Martha Allexsaht-Snider


I’m Martha Allexsaht-Snider.  I um teach at the University of Georgia – in Athens, Georgia.  In addition to being a member of the faculty in Early Childhood Education I’m also Early Childhood Program Area Head.

Aspects of mathematics education reform that I think about when I – when I consider what’s really um important but not completely sufficient are um the um resources that are available within a district or within a community to support um mathematics education reform.  And when I’m talking about that I’m talking about financial resources, as well as um a knowledge base.  Um sometimes I think we stop at thinking about teachers in terms of mathematics education reform and where key players, um families, communities, business leaders, um, the leadership in a school district um at the administrative level and the curriculum development level um have to be um active participants in the process, but they have to be knowledgeable about issues of equity, racism, how they play out in teaching and learning of mathematics if there’s going to be any forward movement.

Um, I’m involved currently with a project that’s called “Math for Parents.”  Uh, a math for parent partnership in the Southwest and um the target audience there has been um mainly Latino parents um partly because we’ve identified Latino students as um ones who could benefit from support in mathematics education.  Um most educators aren’t satisfied with Latino student achievement in mathematics.  And um in this project Latino parents are asked um to participant in their children’s mathematics education in a number of ways.  Um through leadership development they’re asked to become leaders in working with other parents, through advancing their own mathematics knowledge to be able to better support their children, and um through learning to collaborate with teachers to understand um their children’s curriculum and ways in which they can help their children make sense of the new mathematics curriculum. 

Interactive homework in mathematics, I think, really is an exciting um opportunity for both um teachers and families.  Um it facilitates 2-way communication um between the home and school, which I have found in my own work is just absolutely critical.  We often think that teachers are going to send messages home to families about things they need to do but a key aspect of home family partnerships is teachers learning about what parents already do, the kinds of questions parents have, and the kinds of interactions they have with their children.  So interactive homework whether it’s a backpack that includes activities and um games related to mathematics that children can do at home with their families um should always include an opportunity for the parents to write a brief note about what was done and what kinds of questions they have so there’s that back and forth communication.

Here I really draw on the work of Julian Wiseclass um and um – I’m going to pause a minute and think – Jeanie Oaks.  (Interruption)  Okay.  Um, when I’m talking about um – or when I’m thinking about uh biases and unaware biases that teachers might bring into the mathematics classroom into their work with diverse students, I draw on the work of Julian Wiseclass and Jeanie Oaks among others um who’ve really helped educators to examine and they’ve conducted research um looking at um the ways in which teachers um act out their low expectations for students or their – their beliefs about low expectations for student achievement in mathematics in day-to-day interactions in the classroom.  Often those um biases are – are very unaware biases.  It’s not that a teacher starts out thinking “I don’t expect my Latino students to um achieve in mathematics,” but um they’re part of a society in which um we rarely see successful Latino students or successful African-American students or adults in mathematics and so they’re – these kinds of biases are built through uh societal interactions.

I think there are 2 really key ways that I’ve found that um pre-service teachers and actually in service teachers um develop their own awareness about biases.  Um one is through opportunities to do self reflection about their own experiences as learners um and whether they’re from an ethically or a socioeconomically diverse background or not, um as children or as students they’ve often observed int – bias interactions in school um, but also if you have a mixed group of teachers or beginning teachers able to share their own stories about bias in school settings.  Um that’s a very important beginning step for becoming aware of these kinds of issues and I think the second most important approach that I’ve found the most effective approach is helping um beginning teachers and experienced teachers design inquiry projects that investigate their own questions about bias in teaching and schooling and gather data and information through observations and interviews in diverse classrooms with diverse families and then share those learning experiences with each other.

I’m going to talk about this idea of parental feedback about children’s learning from a very practical standpoint.  Um Betty (unintelligible), a colleague in my department, um is a teacher researcher and she’s written about um a strategy that she uses at the beginning of the year with um asking parents to write a letter to her as the teacher about their child, their hopes, dreams, worries, and expectations about their child.  And I think that’s the most important feedback that a teacher needs to begin with um is developing an understanding of the parents perspective on the child.

I first began conducting research with um bilingual families and teachers um about 15 years ago now and um one of my key findings initially was um about the roles that parents saw for themselves in their children’s learning.  Um they um saw really key roles for themselves as motivators of their children’s learning that – um I heard many stories from the parents I interviewed about um explaining to their children that if they didn’t want to have to do hard work in the hot sun like their parents did they needed to be successful in schooling and some of those parents actually were very explicit saying, “It’s not the teacher’s role to motivate my child, it’s my role.  That’s my responsibility.”  Um and they took that responsibility very seriously.

