In preparing to write the first edition of this book back in 2003, I attended a number of multicultural sessions at NCTM conferences. In one of the sessions, Jean, a Navaho teacher of Navaho students from a reservation school, presented the general characteristics of her students as well as the math curriculum offered at the school. (The names of all teachers in this chapter are fictitious.) Although Jean commented that the school was sensitive to the culture of the students, I noticed that it was directed toward behavioral do’s and don’ts, such as the following: “The teacher should not expect eye contact from students before students become comfortable with the teacher.”
Thinking that the case of teacher and students sharing the same cultural heritage might have some beneficial effects on classroom interactions or pedagogy, I asked: “Given that you share the culture of your students, are there methods or strategies that you use with your students that you might not use with, say, Asian or African students?” I thought it was an innocent question until Jean snapped back: “I don’t teach my students any differently than I would any other students!” I immediately realized that Jean may have interpreted the question as a negative cultural comment: “Do you dumb down your curriculum for these poor Indians?” Thinking that it would take more than a clarification of the question to get my meaning across to Jean, I kept quiet and made a mental note: “Be careful of your questions because some may trigger assumed racist implications.”
The difficulty of writing a book on multicultural classroom interactions became clearer to me as I stopped random groups of participants at the conferences and asked questions like: “Do you think the NCTM [National Council of Teachers of Mathematics] Standards really work for all students? Do they work for your students?” To those questions, Mary, one in a group of three African American women teaching African American students, replied: “Some of the approaches don’t work for our students. Take collaborative learning, for example. It is ineffective for groups of more than two of our students. Larger groups result in a waste of time. They don’t come to us knowing how to work in groups.” I mentioned her comment to two African American males, Ben and Dante. Dante immediately said, “That is not true! Our students can work in groups. They may, however, have to be taught how. Beginning with groups of two and then extending to larger groups will help them work productively in groups of four.” He then cited research showing how cooperative groups increased achievement of African Americans. His tone and inflection caught my attention more than his words. “I noticed” I said to him, “that you sounded offended by Mary’s comment.” He laughed at the insight and agreed. I continued: “Should I not write this book or ask such questions? My goal is not to offend people. Can I hope to make any difference, or will I just be viewed as a narrow-minded racist?” Ben replied, “Yes, they are sensitive, but they are also good questions demanding thoughtful and difficult responses. Educators need to discuss them openly, just as we are doing now Go for it!”
And so I did. For the first edition, I invited Katherine Owens as coauthor for two reasons: First, Kathie had impressed me with insights on Standards-based mathematics through her submission of a profile for one of my other books now in its second edition (Germain-McCarthy, 2014). Second, I needed help wrestling with whatever issues might come up with the topic, and I thought Kathie’s Euro-American background would provide alternative perspectives for discussions. For this second edition, I updated Kathie’s profiles.