Cultivating math genius.

Since coming across the work of Dr. Gholdy Muhammad, I’ve come to understand meaningful math learning in a totally different way. This post captures Dr. Muhammad’s research on “Cultivating Genius” from my perspective as a math education researcher, community-engaged scholar, and professor.

How do you cultivate students’ math genius? Through intentional designs for learning that celebrate students’ identities, that hone students’ skills, the grow students’ intellect, that expand students’ criticality, and that spark joy.

#identity #skills #intellect #criticality #joy #Muhammad2020

Scroll for multi-media resources… Engage with the image gallery, print, fold, and share an illustrated zine, or post the 1 page handout.

Teaching and learning from a culturally and historically responsive literacy framework (Muhammad, 2020) means developing students’ identity, skills, intellect, criticality, and joy. Check out this 1 page visualization of these layered pursuits from Dr. Fonger’s orientation toward meaningful math learning and teaching.

Zines are mini-magazines about a topic. Print out this zine at 100% scale and fold it following these directions in a Video (How to fold a zine by Prof. Fonger) or Illustrated Guide by Ashley Topacio (You Print Zine). Share this zine with others and inspire creativity in education!

How do you cultivate students’ math genius? Reach out!

Dr. Nicole L. Fonger


Muhammad, G. (2020). Cultivating genius: An equity framework for culturally and historically responsive literacy. Scholastic.


A Sense of Place.

What do Food Justice and Highway 81 in Syracuse have to do with math?


“Syracuse Central School District and Syracuse University students, teachers, coaches, researchers, and other education stakeholders came together at Cafe Sankofa of Syracuse’s South Side on May 7, 2022 for “A Sense of Place.”

This community-engaged event was an opportunity for attendees to learn how math is being used to address local issues, such as highway revitalization and food justice.

The event included educational stations, spoken word performances, music, and food.

“A Sense of Place” was organized by the Antiracist Algebra Coalition, which connects Syracuse community members and education stakeholders as a way to explore the intersection of antiracism and students’ success in algebra.

Event sponsors are the Central New York Humanities Corridor, The Engaged Humanities Network, and Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences, School of Education, and Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Engagement (The SOURCE).”

A Sense of Place: Using Math to Engage in Our Communities Event

We are grateful for funding support from the Central New York Humanities Corridor, and the following Syracuse University organizations: The Engaged Humanities Network and the Mathematics Department in the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Education, the the Syracuse Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Engagement.

Schedule of Events:

  • 12:00 pm
    • Kick-off with Music by DJ Dubl6,
    • Interactive Stations by Teachers and Students
    • Snacks by Food Truck Vendor Oompa Loompyas
  • 12:30 pm
    • SCSD Student Spoken Word Performances
    • Headliner, Local Artist Cedric T. Bolton (aka Blackman Preach) Spoken Word Performance
  • 1:00 pm til 2:00 pm
    • Ice Cream Cart by Skippy’s
    • Hands-On Social Justice Math Activities
    • Book giveaway
    • Music by DJ Dubl6

The Antiracist Algebra Coalition.

In this post I answer 5 key questions:

  • 1. What was the initial process of forming the Antiracist Algebra Coalition like?
  • 2. How did my ideas become reality?
  • 3. Did you receive support from any of your colleagues or the university?
  • 4. What sparked your interest in starting “The Antiracist Algebra Coalition”?
  • 5. What are the results of this project?

I wrote this post as response to a Syracuse University student who wanted to learn more a bout the Antiracist Algebra Coalition. I hope you enjoy learning more about this work!

1. What was the initial process of forming the Antiracist Algebra Coalition like?

The initial process involved:

  • making clear for myself what my goals were and why I was starting this work
  • identifying several folks whom I thought would be interested in collaborating with me
  • setting agendas and repeated meetings to continue the conversation and work

To be honest, I also didn’t really know what I was doing at the start. I didn’t have a “playbook” for next steps, and it felt really uncertain and vulnerable. I have since learned that doing community engaged work can be summed up by doing work together, co-creating knowledge, and being in relationship.

Dr. Nicole Fonger on What is Community-Engaged Scholarship (a zine)

2. How did my ideas become reality?

In starting this community-engagement project, it was important to have a clear sense of the topic and scope of the work. I also articulated several driving questions and goals. As the work continued, more stakeholders came into the fold and expanded who was involved.

