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Teaching with Speeches: A Black Teacher Who Uses the Mathematics Classroom to Prepare Students for Life


by Whitney Johnson, Farhaana Nyamekye, Daniel Chazan & Bill Rosenthal — 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, and they are not seen as committed to excellence or to reform-minded teaching; therefore, they are not seen as a resource for school improvement.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: What instructional strategies does this well-respected Black mathematics teacher teaching Algebra 1 in a nonselective urban school use to convey to his students a sense of purpose for engaging with mathematics? Furthermore, what experiences as a Black American in our society seem to influence him in selecting and crafting these instructional strategies?

Setting: This research was carried out in the classroom of a well-respected Black teacher who teaches an Algebra 1 course whose outcomes have high stakes for both his students and his school. Floyd Lee’s (a pseudonym that was chosen by the research team) class is of a typical size and has typical demographics for the large, nonselective urban school in which he teaches. His 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 wealth-per-student ratios and high FARMS rates.

Population/Participants/Subjects: Based on recommendations from administrators and colleagues, Floyd Lee is one of six well-respected Black Algebra 1 teachers who participated in the Mid-Atlantic Center for Mathematics Teaching and Learning Case Studies Project. He teaches 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-person research team observed Floyd Lee’s instruction on 28 occasions and completed nine formal interviews of Mr. Lee. The observations were reviewed for instances in which Mr. Lee would interrupt his mathematics instruction and speak with the students about more general issues concerning their behavior or motivation. From these excerpts, instances in which Mr. Lee exhibited elements of culturally relevant classroom management were chosen to illustrate the tenor of his instruction. Interviews with Mr. Lee were examined for excerpts in which he outlined the reasoning behind his pedagogical actions and decision making regarding how to encourage his students to be people who study mathematics in school.

Findings/Results: Mr. Lee accepts the accountability demands that shape his work as a teacher of a high-stakes course and considers improving the results his students achieve on the end-of-course exam as the primary focus of his job. He does not view the content demands made in this exam as challenging. He attributes students’ lack of success on the exam to struggles adapting the proper dispositions of a successful student rather than to difficulties with the content. Thus, he addressed student behaviors that he found problematic through speeches to the class whenever the behavior of the class as a whole or the behavior of particular individuals interfered with class progress. The foci of the speeches were chosen in the moment based on the actions of students and on the advice that Mr. Lee felt he could offer as a young Black person who had been in their position not too long ago.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The case of Floyd Lee questions the beliefs that strong content knowledge and strong pedagogical content knowledge are the primary foundations for the improvement of teaching in urban environments. This case illustrates a different knowledge base from which a Black teacher operates that allows him to be effective with students in an urban setting and gives examples of how a Black teacher may use his cultural and familial experiences to address student behaviors detrimental to their success in his Algebra 1 class and in life more broadly.

Scholars of segregated schooling prior to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision suggest that, by virtue of shared living conditions, Black teachers in segregated schools formed special connections with their Black students, teaching their students academics along with lessons about survival and about being Black in the United States during this period (Anyon, 1980; Milner & Howard, 2004; Walker, 1996, 2000).


In 2011, many of our urban schools are almost as segregated as they were before Brown (Orfield & Lee, 2005). Now, however, it is not only Blacks in such schools; other minority populations join Black students (Meeks, Meeks, & Warren, 2000; Ornstein, 1989). Important questions to consider in contemporary almost completely minority schools include whether Black teachers in such schools, along with teaching academic lessons, continue to teach hidden lessons and maintain the same kinds of connections with their students as suggested by the descriptions of pre-Brown Black teachers.


To explore this question, in this article, we describe how one Black mathematics teacher, Floyd Lee, in an urban school draws on his cultural knowledge and experiences in the context of what we have termed “speeches” that he gives to his students. As will be demonstrated, Floyd Lee’s pedagogy—informed by culturally Black modes of interaction and presented in language grounded in Black English Vernacular (BEV)—speaks directly to his students about schooling and their behavior. In this article, we will provide illustrative examples of Mr. Lee’s talk, as well as selections of interviews with Mr. Lee in which he explains his reasoning for highlighting these themes in his instruction.


Central to the case is an argument, building on scholars of Black communities like Smitherman (1997), that Mr. Lee’s speeches are characterized by cultural modes of interaction and speech patterns common to the Black community. In making this argument, we define culture in this article as “the ever-changing values, traditions, social and political relationships, and worldview created, shared, and transformed by a group of people bound together by a combination of factors that include a common history, geographic location, language, social class, and religion” (Nieto, 1999, p. 48). The case presented in this article illustrates how one Black mathematics teacher uses cultural resources to convey a sense of purpose for engaging with mathematics in particular and schooling more generally; the case articulates strengths that a Black teacher who is a member of the community in which he teaches brings to the task of teaching urban youth. We see this case providing researchers and teacher educators with opportunities to learn from a teacher who is familiar with the urban terrain in which he teaches and who shares the race of many of the students he teaches; the case provides specific examples of how a Black teacher with knowledge of local context can build on linguistic patterns to speak directly to students in urban schools. This case challenges researchers and teacher educators to come to understand and value the resources, beyond mathematical knowledge, that Black teachers may bring to what is often conceptualized as classroom management in urban schools (e.g., Obidah & Howard, 2005).


We begin with a description of Mr. Lee and evidence for how he, as a well-respected urban mathematics teacher, fits the selection criteria of the Mid-Atlantic Center for Mathematics Teaching and Learning (MACMTL) Case Studies Project (outlined in Chazan, Brantlinger, Clark, & Edwards, 2013, this issue). We then present some of what he says on the first day of class and define what we mean by a “speech.” These speeches are a unique characteristic of Floyd Lee’s instruction. Whereas other teachers will speak in similar ways to students on occasion, with Mr. Lee, this is a regular occurrence. When he speaks to students in this way, he demonstrates some of the characteristics of culturally relevant teaching, as detailed by Ladson-Billings (1994). We use the themes of assertiveness, coaching, and caring, which are central to culturally relevant classroom management (Brown, 2003), to capture his orientation to his students. We use these themes to represent the structure and function of the speeches in Mr. Lee’s instruction over the year. We close by exploring questions raised by this case about the resources that Black teachers bring to the task of engaging students with content knowledge, as well as challenges of recruitment of teachers with such resources and the teaching of teachers to use the resources that they do have.


