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Dedicated to Teachers

On the Podcast: Heinemann Fellow Marian Dingle and Dr. Cathery Yeh on the Culture of Mathematics

antoine-dautry-_zsL306fDck-unsplashToday on the podcast, we're handing things over to Heinemann Fellow Marian Dingle. Marian is a fourth and fifth grade educator, and is currently in her second year of the Heinemann Fellowship. 

Marian's passions lie in diversity of mathematics curriculum, and highlighting the work of mathematicians of color. In this episode, Marian spoke with Dr. Cathery Yeh about the culture of mathematics, and the impacts it has on students and educators. Here now is Marian...


Below is a full transcript of this episode.

Marian: Hello. I am so excited to have this conversation with Dr. Cathery Yeh. I have admired her for her research in mathematics education and have recently gotten to know her through the Miss Education chat hosted on Twitter. Her book Reimagining the Mathematics Classroom, was published in 2017 and she's done plenty of other appearances and videos that I've had the privilege of watching. I remember listening to one of your talks Cathery and having this amazing light bulb moment about deficit thinking in special education.

I'm pretty outspoken about the dangerous of deficit thinking regarding students of color, but it wasn't until that talk where I heard you that I recognized that I also saw special education from a deficit lens and was complicit in this practice myself. So let's just start, if you don't mind, Cathery, can you go ahead and just tell us a little bit about yourself, what you do, why you do the work you do and something about your journey?

Cathery: Definitely. First of all, Marian, I can't begin to tell you how honored I am to have this conversation with you. I have such deep respect and admiration for the work that you do. It's such a joy that we get to talk together and deepen our knowledge around what we can do to really empower our students and honor who they are. So who I am? I think formally people would say I'm a Assistant Professor of math education at Chapman University. I've been a classroom teacher and have been in education for 20 years. As a classroom teacher I was a bilingual teacher and I made home visits to every single one of my student homes, because I knew that we can look at a child and look at who they are in the classroom, but there's so much more to them and that we need to see who they are in their lives outside the school, within the community and those the caretakers who oversee and support them and then bring them into the classroom.

I would also say that a big part of who I am is my role as a mother. I have always considered language and class and race and ethnicity as a cultural identity, but as a mother with a child classified with multiple disabilities, I never considered disability as a cultural identity and how that's also situated in social historical, political context. So much of my work is really framed from the lens of a learner and what I can learn from my students as a classroom teacher, the students I have now working in graduate settings and also as a mother.

Marian: I love that. I especially love how you said that you visited all of your students and families. That's something that I really didn't learn until years into my career, how important that is as well. I think that's awesome. A major thing that I see in your work is in improving mathematics. You recognize that there is something that we're not doing, something that we're missing. When I look at your publications, I see words like humanize and reimagine and reframe, so what is it that's at the core of what we've gotten wrong in math and how can we start to fix it?

Cathery: Oh, that's such a big question. I think so many of these terms come from a place where one it comes from Rochelle Gutierrez and she talks about the importance of interrogating this unearned privilege that math holds in society and the role that race, class, language and gender play in teaching and learning math. I think this work of humanizing, reimagining, reframing starts from the very beginning place of examining the ways in which the context of knowledge and meaning making really uphold traditions of oppression, racism, ableism and white supremacy, and that's reinforced through our daily interactions.

What I mean by that is we really need to reimagine, reframe and really challenge the foundations of what math education and even equity means. How much do we engage in daily practice ways in which we sort and categorize children often in the name of equity. like we use these labels, we assign high, low, gifted with a disability and readiness measures that continually, continually label students of color and emergent bilinguals as maladaptive and not ready. I feel like much of the work in math right now, I'm a part of it. I'm just working to reframe and reimagine as well. We're always around trying to fix kids, labeled ones based on this bell curve that were originally created to disenfranchised children of color and children that are not middle and upper class and we often do this in the name of equity.

Marian: Wow yeah, I see that. I think as an educator of color, especially someone that's so interested in math, I think I always felt that, but I didn't have words for it early in my career. I think I'm just beginning to see the layers of oppression that's really there. Can you describe how you came to see that? Mathematics largely is framed as a subject that's neutral. It just is. Mathematics is two plus two is four. It's just a-political and there's nothing biased about it. Can you describe how you came to see mathematics in this way where you could see the bias and the oppression inherent in that system?

Cathery: I came to the US when I was five years old. In California kindergarten is optional, but I had to take it twice because I was identified as one who did not speak English, and by that alone I had to fail, something that was even optional. I think it particularly math, math holds so much power in our society that one is we need to begin by shifting our eyes of math as the product, our goal is just to [inaudible 00:06:44] kids to work on two plus two is four or to understand concepts of division or multiplication. Not that those things are not important, but we need to realize how much math functions as a process. It sorts and categorizes children, denies access for many of our students. The highest math class you take in high school dictates which college you can even apply to and when we even look at school mathematics, what school math often is, it's a process of othering.

