Ethnic Studies Educator Shraddha Shirude on Giving Math Purpose

by Ari Robin McKenna

This is the third in a series of articles featuring the words of local ethnic studies educators who are doing work to address systemic racism in our classrooms. To read the first, click here. To read the second, click here. To read the series intro, click here.

Early this past spring just before the pandemic emptied classrooms, math teacher Shraddha Shirude floated a novel course offering to sophomores at Garfield High for the 2020–2021 school year: Ethnic Studies Math. The result was confounding; 90 students signed up … for an elective math class. How could this be?

Most of these sophomores were about to wrap up their eleventh year (K–10) spent in Seattle Public Schools classrooms. It’s likely that their education up until that point had rarely escaped the narrow, shallow channel of the de facto paradigm — complete with Eurocentric history, few teachers or literary protagonists of color, and the looming threat of biased standardized tests. While white students are less likely to feel cramped by all this, students of color would have been long-forced to reckon with being seen only peripherally in their studies.

Fliers for Ms. Shirude’s elective class posted around Garfield’s hallways advertised that students would seek to, “understand our world through a mathematical lens.” The flier listed diverse modules of study within the yearlong class: political science, business and finance, arts and culture, health and fitness, and technology. It also listed the four ethnic studies themes that can be interwoven through any class, K–12:

  • Identity & Origins
  • Power & Oppression
  • Resistance & Liberation
  • Reflection & Action

Like Running Start, students will receive both high school and college credit for taking Ethnic Studies Math. Unlike an advanced placement (AP) class, there is no pricey standardized test awaiting students at the course’s end. The class also gives youth options. College-bound and/or students who foresee themselves in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields can take this class to shore up their conceptual foundation and opt to take Algebra II as seniors to fulfill the four years of high-school math that colleges take note of. Alternately, they could take Ethnic Studies Math as seniors and complete four years of math that way. If not on a STEM track and uninterested in taking math for four years, the class can simply replace Algebra II as their third year of required high-school math.

Perhaps it was the fliers, perhaps students were already drawn to the poise of Ms. Shirude, perhaps it was the college credit or the options Ethnic Studies Math opened up, but the overwhelming majority of those who enrolled in this advanced math elective were students of color.

A classroom full of mostly white students taking a rigorous, conceptual, college-level course, designed by a white educator, that centers them would hardly be novel in Seattle Public Schools — and is often the norm at Seattle’s many private schools. The fact that a comparable situation never seems to happen for students of color has a name: systemic racism. While the measure often used to describe Seattle’s egregious failure to serve its BIPOC students is derived from standardized test scores — themselves highly problematic — the so-called ‘achievement gap’ can clearly be better defined as an opportunity gap. However, relabeling the problem and then setting it adrift is something Seattle Public Schools has done expertly for decades.

That’s why each of the three sections of Shraddha’s unique class represent historical dents in Seattle’s white-supremacist educational system — no matter what mix of online and in-person learning transpires.

It is incredible that Shraddha made this happen during only her second year as an educator. It is admirable that Garfield administrators didn’t get in her way — as has often been the case at schools across the country, who are wont to cite concerns about a few fearful, outspoken white parents while blocking or disbanding substantive ethnic studies work.

The Emerald caught up with Shraddha recently at the Union Green of Seattle University, her alma mater. A member of the Ethnic Studies Advisory Group (ESAG), which has been designing K–12 curriculum, Shraddha reflected on her own lived experience within the educational system. While she’s comfortable offering a scathing, matter-of-fact critique of it, she becomes more and more magnetic the closer she gets to her subject: mathematics.

Within ten minutes, and with an artist’s sense of inspiration, Shraddha can convince someone they’ve been missing out on math their whole lives, that it’s all around them, and that they too are likely another dormant mathematician spurned by a system that told them otherwise. Unlike some math teachers, she doesn’t discriminate, because Shraddha believes math, like art, is creative, and at its essence, human. What follows are the highlights of a brimming conversation:

“I used to live with the idea that no one taught me how to behave in a white world, I just had to learn it.

“That is true to a degree, in that socially, no one teaches you how to navigate a white world, but what I didn’t realize was that our education system is doing exactly that. But it’s not teaching you how to navigate it, it’s assimilating you into it and erasing your identity and your history.

“I’m an Indian American immigrant. I moved here when I was about three and a half and we spent big chunks of time in Pune, India, southeast of Mumbai. In India, I’m not Indian enough, because I’m American, but then in America, I’m not American enough, because I’m Indian. A lot of immigrants have this experience, but a lot of People of Color in general have this experience in the United States. 

“That was part of what attracted me to ethnic studies, was just the ability to see myself. How do I actually see myself, because no one else can see me? So how can I be enough? And that was kind of how I started.

“Where do you come from? Who are you? Why are you the way you are?

“[The Origin, Identity, and Agency theme in] Ethnic studies allows for us to go beyond just race and really talk about ethnicity in our culture, and it also allows us to look at how white supremacy culture and colonization have impacted our identities, because white people’s ethnicity is different. “White” is their race. They have ethnicities, and they have histories that come from a specific area, and they have cultures beyond white culture. And white culture is toxic for every single race, but it benefits white people.

“What is super important when looking at ethnic studies as a name, [is that] it alludes — in my opinion — to more than just curriculum or pedagogy. It is curriculum. It is pedagogy. It is different styles of teaching. But the core of ethnic studies is education reform.