I describe the goals and aims of the Antiracist Algebra Coalition at this website.

The sketchnote below provides a visual of this kind of planning and reflection that it took to realize these ideas.

A community engagement planning table to support new projects and keep track of ongoing work. See the “How do I get started in community-engaged scholarship” zine.

3. Did you receive support from any of your colleagues or the university?

I feel very supported at Syracuse University to engage in community engaged work. While I may not have felt that way at the start, I feel that way now. I believe in the work of community-engaged scholarship, and I now have a network of faculty, students, and community leaders who share that commitment.

Dr. Nicole Fonger on community-engaged work at Syracuse University.

Time. One huge form of support in starting this group was having the flexibility to focus on my research and scholarship through a research leave. This meant I wasn’t responsible for teaching classes during the semester that I was forming the coalition. It takes a huge amount of time to build relationships with community partners. With this research leave I was able to focus on building something new.

Funding. Grant money also supported this work in a very tangible and practical way. Having funds to pay collaborators such as school teachers, district and building coaches, consultants, parents, and other community leaders was important to me. This work was funded through a CUSE Grant “Building Research-Practice Partnerships to Improve Student Outcomes in School Algebra” as well as the Engaged Humanities Mini-Grant “Antiracist Algebra Coalition.”

Relationships. Now that I have been a part of the SU community for over 4 years, I have a network of colleagues who support me along the way. My colleagues encourage me, celebrate my successes, and provide words of wisdom when I meet challenging obstacles.

4. What sparked your interest in starting “The Antiracist Algebra Coalition”?

I’ve done a huge amount of personal growth related on unlearning racism, seeing the ways that inequities is designed into systems that govern our society–including mathematics education–and better understanding my role as a teacher and scholar in making change.

In my learning, I realized that to make impactful change, I needed the support of a larger community of people who had different roles in mathematics education–different stakeholders–if you will. I needed to hear from students, from teachers, from school and district leaders, and from parents. The work of abolition in mathematics education is not an individual person’s responsibility, it’s a collective responsibility of the community.

Dr. Fonger on why she started the Antiracist Algebra Coalition

I’ve included the following arts-based representations of that growth to showcase some of starting points for the coalition.

This sketchnote shared some of my reflections on how bias and racism is interwoven in the procedures and practices of school matheamtics.
This sketchnote showcases some of the ways I am “unlearning” racism in my practice as a math teacher.
This zine captures some of what I’m learning about race, racial literacy, and the work of being a co-conspirator as a white person dedicated to advancing racial justice for Black, Indegenous, People of Color.
This zine was produced in collaboration with Syracuse University office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. It captures ideas related to redlining, and biases that may be reflected in our speech patterns through microaggressions.

5. What are the results of this project?

The Antiracist Algebra Coalition is ongoing. It’s currently folded into the work of the Meaningful Math Research Lab that I lead at Syracuse University with undergraduates and graduate student researchers.

Some of the history of the group is captured here:

  • In Spring 2022 our work is focused on designing and implementing social justice math units in high school and middle school. We will host an event in May 2022. Stay tuned!
  • Fall 2021 Work Sessions were held in October and November and focused on Black Brilliance and Mathematics Coaching
  • Spring 2021 was the initial convening of the group to set aims, visions, and foci of our work.

Some of the arts-based products of this group include:

Some of the written products of the work include:

  • A Grant Proposal to the W. T. Grant Foundation focused on Black Brilliance in Algebra
  • An article for the Mathematics Teacher Learning and Teaching journal on my journey toward becoming an antiracist math educator
  • News briefs on high school math lessons that connect Black History, the 15th Ward, and math
  • A journal article on teaching other math teachers how to engage in antiracist math teaching practices

Are you white? (a Zine)

I created this zine “Are you white?” as a reflection on my journey toward becoming an antiracist math educator. In this post I introduce the zine through a video. I also include a PDF for you to download (c) Nicole Fonger (usable under a creative commons license). This work is also featured in a Mathematics Teacher Learning and Teaching journal article (in press February 2022).

