered a lot of information from many different websites and tried to incorporate many of the steps that @debreese shared here . I post a picture of a map (pre-colonialism ) with the names of the nations that were located on the land before being colonized. I am sharing the slide with the map and the piece I wrote for the land acknowledgement below. (These are from co-presented sessions at the state conference in Duluth, MN 2019)

Adapted from the Four Agreements and Six Conditions from  Courageous Conversations

Adapted from the Four Agreements and Six Conditions from Courageous Conversations

Norms (slide 3):  I use norms in all of the professional development I facilitate. The goal is that everyone’s voice is heard and respected, impact > intent and learning is hard: take risks, stay engaged and be uncomfortable. (similar to classroom norms) Here is one example (left). They are tweaked regularly. Special thanks to @NicoleBridge1 for all years we used a version of these together and continued to learn and grow. And @mochamomma and @ShanaVWhite for having an online Twitter discussion about previous norms used. 


Opening Activity: Community Building (slide 4-8ish):  I have done this part of the day a number of ways. Typically it’s either questions or pictures that the participants use to tell stories about themselves. For this particular session, participants were asked to find pictures that answer the question, “What does summer mean to you?” It is meant to share low risk personal information with different colleagues, like pictures of pets and adventures, to get to know one another as humans. The ‘All About Me Wall’ noted at the end of this blog is a way to use this idea in classrooms that can span the entire school year.

This is one of the pictures I shared (right).

Pictured: My daughter’s dog, Bear, who loves to jump from paddle board to paddle board on a local lake in Minneapolis, Lake Nokomis (named after Nokomis, the grandmother of Hiawatha in 1910.)

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This slide is the one I use to summarize the community building activity, specifically from the last HS math teacher PD (leading into the Belonging portion of the day). Stories are an excellent way for students and teachers to ‘get to know you’ and share our humanity.

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Math Identity/Story (slides 8-13ish):  Now that we have shared stories from our personal lives, here we begin to share our math stories.


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When doing so, we ground ourselves in personal identity and social identity (from @NicoleBridge1 identity presentation) AND that you are more than one thing (Danger of a Single Story @ChimamandaReal )

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I also use a quote from Beverly Daniel Tatum to further ground participants in the ways in which people identify themselves.

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Then participants create their own “Mathography.” This comes from Developing Math Identity. Many teachers have used this in the first week of school and learned SO MUCH about their students’ experiences as mathematicians.

Individual, silent reflection

Individual, silent reflection

Now that participants have centered themselves in identity and math experiences, we take a look at the stereotypes of what the world says math people look like, sound like and act like. Many of the common stereotypes are drawn or listed: nerdy, pocket protector, super smart, male, etc.  Then participants reflect using these questions (left):


Ilana Horn (2017) Motivated!

Ilana Horn (2017) Motivated!

Belonging (slides 12-20ish):


I bring in the voices of other math teachers and how they are creating belongingness in their classroom and with colleagues:

Pictured here is @TheJLV talk from @NCTMSD2019 and his response to creating belonging: the creation of #EduColor

I also share a link to @HKhodai’s a response to this presentation


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To transition to thinking about specific ideas to create a sense of belonging for our students, I share this slide as well from @TheJVL presentation:

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Because, from Ilana Horn’s book (left):


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What we can NOT control:

· Media portrayal of mathematicians/men/women

· Parent-teacher conferences

· Barbie dolls saying, “Math is hard”

· T-shirts displaying ‘Allergic to Math’

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What we CAN (have some) control:

·       Teaching Strategies

·       Classroom routines and community building

·       Personal Identities

·       Experiences of Teacher

·       What math are we putting in front our kids

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And, finally, a list of strategies for classroom teachers (right):

-All About Me Wall: students share pictures (family, dogs, places) and/or work of which they are proud (all year)

-“All Kinds of Ways to Be Smart!” Book by Judy Lalli, changed my way of seeing all the ways I am smart, rather than “I’m not a _____ person.”

WHEW! You made it! Thank you for taking the time to read some or all of this post!!

Closing Remarks: My learning journey has brought me here: A sense of belonging comes from feeling welcomed and included; one’s voice and humanity is seen, heard and respected. I hope that, in whatever role you serve in the math ed community, you found one new learning within this blog. Please use your new learning to reflect, create and question current math ed spaces so that ALL humans, students and staff alike, believe and feel like they BELONG .