FLOYD LEE: A WELL-RESPECTED BLACK MATHEMATICS TEACHER


Even though he had not yet completed two full years as a teacher when we observed him, Floyd Lee was well respected by many of his colleagues. Mr. Lee’s principal nominated him as one of the mathematics teachers to meet with our project about becoming a participant in our study of successful algebra teachers. As a result, during the 2006–2007 academic year, we observed Mr. Lee approximately 25 times, and he sat for nine interviews with MACMTL Case Studies Project researchers.


In the first year that Algebra 1 was a high-stakes course for both the school and students, when more experienced teachers were returning to Algebra 1 assignments that they had not taught for some years, Mr. Lee was given classes of Algebra 1 in his load. Because of his focus on the success of students on the high-stakes exam, the chair of the mathematics department of the school talked about grooming Mr. Lee to be department chair. Furthermore, in the year we observed him, a teacher who struggled with classroom management was placed in the room next door to Mr. Lee so that Mr. Lee could intervene when necessary. Finally, the year after we observed his classroom, Mr. Lee was selected by the district to become an instructional coach; he has since gone on to prepare for an assistant principal position. Taken together, all of this recognition suggests the esteem Mr. Lee’s colleagues have for him.


Mr. Lee had been teaching for 1 1/2 years when we began observing in his classroom. He taught at McBierney High School, spent his K–12 school years in the district in which he teaches, and attended college in the same area. In our first interview with him, he made statements that provide insight into his teaching style. Reflecting on his choice to become a teacher, he recalled the idea originating from his mother:


At first I wanted to be a doctor; I wanted to be a medical doctor or a lawyer. But then my mother said Floyd, why don’t you try teaching . . . I think it was just that she saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself . . . once I started actually getting into teaching, I realized that I really wanted to help young people learn math. (08/24/2006)


In line with listening to his mother about a potential career, even though he is still a young person, he has developed an understanding of what adults were attempting to do for him as they sought to influence him when he was younger. He suggested that this understanding has influenced how he acts as a teacher:


But now, as an adult, you know, I understand why adults say what they say, like, “Oh, this is why my parents were saying that stuff.” Now it makes sense. But as a child, I didn’t always understand, but now I try to provide as much understanding in that regard, or try to give them as much information as I can. We talk about things like spending money, credit cards, how you spend your money and save your money. We talk about relationships (laughs)—you know, male/female interactions and things like that. We talk about going to class, whom you hang around, your friends, and getting good grades. (08/24/2006)


These quotes suggest that adults have been important in Mr. Lee’s own socialization and upbringing. He trusted what his mother saw in him and decided to pursue teaching. As a young person, he followed the guidance of adults even when he did not understand their advice. This theme of listening to adults you trust, even when you don’t understand their reasoning, appears to be an important part of what leads Mr. Lee to give the speeches he does. As we will show, Mr. Lee wants to influence his students’ lives beyond the specifics of the mathematics his students will learn.


ALGEBRA I: THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL


It is the first day of school, at the start of the second period of the day. Mr. Lee, wearing a jacket and tie, stands at the door, greeting his Algebra 1 students as they enter. The lunch period takes place during this class1; Mr. Lee briefly explains that his students will need to return to him after the “A” lunch bell rings, and he sends the students on their way. As students later return and enter the room, he hands each student an information sheet to complete. The information sheet asks for their addresses, phone numbers, and a copy of their schedule. The agenda for the day is projected on the board, and the students are seated in rows facing the front. The bell rings, and he begins to take attendance. The room is relatively quiet; a few whispered conversations are taking place.


Just a few minutes into the period, as Mr. Lee runs through the agenda for the day, he mentions that there will be homework that evening. Some students are shocked. They ask if he is serious. He responds that the homework is easy and not related to math; the students need to make a copy of their schedules for him and have their parents sign the list of rules and procedures. Quickly, Mr. Lee makes the point that he believes in giving homework and even considered distributing books on the first day. As if reading their minds, he exclaims, “Yeah, I know! You know, I know everybody’s like, ‘Well, I just came home from vacation!’ So did I! ((laughs)). Welcome!”2 Mr. Lee continues to explain the possible differences between being a student in middle school versus being a student in high school; he suggests that giving students homework every night is an indication of the ways in which he cares for his students. Before he can finish his thought, a student giggles. Mr. Lee stops talking. He takes a 16-second pause; when he next speaks, his voice has shifted; it is solemn, low, and pensive. He changes his focus and does not continue with his initial thought. Instead, he launches into the year’s first speech.


Maybe in middle school some of you folk -- are not ready


And maybe, some of you, you didn’t have teachers who uhm… some of you had teachers that let you do whatever you want.


If that was the case, I suggest that in a minute or so you change your whole tactic. You’ve just stepped into a new world.


Step inside these doors. I am in charge. I don’t know what they let you do in middle school. They might let you run around the hallway, do whatever you want, say whatever you want to say. I don’t operate like that.


And yes, it is my goal that we have fun in here, that we enjoy doing what we do. However, you have to make sure that you all respect me.


This is my house.


You are invited guests. As invited guests, you need to make sure that you treat my house appropriately.


And if you disrespect my house, you disrespect me.


(First Day Speech: 8/21/06: 17:40 – 19:02)3


FLOYD LEE’S SPEECHES


This is an excerpt of the first 1 minute and 22 seconds of 17 continuous minutes of talk by Mr. Lee. It is an excerpt of the first of what we call “speeches” that he gives to his students on a regular basis, one to which we will return. Over the course of the year, during our visits, Mr. Lee would speak to his students in this manner more than 20 times (almost, on average, once a visit). These speeches were a common aspect of his teaching that differentiated it from that of the other teachers we observed.


