“An equitable learning community requires first and foremost knowing who our students are and using that knowledge to situate math learning in the lived experiences of students, building on the knowledge and skills each student brings to school and acknowledging and welcoming students’ identities into the classroom.” (Godfrey, 2021.)
Many teachers use formative assessment, exit tickets, journal writing and/or other strategies to gather information about how students think about specific math content. Using these types of tools (e.g. exit tickets, surveys) to collect information about how students are experiencing math class and how they view themselves as learners may feel less familiar. Gathering this type of data is an important part of establishing and maintaining an equitable learning community.
Part of the work of building an equitable learning community is establishing an atmosphere of trust. Trust is essential for our students to feel safe sharing openly about themselves and their experiences with us and with each other. We can create a community of trust by listening actively and generously to our students’ contributions, and by building caring relationships that are anchored in mutual respect.
When we set aside time for students to reflect and to offer feedback, we show them that we value their opinions and care about them as individuals. Whole group discussions, interviews, and student reflection tools are powerful ways to examine students’ dispositions, their expectations, and their reactions to math class. When we take time to listen and respond to the feedback students offer, we demonstrate our commitment to fostering a supportive learning community as well as our respect for our students’ contributions. If used regularly, such reflections can help us see how students’ thoughts about mathematics, and about themselves as learners, are changing over time (or not). This choice to pay attention to and respond to students’ needs and current dispositions is a critical step in developing an equitable learning environment.
Ms. Diaz, a fifth grade teacher, shares her experience: This past year I have been intentional about setting aside time for my students to reflect on how they see themselves as learners of math and as part of a class of math learners. It doesn’t take long to have them answer a question on an index card such as “Do you think your classmates value your ideas? Why or why not?” I learn so much about my students and how they see their status in the classroom. It helps me make adjustments that provide more equitable participation.
Students become invested in the learning community when they recognize that they can influence their own learning as well as the dynamics and culture of their classroom. When we invite our students to reflect on their participation and on how their ideas are valued and responded to, we highlight the role of the individual as well as that of the community. When we listen to and respond to their feedback we are empowering them to take an active role in their own learning and in the classroom community.
A student in Ms. Diaz’s class, who had been reluctant to share in whole group discussions during the first four weeks of school, wrote this reflection in response to the question: What has math class been like for you in school so far?
This year in math class you give us time to write in our math journals about how we are feeling about math class. We also get to share ideas about how we could make math class better during discussions. I can tell you care about not just what I learn but how I learn. I like to be able to tell you how I feel.
After reading this student’s response, Ms. Diaz was able to understand that this student does value the sharing of ideas. She would like to further understand why this student is not yet sharing his ideas in the whole group. Her next step might be to explore whether this student thinks his ideas are valuable.
An important part of incorporating student reflection into our practice is thinking about what questions we should be asking and when we should be asking them. Once we have established goals related to learning about our students, we can select appropriate questions and prompts.
- What do I want to know about my students at this point in time?
- What type of question would best support them in reflecting on a specific component of the math community? Of their math identity?
- How can I encourage students to reflect on themselves as math learners?
For example, after the first few weeks of school, Ms. Diaz was interested in knowing how her students (particularly a small group that was reticent to share ideas both in small and whole group discussions) were thinking about math class. She hoped that the responses would allow her to better understand how her students were experiencing math class, particularly how they were seeing the value of listening to the ideas of others, and whether they felt their ideas were valued. She created a survey to gather that information, asking two questions:
- Do you think others in our class (including your teacher) value your ideas? Why or why not?
- Do you think it is important/useful to listen to the ideas of others? Why or why not?
We may choose to ask a question in the middle of a lesson if we notice that our students would benefit from reflecting on, say, the ways in which partner talk can help them understand the math ideas of a game. We may pose a question(s) at the end of a lesson to give us feedback on student engagement. We may note that a student’s identity or status is impacting their engagement, and so use a one-to-one interview to better understand their strengths and perspectives. It is important that our questions be focused and promote deep reflection. It is also important that we pose the same questions more than once, so we can see if students’ responses are changing/developing over time. Below are a few examples of questions/prompts that invite student reflection:
- What has math class been like for you in school so far?
- What have you liked/disliked about school math?
- Do you have a positive memory you’d be willing to share? A negative memory?
- Do your friends like math class? What do they say about math?
- What would a great math teacher do and say?
- I wish my teacher knew that during math class I _____________.
- I learn math best when________________.
- For primary students:
Different insights into how students are experiencing math class emerge depending on the methods used for gathering this information. For example, talking to a student one-on-one can offer an awareness that might not come through in a written response to a question.
In the following vignette we see how Mr. Ryder intentionally uses a variety of student reflection methods with his second grade students.
At first, I wasn’t sure that my second graders would have a lot to say about themselves as learners of mathematics. But I have started putting aside some time to discuss how they are feeling about their participation in our math discussions. I have used whole group talks and surveys with emoticons. But what has really impacted my understanding of some of my students who were not participating as fully as I would have liked, was taking three to five minutes to do short interviews. I found that some of my students were not feeling valued or invited, and that part of that was my own role in who I was calling on and how I was setting up discussions.
Mr. Ryder’s comments highlight the importance of reflecting on what we hear and learn from our students, and what it tells us about our own practice.
As our students learn to examine their own learning needs and how those needs are met in the classroom, their autonomy and self-efficacy is affected. As they reflect on how they impact and are impacted by others in their class, they are considering issues of status and equitable interactions. And, as they recognize that their teachers are listening to and responding to their reflections, they become aware of how authority is shared. This is a critical component of Aguirre et. al.’s equity-based practices, which stress the importance of distributing mathematics authority and presenting it as interconnected among students, teacher, and text (Aguirre et. al., 2013). Student reflection is a critical part of the learning process and impacts both our students and the ways in which we as teachers learn from and respond to them.
Aguirre, J., Mayfield-Ingram, K., & Martin, D. B. (2013). The impact of identity in K-8 mathematics. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
Godfrey, Lynne. (2021). Establishing an Equitable Learning Community in the Investigations Classroom.