Feb 9, 2022 • Dr. Nicole Fonger, an assistant professor of mathematics and mathematics education at Syracuse University, introduces a zine (mini-magazine) focused on ideas she has found helpful to learn about race and racism, and the work of white people like herself. This zine includes several resources to learn more including podcasts and books and frameworks. The artwork is original and created by Dr. Fonger. The ideas that are depicted are based on others’ published works including: DismantlingRacism.org, ShowingUpForRacialJustice.org, Anneliese Sing’s The Racial Healing Handbook, the Virginia Commonwealth University Becoming an Antiracist Educator series, the Seeing White podcast series by Scene on Radio, and UMass Amherst Center of Racial Justice.

If you choose to download and print this zine, see this brief video tutorial for how to fold a zine. Drop a note in the comments below to let me know who you share it with and what you think about this form of creative scholarship.

Please cite this work as Fonger, Nicole L. (2021). “Zine: Are you white?” Accessed https://nicolefonger.com/2022/02/09/are-you-white-a-zine/


Who gets into algebra in 8th grade?

Please cite as Fonger, Nicole L. “Who gets into algebra in 8th grade” Original sketchnote created May 2021

This sketchnote is featured in the Mathematics Teacher Learning and Teaching Journal (in press, February 2022).


Rx. Breathe, nature, self-care.

A student recently visited my office hours in a desolate condition. Complaints about a class, another class, another professor, poured out of their mouth no sooner than tears began streaming down their face. The world as they knew it was crashing in on them. Perseverating on fears, the unknown possibility of a dark future, seemingly unable to be here now…

I found myself calm, attuned, and open-hearted.  In listening and observing, I sought to see the student. I sought to provide a mirror, and offered the following “prescription” written on the front and back of an index card:

Practice non-judgement. Notice when your mind perseverates on something — an expectation, a perceived “failure.” Notice when it’s you against yourself in the ring. Yet in noticing, do not judge it. Just allow it to be, and move on. Ah, it is there, my teacher, how interesting. It is not good, it is not bad, it just is. #mindfulness

Notice nature. As you walk out into the world, look around you in nature. Notice. What is happening outside? The changing seasons, the falling of leaves, the preparation for winter, a cool brisk breeze… These are all beautiful reflections of letting go. Changes occurring in the macrocosm all around you on Earth, are also occurring within you as a microcosm. The antidote is always the opposite.  Ground into the earth, drink water, find a place to be, just be, without another agenda. #naturewalk

Breathe. Inhale for four counts, exhale for eight counts. Inhale for four counts, exhale for eight counts. Repeat this breath pattern and notice how your parasympathetic nervous system responds and relaxes into a calmer state with the power of the breath grounding you to the now. #breathe

Seek out support. Find another person in each class or group that you can confide in, and work through related difficulties together. Go directly to each of your teachers, mentors, or professors, and explain the trouble you are having. Visit health services and a counseling center. I recommend the “mind spa” which is a quiet room designed to cultivate relaxation, meditation, and a space to just be.

As the student left, he called over his shoulder saying, “I’ll see you next week.” I smiled. Mind you, this student is not on one of my class rosters. Instead, he found himself in my office during one of the prize times each week I hold space for students to be, to converse, to do math, to tell stories (i.e., office hours).

As I reflect on this experience, what stands out the most, is the oneness of human experience. We do such a great job of presenting our selves to the world (most of the time). As of late, these representations of self often come through shiny, filtered lenses and posts that portray the best of us. Yet these portrayals of self and of experience often fail to convey the totality of human experience–including the humanity in suffering.

Each of us has a story, has been stuck, has suffered affliction of one form or another. Our challenge then, remains an opportunity. See one another. Hold space for one another. Be. When you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, we are one.

Evoking Emotion in a Math Lesson.

These below photos and the prompts were curated by Ken Keech, Betty Routhouska, and Nicole Fonger and used in a math lesson and Desmos Activity “Linear Functions and the 15th Ward.” Mr. Keech and Mrs. Routhouska taught this lesson for high school students at Nottingham High School.

The Original Photos of the two couples shown here as sketches (by Fonger) were taken by Richard Breland and published on Syracuse New Times “The way they were: Images of residents from the 15th Ward during thew 1950s.” The quotes and data are published by the Onondaga Historical Association “The Destruction of Syracuse’s 15th Ward.”

We asked students “What might the 15th ward have felt like for Black Americans at the time? Why do think this?”
Please cite as Keech, K., Routhouska, B., & Fonger, N. L. (2022). “Evoking emotion in a culturally and historically responsive math lesson on linear functions.” Accessed on Today’s Date from https://nicolefonger.com/2022/05/18/evoking-emotion-in-a-math-lesson/

We’d love to hear how you are using these or similar resources to evoke emotion in math lessons. Reach out!