In our analysis, speeches are moments in Mr. Lee’s mathematics instruction at which he pauses to preach to his students about their behavior or stance toward learning. During these monologues, Mr. Lee is the primary speaker. He may pause and pose a question to the class or to the individual who prompted the speech, but it is clear that he does not want lengthy responses from the students. He wants them to hear what he has to say and to alter their behavior so that the class can move forward with learning mathematics.


Although the tones of the speeches are sometimes jovial, sometimes serious, sometimes admonitory, they are all intended to be instructive. Mr. Lee uses these moments to inform his students about life beyond high school, beyond what they currently see and do. In some speeches, he responds to students’ off-task behavior and uses the speech to tell students how their behavior not only is a distraction to the class but also would be unacceptable in a job setting. The message he offers is that there is a time for work and a time for play, and the students need to develop the ability to differentiate between the two.


In other speeches, he responds to students being unprepared for class. This too leads him to talk with them about their future employment. He suggests that if they cannot be prepared to work in a class setting, then they also will not be prepared for work when it really counts. In others, he may take offhand comments made by a student about the “White man” holding them back and use this as an opportunity to tell students that their race is not a reason for them not to be successful. He adds that regardless of their current circumstances, if they make the most of their opportunities now, they can reap the benefits later in life; neither the “White man” nor anyone else will be in their way; it depends on their effort. All these instances are moments of instruction that are part of Mr. Lee’s classroom management repertoire that is respected by his colleagues.


Mr. Lee’s speeches can be understood by reference to what Ladson-Billings (1995) and others have called culturally relevant teaching and, as a subcategory, culturally relevant classroom management (CRCM): how a teacher manages his or her classroom in a way that is culturally congruent (Au & Kawakami, 1994; Ballenger, 1992) with the students in the class. In particular, next we show that the themes of assertiveness, coaching, and caring, which are central to CRCM (Brown, 2003), are present in the speeches that Mr. Lee gives to his Algebra 1 students. At the same time, we will use the work of Smitherman (1997) to elucidate how in articulating these themes, Mr. Lee is using BEV and cultural modes of communication common to Black communities. Intertwined with excerpts from his speeches, we present selections from interviews with Mr. Lee in which he explains his reasoning for highlighting these themes in his instruction.


CULTURALLY RELEVANT CLASSROOM MANAGEMENT THEMES IN MR. LEE’S SPEECHES


Culturally responsive pedagogy (Gay, 2000; Ladson-Billings, 1995), a pedagogical stance that promotes the use of students’ cultures to provide them with more meaningful instruction, has been extended to consider how teachers manage classrooms in a way that is culturally congruent to the students in the class. This literature looks at how teachers establish a no-nonsense learning environment for students (Brown, 2003; Weinstein, Curran, & Tomlinson-Clarke, 2003), one that communicates to students that they will be taught and taught well, that they will work hard, and that they will learn a lot. The teacher plainly lays out for students the expectations for their learning and the goals that they are required to meet.


We are describing a teacher who uses speeches, authority, and language in ways that are consistent with the literature on Black teachers’ communication styles. Our argument is that Mr. Lee intentionally draws on his cultural assets in addressing his student population, whom he sees as similar to him when he was a student. Furthermore, when students and teacher share cultural expectations and modes of expression, the literature on culturally relevant teaching suggests that students may respond to the motivation and exhortations of the teacher. CRCM expects that students will be made aware of the teacher’s role in instructing them and supporting them in the learning process. These characteristics were evident in Mr. Lee’s speeches throughout the year. In the next section, from the CRCM literature, we take up, in order, the themes of assertiveness, coaching, and care in Mr. Lee’s speeches.


ASSERTIVENESS: MAKING THE RULES CLEAR AND EXPLICIT


Mr. Lee’s instruction embodies a dictionary definition of assertive, with confidence and self-assuredness as hallmarks of his teaching. From the way he sets up his classroom to the ways he interacts with students, he shows a confidence in his decisions and actions; further, he does not shy away from speaking about students’ behaviors or comments, addressing their actions that he believes will interfere with his teaching and their learning.


Mr. Lee’s actions rest on the moral compass that he attributes to his upbringing. Lois Weiner (1999) states,


Urban teachers’ primary source of control is their moral authority, which rests on the perception of students and parents that the teacher is knowledgeable about the subject matter, competent in pedagogy, and committed to helping all students succeed, in school and life. (p. 77)


As an only child raised by both parents, Floyd Lee credits his parents with instilling discipline in him by having him complete tasks that, for him as a child, seemed senseless at the moment. For example, during an interview, he explained that he had to make his bed every morning even though no one was going to be in his room. He had to dress neatly and present himself well, even when they were not going to a special event. It was clear that Mr. Lee grew up in a loving, but stern, family. When speaking about his parents, he said,


See, I always tell the story when I was in school I was never afraid of a teacher, administrator, security, police. Forget all that. All it took was for you to call my house or say, “I’m gonna call home.” It didn’t matter. That was it. I was afraid of the two people who lived at the house – to this day. That’s it. That’s it.


Shoot. Forget that. I probably would rather you put me in jail than have me deal with my parents. Just go ahead and send me to the penitentiary. And that’s how it was for me. That was the – those were the people who told you, “We don’t tolerate this. You don’t go to school and act up.” Because I know I had to go home every night. (12/06/2007: 1:09:06 – 1:09:52)  


Mr. Lee sees these experiences as having taught him lessons that have carried over to his adult life. As he learned from the sternness of his father, Mr. Lee would like his students to understand similarly that they must learn to do the things he asks of them, even if they seem senseless at the moment. He wants them to think about their lives more broadly and do even the seemingly meaningless things because the habits and discipline they develop in this way will serve them well later in life.


Just as his father was assertive with him, Mr. Lee feels his students need someone to be assertive with them.