It's asking our kids to use math in a language that's often not their own and strategies that's not their own and in context and problems that are usually irrelevant to their lives. So to do well in math, you have to be someone else than who you are. Yet we know there's such a rich body of work that shows that math can be a vehicle for us to read and write the world. It can help us make sense of how data is used around us constantly to convince and persuade and to make us comply. I mean, all those aspects of those three things alone show that math is not neutral. Math carries so much power and has so much potential.

Marian: I totally agree. Would you agree that math is maybe even more oppressive than other areas?

Cathery: I actually and I'm sure you would most likely agree as an elementary students who school teacher, I started off as an elementary school teacher as well.

Marian: Oh did you?

Cathery: I did. I spent a lot of time in classrooms now particularly with children with mild, mod and severe disabilities or classified as so. When we look at from a historical context of where labels of children began like these ideas of gifted, special, being at average or below average, you know those terms came about at the same time in which we were trying to categorize and make discretes ideas of math. So these ideas of what it means to be smart and then the creation of IQ tests by Terman came about at the same exact time when we're trying to use math and create assessments around mathematics to show children's competence.

This creation that emerged over a hundred years ago to label children into these ability groups and how we are also trying to create math assessments to talk about learning and competence. How these two are interwoven together, I would argue that we live in a society now where we would say, we've ended segregation, but segregation continues on in the ways in which we use math to uphold Eurocentric, middle-class privilege and how we use math to separate and sort our children based on race, language, class and ability status.

Our schools are just as segregated as before and I would think of even within my own child, within the field of special education, we know there's an over classification, over representation of our black boys and our emergent bilingual children into special education classes and these lower track programs. They were intentionally created to discriminate and uphold power.

Marian: I'm sighing because all of this, I know this now, I did not know this 20 years ago when I first started teaching and I wish that I had had the language and the frame of reference to see what has been happening and it makes me wonder if there are other educators out there who are just beginning their journeys as well. Is it always going to take 10, 20 years for us to figure it out and then the rest of our careers do something about it? How can we accelerate this process? It seems that we are at this place in history, in math ed, but maybe we were there before where we're seeing all these things and there's research now and there's articles and there's this abundance of knowledge and yet still here we are.

Cathery: I didn't know when I first started off and I'm still unlearning and relearning. We function in a society where whiteness and ableism is the norm and I play a part in it too, but I think the challenge of it is one, the social political context of math is denied from us. We don't learn about it. Most math methods courses, professional elements don't talk about it. It's also so deeply ingrained like how many workshops that we take part in or how many lessons studies do we take part in where we sort kids into high, mediums and lows and then we think about how to support them to do better. That language alone, this idea of doing better is from a deficit lens. If we look at who is in those high, medium and lows, you see segregation of children based on race, language in class.

Marian: Yes, yes. I remember this. I remember this from childhood. I remember this now. I mean it's in textbooks now. The differentiated lesson plan, right? This idea about deficit language, this is what I really, really wanted to get into. So you use the term disability, but when you write out the word dis/ability you have a slash after the dis. Why do you put a slash there? What does that mean?

Cathery: How I started to use this term actually came from a very close colleague, his name is Paulo Tan at the University of Hawaii and he began and he explained why he used that backslash between dis and ability and it really comes from this perspective that we need to trouble like society's emphasis that disability resides within the individual, that disability is within this one person and that we need to fix that person, which is so pervasive in the language that we use. Instead of looking at like the social, cultural, political reproduction of disability and how that's come about. I had shared just a few minutes ago around how there's a legacy of discrimination within math and perceived math ability in which historically these labels of competence around gifted, bright, average, low, and even this term special pupils, it was a gate keeping tool intentionally created at the turn of the 20th century to sort and rank our children by first social class, and then when desegregation occurred then by race and in gender.

So we created this invention of intelligence testing. So this IQ test was intentionally created to discriminate and we still use it today. I also think about the work of Vygotsky in the 1920s but we never hear about it because at that time Russia was also engaging in eugenics. So one of the things he argued that when we look at disability, there's actually two aspects. There's primary disability that might be one's biological difference. For example, might be a person with total or partial loss of eyesight, but what he calls true disability is secondary disability. How the social space disables someone. We're all born with differences. For example, in high school I dated someone that seven feet, eight. It was hard for him to get through the door. When we go to the movies, he would [inaudible 00:14:10] feet two seats back. Why is that not considered disability and what other things are? How do we create social spaces in which we do not allow someone to participate and that the social space itself disables?

