What Cardi B's Birkin bags can teach us about math instruction – The Hechinger Report

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Cardi B, the brash and bold New York hip-hop artist, has a rainbow collection of Hermès Birkin handbags that fills a wall in her house — estimated value, half a million dollars.
Would you call that extravagant?
For educators at Clayton County Public Schools in suburban Atlanta, the question is a crafty way to entice middle schoolers — many Cardi B and hip-hop fans among them — into a math lesson about ratios and proportions.
For example, $500,000 in handbags is less than 1 percent of Cardi B’s estimated $80 million net worth. So, how much do students think they need to earn to be comfortable collecting just one six-figure handbag? How could they determine that, mathematically? How would the calculations change if they wanted to buy a $45,000 “iced-out” Rolex? Or, in a more down-to-earth daydream, what salary would be needed to comfortably afford a $7,500 trip to Walt Disney World for a family of four?
Tonya Clarke, the coordinator of secondary mathematics for Clayton County schools, and her colleagues shared the Cardi B lesson at a math convention earlier this fall as an example of a culturally relevant lesson that can lure students into thinking about math in a way that is engaging and exciting.*
“The initial idea draws them in,” Clarke said. “They’re not just calculating finding a ratio for no reason.” Then, after whetting their appetites, she said, “we may hone in on those skills a little closer.”
The Cardi B lesson is still in the development phase at the district, Clarke said; before sharing it with teachers, her staff will add more detailed notes and guidance on how to incorporate it into instruction.
Clayton County educators spoke about their approach to math instruction at the annual National Council of Teachers of Mathematics convention, at a time when the field is deeply concerned about math attainment, particular for students who are Black, Hispanic, or who come from low-income backgrounds. About 70 percent of the district’s students are Black and 13 percent are Hispanic. Twenty percent are from families who live below the poverty line. In 2022-23, 17 percent of the district’s third through eighth graders, on average, scored proficient or above on the state’s math tests, an increase of about 3 percentage points from the year before.
Bringing a “culturally responsive” framework to math instruction was a major focus of the educators’ convention. Such efforts are meant to “position students as owners of their learning” and create a culture of belonging within the classroom, said Shakiyya Bland, math educator in residence at the nonprofit Just Equations, which advocates for educational equity in math instruction.
“At its core, it needs to really help students critically think and accelerate learning. That’s what I look at when I look at lessons. Do the word problems pose questions that help students think critically about themselves or the data that they’re using?” said Bland, who recently published an article on the brain science behind culturally responsive teaching.
The Clayton district’s efforts to develop more engaging and relatable lessons for math instruction began in 2017, Clarke said. Students have used data on New York’s stop-and-frisk policy and the spread of Covid-19 as foundations for project-based math lessons that are part of the “I’m W.O.K.E. Project” Clarke developed. (The acronym stands for Widens Options through Knowledge and Empowerment.)*
The district’s efforts are  in harmony with Georgia’s 2021 revision of its math standards. In those standards, state officials said that students at every grade level should be engaged in “mathematical modeling” — using math to explore the world around them.
Catherine Lawrence, an instructional support teacher in math and science for the district, said middle school students often come into math classes afraid. It’s the “fear of being wrong, fear of not getting in the first time around, fear of not being able to communicate to the teacher that it doesn’t make sense,” she said.
Culturally relevant teaching, along with other teaching tools and techniques the district uses such as manipulatives — objects like counting blocks or fraction tiles — can help break through that apprehension, she said.
But it does take work, and ongoing training, to make sure that teachers can assist students to bridge that gap between something concrete and tangible — the price of a handbag, or data about arrests — to more abstract math knowledge.
“During collaborative planning we talk about implementation,” Lawrence said. “How do we make sure we get the meat and potatoes, and we don’t get stuck in the dessert.”
For Clarke, the Cardi B lesson helps demonstrate to teachers that infusing cultural relevance in math classes is achievable, with the right support system in place.
“We’re still struggling through the process of getting teachers to fully buy into it, because we’re still trying to get teachers to understand math is not just about the numbers — math is about the problem solving,” Clarke said. While some teachers find the lessons time-consuming and difficult, she said, overall, teachers are trying the new methods.
“The process is implementable. It’s not as heavy a lift as a lot of them think that it is,” she said.

*Correction: This story has been updated to correct Clarke’s title and to note that she is the developer of the I’m W.O.K.E. Project.
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This is not a letter but a comment. I believe that many teachers are reluctant to help change the math models and ways of teaching because they themselves don’t get the math. Teachers are in need of a higher standard of education themselves. I am a homeschooling mom and a Network Marketing Professional. I deal with many teachers who want to earn more to become financially free and follow their dreams. They have a desire to leave a financial legacy for their children. BUT they are difficult to teach. They do not understand math as they should and are asking obvious questions. They also lack the desire to explore which leads them to stagnation and really asking the same questions that many of the more quick thinkers have caught on to sometimes weeks ahead of them. I am in no way meaning to insult but I think higher standards should be put in place for the education of the children in a new technology age . I would suggest paid Summer “no shame, upping my math game” workshops for teachers. This idea should be extended to reading and technology too.
As a middle school math teacher, and as someone familiar with Cardi B’s songs (I also DJ our dances and have to preview music requests beforehand), I’m appalled that anyone would hold this woman up as an example to use for teaching math. Aside from her inappropriate for kids lyrics, do these teachers assume because they have a racially homogeneous group of students, that all these kids can relate to this vulgar hip-hop/rapper? There are plenty of ways to relate to and engage students without stereotyping our students. I teach in a rural area, but wouldn’t dream of making all my students do math based around the some extravagant country singer, or Taylor Swift’s lifestyle, even if all my kids were White, because that would be ridiculous. Even if Cardi B wasn’t basically porn put to music, and someone who actually had a positive message for kids, there will be students who are not at all interested in her or her handbags, even if they are all of the same skin color and in the inner city of NY. Why force them to be part of that?
This is in reply to the commenter, who self-identified as Rashida Wone.
I don’t think that the issue of understanding for the teachers themselves.
The mathematics itself within the classes taught in middle and high school are highly fundamental and can be logically reasoned.
If you have passed calculus, which I have, the rational, trigonometric and polynomial functions along with of high school becomes almost intuitive.
The real problem to me, is due to the inherent limitations of the human condition.
Work sucks, at least in its present state in the 21st century.
Mental exertion is generally unpleasant, and teaching requires a lot of it.
To survive the day, teachers have to limit their output to protect their mental health and to have a balanced life.
Why not use Beyoncé ‘s recent Renaissance Tour financials? Ask the important question as to why are people who live within the poverty level income giving their money to Billionaires?
I believe that this is a game- changing education movement for diverse kids and/or adults.
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