Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Learning Together: The Challenge of Mathematics, Equity, and Leadership

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Learning Together: The Challenge of Mathematics, Equity, and Leadership

Article excerpt

The authors describe a project that has gone further than most in developing the new knowledge, habits of mind, and individual and social resources that will be needed for reform to persist and prosper. It has been neither easy nor fast - but significant learning rarely is.

Few professional development projects would commit themselves to such an ambitious agenda as reforming mathematics education, promoting equity, and developing teacher leadership, for any one of these objectives alone presents a daunting challenge. Learning mathematics is threatening to most teachers, especially elementary teachers whose limited experiences with mathematics have often been anxiety-provoking and uninspiring. Creating new understandings of equity brings out deep affective responses as participants attempt to make sense of emotionally charged issues. Developing leadership requires teachers to learn new skills and abilities while taking on unfamiliar roles and responsibilities. It can also provoke feelings of uncertainty and ambivalence.

Almost four years ago a far-sighted mathematics professor whom we will call Charles(1) started the Mathematics Education, Equity, and Leadership (MEEL) project with the intention of meeting all three of these goals simultaneously. But he had not fully envisioned the complexities and challenges inherent in such an effort. This article is about those challenges, about the project that took them on, and about some of the people who faced them together.

The Project and Its Leaders

Charles has been working for many years to develop a cadre of knowledgeable teacher leaders who will foster change in their schools through their own teaching and through their interaction with others. He grew up in New York City as a Jew attending a school that enrolled mostly Christians. There he experienced firsthand the oppressive effects of inequitable treatment by a majority group. His thinking has been greatly influenced by learning about the Holocaust and by the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

In the summer of 1992 Charles started MEEL, which was designed to develop teacher leaders who would work particularly on developing equity in mathematics education. Building on his many years as a director of and participant in a local mathematics project, Charles launched MEEL with nine elementary teachers. By drawing on networks of bilingual teachers, the project has grown from nine teachers to more than 30.(2) Every summer the project holds a two-week institute that includes sessions on mathematics, equity, and leadership. Throughout the academic year, participants convene in two-day retreats and monthly meetings, and ongoing networking and support groups are provided by project leaders.

Charles believes that significant educational change entails learning on the part of everyone involved in reform, including himself. Maria, the Latina teacher whom he chose to lead the project with him, has greatly influenced his learning. Maria's knowledge and understanding were partially forged from her everyday experiences as a minority female in a white, male-dominated world and from her extensive classroom experiences working with students of color, who often came from economically disadvantaged situations and spoke little English. In addition, Maria gained understanding from previous experience as a leader.

Maria grew up in a Mexican American community in California that consisted of two distinct cultures: Mexican American and white. She learned English because her parents didn't want her to struggle against the sometimes oppressive language barriers in school; she learned Spanish because it was the language of her community. Maria married a man who was half Native American and half Mexican American, and she lived with him on his reservation in Montana. There she worked as a teacher's aide while pursuing a teaching degree, and later she taught first grade. Maria's adopted son is American Indian and has sometimes struggled with mathematics in school. …

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