“Education is what shapes society, because how we teach students, what they’re expected to know going into society — that’s how it continues as they become adults. When we’re only teaching them that one master narrative, that’s the master narrative that is around in society too, because they grow up, and then they teach their kids that, and that’s how they approach the world. That’s how they engage with other people. That’s what they see as normal. That’s what they see as standard. That’s what they see as law. It’s all based on white supremacy culture.

“When we take ethnic studies and we change that lens, it actually allows for people to start seeing what society is, and asking themselves: Where do I fit in? Or, if they don’t fit in: How can I change those things? And how can I change society to actually make it so that everybody is taken care of in all the ways?

“When I started to think about my students. The biggest challenge is students who shrug and say: ‘I’m not a math person.’ How often do we hear that phrase!

“Not being a math person is a mindset, not a true statement. So how do we get students to see themselves as math people?

“We’ve never thought about the mathematician’s identity. Math has always been perceived as an abstract and objective (which is not true), but it’s always seen as this thing that lays over the world and explains the world to us, rather than us using mathematics, as a way of understanding how we live in the world.

“It’s a really big shift. It’s not just math history, it’s not just social justice math, it’s a matter of how we are changing our pedagogy to really help students see that they are mathematicians, at heart, as human beings. That’s how the world works, through mathematics.

“If you look at a tree, like right here we have this tree [Shraddha points to a large maple above us and pauses] … you can see math sequencing through these leaves, the branches. If you observe the patterns present, you’ll see the Fibonacci series in some way. That’s something that was discovered by a mathematician that has impacted our world insanely, and if you read a little bit about his story, he was treated like shit. He was told he was a blockhead and an idiot and that he didn’t understand things, and why was he asking dumb questions? Which is exactly what we tell our kids when they ask questions in math class, because math is not a place for questions. It’s a place to learn. As though questions aren’t how we learn.

“With ethnic studies, what we do is we actually backtrack and we center our kids first. So, say students are in this room [she makes a gesture to suggest the shape of a classroom]. I ask, do you see yourself as a mathematician? Why or why not?

“The most common explanation for ‘yes’ was: ‘Because I get good grades.’ So they see themselves as mathematicians if they get a good grade that is arbitrarily assigned by a teacher who says, ‘this is how you do this thing.’ So we become the arbiters of truth. But that’s crap because you know you don’t know everything. So why do you get to decide if this one kid is a mathematician? I assign you this grade, I think you did the steps the way I want you to, and it makes sense to me. Therefore, you get to be a mathematician. That should be a personal choice.

“The most common answer for ‘no’ was: I don’t get it and I don’t get good grades.

“It had nothing to do with the curriculum. It had nothing to do with the teacher. It had everything to do with how they saw themselves. It had to do with their identity and that they don’t see themselves as mathematicians.

“They come into math class with a learned helplessness because of the way that math has been structured: teach how to do things, then hand them the thing, and they practice. It’s the I do, we do, you do — [a] very common strategy used in mathematics education, and it’s still taught today. Their point is I show them, I model it, I show them what being a good mathematician looks like, we do it all together, and then they try it on their own. And this linear thought doesn’t allow for creativity, but mathematics is an inherently creative content area.

“Literally the entire world, no matter what way you look at it, there is mathematics in it. Every single thing you do has math, because math is the study of patterns and relationships in our world.

“You can see math in an argument between a couple.

“You can see math based on the grass that’s growing, and the different heights of the grass.

“You can see math everywhere in the world and in every interaction, whether that’s human … animal … plant … universe. But that’s not how we’re taught to look at it, and that’s how it’s used to oppress people.

“How is math used for oppression?

“The easiest way to look at it — which is a social justice math way of looking at it — is when you don’t teach a student how math can impact them in the real world, then you’re doing them a disservice, and therefore you’re oppressing their knowledge and understanding. Yet if you’re teaching them to understand and accept the world as it is, you risk harming and possibly re-oppressing them. Teaching them why it matters to them personally is how you actually support every student of every race in one lesson. You teach them to consider their identity and ask: How can I make the world better?

“That connects the two pieces of, ‘This is who I am’ and ‘Why am I approaching this problem?’ ‘Here is the problem. Here is how I can resolve the problem.’ It gives math a purpose, and it provides students opportunities to actually engage authentically. There’s big talk about authentic engagement, but it never happens because people are not willing to understand that identity is an invaluable component of mathematics learning, because as soon as a student loses track of how the lesson relates to their identity, there’s a chance you’ve lost them. Look at how our country is responding to coronavirus! Many adults who are not personally connected to the infection and mortality rate seem to believe this problem is beyond them, which is similar to how many students react to math: since it’s not connected to them, they can’t care, they can’t find a solution.

“Mathematics is an emotional experience for a lot of people, because it is human nature to want to know math. As a society, we’ve removed that experience from it, and it’s resulted in trauma for people to the point of just saying, ‘It doesn’t matter.’

“We have to rehumanize mathematics, and remind everyone that every single person is a math person, and that every person in their own way is a mathematician. It’s not about a participation trophy, it’s about being a human being.”

Shraddha Shirude (Photo: Chloe Collyer)

For a description of the unit Shraddha likes to begin her math classes with, on number theory, click here.

Educators interested in an ethnic studies primer, various professional learning communities (PLC) opportunities, and other ethnic studies-related information click here.

Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, NY; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, WA, before settling in Dunlap (just north of Rainier Beach). Currently, he writes about issues relating to the South End. You can contact him here.

Featured image: Shraddha Shirude (Photo: Chloe Collyer).