Sometimes I’m just real direct. And it’s, like, you got to be real with the kids. You ain’t gotta be too real. You ain’t gotta be over-the-top real. I do have a level. I’m only gonna go but so far with you. But I’m, like, I do think about it. But by the same token I think, Okay. Well, who else is here telling these cats what they’re supposed to do? (06/12/2006: 1:06:22 - 1:06:44)


To Mr. Lee, the nonmathematical topics he raises in his teaching are necessary for his students to hear. He admits to not knowing the details of all his students’ home environments, but he infers from their behavior in his class that there is a lack of an authority figure in some of his students’ lives. Although he does not want to be seen as their parent, he does want them to benefit from the parental teachings that he believes he has to offer. These moments in his teaching are for Mr. Lee at least as important as the mathematics that he is required to teach his students. Although he is a math teacher, he does not see teaching mathematics as the only important part of his job; he feels it is at least as important to influence the immediate choices his students make in their lives, especially those that will significantly impact their future. He wants his students to earn strong enough grades to take the next step in life, whether it is college or a trade school or a job. In an interview, he commented on the mathematics in his instruction:


But it’s not even about liking it [mathematics]. It’s just to know enough [laughs]. We’re not even talking about no PhD. We’re talking about know enough to graduate. That’s all. I don’t try to be no deeper than that. I think, for me, it’s more – ‘cause I think –[10second pause] when I say this you might – people might be like, “Well, so why does he teach math?” But for reals, and I don’t know if you notice this in my teaching, but it’s so – to me, the math is so insignificant … Granted, it is important. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to say, you know, I’m not – I’m a math teacher so I have to. But to me, it’s so – in the broad scheme of your life, where – like, granted, mathematics is a part of your entire life, but as far as actually applying some of the things that we do in the classroom and the broad scheme of your life, probably not gonna take place. (06/12/2007: 30:47- 32:04)


So, unlike many mathematics teachers, Floyd Lee does not try to convince students that the specific mathematics he is teaching—factoring trinomials, for example—is important in and of itself. Instead, he is willing to concede to his students that factoring may not be important in the grand scheme of their lives. However, he is still unwilling to have them forgo the mathematics that he is teaching. For him, learning to do things that one thinks are unimportant is also an important life skill.


Mr. Lee brings these elements into his thinking about students and teaching. When speaking about the job of a teacher, he outlined what he believes teachers need to accomplish when working with ninth-grade students:


To teach ninth graders, is like I said, it’s different and they [teachers] really have to, like, routine them and get them into, “Okay, this is what you do. This is what you don’t do. This is how you come to class.” Teach you how to be a good student. You know you have to start that training at this level. So I would think that-- And I’m thinking that those are some of the difficulties that they’re [new teachers] encountering, getting these young people to kinda do what they need to do, and get focused, and things of that nature. (3/14/07; 30:11 – 30:41)


These are not only words to Mr. Lee, but a personal focus for his interactions with students. In his teaching of ninth-grade students (most of the students in the class we observed were ninth graders), Mr. Lee spends time orienting them to the routines of his classroom. He plainly lays out for students his expectations for their learning and behavior and the goals that they are required to meet. In addition, he informs students about the actions and habits they will need to exhibit and the amount of effort they will need to exert during the year. Mr. Lee began this “conversation” with his students on the first day of school and maintained it throughout the year.


Returning to the speech presented in the introduction (the first speech Mr. Lee gave his students on the first day of school), we see that there are many examples of his assertiveness as a teacher as he begins orienting his students to the routines of his classroom. Mr. Lee immediately sets the tone for his class. Instead of giving this speech without any context, he moves into it as a result of a student giggling when he wanted her to be more serious. This conveys to students that he is aware of all their actions in the room and that he expects them to be mindful of the attitude they are exhibiting while in his class at all times. All comments that students make are fair game for him to address. In his classroom, there are no privileged remarks between students.


Although he was not with his students in middle school, Floyd Lee’s language usage, along with his juxtaposition of how they are likely to have behaved there against how they are allowed to behave in his class, sends a direct message that his classroom is a different place. In the portion of the speech running from “Step inside these doors, I am in charge” to “You have to make sure that you all respect me,” Mr. Lee is invoking the element of braggadocio (Smitherman, 1997). He is establishing himself as someone powerful, someone who doesn’t let students walk over him, and someone who is in control of his classroom. In the lines that contain the phrases my house and if you disrespect me, you disrespect my house, he is using semantic inversion, where house does not mean his home, but rather the space that he controls (Smitherman, 1997). He is defining what is and is not allowable in his classroom and reinforcing to the students that when they “step inside these doors,” they need to reorient themselves to Mr. Lee’s rules and expectations. The speech continues:


Maybe your teacher last year didn’t enforce any rules; you were able to do whatever you wanted to do. Maybe they didn’t care. Or maybe they did care, but they just weren’t strong enough to tell you that you not gonna do what you want to do…


Well, I’m not that type of person…


I’m a tell you what I expect from you… and it’s your responsibility to remember. And I do it with a smile on my face. I’m not angry at you- at all. I’m not. I’m not upset. I just want you to understand that you’re in my house. (8/21/06 19:02 – 19:48)


In this portion of the speech, it is clear that the teacher is in charge. By stating, “I’m a tell you what I expect from you…and it’s your responsibility to remember,” Mr. Lee conveys the message that he is the one who determines how the class is run, and he determines what is acceptable and what is not; the students’ role is to adhere to his rules. He is not specific at this moment, but the students are clearly alerted that they will have responsibilities.


As mentioned earlier, at the beginning of the speech, Mr. Lee’s tone of voice and cadence were drastically different from his demeanor before the speech began. His voice became very low, and his rate of speech slowed. He took pauses between sentences, perhaps to gather his thoughts, but also perhaps to let his words settle in the minds of his students. He spoke as he believes an assertive, caring Black parent should to his child. Although we cannot say what the students were thinking, they behaved like children being reprimanded; they sat in silence, apparently absorbing what they were being told. Certainly by this time, the students understood that Mr. Lee was serious and that giggling was the wrong thing to do while he was talking. When he says he is not angry or upset with them, he is speaking in a parental vein of tough love by directly telling the students so, implicitly letting them know that they are not inherently bad or wrong.