This community engaged research was made possible with support from the Antiracist Algebra Coalition and the Meaningful Math Research Group at Syracuse University, especially students Waleed Raja, Khadija Sharif, Daslin Peña, Emmy Njue, Abigail Erskine, and Stephen Caviness. Funding support for this community-engaged research is from the Humanities Corridor of Central New York, and the following organizations at Syracuse University: the Engaged Communities Network in the College of Arts and Sciences, the Deans office in the School of Education, the Mathematics Department, the Syracuse Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Engagement (SOURCE), and the Collaboration for Unprecedented Success and Excellence (CUSE) Grant Program. For more information contact Nicole Fonger at nfonger AT syr DOT edu or http://www.nicolefonger.com @research2practice on Instagram and @nmlfonger on Twitter

Vision Board.

This vision board was created by Ken Keech, Betty Routhouska, and Nicole Fonger with support from the Antiracist Algebra Coalition and the Meaningful Math Research Group at Syracuse University students Waleed Raja, Khadija Sharif, Daslin Peña, Emmy Njue, Abigail Erskine and Mathematics Instructional Coach, Tracy Mosier of the Syracuse City School District Mathematics Department.

This vision board is an adaptation of Dr. Gholdy Muhammad’s Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy.

Please Cite as: Keech, K., Routhouska, B., & Fonger, N. L. (2022). A Vision Board for Culturally and Historically Responsive Mathematics Literacy adapted from Dr. Gholdy Muhammad’s Cultivating Genius. Accessed from http://www.nicolefonger.com

Partial funding support for this community-engaged research is from the Humanities Corridor of Central New York, and the following organizations at Syracuse University: the Engaged Communities Network in the College of Arts and Sciences, the Deans Office in the School of Education, the Mathematics Department, the Syracuse Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Engagement (SOURCE), and the Collaboration for Unprecedented Success and Excellence (CUSE) Grant Program.

For more information contact Nicole Fonger via email nfonger AT syr DOT edu or http://www.nicolefonger.com @research2practice on Instagram and @nmlfonger on Twitter

Reflecting on Dysconscious Racism

In this sketchnote I reflect on a teaching experience and how my actions were rooted in dysconscious racism (King, 1991).

Please cite as Fonger, Nicole L. (2021). “My reflection on dysconscious racism as a white math teacher.” Original Sketchnote Accessed February 9 2022 from http://www.nicolefonger.com

This sketchnote is featured in the Mathematics Teacher Learning and Teaching Journal (in press, February 2022).


King, Joyce E. “Dysconscious racism: Ideology, Identity, and the Miseducation of Teachers” The Journal of Negro Education. 60, no. 2 (Spring 1991): 133-146. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2295605

How do you get started in community-engaged scholarship?

I’m a life long learner. I love learning. One topic I am learning more about is community-engaged scholarship. I’m reading, listening to podcasts, partnering with community members, inviting speakers to visit the class I’m teaching. Here are some thoughts on community-engaged scholarship that I learned from Brice Nordquist. I’ve shared them here in the form of a “zine” (mini-magazine).

What is community-engaged scholarship?
It’s about doing work together… Community-Engaged Scholarship is about the co-creation of knowledge. It’s about being in relationship. #relationship
OK – but how do I do it? (1) What do I want to be working on? (Go with what you re passionate about–passion is a key driver to successful and sustaining projects) (2) What expertise do I have? (You have many gifts. Are you an experienced classroom teacher? A researcher? A parent? A tutor? An Advocate? Bring your full self to the table)
How do I do it? (continued) (3) Who is interested in building a relationship around this? #connect (4) What are existing partnerships or networks?
Now come together around shared goals. This work was inspired by Brice Nordquist. The Zine was created by Nicole Fonger.

Some of my students are working on community-engaged projects. I encouraged them to fill out this “worksheet” to get their ideas on paper.

This this! Set a 5 minute timer, or your favorite song, and keep your pen moving the entire time. Don’t judge yourself with what you write down on paper. Let the words and ideas flow as you engage with the prompts and questions. See if within the five minutes you can write something for each block.

