SEL to Me

Transformative SEL and Mathematical Liberation for 2SLGBTQIA+ Students

June 30, 2022
Dr. Brandie E. Waid
The Queer Mathematics Teacher, Radical Pedagogy Institute
Transformative SEL and Mathematical Liberation for 2SLGBTQIA+ Students

“Being queer saved my life… queerness demanded an alternative innovation from me… it made me curious; it made me ask, ‘Is this enough for me?’” – Ocean Vuong

For the last decade, I have been on a radical journey to unconditionally accept my queer, Latinx identity, questioning how the human desire to categorize and “normalize” has impacted every facet of my life, including mathematics teaching and learning. When I began teaching, math experiences that required creativity, flexibility, or vulnerability induced deep anxiety. Despite my mathematics degree, I wanted a cut-and-dried mathematics, where I could follow procedures, work in isolation, and hide the parts of myself I was afraid to examine too closely. But as trans mathematician Autumn Kent states, we “come to mathematics carrying all of [our] humanity.” It is necessarily influenced by our humanness. Acknowledging this, I recognize my fears shaped my earlier mathematics practice. Instead of being the joyous, collaborative, creative, and liberating experience many mathematicians profess, I associated mathematics with profound anxiety, intricately tied to my fears of confronting my queer identity. 

Evidence suggests my experience is not unique. In PreK-12 schools, 2SLGBTQIA+ students endure higher levels of bullying, victimization, and isolation than their peers. This leads to lower academic performance, higher rates of truancy and dropout, and greater risk of being ensnared in the school to prison pipeline. Significant impacts on student outcomes include 2SLGBTQIA+ high school students being less likely than their peers to take Algebra II (often seen as a gateway to higher mathematics). This trend continues in college and the workforce, with 2SLGBTQIA+ folx less likely to pursue and persist in STEM majors than their peers. If they do earn STEM degrees, they are less likely to enter and remain in STEM fields. 

Something about mathematics is failing to instill a sense of belonging that draws 2SLGBTQIA+ students to and keeps them in the field. How can we cultivate mathematical spaces where 2SLGBTQIA+ students feel affirmed in their queer identity and thrive personally and mathematically? 

GLSEN’s 20 years of research has found that when students have access to spaces that honor 2SLGBTQIA+ identity (e.g., GSAs), see themselves represented in curricular resources, and have supportive educators, and when their school adopts policies inclusive of 2SLGBTQIA+ identity, they report having greater levels of school belonging and improved academic outcomes.  

To exemplify these affirming elements, I created “Camp” of Mathematical Queeries, a space focused on the mathematical thriving of 2SLGBTQIA+ students. I researched artifacts of queer history, culture, and experience that might support this goal. Students examined these artifacts for their sociohistorical and sociopolitical significance, and posed mathematical questions related to them. I used those questions to design activities (e.g., American Identification as 2SLGBTQIA+, Intersectionality and the Gender Pay Gap, Boudoir Babylon) that allow students to dig deeper into functions, symmetry and space, and proportional reasoning, etc. 

The framework of Transformative SEL offers useful insight for replicating or adapting “Camp”’s success in mathematics classrooms across the U.S. Transformative SEL focuses on constructs of identity, agency, belonging, collaborative problem-solving, and curiosity within CASEL’s five core competencies. With the centering of 2SLGBTQIA+ culture, history, and experience (i.e., identity), students had an opportunity to develop a healthy sense of self, a key component to “buffer[ing] against negative or traumatic experiences (e.g., stereotype threat or discrimination).” 

Connecting students with other 2SLGBTQIA+ peers and the rich and beautiful history of 2SLGBTQIA+ people encouraged a sense of belonging. Allowing students to pose mathematical questions about artifacts nurtured their curiosity and laid the groundwork for a belief that mathematical exploration can be both rich and meaningful. Collaborative problem-solving was emphasized as students co-constructed their own learning experience while delving into their posed questions. Centering mathematical “queeries” on thriving, even in the midst of systemic oppression, fostered students’ positive development of agency

My “Camp” experiences taught me that creating mathematical environments focused on Transformative SEL, culturally responsive teaching, and centering thriving and humanness can lead to genuinely revolutionary outcomes. With recent legislative attacks on CRT, social and emotional learning, and 2SLGBTQIA+ youth, centering thriving and humanness in our everyday practice is urgent. I implore my colleagues to ask: How can we work within (or outside) the confines of these laws to center Transformative SEL and student thriving in our teaching? Acting on this question’s answer is one small step in the direction of liberation for all students. 

Brandie E. Waid (she/ella/they), is a queer Latinx independent math coach and activist scholar. A former middle and high school mathematics teacher/teacher educator, Brandie now serves as director of The Queer Mathematics Teacher (an equity-focused math education consulting firm) and co-director of Radical Pedagogy Institute (an equity focused professional development organization for teachers). Brandie’s research and work centers on using a queer and anti-racist lens to challenge traditional practices in mathematics teaching.

The views in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CASEL.

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Thank you for reading Constellations! We invite you to comment and keep the community conversation going. Consider Dr. Waid’s question: How can we center Transformative SEL and student thriving in our teaching?

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