Community Matters

When I was in elementary school, I was made fun of a LOT because I earned high test scores and mostly “As and Bs” in most subjects including math. I definitely remember being called a “teacher’s pet” and “nerd”. Nerds were not cool when I was growing up so being a labeled a “nerd” left me feeling lonely at times.  Luckily I was pretty good at sports and my parents and teachers were able to create safe spaces at school through academics, sports, and music to navigate those spaces that weren’t very inclusive. When all else failed, I would find a good book and a spot on the couch or on the porch.

Because of my experiences, I was saddened by the recent stories about students like Arah Iloabugichukwu and McKenzie Adams who felt isolated and humiliated by their classmates and teachers. McKenzie Adams committed suicide a few months ago because she didn’t have a safe space or feel a part of her learning community. More and more stories are surfacing about the need for students to have safe spaces at school.

As a classroom teacher, building a community with my learners was just as important as classroom rules or how to write a math journal entry to help them feel connected to another and have a sense of belonging. When I did this well, my students were willing to take academic risks, collaborate, and engage in conversations to share their mathematical thinking and reasoning.

In Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching and Learning: Classroom Practices for Student Success, Dr. Sharroky Hollie said that a positive responsive learning environment for underserved students builds their sense of belonging to provide an “optimal learning environment.” Underserved students thrive in learning environments where collaboration and positive relationship are present.

In my current role, I work with teachers and leaders in hundreds of school districts who have ethnically and linguistically diverse student populations on creating a safe productive learning environment in their schools. Zaretta Hammond, author of
Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students, shares her research about how the brain doesn’t process information when it doesn’t feel safe physically or socially. The body begins to send distress signals to the brain which makes learning impossible.

“If we are going to push dependent learners in positive way to stretch themselves we have to offer them a safe community to do it in, ” says Hammond.

I incorporated multiple practices to create a safe and welcoming learning community for my students. A few of the practices included a variety of ways to connect to my students’ cultural behaviors during math class to support their learning:

  • Interest surveys: I used surveys and questionnaires to learn about my students’ interests, what they liked about mathematics, and how they saw themselves as mathematicians. I also asked their parents/caregivers to complete surveys about their children as learners. The surveys gave me a fuller picture about how my students learned best and how to plan instruction with their strengths to support them through their learning challenges.
  • Discussion protocols: I implemented a variety of discussion and response protocols to support my students with participating in mathematical conversations. My students learned concepts and skills more deeply when I provided opportunities for them to collaborate either with their partners or in small groups. Two of my favorite protocols are described in Dr. Hollie’s book–Numbered Heads Together and Pick-a-Stick. Numbered Heads Together is a protocol where you call on students randomly by rolling dice. The dice determines the table number and seat number for the student who will respond to the question. Pick-a-Stick is another protocol that allows teachers to call on students randomly by choosing sticks with student names. I used both of these protocols after students had an opportunity to discuss problems/questions with other students.
  • Music: Using music was also another favorite instructional strategy to engage my students’ auditory and musical behaviors. I used different genres of music throughout the day to cue the way students participate during instructional conversations. I often added music to one of the protocols Give One Get One to let students know when it was time to talk to the next student as they gathered information and shared their thinking. Students had opportunities to add music to our classroom playlist. During testing, we listened to jazz and other instrumental music.
  • Games: Games were a large part of my childhood and are a part of my favorite family memories. This is why I made time for social and instructional mathematical games in my classroom. I wanted to provide my students time to develop friendships and/or working relationships even during an intense game of Connect Four, Checkers, or Uno on “Fun Fridays”. Playing games helped them build connections with one another and develop strategies that they could use during Multiplication Tic-Tac-Toe and other mathematical games during instruction.

The instructional routines that I implemented in my teaching practice built and developed my students’ communication skills to encourage all of them to contribute to discussions, actively listen to others’ thinking and reasoning, and to teach students how to respond and learn from each other.


Hammond, Zaretta, and Yvette Jackson. Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Corwin, 2015.

Hollie, Sharroky. Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching and Learning: Classroom Practices for Student Success. Shell Education, 2012.

Iloabugichukwu, Arah. “Not Every Black Girl Survives Private School.” MadameNoire, 10 December 2018.

Rosenblatt, Kalhan, and Minyvonne Burke. “Alabama 9-year-old’s family says bullying drove her to suicide, officials are investigating.” NBC News, 11 December 2018.

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