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Building Mathematics Learning Communities

Erica N. Walker
Teachers College Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Woong Lim
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Mathematics teacher educators in the U.S. often report the growing challenge of how to prepare their student teachers to teach mathematics in urban public schools. These schools typically serve low income and immigrant students with limited English proficiency. Often the students are predominantly Black and Latino/a. Mass media, along with the rise of populists who profit from slandering public education, have perpetuated the public perception that the urban youth are not interested in learning, that school campuses are littered with drugs and violence, and that these students are incapable of learning difficult mathematics.

Some educators blame such struggles of urban youth on poverty, broken homes, or cultural factors. Erica Walker rebukes such views and presents a case study of a public high school in New York City in Building Mathematics Learning Communities. Walker builds a strong case that urban high school students are actually interested in mathematics and that there exist different and better ways to engage and support urban youth to be successful in mathematics. More specifically, she describes students’ academic communities in great detail (see chapter 2), provides insight into the real challenges of urban schools including limited resources for teachers, bureaucracy, and control over their curriculum (chapter 3), and illustrates how particular strategies do increase students’ engagement in the learning of mathematics (chapter 5).

As a mathematics teacher educator I am quite used to the emerging narrative of supporting our urban youth and engaging them in difficult mathematics. So this book comes as no surprise for me and my colleagues in the field of mathematics education. In the midst of all this literature, however, this book is unique and helpful; it adds much to the urban education literature.

First, the book is essentially a case study that reflects on urban students’ voices and experiences with a high degree of authenticity. Second, this book examines how urban students relate to their peers and families and how this network supports or hinders their mathematics success. Third, this book describes a model of collaborative peer tutoring programs led by students as an integral part of their educational experiences in school.

Walker takes pains to describe, with a great sense of hope, the model for how schools and teachers can build on the peer networks to create learning communities (or as she calls it “the collaborative space with teachers and students”) that result in student engagement and achievement in mathematics (see chapter 5). Lastly, Walker strongly advocates a systematic approach to nurture mathematical skills for underserved students through mathematics socialization and talent development programs (chapter 6).

One of my favorite quotes from the book was

our current use of testing as a broad yardstick measure of student and school performance ensures that we spend an inordinate amount of time discussing failure, rather than deeply examining causes of student success and how students’ networks may support and obstruct it (p. 117).

Walker argues for the importance of research to go beyond the performance issues and provide critical insight into students’ mathematical thinking, persistence, and types of achievement other than standardized testing. Hear, hear!

I recommend this book to anyone who has to battle with the educator perception of the (in)abilities of urban students in mathematics. This book could also be a good course text for student teaching seminar. I have been looking for a text with concrete and rich articulation regarding discourse communities or academic communities in the mathematics classroom. I decided this book could serve my students as a useful “picture book” of classroom communities.

Woong Lim ( is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics Education at University of New Mexico. His research interests include mathematics teacher education; and discourse, language, and equity in the mathematics classroom.

The table of contents is not available.