COACHING: POSITIONING HIMSELF ON THE SIDE OF THE STUDENTS


On the first day of school, after asserting his role as teacher, establishing the behaviors the students need to display in his room, and informing them that they will have responsibilities to meet, Mr. Lee begins to provide more details about the year’s work. He explains, speaking primarily to the ninth graders, about the high-stakes assessment and the consequences for the students of not passing this exam. This “bad news” is soon tempered by his positioning himself as being on the side of the students in their efforts to pass the test. During the 10th minute of the speech, he draws an analogy that compares preparing for the exams and passing them to preparing for and winning a boxing match.


That is our goal. How many people, how many people watch, how many watch boxing? Anybody watch boxing? Anybody ever seen a fight before? Anybody ever been in a fight before? ...


But anyway, if you’ve seen a fight or you’ve been in a fight, we have a fight on our hands. Our opponent is the high-stakes assessment. That’s our opponent that is what we’re fighting against. That’s what we’re trying to conquer.


We’re not fighting each other. We’re fighting the test. Our goal is to whup the test. Now are you following me? Our goal is to whup the test. Now in order to whup the test you have to do what?


Hello?


You have to study. And be prepared, right? You can’t just go in there, you can’t just go into this fight and not know your opponent, right? Can’t just step in there and be like, “Okay….I ain’t study, I ain’t do nothing all school year. I’m just gonna go take the test.” It doesn’t work like that. ‘Cause what’s gonna happen if you’re not prepared? ...


Hello? ... You’re gonna fail. Translation using fight terms, what’s gonna happen? ... You gonna lose! You’re gonna get your ((acts out censoring a word out of his speech)) whupped. Am I right? (8/21/06, 28:18 – 29:40)


Though Mr. Lee does not call himself a trainer or a coach, he describes how he and his students are in a fight with the test. As he is giving this speech to the class, his actions and language are animated. He takes the stance of a boxer, and he moves around the front of the room jabbing and punching. He identifies the exam as the opponent and makes a point to the students that the exam is whom they are to fight and not one another, or him. The tactics of fighting the exam are to study and to be prepared. Finally, he states that if they do not prepare for the exam, they will lose just as they would lose a fight.


In this portion of the speech, Mr. Lee’s language style contains many elements of BEV. He uses call and response when he rhetorically asks, “‘Cause what’s gonna happen if you’re not prepared?... Hello?” And ends this section with “Am I right?” He uses ain’t and gonna exactly as many of his students do on a regular basis. The rhythm of speech identifies him as a member of the Black community. Furthermore, these kinds of patterns—for example, the use of ain’t and gonna—can be found in the interviews with him. Thus we believe that when Floyd Lee uses animated speech, contractions, and call and response, he is deliberately employing natural elements of his own talk and social expressions for the benefit of the students.


After spending some time connecting the shame of losing a physical fight to the shame of failing the exam, Mr. Lee shares with the students that the scores they get on the exam will reflect not only on them but also on him as their teacher. But, as he continues, in the 14th minute of the speech, he makes clear that he isn’t concerned about his reputation because he knows that they will represent themselves and him well.


They gonna see what I did as a teacher, they gonna see what you did as a student. ‘Cause you all represent me…


You represent me…


Somebody not knowing how good of a teacher I am or how well I teach, you all are a representation of what I’m doing. Which is fine. That’s all right. ‘Cause I know that you all are going to represent yourselves well and I know that you represent me. I’m not worried about that…


But we all gotta- we all have a fight to see. We gotta go get the test…


You can’t sit back and try to be cool about it. (32:03 - 32:36)


This comment communicates to the students the faith that Mr. Lee has in them from the first day of school. By connecting his reputation to their scores, he also builds a connection between himself and the students. This he does seamlessly without threats or lavish praise of the students. The word represent is used here in a way common to the Black community, which Campbell (2005) defined as giving “authentic voice to the attitude, style, and collective identity of his and her hood and peoples” (p. 23). Just as Black Americans in many contexts are seen as representing the race, Mr. Lee expects that his students will represent him and the school.


Mr. Lee then ends this part of the speech with a summary of what he has said thus far and of how the year will go. Here he breaks up the process into the months of the school year and likens this schedule to the training regimen of a fighter. His voice is again animated; he points out the particular skills that students will need to learn and when they will focus on them.


Now, we gonna be working on getting ready for this test all from now until April.


And then what’s gonna happen then is in April, we’re gonna go on this one on one and spend a month just talking about just the test.


We’re gonna stop using the book and we’re just gonna talk about the test. So we’ll use the book up- from August to April and then in April we’re just gonna stop. And all we’re gonna talk about is the test. And then in that one month, it’s gonna be like one month of like intense training getting you ready.


Teaching you how to use the calculator, teaching you everything you need to know to be successful. Show you how to use the calculator, show you how to do everything that you need to know how to do to get this test.


‘Cause the goal is in May, which I believe is May 24th, somewhere around there, when the test day comes, you all gotta be ready. You can’t go in there like no punk.


I don’t teach punks. I teach tough people who are capable of doing the work. And I know ain’t none of y’all in here no punk… I know you not. (32:36 - 33:35)


From the first day of school, Mr. Lee establishes with his students that he is on their side as they work to pass the exam—like a coach does for his team. He will make sure that they have the skills and the tools needed for the exam. He employs different strategies to create a community among them. By using we, he emphasizes to the students that they are going to work together for the entire year. He is explicit about the pace of their work and how it will intensify as the test date nears. Last, he assures them that he has confidence in their ability not only to pass the test but also to proudly represent themselves as well as him to the rest of the school. He identifies punks as people who take the test without being prepared for it and again uses semantic inversion to identify his students as not being punks.


