Indigenizing and Decolonizing, Teaching Practice, Institutional Initiatives

Can it be done? A math instructor attempts to indigenize her course

October 17, 2019
Petra Menz (senior lecturer, mathematics) revamped her first-year math course to integrate Indigenous knowledge and pedagogy as a way to enhance student learning and well-being.
By Jackie Amsden, Centre for Educational Excellence

“Math is math. What’s there to indigenize?” 

Petra Menz, a senior lecturer in the Department of Mathematics, admits that this was her first thought when she read the calls to indigenize and decolonize curriculum and teaching in the SFU Aboriginal Reconciliation Council’s 2017 report, Walk This Path With Us.

Now, two years later, Menz regularly uses Métis weaving, Coast Salish artwork, Ojibwe poetry reading and talking stick ceremonies to guide her students through everything from numeration systems to transformation geometry in her MATH 190: Principles of Mathematics for Elementary Teachers course.

So, how did Menz shift her perspective from feeling reluctant about the idea of decolonizing and indigenizing her courses, to embracing it? Step. By. Step.

“As an instructor, I’m always asking myself how can I improve student learning and enhance their well-being? I wasn’t sure what decolonizing and indigenizing would mean for me, but I also knew that if there was a chance that it would contribute to those goals, I couldn’t just ignore it.”

Small steps, inside and outside the classroom

Menz says her journey began with modest steps.

“It can feel like a mountain at first, so I started small, with a land acknowledgement in class that was connected to some of the material we were working through.”

Menz also began collecting research articles and resources and attending events and workshops organized by groups in her field like the Canadian Mathematics Education Study Group.

“Going to these events was a very emotional experience because my whole belief system was shaken up. I would look back and question all of my past actions and decisions. This can be very scary, but I believe this is necessary for change.” 

Menz explains that these experiences eventually helped her find a path forward.

“I remember someone suggesting I should just bring in a canoe and talk about the math of it, but that didn’t seem right. Instead, what I have done is weave Indigenous material and Indigenous ways of learning and teaching—such as group learning, interactivity and reflection—throughout the course, so that it is integrated deeply and not just on the surface.”

Menz points to the talking stick ceremony as one impactful example of what this integration looks like.

“We do the ceremony during the last class. Each student has a turn to hold the stick, which is actually a shell, and share the struggles they have overcome and what they have learned during the course. Most of the students in my class are math anxious, so it can be very powerful to hear how they have found a way through the material. The goal of it is to show that we are a community and have taken a journey together.”

An enriched learning space for students

The results for students, she notes, have been profound.

“Many of my students have expressed being deeply appreciative that Indigenous knowledge is out in the open and is not just being used in a token way here and there. I feel that they are all benefitting because bringing in other perspectives enriches the experience and equips them to be more creative in their problem-solving approaches.”

Menz’s next challenge? Decolonizing calculus.

“I’m teaching a calculus course in Fall semester and I know that is going to be more challenging to indigenize, not because of the complexity of content, but the complexity of the context. The classes are much larger, with 300 to 500 students in one lecture, and with more colleagues teaching the course that I will need to get on board.” 

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