By Laurie Speranzo

IFL mathematics fellow

Asale Harris

Supervisor of mathematics (Grades 1 to 6), New Brunswick Public Schools

Jamie Gulotta

Supervisor of mathematics (Grades 6 to 12), New Brunswick Public Schools

JoAnna Castellano

Mathematics specialist, New Brunswick Middle School

In her article “Framing Equity: Helping Students ‘Play the Game’ and ‘Change the Game’” (2009), Rochelle Gutiérrez lays out the four key dimensions of equity: Access, Achievement, Identity, and Power, which sit on two axes. Access and Achievement create the dominant axis, and Identify and Power create the critical axis.

Many of our partners in education have been working to secure access to high-quality education for every student to ensure that each of them can achieve. Their efforts often focus on the dominant axis to ensure that students have access so that they can move towards achievement. While work in this area is necessary, the critical axis allows students to see themselves as mathematicians and changers of the world around them. Honoring and leveraging the identity of each and every student, and transferring power to students in classrooms must also be considered to truly address equity. Gutiérrez writes that attention to identity includes that “students’ frames of reference and resources are acknowledged in ways that help build critical citizens.” Power is not just about who owns the airtime in class: “While teachers in interviews may say they ‘want to empower students,’ they almost always mean it only as it relates to achievement, not with respect to helping students reach personal goals of excellence that may intersect with the doing of mathematics.” However, if students are to be empowered to excel outside of school, opportunities need to be provided in school.

One partner district, New Brunswick Public Schools, has taken on equity, with a focus on providing students greater agency and voice. If one definition of voice is students having choice, control, challenge, and opportunities to collaborate, how are district teachers and leaders building voice?

Asale Harris and Jamie Gulotta, the district supervisors of mathematics, name that it all starts with access to high-level tasks: Students try different pathways and strategies and then discuss these with peers. By making discussion the norm in the classroom, students are empowered to share thoughts and ideas without the fear of being different or wrong. During instruction, teachers place value on student ideas and discussion, which then, in turn, increases student voice.

The mathematics specialist at New Brunswick Middle School (NBMS), JoAnna Castellano, who supports teachers in use of high-level tasks and facilitating productive discussions, adds this:

Our students at NBMS are utilizing their voice and agency by taking ownership of their work. The students at the middle school have committed to persevering through high-cognitive tasks. Teachers are intentionally making moves that are making students focus on three components when working on a high-cognitive task, emphasizing the student’s mathematical explanation with a visual model, while focusing on the precision of their work. Students are taking a more direct role in their work.

The New Brunswick district’s vision is “to create lifelong learners and leaders.” This takes into account agency being defined as the capacity and propensity to take purposeful initiative (Ferguson, Phillips, et al., October 2015). Agency starts in the classroom, with the ultimate goal that students use their agency to navigate and impact the world around them. Students build voice and agency through the opportunities provided to them.

New Brunswick teachers have been working at making classrooms places where there are opportunities for students to develop voice and agency. Castellano talks about what she sees. “With focusing on student voice and agency, students are always asked to justify their work. As educators, we try to create a ‘safe place’ for errors, even when the students can reason how they came up with their solution.”

The district supervisors share that “Throughout [our] math classrooms, students are more willing to dive into solving tasks and rely on the discussion around strategies to persevere through solving them. By creating opportunities to talk through strategies for tasks, students are given the stage to express their thinking and reasoning about how they see the math. The more opportunities we create for students to discuss with each other, the more empowered students will feel to do so.” And with the district goal of creating lifelong learners and leaders, students will be better equipped to leverage their voice outside the classroom as well.

Transitioning from traditional classrooms to ones that support student struggle and the opportunities for student voice and agency also requires supporting teachers. Harris and Gulotta share how teacher voice is fostered and heard:

In New Brunswick, we consistently attempt to create opportunities for our educators to form communities that invite different points of view and reach solutions that not only reflect the views of all but also ultimately positively reach and affect our children. Teacher voice plays a commanding role in our steering committees, during our common planning time sessions with specialists, vetting our district-wide assessments and rubrics, and actively participating in professional development sessions that are ultimately adjusted to our students who present with varying needs with our strategic plan, vision, and PD goals in mind.

Working toward stronger student agency requires the intentional creation of opportunities for students to be empowered and build voice, and that takes the concerted commitment and effort of dedicated educators at all levels.