In this section, we have shown that Mr. Lee is a teacher who sees himself and his students together embroiled in a struggle against the end-of-the-year high-stakes assessment. He uses the analogy of a fight to join himself with the students. The characteristics of his speech convey to the students that even though they are different—he is the teacher and they are the students —they are similar in the ways in which they speak. This informality in his speech allows students to be who they are and not to worry about framing their speech before speaking in class.


CARING: SHOWING INVESTMENT IN HIS STUDENTS


Mr. Lee describes his classroom by comparing it with other settings. It is not like other teachers’ rooms where teachers may allow students to do as they wish. He is unlike other teachers who are not strong enough to confront misbehavior and discipline students. There is a structure to this class, and the students need to abide by it. He says he is just like they are, in that they want people to respect them and care about their feelings. He says that being in his room will be a new experience; he will do things that they do not like—punishing the whole class for the actions of one student, for instance. It will be a painful experience for some. He gives his students the choice of leaving and transferring to another class. In the first day’s speech, he said,


I just want to make sure we had that straight. ‘Cause I didn’t want us to go no further without addressing who’s who. Now do I love each and every one of you? Yes, I do. Do I care about you? Yes, I do. ‘Cause if I didn’t care, I’d let you do whatever you want to do.


But because I care, I can’t let you do that. ‘Cause you’ll destroy yourself and won’t even know it. (8/21/2007, 23:27 - 24:34)


These words exemplify how Mr. Lee expresses care for his students. The speech demands that he not allow them to do things that are detrimental to their current or future lives. It demands that he be tough on them and punish them for what may seem to them as inconsequential behavior, things that do not really matter. It requires that he treat them at times as a group. Thus, they will all be punished for the wrongs of a few because they need to learn how their actions affect the progress of the group and how outsiders may perceive them. At the same time, he is trying to facilitate successful educational outcomes by developing relationships with his urban students, in the sense of Dance (2002), who indicated that “caring teachers compel . . . street savvy students who are viewed by the mainstream as ‘culturally deficient’ to view themselves as academically competent” (p. 84).


Mr. Lee’s enactment of caring is tightly linked to his assertiveness and to his conceptualization of his role as a coach in their fight with the high-stakes exam. As such, he is not focused on using class time to get to know them personally, in terms of their circumstances outside of school. Mr. Lee’s caring focuses on what he sees inside school and the decisions he sees students making in school that affect their long-term life chances. As Mr. Lee teaches, he pays attention to what his students are doing and the expressions on their faces. If he notices that a student appears confused, he will stop his instruction, call her name, and attempt to resolve her confusion. If he notices that a student is sleeping or is not paying attention, he calls his name and directs him to get back on task. When a student is not keeping up or not taking notes, he pauses instruction and questions the student about her or his choices and actions. Although his tone of voice at the time may be angry, and his choice of words harsh, these moments demonstrate his care for his students; Mr. Lee believes their actions may be detrimental to their futures, and he will not let such actions pass. These pauses in his instruction often lead to a speech.


For example, on January 24, Mr. Lee noticed that a student was not taking notes. This had become a regular occurrence in this class, and Mr. Lee chose to address the issue with this student, after which he noticed that another student was not taking notes because he too did not have a pencil. After providing the students with the necessary materials, Mr. Lee began a speech to the entire class:


The things you do now, do affect what you do later. And there is no reason people should be showin’ up here without no pen or pencil. What you do first- I don’t even want to know… what you did first period.


Please don’t think you gonna come in here and sit and look at me all day. It don’t work like that. You gotta do something.


‘Cause if I did something, you, you definitely need to do something.


Let me tell you something. In this classroom, I do ninety percent of the work; you do ten. You don’t do half as much as you think you do. I do ninety percent of the work. ‘Cause all you have to do is sit and listen. And some of you not even doing your part, you’re not even doing your ten percent …


Part of your ten percent, show up on time; bring a pencil; do some work.


Some of y’all not even fillin’ up your ten. You doin’ like- you givin’ me like five maybe. (1/24/2007, 19:19 – 20:20)


In this portion of this speech, Mr. Lee implores the students to see that their daily actions will impact their performance on the exam in May. He is the coach exhorting students to give him more. His voice is sullen and has a hint of frustration in it. In the next excerpt, this quickly turns to anger when a Latino student suggests that their efforts are “good enough.” In his response to this student, he also reminds all of them that they are not allowed to do less than their best.


Student: That’s good enough.


Mr. Lee: For who? It’s good enough for you! That’s unacceptable to me, son. You may be fine with mediocrity but I don’t settle- I don’t accept it. I don’t expect it out of myself and I don’t expect it out of anybody I teach. You understand that?


[10 seconds of transcript have been cut]


People, I expect you to be the best. Period.


Half best- not acceptable.


I expect you to be the best.


Why? Because I’m teaching you… and you are the best. (1/24/2007, 20:21 – 23:02)


Here Mr. Lee’s voice returns to one that is instructive. He again reminds students of his expectations and belief in them. He paints a larger picture for them, hoping to inspire them further to study and prepare for the exam, and at the same time explaining why he is so tough and demanding. Floyd Lee’s speech continues to contain elements of BEV. He is still using call and response and double negatives. His voice is at times animated, yet still exudes compassion and care.


Mr. Lee then reminds his students how they are viewed in the school at large and contrasts those views with his own. He is keenly aware that he is not teaching the students who are considered the “smartest.” He is also aware that ninth graders in nonhonors Algebra 1 are considered to be below average, and the only way of escaping this negative label is to be in an honors class. But Mr. Lee disagrees with this perspective. In doing so, he includes himself when he says, “But the people in this classroom are too smart for us to be getting whatever we get. You don’t understand. It shouldn’t be no reason that anybody in this classroom ain’t doin’ well.” By the end of this excerpt, you can hear the combination of love for his students and admonishment in his voice when he says, “You all are just as capable as those kids are if not more. And don’t let nobody tell you otherwise.” He believes that his students are mostly able but are not willing to be good students. He attributes their unwillingness to not understanding the importance of their education, of being willing to just narrowly pass classes, and not striving to achieve at a high level.


