How Math Helped Me Build A Strong Classroom Community

When I moved to a new school in the late ‘90s, one of the first things my new principal told me was that there was a lot of racial tension at our school. Our school included African American, Hmong, Latino, Pacific Islander and White students. I was told that recent conflicts in the neighborhood created an atmosphere of distrust on our campus.

As most teachers do in the beginning of the year, we spent time engaged in “getting to know you activities”. After exploring favorite books, movies, hobbies, etc, I wanted to dig a bit deeper. I posted two long sheets of butcher paper that had several categories. Along the top of the chart I labeled the following: Name, date of birth, place of birth, ethnicity (what do you call yourself), languages you speak, goals in 5 years, goals in 10 years.

Using The Data

Students developed pie charts and bar graphs to represent the data, noticed trends and asked lots of questions. We calculated measures of central tendency such as mean, median and mode. We used our graphs to strengthen and practice our basic math facts.

The discussions were rich as we learned about where students were born and that we all had some version of a migration story. Some students spent time in refugee camps prior to their arrival in the United States.  Some students identified as Black and others as African American. We learned that Hmong students were part of different clans (White and Green).  Most students saw themselves attending college in 10 years. Students had a genuine interest in learning about others, while sharing hopes, dreams and stories about themselves.

It Came Together When…

One afternoon, when one of our school secretaries came in to pass out notices to go home, she asked how many notices we needed in Hmong. Unprompted by me, I watched several of my students reach into their desks and pull out their math journals. They shared which families needed English, Spanish, and Hmong notices. The students relayed this information in a matter-of-fact and respectful manner.

While there were several ongoing activities that we continued to use to develop community – see our Inclusive By Design blog – I understood that learning about others’ backgrounds, language, and goals is important.

I realized too that it was not our diversity that was our strength. It was the respect and understanding of our diversity that made us strong!


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