Transcript of the episode “Math literacy: Every student’s right (Part 2)”

[00:00:15] Jon M: Hi. I’m Jon Moscow.

[00:00:16] Amy H-L: I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Today, we continue our conversation with Dr. Terri Bucci, Associate Professor of Math Education at Ohio State University at Mansfield and Co-Director of OSU Mathematics Literacy Initiative, which changes the way K-12 math is taught. Welcome back, Terri. Thank you.

[00:00:22] Terri B: Thanks for having me.

[00:00:25] Amy H-L: Speaking of performance and staying in your lane, how does the Math Literacy Initiative help teachers prepare students for Ohio state math tests?

[00:00:41] Terri B: The first thing I want to say is, so I’m in academia. We have this utopia. Yes, we believe that these high stakes tests are absurd for the most part. They could be good, but to make standardized tests… the use of the word “standardized” means “same.” So we want everyone to have this same kind of assessment. So everyone isn’t the same. Everyone’s experiences aren’t the same. And so, because you’re taking the standard and we’re putting everyone in this sameness kind of pile, that’s an error to begin with, but we know that they’re here. We know they’re going to be here. So what it does is this kind of work, and going through the 5-Step Curriculum Process and really engaging with students in this participatory shared governance way, gives them the power and the confidence to attack problems that they might not really understand at the beginning.

So we know that it increases their ability to communicate with mathematics, both orally, but also in written form. You can look at some of the 5-Step Curricular Process documents from the students that have been in a class that uses that process quite a bit and one from the same grade level that doesn’t, and there’s just no conversation. It’s more preparing them for a particular problem set instead of preparing them to confront problems. That’s two different kinds of things. So a lot of it comes through in the culture in the classroom. So that culture in that classroom is positive. It’s designed so that students can help each other and work with them. So what does that look like on standardized tests? When they did the first National Science Project or National Science Foundation work at Mansfield Senior High School, all of those students and the students that were chosen for this program, were the students in the bottom quartile, according to their pretest in eighth grade. So all of those students in the bottom quartile graduated, they all pass the Ohio graduation test, which was the [inaudible] at that time. So, what we found was this idea of focusing on the collaborative nature of mathematics and the “we” of problem solving has a huge effect on their ability, but also just on who they are, you know, and what they’re going to do after. We see the same kinds of things in the K-6 students.

So the idea of persistence, the idea of being okay with not knowing something and not being ashamed of that, instead being okay with it. And instead , trying to figure out solution strategies for it, that just becomes part of the nature of the teacher and that nature translates then into the students because once you feel that as a teacher, then the students can feel it, too. And you want them to be able to feel that.

[00:03:56] Amy H-L: What influence has the Math Literacy Initiative had in other areas of Ohio and also in other states?

[00:04:06] Terri B: So the work started with the Algebra Project in Mansfield, when we expanded it to K-6 in Mansfield City Schools with the help of NellCobb and Bill Crombie from the Algebra Project. After that, we were able to expand it through a grant through the Ohio Department of Higher Education ITQ grant. And so in that case, we were able to spread it locally. So we were working with three or four different districts. Then after that, it spread out from there. So there are about nine districts in north central Ohio that we work with. We worked for a couple of years with Flint city schools in Michigan. So they were using those kinds of practices up there. We’re working very closely with the Cultural Arts Academy, which is in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and that is a K-5 implementation.

So some districts, and it looks different in all of these different districts. When I say “it,” what they adopt is like what they want to own for their district. It looks different. In Brooklyn, they are doing a school-wide implementation. So all teachers in grades K-5 are learning about the Algebra Project pedagogy. They’re using these vertically aligned lessons, shared experiences. They’re really engaging with their students. And it’s a pretty remarkable implementation.

We have meetings every Wednesday night with the national We the People Alliance. So tomorrow night, we’ll be doing a demo of the winding game, as a matter of fact, for organizers, academics, classroom teachers, nonprofit folks, so that we can show them what the five-step process is and why it’s valuable. And we do that by engaging in the five-step process with them. So tomorrow night there’ll be people from different universities, all playing a virtual winding game on computers. The We the People Alliance is a really nice opportunity to be able to share some of these ideas around the country with people you wouldn’t otherwise be able to talk to.

