Math Circles to Promote Equitable Discourse

Math Circles position students as explorers and contributors to the study of mathematics through their applications to real-world contexts
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About This Strategy

This strategy provides instructions for teachers to arrange and facilitate math circles with students. In a math circle, teachers facilitate small groups of students who are engaging in short, culturally responsive-sustaining inquiry learning tasks, using mathematical vocabulary and problem-solving strategies. A math circle is a great strategy to get students engaged in mathematical discourse by positioning students as explorers of mathematical theories, reflective thinkers and doers of mathematics, and contributors to the study of mathematics through their applications to real-world contexts.

Implementation Steps

  1. Arrange students' chairs to form a circle, or have students sit in a circle on the floor. 

  2. Plan three rounds. 

    • In the first round, students are instructed to respond to a prompt.

      • Examples: 

        • Describe the structures and practices that create and sustain food deserts.

        • Who benefits and who struggles from the existing structures and policies? 

    • In the second round, students are directed to respond to something that was shared in the first round, provide something new to the conversation, or pose a question about the prompt. 

    • In the third round, each student reviews the recorded list of responses and questions shared in the larger circle. Each learner selects at least one discussion point to write three to five sentences about in their math journals.

      • Example: Today, we discussed quadratic equations and parabolic functions. I am curious about how the arcs of rainbows are formed. I wonder where I can find out more information.

  3. Make sure that topics and prompts are open-ended: mathematical essential questions, enduring understandings (big ideas), graphical representations, common misconceptions, problem-based learning tasks, current events viewed through a math lens, ways math can be applied to create social justice, ways math is used to manipulate and misrepresent information to the public, math strategies from other countries and cultures, and student-generated themes. 

    • Examples:

      • Describe the structures and practices that create and sustain food deserts.

      • What are the perceived benefits and challenges related to use of facial analysis artificial intelligence use in job interviews? Artificial Intelligence (AI) is built on algorithms compiled from a database containing tone of voice and facial features. 

  4. Record or have a student record and post (digitally, on chart paper, on the board) the students' comments as each one is shared.

  5. The circle closes with the instruction for students to select at least one discussion point and write three to five sentences about in their math journals.

EL Modification

  • English Learner teachers may benefit from receiving the mathematical prompts prior to the class in order to support students with preparation of talking points. 
  • Provide English Learners with access to mathematical vocabulary in multiple linguistic and non-linguistic forms to support comprehension. 

Special Education Modification

  • Special Education teachers may receive the mathematical prompts prior to the class in order to support students with critical thinking and preparation of talking points.
  • Provide learners with access to mathematical vocabulary in multiple linguistic and non-linguistic forms to support comprehension. 

Questions to Consider

  • How do the students view themselves as mathematicians?
  • Where do your students' perspectives originate from?
  • How will you include Math Circles as a regular part of your instructional practice?
  • How will you implement the 8 Mathematical Practices (included in the resource section below) into your instruction on a daily basis in a culturally responsive way?    

Consulted Resources

In developing this strategy, the resources linked below were consulted.

  • Smith, M. S. & Stein, M. K. (2011). 5 Practices for Orchestrating Productive Mathematics Discussions. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Corwin.
  • Hung, M. (2015). Talking Circles Promote Equitable Discourse. Mathematics Teacher, 109(4), 256-260.
  • Appleton, E., Farina, S., Holzer, T., Kotelawala, U., Trushkowsky, M. (2017). Practitioner Perspective: Problem Posing and Problem Solving in a Math Teacher's Circle. Journal of Research and Practice for Adult Literacy, Secondary, and Basic Education, 6(1), 33-39.
  • Standards for Mathematical Practices. (2019). Common Core State Standards Initiative. http://www.corestandards.org/Math/Practice/