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.
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