[00:06:30] Jon M: Bob Moses was, of course, very much involved in organizing sharecroppers in Mississippi to get the right to vote. And he said on Democracy Now, and I quote, “In our country, we run sharecropper education. In the Mississippi Delta, sharecroppers were assigned to certain kinds of work. So the idea was you only needed a certain kind of education. Carry that forward into the information age. We have serfs in our cities just like we had serfs in the Mississippi Delta. We need a constitutional amendment, which simply says every child in the country is entitled to a quality public school education.” And I know from what Bob was saying, that the We the People Alliance is working on that. What do you think that Bob meant by that? And how do you think we can help to achieve a constitutional amendment?

[00:07:29] Terri B: So the first question. What is meant by sharecropper education? What would the equivalent be right now? I talked about it just a little bit when I referenced the idea that not everyone has access to algebra in eighth grade. That’s one little mini place, but it goes farther than that. It’s not just access to algebra. It’s what courses are they putting in that place for the people that aren’t taking algebra? Oftentimes, it’s some kind of remedial math class where students are taught just the repetition and algorithmic engagements with mathematics. And it’s very little about really critically thinking about mathematics and mathematical ideas, because that’s what happens when we start to talk about this algebraic [inaudible]. So it’s really just as much about access and making sure that everyone can access everything as it is about what they are not able to access and what is imposed on them.

We used to have math classes like “applications of mathematics.” That’s one of those where, you had an applications of math class in high school, so it was called that instead of algebra one, algebra two, geometry, pre-calc. You knew that that kids in that application of math class, they were not, we were not, as educators, preparing that student to do anything beyond graduating high school, passing that test. We can’t send kids out of high school with that mentality anymore, that you just have to be able to pass a class. Passing a class in high school means nothing. It has to mean something. And in order for it to mean something , it has to be substantive. And this expectation or this thinking, that higher education and higher thinking is only for a certain population of people because other people don’t need that, is absurd. Bob had also talked a lot about, you know, we’ve moved from this industrial age to the information age. We are no longer in a production kind of mentality where knowing how to complete something in an algorithmic way, or the same way over and over and over, that’s not a valuable skill anymore. 

The skill that students need to have when they come out of high school is that skill of creating or making something new out of something that we already have. And if we don’t have any experiences in high school, in particular in mathematics, about creating something new and that even goes for algebra one, algebra two, geometry, and pre-calc. We need to dissect those ideas, stop just doing what the book says, dissect the ideas and really start talking about the mathematics. That’s how we talk about critical thinking. That’s how we talk about ideas and making new ideas and structures.

And you can’t do that if the kids are shoved in some out-of-the-way classroom because somebody decided that they didn’t need to take pre-calc as a senior, so they could just have algebra as a sophomore, or something else. And it doesn’t start in high school. I know I just talked about high school, but elementary school, what we are doing to kids in elementary schools is appalling. They come into school, they have to be quiet. And now with COVID, it’s not only they have to be quiet, but we can’t even see their mouths. So, you know, hopefully that’s going to go away, that we’ll be able to engage again. But imagine these little ones that are coming in and they couldn’t even work together. So now it is incredibly important for these students, who now are in first grade and second grade, who have been a couple of years in the COVID, we have to talk with them about how do we talk, how do we engage, how do we understand ideas. Because you sure don’t understand ideas by sitting in a chair with a bunch of plastic around you and not talking to each other.

I think that example right now of how not to teach is beautiful. I mean, COVID is horrible. Bad things have come from COVID. But this one thing, having teachers really try to figure out how to get kids to talk about ideas and work together, but not being able to be close, they’ve hungered for that, teachers have hungered for being able to get their students back together. So now they have like this utility. Okay. Now we understand they do have to be able to work together. They do have to be able to talk to each other.

And so that has to happen in kindergarten. You have to have a discussion about math ideas in kindergarten. Too many people think that kindergartners don’t know enough to have a good discussion. Well, I’ve had some pretty incredible discussions with kindergarten. They don’t know that they’re not supposed to know things. And so they just spill the beans about everything, all of these kinds of ideas. And it’s fascinating if we would just create the space for them to spell it so that we can use those ideas to really help them engage.