Marian: That is deep. The social space itself disable someone. Yeah, that whole concept, it just still blows my mind. It really does. I think I've been very complicit myself in thinking of my kids that come to me and they already have IEPs as being kids in need of something from me. They need something extra. They need something different. They need me to fill the hole, whatever that hole is, and now I'm just now understanding that that's just as wrong as others wanting to fix kids of color. It's the same thing. It's this idea that you showed me that even disability is a social construct. Right? That's just mind blowing to me.

Cathery: I feel the same way and I speak from this perspective as a mother and I think many of us teachers, like mothers, we worry about our our students. We want them to be successful. Oftentimes this worry, even with good intentions it takes up ways in which we're trying to fix a child. By this idea of trying to fix them and move them to this normative standard that we have to realize that education functions, particularly math ed functions in ways that perpetuates whiteness, ableism, white supremacy. So as a person of color, as an emergent bilingual, that fixing is always going to put that person behind.

Marian: The fixing is in fixing you to be something other than who you always were.

Cathery: Yes. So I think a big part that I've been trying to think about is even when we look at IPS and 504s, how is it written? How is it written from the lens of, we look at every individual as filled with rich culture identities. How are we building from their ways of knowing and being and how are we shifting from the intervention to the child that we need to intervene and fix a child, to intervening and fixing the learning environment so that the way in which we engage in math honors broader ways of knowing and being.

Marian: I love that. Not fixing the child, but fixing the environment. Oh, I love that. So does that environment include fixing the educator?

Cathery: In some ways, yes. But I also think from the perspective that as much as we have deficit framing around children, we have to be careful to not have deficit framings around our own colleagues. How much can we think about part of this work of shifting interventions from people to learning spaces, it's about agency. Agency for that child, but also agency for the teacher. For too long schools for teachers and children is about compliance. It's about following and memorizing rules. When we know that those borders and categories of memorizing rules that needs to change. So how can we broaden math professional developments? How can we broaden math learning environments to really honor everyone's ways of thinking and being, but honor the agency that teachers and children should have?

Marian: I totally agree. I definitely believe that educators need more agency to do what it is that we're trained to do. But also what it is that we're earning to do every day because we're evolving if we're doing it right. So you wrote an article that was published earlier this year in March called Mathematics for Whom? Reframing and Humanizing Mathematics. You suggest here that when students use math to understand and uncover structural inequities, that they're very perceived utility of that mathematics rises. Should that be surprising to us?

Cathery: Should that be surprising? I think it shouldn't, but as you know in elementary ed it is and I was just this weekend, as my treat, I was listening to your Google podcast in which you and other colleagues consider ways to teach hard history, American slavery without limiting the tempting focus only on heroes and avoiding investigations of oppression. We often hear in elementary ed that, oh you can't do that there. You can't do that in elementary ed. It's not developmentally appropriate. They're not ready for that.

 One of the favorite things that I had heard during your podcast was this phrase, our omissions speak as loudly as what we choose to include, and that's so true for every aspect of what we do with our children, from the curriculum to how we interact with it. So if our students only see history from the lens of heroes in which their own oppression or their own privilege is glossed over, or if they only see math as a series of word problems that are irrelevant to their lives and irrelevant to most contexts or just a series of numbers, then that math is disconnected from who they are.

Math itself continues to actually, I would argue not really even be math. I would say that most of us, when we think about, we've done this and I'm sure you have as well when you've asked kids and grownups what math means to them and they'll say it's a time test, 50 problems or a 100 problems, I have to solve it in five minutes. It's memorizing formulas, it's wrought skill. We know that's not even math, that's just straight memorizing, right?

Marian: Right, right.

Cathery: If we see math as a process, as ways of thinking and reasoning and helping us make sense of the world and we see math as something we're doing, so instead of a noun as a verb, then how can we not use math to make sense and create change in the world?

Marian: I love how you put that. How can we not? Absolutely. Okay, so I have one last question for you today. All of this work, the reimagining and the humanizing and rehumanizing and fighting oppression, all of this work sounds like struggle. I know you know the struggle. I know the struggle. So in this constant struggle to seek doing good. How do you attend to your own self care? How do you protect your own resolve for the long haul?

Cathery: Oh, I'm going to ask you for your response later for this as well. Right, I've got to call it out. It's a hard question because I think it's a balance. One doing this work is healing. We do this because we'd been silenced for so long. Women of color have been silenced for so long. My child who looks at the world with these beautiful, new and wonderful ways of seeing and being has been silenced for so long. I feel that my work it's really from a place of learning. As I engage in this work, it helps me see the world and see education and see teaching from a new set of eyes so that I am human. But I would say one of the most powerful things I've been also learning to do is to pause. Leigh Patel, one of the rock stars that I absolutely love, she wrote a book called Decolonizing Educational Research: From Ownership to Answerability. One of my favorite things that she talks about is this idea of pedagogy of pausing.