The big ideas related to um teaching mathematics to children who are beginning to develop their English language skills um the first big idea I think is um through my research through conversations with bilingual parents.  Um I’ve really come to recognize how important um a – a child’s language resources are to their beginning learning of a second language and to learning of mathematics.  So a classroom that – whether the teacher speaks Spanish or the other – child’s second language or not that encourages the child to communicate in whatever language they can communicate in about the mathematical ideas and support being able to communicate in multiple languages allowing children to communicate with each other about mathematical ideas no matter what language they’re using to communicate about it in.  Um, I’ve seen over and over again in large scale studies in classrooms um with large populations of children speaking languages other then English that they need to be encouraged to communicate about mathematical ideas and whatever language they can communicate in.  That’s the first premise that’s very important I think.

I’m thinking about this question of “How do we help um children um bridge the gap as they’re beginning to learn um, in most cases it’s English as a second language, um when most of their instruction in mathematics would be in English.  Um again um I’m drawing on some of the experience working with bilingual parents in mathematics workshops that um the opportunity to work with manipulative materials that illustrate the concepts and ideas that um are being um learned is um a critical piece that they’ve identified.  Um the second piece is opportunities to do group problem solving, to work with others, and to listen to their ideas and to problem/solve together is absolutely critical.  And um the third piece that we’ve talked about a little bit is um opportunities to have instruction in the primary language as well as the second language, and to be able to use both languages for making sense of mathematics.

I’m going to talk about the – no, that’s not the way I want to begin.  Um, the joint construction of meaning about literacy in um bilingual settings um where there are um teachers and families communicating and interacting about um the learning of literacy skills I think um happens when there’s an opportunity for dialog between teachers and parents.  Um bilingual parents bring a wide range of literacy resources to the table and those sometimes are not recognized um if they don’t speak English.  Um parents um utilize literacy um outside of school in their family setting with children um in um the sense of uh talking about um every day happenings in the child’s life, um talking about religious learning in education.  There – there are ways in which – um literacy learning is happening in the home that we don’t recognize at school as legitimate literacy learning.  We tend to define it very narrowly as reading books um and so I think that’s – when there’s joint construction of meaning across school and home there’s a recognition from teacher’s point of view that there are a wide range of ways in which literacy may happen at home.  Um a second way in which there’s joint construction of meaning about literacy learning is um a teacher’s recognition and parent’s recognition that talking to children about text and about school experiences is literacy learning.  That not simply reading a test is literacy learning.  And that that talking about text and talking about school learning can happen in whichever language parents’ speak.  Um, you can talk about important academic ideas.  You can talk about geography and history in any language and help children make sense of concepts they need to be learning in English so that parents can be a resource um with whatever language background they bring to the literacy learning experience.

I wish that every teacher knew that parents care as much or more about their child then a teacher does.  Um and it seems like such a simple concept but much of the research with families um of diverse students we find we’re repeating that refrain, um how important parents see learning and schooling to be for their child.  And I guess I wish that every teacher knew that parents caring about their child and their child’s learning and education is not always evident.  It doesn’t become evident in many cases.  Uh teachers judge a parent’s participation or their caring about their child’s education through very traditional methods of expecting that they’ll come to school or return messages to school and um many parents don’t understand that those are the ways to express their concern for their child and their value of education.  And so then we need to create more opportunities for teachers to find out from parents what it is that they think is important and why and we need to help parents recognize that they have many resources to apply to their children’s learning.

I’m going to tell a story about Ava (unintelligible) who is a participant in our um “Math For Parents” partnership in the Southwest program.  Um Ava began in this project about 3 years ago and um after a year of participation we did an interview with parents about how they – why they became involved in a program about mathematics for children and parents and um she was so passionate about her um recognition.  She started to be involved in this project because she wanted to help her children learn mathematics but very quickly she became motivated by the opportunity to learn mathematics in a new way herself and um Ava um said that um learning and being challenged in mathematics was almost like a drug for her.  It was so um – it became so important to keep learning mathematics.  And then she spoke about how being a model of a mathematics learner was important for her daughter.  Um that her daughter could see that her mother was trying hard to learn mathematics and was excited about learning mathematics, and that that was important – as important as being able to help her daughter with mathematics.

Um I want to tell this story of Barbra Para who is another parent in our uh “Math For Parents” project who (clears throat) began the project by saying, “I’m not really sure why I’m here in the “Math For Parents” project learning mathematics and becoming a leader for other parents in mathematics because I’ve always felt very intimidated by mathematics.  It’s not a subject that I feel confident in.”  And 3 years later Barbra Para is speaking to researchers and other educators about the importance of parent leadership in mathematics.  She’s the leader of a um team of um – a team that includes teachers and parents preparing workshops for other parents and she’s providing mentoring support to a team of teachers and other parents.  So she’s gone through a transition in a very short amount of time in her level of confidence about mathematics and about teaching and learning.  Um that’s pretty amazing.