So yeah, we, we need to figure out what it is that we want students to know and how we want them to show that they know it. And that power needs to go to them. They need to be involved in this “what do we need to know” stuff. Even as young as elementary school, they need to be involved. They know how they learn best. They know whether or not it’s good for them to sit in the back of the room in a comfy chair and read a book, or if it’s better for them to be at a desk because they fiddle too much. They know themselves. They don’t need us to tell them how they should learn or how they do learn. They can figure that out. So we need to be talking with them, to give them agency as early as elementary school so they can be part of this educational process. That is how we eradicate this kind of sharecropper idea. No one’s going to be parked. Like if they are involved in the decision-making, they’re not going to decide for themselves that they don’t want to know why or that they want to only know a little bit. No one’s going to decide that if they’re truly engaged in the process of educating. 

[00:14:10] Jon M: So, Bob was very emphatic about the need for a constitutional amendment in order to assure a guaranteed right to a quality education. How are people following up on that now? Do you have a sense of that? 

[00:14:26] Terri B: So there’s a sub-group of people that is looking at ways to bring this to the forefront of people’s minds. First of all, one is publicity. So a lot of people don’t know that education is not a constitutional right, and quality education is even farther from that. What we know as citizens, typically, is that we’re forced to go to school, that we have to go to this building where people tell us what we have to do every day from eight till three. And then we go home. That’s what they know about what has to happen. That’s the compulsory education world. What most people don’t know is that there are schools in the United States that don’t have a math teacher for a group of kids. There are schools in the United States where students are teaching other students because no one showed up that day. There’s schools in the United States where instead of dealing with a student’s concern that it’s [inaudible] to in-school suspension, which if you think about education right now, this compulsory notion that you have to sit in these seats and basically be locked in, in school suspension is even further abuse there. And instead of trying to figure out, you know, how can we do this better, how can we educate better so that it’s a team solution strategy, how can we educate so that the students, instead of being this receptical of things, is engaging with ideas and those ideas are the academic ideas that are traditional in school, but they’re also the ideas of self-advocacy or the ideas of what does it mean to be part of my own destiny, that has to be part of it.

And when we have these rules that are set on structure, or districts and schools that are set on structures and you can’t do this and you can’t do this and you can’t do this instead of figuring out what we can do to better everything it gets daunting and something has to happen. So what are we doing?

Sorry. I’m on my soap box. We’re trying to get three things right now. We’re working with some of the folks in the political arena, some of the folks in nonprofit, to try to get three things. One is hearings on the state of education. Currently, people don’t know what I just explained. People don’t know the situation in many, many schools in our country.

So people need to know. So that’s one is just bringing about these, this hearing. Another is direct federal investment. So we know that in order to revamp what school looks like and how school can be accessible to all students, we have to have some pilots and models of what that school might look like, because right now we all have the same opinion of, or many people have this idea of what school is and should be. And so we need some trailblazers. We need some folks to show what it could be instead of what it is. And I can’t remember my third thing. I will have to get back to it.

[00:17:54] Jon M: We can add that to the website. Definitely. Yeah. 

[00:17:58] Amy H-L: So Terri, you’ve also done some work with educators in Haiti. What have you learned from those experiences? 

[00:18:07] Terri B: So the work that I did in Haiti was all based on the work of Paulo Friere and his book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” I read “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” in my doctoral program and just fell in love with it. And I was constantly writing notes on it. And after tenure, you know, you get tenure and then you can do what you really want to do. And so after tenure, I found out that there was a local couple that was building a girl’s school in Haiti. And so what I tried to do in Haiti was just live “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” And it’s hard to “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” but it’s absolutely necessary. So all of the ideas of Paulo Friere, the ideas of trust and oppression, overcoming oppression in Praxis and trying things out and reflecting and coming back. All of that was new to me, to try to do and act on in the field in Haiti, and then trying to remember about Paolo Friere insisting that it’s not just acting. It’s reflecting. It’s talking. It’s engaging. And so we live in this country, like in this mode of act, act, act,, act. Bob talks about slow the bus down, slow the bus down so someone could get on. And so I am one of those Type A go, go, go, go, go. And so I really work on that slowing the bus down part, and that was a huge lesson.