He ends the speech by suggesting that if they cannot believe in themselves and work hard for themselves, they should trust him and the faith he has in them. He assures them that the work he is asking for is necessary to get them where they need to be and that they are capable even though their actions in the moment do not exemplify a willingness to make the necessary attempts.


And I need you to uh- I need you to believe what I believe, okay? ‘Cause for me and Mr. Jackson [Mr. Lee’s student teacher] to believe it, that’s not enough.


It’s not enough for me to know that you smart and for me to believe that you are smart. You have to know what I know.


And not only do you have to know it, but you have to do something to show people that you are, right?


Make them a believer people. I already believe! I already know! I don’t question it! Yeah, we have our rough moments. Yeah… I have to get on you ‘cause you act stupid. But I know in the end it’s gonna work itself out. I already know that. I’m not even worried about it. I just know that this is what you have to go through to get to where you need to go.


[40 seconds of transcript have been cut]


I want you to be able- you all can compete with those other classes. It’s like three of ‘em, I think. Two or three. Y’all can compete. You all, you all can be better.


[20 seconds of transcript have been cut]


I teach people who, who are ready to learn and are willing to learn. I’ll, I’ll get you right; you just hang with me. And we will be better than all of those folks. You know they [teachers of the honors’ classes] talk trash, “Well I got the, you know, I have the honors kids.” I don’t give a damn what you have.


I got the best kids in the school.


And can’t nobody tell me otherwise.


And if they want to discuss it, we can discuss it. There ain’t really no discussion ‘cause I got the best.


Everybody understand?


(1/24/2007, 23:05 – 23:45)


Beginning from “Make them a believer people” and ending with “I just know that this is what you have to go through to get to where you need to go,” this speech has the feel of a sermon. According to Niles (1984), “Black preaching seems to require the speaker to touch the deep emotions of the audience very early in his sermon” (p. 47). There is a sense that Mr. Lee is aware of the self-defeating mindset of his audience but does not want them to quit; he wants them to persevere and work to change their situation. This text might suggest that Mr. Lee is being too hard on his students, yet this is a prime example of the tough love that Gay (2000) and Ladson-Billings (2002) suggested are essential parts of culturally responsive pedagogy. The students need to know that undesirable behavior and actions do not lead to learning and mastery of content and are harmful to the goals that they need to achieve by the end of the year. Mr. Lee is very frank with his students in letting them know that they must give 100% effort at all times, and they are not to be satisfied with less than 100% achievement. He assures them that he believes in their ability to achieve, and he urges them to believe in themselves.


DISCUSSION


In this article, we have outlined one aspect of the practice of a young Black male mathematics teacher: the speeches he gives to his students about their behavior. Mr. Lee’s speeches occupied a significant part of class time—some might say that this time would have been better spent on mathematics instruction—but when the exam scores came back, his status as a well-respected teacher was further enhanced. Many more students of Mr. Lee’s had passed than the district average would have predicted. Although the districtwide passing rate was about 40%, in the class that we observed, only one student did not pass the state-mandated assessment.


In examining the themes in the speeches Mr. Lee gives to his students, there is a strong similarity to the teachers described in the contemporary CRCM literature. Mr. Lee is assertive, he positions himself as a coach, and he cares for his students in ways that are likely to be culturally accessible to them. With the speeches, he draws from his own experiences as a student in this district, as well as his familial relationships within the Black community, to provide an impassioned invitation to students to engage with schooling, learn behaviors required for success in our society, and acquire tools for navigating a life path. In addition, his natural and continual use of BEV, we believe, contributes to his creation of a comfortable learning environment, one in which Black and Latino students do not feel on guard always to conform to the norms of Standard English.


With his invitation to engage with schooling, as with his tough love, Mr. Lee’s practice is also in the tradition of earlier Black teachers. For example, Lee’s practice is reminiscent of that of Melvin Tolson, a Black American poet and teacher of English who taught at Wiley College, a Black religious school in a segregated town in Texas, who described an important role for “shock” in education. Following is an excerpt from Tolson’s teaching, quoted in Gold (2003), in which Tolson speaks with a student named Farmer:


Farmer . . . you’re doing good work. In fact, you’re doing A work, but if you don’t do better, I’m going to flunk you. . . . You’re blessed with a good mind, an analytical mind, but you don’t dig. You’re lazy. You’re not using half your mind, and like most youths with a gift for self-expression, you try to conceal your ignorance with filibustering. Well, I’m not going to let you get away with it. Above and beyond the class assignments, you’re going to read and study and dig. (p. 235)


Unlike Farmer, Floyd Lee’s students are not doing A work, but, like Tolson, he does not want his students to get away with passing themselves off as less than they truly are—in his case, by simply passing with a low grade. Instead, he wants them to invest more of themselves in their schooling; he wants them to learn to do what it takes to achieve. In this, Floyd Lee seems, like his forefathers and foremothers in segregated schools, to work to engage his students in understanding what it means to be Black in the United States in his time.


At the same time, his work is different from that of the teacher in segregated schools; times are different. For example, as indicated by his reference to a Latino student as “son,” Floyd Lee has formal responsibilities to, and caring for, his Latino students as well as his Black students.