We all need moments just to pause. Pausing is productive. Pausing is action. It allows us to reflect, to learn, to heal. I think so much of what grounds so much of the hurt in the world is this level of competition, this level of production that causes us to forget about how we're interconnected and how we're often one and to pause and to interrupt that it helps us interrupt competitive ways of being, doing and knowing.

So I've been trying to do more things that allows me via Twitter, which I'm just starting to use. Listening to podcasts, different ways of doing things. That allows me to listen more, to do things differently than what I think I should always do or have to do.

Marian: I love that. The pedagogy of pausing and yes, I did write that title down. I have to read that book. That is wonderful.

Cathery: Are you going to share with me your strategies?

Marian: You didn't forget, huh? Okay. I am at the very beginning of this. I struggle with balance. I think when my children were younger and they were still in school, I had the symptoms of working mom and trying to keep all the balls in the air and everyone happy and making sure everything was done, all the boxes got checked, which was great. It was a great distraction. Now that my children are out of the house and one's in college, one's out of college, I have more time.

So my first reaction was to fill up that time with all of the things, all the things I never had a chance to do, didn't have enough time to do, didn't have the energy to do. I was on the edge of burnout and I think I didn't know it at the time, but I have learned to pause before I reach burnout.

I think like you, I've turned to Twitter to have a community of like minds and it has helped tremendously many of those people that I've met online I've also have met in person now and we have genuine relationships and friendships. So these are people that I can call on. Even now, I mean, who would've thought I'd be doing a podcast? Definitely interviewing someone that I admire so much. So I think not just doing the work, but knowing that it has to be done in community and seeking ways to allow that community to sustain me has really made the difference.

Cathery: Marian, one of the things I really wanted to talk to you, is just I'm at the university level, I work with pre-service teachers or master teachers or those getting PhDs or I do research in the classroom, but I'm not in the classroom every single day. Those experiences and being in the trenches where challenge is in place in so many different ways where Rochelle Gutierrez taught about creative insubordination. There's expectation that's given to you in ways in which some of the things you have to do you wouldn't even agree with. So thinking about that, what can we as a community or you and I do better? This same idea of what does it mean to reframe and humanize math? What can we do better so that I can learn from you too? So much to learn from you dear friend.

Marian: Oh, that is so sweet. I wish I had the answer, but I think it's more of this definitely, just knowing that you and others are there and that I can reach out anytime and ask a question and join in on a project or just have someone to listen to me vent or listen to me ideate is the beginning, I think. It has to be all of us doing it together in community.

Cathery: I would argue that your voice and the voices of the students are most critical. I look at the spaces and the ways you've created so many different ways for us to create community. For many of us who are, I'm the only math educator at my university. There is very few Asian-American faculty there and oftentimes I don't have anyone to engage in these conversations. But you created so many social spaces that challenges individualism and allows us to unlearn and relearn together. I'm so impressed by how you've helped us reframe and humanize education and math from such critical but humane ways.

Marian: I'm speechless. Thank you so much for saying that. I wish I could say, oh yeah, I set out to do that but it's just not the truth. I'm just very thankful to be here. I really, really am. This is a great moment for all of us and it's just time. It's time for us to step up. I'm just so glad to be here. Honored my friend. Thank you so much for doing this with me.

Cathery: It is such an honor. Every moment with you is always, it's always a joy.

Read More from the Heinemann Fellows

mariandingleMarian Dingle is a teacher who pushes for change through students, striving to educate through a social justice lens. Currently a Grade Level Chairperson, a 4th and 5th grade educator and an instructional mentor. She is most passionate about mathematics, seeking to diversify mathematics curriculum through highlighting the work of mathematicians of color. She has keynoted at Twitter Math Camp, serves on their board and is a contributing writer for the Global Math Department. She has also presented her action research at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Follow Marian on Twitter  @DingleTeach


Dr. Cathery Yeh (@YehCathery) is an assistant professor of mathematics education at Chapman Univeristy. Cather studies how people learn, with an emphasis on how systems of power and privilege play out in mathematics classrooms as well as capturing counter-narratives of mathematics pedagogies that disrupt language, gender, and dis/ability hierarchies. 


Topics: Heinemann Fellows, Mathematics, Podcast, Heinemann Podcast, Marian Dingle, Anti-Racist Education

Date Published: 10/27/19

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