Math in the Movies: Why does Lady Bird throw out her math teacher’s grade book, and what can we do about it?

Having seen the wonderful movie Lady Bird this week (not at all connected with First Lady “Lady Bird” Johnson), I have been thinking about the portrayal of the main character’s high school math class and how it parallels the feelings of so many people about school mathematics.  In the scenes involving the class (set in the year 2002), the very pleasant teacher is seen lecturing from an overhead, with students sitting in rows taking notes.  There is no real engagement for students in what is happening, and they look incredibly bored.  Some students are identified by the well-meaning teacher as being good at math, while others (including Lady Bird) are essentially told the opposite.  And Lady Bird questions why she is not good at math even though her father and brother are, while her friend suggests that perhaps she takes after her mom in this regard.  The feelings of inefficacy and frustration are palpable.  When Lady Bird has a chance, she takes the teacher’s grade book and throws it away in an outside trash can.

There is a reason that this portrayal is a stereotype for mathematics classes.  We as educators have a responsibility to ensure not only that we are “providing” opportunity to all students but also (more importantly) that we are actively and intentionally including ALL students in questions, discussion, and mathematical activity and showing them that we believe they are not only capable but vital in our classroom learning communities.  It is very easy to leave too many students behind because we say they are choosing to withdraw or that they just don’t come to us with enough knowledge.  It is easy to continue the cycle of telling these students how to get through every step of a problem and to not ask them what and how they are thinking.  When we do this on a regular basis, we are furthering the inequity that already exists in so many ways in our society.  Let us make active choices to create equity in our classrooms instead – we have the power to make change for students and for the future.

© Summit Mathematics Education Enterprises, LLC 2014