By emphasizing that Mr. Lee’s work is that of a Black math teacher in the context of contemporary de facto, but not de jure, segregated schools, we are not suggesting that the problems of teaching he is working on are limited to urban schools or to classrooms with students of color (e.g., for similar issues in a rural/suburban setting with a homogeneously White student population, see Chazan, 2000). On the contrary, Mr. Lee and his speeches potentially have much to teach teachers of Algebra 1. As more and more students are required to take academic mathematics classes and to take high-stakes tests on the material covered in such classes (Center on Education Policy, 2009) to be eligible to graduate from high school, the problem on which Mr. Lee focuses his teaching will become familiar to more and more mathematics teachers. For example, Loveless, Fennell, Williams, Ball, and Banfield (2008) reported on a survey done at the behest of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel and found that when asked for the single most challenging aspect of teaching Algebra I successfully, a nationally representative sample of public school Algebra 1 teachers overwhelmingly chose “working with unmotivated students.” The problem that Mr. Lee is working on—that of engaging students to do mathematics—is, in the words of Lampert (2001), “teaching students to be people who study in school” (p. 325). It is not a new problem of teaching, but it is one that endures—one that deserves greater research and a better understanding of the resources teachers utilize as they craft responses.


CONCLUSIONS


Stepping back from the specifics of Floyd Lee’s instruction, Mr. Lee’s speeches challenge educational researchers and teacher educators to consider new questions or reconsider existing ones. For example, Dee (2004) found that Black students’ achievement scores are higher when they are taught by Black teachers. If such results can be replicated, we wonder about the practices that might underlie and explain these results. Might the sort of speeches Mr. Lee gives be one sort of practice that explains such results? Exploring such a question involves ascertaining whether the kinds of speeches that we have identified in Mr. Lee’s instruction are common to the practice of other Black teachers teaching in settings where students are mostly Black and whether such speeches are characteristic of teachers whose student achievement seems to be higher than one might otherwise predict. Furthermore, to support such a chain of argumentation, it seems important to explore what Black students, and their non-Black peers, make of such exhortations.


If it does turn out that these sorts of speeches or exhortations are effective, there are at least three sorts of potential ramifications for teacher education. One ramification has to do with who teaches Black students (Martin, 2007). As articulated in Chazan et al. (2013, this issue), many current recruitment strategies focus on identifying prospective teachers with strong academic training and disciplinary knowledge without considering the cultural resources they may or may not have as resources for reaching out to students in urban schools. Without suggesting that we return to segregated schools where only Black teachers teach Black students, we note that perhaps teacher education programs should also consider strategies for recruiting prospective teachers who have the sorts of cultural resources (BEV and familiarity with cultural modes of interaction in the Black community) that Floyd Lee brings to his teaching (as articulated, e.g., by Haberman, 1989; Murrell, 2001).


For teacher education programs that have prospective teachers with such resources—for example, programs in historically Black colleges and universities—a challenge is to help such prospective teachers learn to use those cultural resources to connect with their students. Yet, in other contexts—for example, historically White institutions that want to prepare teachers for urban schools but whose prospective teachers are predominantly White and often female—a different challenge is to learn how to use existing research (Ballenger, 1992) on how teachers from one culture learn about the cultural expectations of students from a different culture in order to help prospective teachers learn to become sensitive to the cultural expectations of their students, particularly in areas of classroom management. More generally, the challenge for us all as researchers and teacher educators is to continue to work to integrate understandings of the roles of culture into our understandings of the teaching of school content (e.g., mathematics).


Notes


1. McBierney High School’s day began at 9:30 A.M.. The classes ran on a block schedule; therefore, second period did not begin until 11:45 A.M.

2. During the speeches in his class, Floyd Lee speaks most often in BEV. In our transcription, we attempt to represent this speech faithfully. Transcription conventions are as follows: “-” self-stop (usually in mid-word or mid-phrase); “,” naturally occurring brief pause; “.” falling tone with brief pause (as in end of sentence or phrase); “…” indicates an untimed pause. Longer pauses are captured by a hard return that helps display his speech on the page in a way that captures its rhythm; (??) unintelligible speech; ((text)) descriptions of extralinguistic information from video that may be helpful to the reader; [text] Other information to clarify the intent of an utterance.

3. All time intervals are taken from the video data on the given dates.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 115 Number 2, 2013, p. 1-26
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16829, Date Accessed: 9/19/2014 11:48:56 AM

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About the Author
  • Whitney Johnson
    Morgan State University
    E-mail Author
    WHITNEY JOHNSON is an assistant professor of mathematics education at Morgan State University. She is researching the characteristics that Black teachers bring to teaching Black students that can be identified and validated. Her research interests focus on the lived experiences of Black secondary mathematics teachers. Her most recent publication, a chapter entitled “Researching African American Mathematics Teachers of African American Students,” is coauthored with Lawrence Clark and Daniel Chazan and appears in a volume edited by Danny Bernard Martin.
  • Farhaana Nyamekye
    Trinity Washington University
    E-mail Author
    FARHAANA NYAMEKYE is a mathematics specialist at Trinity Washington University in Washington, DC. Her research interests include African-centered pedagogy, racial stereotypes in mathematics, and mathematics identity. Her dissertation focused on African American adolescents’ constructions of racial and mathematical identities in an African-centered school.
  • Daniel Chazan
    University of Maryland
    E-mail Author
    DANIEL CHAZAN is a professor of mathematics education at the University of Maryland, where he directs the Center for Mathematics Education. Chazan is interested in the resources that the sociology, history, and philosophy of mathematics provide for conceptualizing mathematics teaching as a societal endeavor and a social practice. Together with Patricio Herbst, he has initiated the Thought Experiments in Mathematics Teaching (ThEMaT) project. Recent publications from that project include “Has the Doing of Word Problems in School Mathematics Changed? Initial Indications from Teacher Study Groups” in Cognition and Instruction and “Animations of Classroom Interaction: Expanding the Boundaries of Video Records of Practice” in Teachers College Record.
  • Bill Rosenthal
    City University of New York
    E-mail Author
    BILL ROSENTHAL is the founding faculty member in mathematics at the New Community College at the City University of New York. His research interests include school–university collaborations and openly ideological research advocating the inclusion of infinity in school mathematics. Bill’s most recent publication is the 2009 chapter, “On the Unique Relationship Between Teacher Research and Commercial Mathematics Curriculum Development,” to which he contributed as a member of the El Barrio-Hunter College PDS Partnership Writing Collective.
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