In Search of Coherence and Meaning: Madison Morgan’s Experiences and Motivations as an African American Learner and Teacher
by Geoffrey D. Birky, Daniel Chazan & Kellyn Farlow Morris — 2013
Background/Context: Teachers in urban schools are sometimes seen as a large part of the problem with such schools; they are often spoken of as not knowing the content they need to know to teach, are not seen as committed to excellence or to reform-minded teaching, and therefore are not seen as a resource for school improvement. The case of Madison Morgan presented in this article stands in opposition to such depictions of urban mathematics teachers and suggests in particular that African American teachers may bring important resources to teaching in urban schools that would be helpful in school improvement.
Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: What instructional strategies does this well-respected African American mathematics teacher teaching Algebra 1 in a nonselective urban school use to convey to her students a sense of purpose for engaging with mathematics? Furthermore, what experiences as African Americans in our society seem to influence her in selecting and crafting these instructional strategies?
Setting: This research was carried out in the classroom of a well-respected African American teacher who teaches an Algebra 1 course whose outcomes have high stakes for both her students and her school. Ms. Morgan’s class is of a typical size and with typical demographics for the large nonselective urban school in which she teaches. Her school is located in a large public school district whose students are majority minority (African American and Hispanic). The school and district have comparatively low weath per student ratios and high FARMs rates.
Population/Participants/Subjects: Madison Morgan is a well-respected teacher of Algebra 1 in an urban school where students must pass a state-mandated algebra and data analysis exam to progress toward high school graduation.
Research Design: This article reports on an in-depth, qualitative case study of the teaching of an Algebra 1 class by one well-respected African American mathematics teacher in an urban school.
Data Collection and Analysis: During one academic year, a three-part team of researchers observed Madison Morgan’s instruction on 25 occasions and completed nine formal interviews with her. This article presents information on two of nine lessons observed by the algebra research team, as well as excerpts from three interviews. To begin analysis of her lessons and those suggested by the curriculum guide, we created lesson diagrams that tabulated and classified lesson segments according to skill or concept addressed and form of delivery (teacher demonstration, individual or group practice, and individual or group problem solving) and that indicated which segments were connected by a single problem situation or context. The ratio of connections to segments was used as a summary measure of lesson coherence.
Findings/Results: Ms. Morgan’s response to an urban teaching assignment in which she must prepare students for high-stakes testing is to adopt deliberately a teaching approach that differs in significant ways from that suggested by the district curriculum guide and from practices claimed to be common among teachers in urban schools. Her desire is to achieve a level of coherence in the content she teaches that she does not see in the district curriculum guide. She attempts to do this by building her instruction around functions, data analysis, and problem contexts that require the use of multiple concepts and skills. Her motivation for doing this stems from her goals for her students: that they gain meaning for the mathematics they are learning and that they become problem solvers. These goals emerged from her own experiences as an African American student who felt she was shortchanged by an education that expected too little of her and that did not provide opportunities for her to think independently or to see meaning in what she was learning.
Conclusions/Recommendations: Ms. Morgan exemplifies but one way a well-respected teacher’s experiences as an African American student, and consequent motivatons and commitments, may be a significant resource in efforts to strengthen the education that urban students receive.
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