Representation Matters

Recently, I was in a school bathroom and saw a beautiful painting of an African woman dressed in African garb hanging on the wall. I was immediately filled with awe and joy because the painting radiated beauty and was a positive image in a surprising place. I am often one of few African American women in the room when I visit school districts and seeing art or something that connects to my culture is like looking in a mirror and seeing a reflection of myself.

Photo Credit: Le’Vada Gray

As a classroom teacher, I made it a practice to display pictures of my students to document their classwork, discussions, and events to show how they engaged in instruction. The images appeared everywhere: in presentations, bulletin boards, and in newsletters shared with their families. I wanted students to see themselves as mathematicians in the classroom. I also encouraged students to share images of their family and friends too.

Photo Credit: Le’Vada Gray

Culturally responsive researcher, Dr. Sharroky Hollie,  in Culturally Responsive Teaching says that students need to see positive images of themselves because it affirms their background and helps students feel welcomed in their learning communities.

Feeling connected to their learning communities help students feel comfortable and able to move towards being independent learners, according to Zaretta Hammond in Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. She says that the brain needs to see at least three positive representations for every negative representation due to the brain’s negativity bias. The brain uses this bias to look out for threats to our safety and well-being which can be triggered in unwelcoming classrooms.

Recent studies show the positive effects of cultural representations on student achievement.

A 2016 study by the American Educational Research Associations concludes that black students were more successful when taught by a Black teacher. The same students were 3 times more likely to be assigned to gifted programs. 

A Chicago university recently announced that it is investing a $1 million dollars to recruit men of color to elementary education as part of the Call Me MISTER, Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models. This initiative is modeled after Clemson University’s program that began in 2000. 

Photo Credit: Le’Vada Gray

A few ways to represent students at your school/in your classroom:

  • Add positive images of students engaged in work to presentations and bulletin boards inside and outside of classrooms
  • Have a mix of images of legendary past and present cultural icons from all walks of life (academic, entertainment, and sports) that represent the students in your classroom
  • Hang inspirational quotes from cultural icons in schools and classrooms 

In what ways do you represent the students in your schools/classrooms to support their learning?

4 thoughts on “Representation Matters

  1. Hi, thank you for sharing your work. I teach in a Suburban HS of 1750 Ss, 38-39% with Latino surnames. My classroom has a huge picture of Cesar Chavez, The Ghanaian Flag, the Rainbow Flag Project (supporting LBGTQ community at the Olympics in Russia), a poster of Hidden Figures, MLK quotes, A poster from the Civil Rights Museum in Atlanta, Lots of student work, VNPS, The 8 mathematical practices, some Obey Art Work, and inspirational quotes including, “What you see in others depends on what your are looking for.”


  2. I love your blog! So excited to learn more about your work in your classroom! I take photos of my students doing group-work which are displayed around my room. I love the Call Me Mister Mentor program and am now curious if I could connect with our local university to do something similar on a smaller scale.


    1. Allison, thank you for your response. Thank you for sharing how you represent your students. How do students pictures support their learning and connect them to your instruction? Would love to hear about your next steps!


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