In Haiti, I mean, we’re talking huge oppression and huge inequities and healing. And so when I was doing the work before the earthquake, that was almost predominantly in education and teaching and working with teachers that are out in the countryside, and that was really being able to facilitate what’s happening in Port-au-Prince to some of these outlying, countryside places where we would go. We would go to places like Jerime and An-d’Hainault and these really little like fishing villages. 

And let’s talk about power and oppression. So I had the power of financial stability to be able to go out to these places and talk to the teachers that were in these regions. And with that, I felt, came a responsibility to bring some of the things that I was working with with some of their colleagues in Port-au-Prince about their standards, about teaching and instruction. And people think, you know, they don’t know about teaching and instruction in developing countries. Baloney. They know how to teach in developing countries. It’s it’s about materials. It’s about access. It’s about having a university or an [inaudible] that’s out in these countryside that can train teachers. So they don’t just pop into Port-au-Prince to go to school. So they come back to their hometown and teach. So it’s all about bringing things out.

So it’s our responsibility in this idea of praxis, to engage with those who are oppressed. In this case, it was the teachers in the countryside. After the earthquake, we started to bring down students from other fields. So I brought students from communications, from international relations, from business health. And that’s when the true praxis and pedagogy of the oppressed came out because those were some really pressing situations. We worked with some tent cities that like popped up after the earthquake, in the area of Croix-des-Bouquets, just outside Port-au-Prince. And we worked with three different tent cities. And they all have their different identities. Really. There was one that was kind of connected to a church. And so it was very religious in foundation. There was one that was more of a farming agra kind of focus, because that’s what their region was. And there was one that was more kind of an urban vibe, a younger presence.And their leaders were all very iconic to their different identities as well.

And so one of the things that happened, that was a great demonstration of Paulo Freire’s idea of praxis was that in all of these tent cities start their own schools, nobody was getting paid for anything. They wanted to have something for their kids to do. They knew that school is important and they wanted to have a school.

So we work with them on that. But this one tent city that was run by like the younger kind of population. They wanted to build a school. And in order to build a school, they needed property. And property around that area has all been in families for years and years and years, and it’s completely unaccessible. So they wanted to talk to the landowners to see if they would give them a loan of the land or, or let them use it or whatever. So we arranged a meeting and the meeting part of power is there. You know, me being there as this white woman from the United States in part of this meeting with these young Haitian young men, I had to make sure that when that conversation started, it wasn’t with me. It took time. I mean, literal like minutes and to convince this person who came to speak to this group of people who are in their country, their countrymen, and wanted to do something for the other country folks of their area. And the owner almost refused to talk to them. The owner of that property almost solely wanted to talk to me. And so part of creating an environment where conversations like that can happen has to come from an insistence of those that are close to the power to engage. So I had to insist that I was not going tofigure this out and determine the way it was going to go. I had to insist that the owner of the property speak to these young men who had great ideas, any plan, and these were their country men. I’m someone just from the outside. So if you imagine that that’s happening, then there are direct parallels to that in our country and every country of the people who hold the power, not giving that power up even a little bit, because that little bit brings the light in. And when the light starts coming in, no, one’s going to cover that up.

So it’s going to come in. A lot. And it’s, they’re hard conversations. It takes patience. It takes patience both in the moment. And also patience with developing the relationship from those folks that you work with. It takes a true belief in the idea that you’re working with, not at or to. It takes a true belief that our intellect is, is a resource that we share and can build on. It was exciting to see what happens with teachers, with these community members. They ended up, they got the property for, I think it was three years. And by that time, a lot of the tent city had relocated. So. It can happen. It’s just hard. And people need to understand how, what power structures are.

I think when we say power structures, people are like, yeah, yeah, people are always complaining. But you know, it takes conversations with the oppressors. It takes conversations about what’s happening and refusing to back down to change anything. It’s a lot of work.

[00:26:34] Jon M: This has been amazing. Thank you, Dr. Terri Bucci of the Mathematic Literacy Initiative at OSU Mansfield campus. 

[00:26:40] Terri B: Thank you.

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