Community-Engagement Planning Table (1/1): (1) What is your topic? (2) What are your driving questions and goals? (3) Who is involved? (4) Where are you in the process?
Community-Engagement Planning Table (2/2): (5) What artifacts of research and/or practice are central to your work?

Students in a class I’m teaching (MTD 700 Linking Research and Practice in STEAM education) completed this exercise in class today. I’ve paraphrased some of their ideas for community-engagement here, and the “consulting” that I provided to them each in one-on-one conversations.

I want to help others who may experience anxiety in taking the mathematics content test that is required to become a math teacher.

Great – let’s connect you with current pre-service teachers in mathematics education at Syracuse University. I think your experience is invaluable to their success, you can share your experience, serve in a mentoring role, and share recourses specific to combatting math anxiety. – Prof. Fonger

I want to partner with others to support students and counselors of students. I want to distill the research in bite size pieces so that they can use it right away without needing to read lengthy articles to get to the research-informed practices.

I love your focus on both the students and the counselors of the students. I wonder which population you will focus on first. (Student: I will need to check with my partner) Sharing the power of decision making across all stakeholder groups is certainly apt. – Prof. Fonger

I want to learn from the crisis that happened in the state of Texas related to the recent power outages. I want to create lesson materials for mathematics teachers that link to some of these topics.

Great idea – this sounds connected to work discussed in the Teaching Mathematics for Social Justice published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. They share lesson resources and templates of ideas for your to model this idea after. -Prof Fonger
Students discussing their project ideas at a cafe near campus. Sept. 2021.

First day of class.

First days of class can be the worst. I remember always being frustrated with first days of class. I always felt that we never “did anything” or accomplished anything.

That was me, as an elementary student, eager for engagement, learning, and difficult texts. Now as a professor, educator, academic, parent, I approach “firsts” from a different light.

This semester I’d like to practice the art of linking research and practice. I’m drawing on research in mathematics education to inform not only what I teach but how I teach.

I’m using Jennifer Wolfe’s (2021) article on Teaching as Becoming. I asked all students to read this article in advance of the first day of class, and I’m going to use her framework to guide “ground rules” for participation. I’m also going to do an “identity” activity as the first homework assignment to guide students’ engagement with the text, each other, and telling our stories and unique positionalities.

Guiding Principles for our Interactions

(from Guiding Principles for Our Interactions (Burkhalter, Blackburn, and Brown, 2020, as cited in Wolfe, 2021, p. 260):

(1) choosing authenticity over comfort,

(2) respecting confidentiality,

(3) embracing messiness and kindness,

(4) practicing personal and group accountability,

(5) being aware of equity of voice, and

(6) listening with the same passion with which you want to be heard. 

Wolfe (2021) recommends:

I then ask each of us to share which principle we are each going to personally center in our collective work for the day. We then revisit these principles at the end of each class and reflect on our own progress as well as give constructive and educative feedback on our strengths in honoring our chosen principle. 

Jennifer Wolfe (2021) Teaching is a Journey: A Journey in Becoming. Mathematics Teacher Learning and Teaching. doi: 10.5951/MTLT.2020.0378

Introducing my Identity

In this space, I intend to show up authentically. That will necessarily feel uncomfortable, for I am always learning new things as I engage in teaching actions. In this space, I want you to know that I am an artist, a writer, an academic, an educator. I am also a mother, a gardener, a neighbor, a friend, a sister, a daughter, and granddaughter. I am also a healer. I engage in practices of yoga, writing, meditation, and sketching as a form of expressive healing.

My identity as a scholar is shaped by my identities as a parent, community member, healer, and educator. There is little that I do in my work as a researcher that does not intersect and interact with my work as a practitioner, and vice versa. These worlds of research and practice are perpetually linked, blended, and intertwined.

I have learned recently, and embarrassingly not long ago, how important my racialized identity is to the kinds of opportunities that I am afforded in my life, profession, and perhaps most importantly education. The murder of George Floyd, in my home state of Minnesota in May 2020, shocked me to my core in a way that I am still learning to understand. I am learning to detach from whiteness ideology and practice through regular reflection, reading, discussion, and practice. I am learning to heal from the oppression and damage of whiteness ideologies for myself and for my family. I am learning to engage in the work of antiracism as an ongoing journey of interrogating and changing practice and policy in ways that are more responsive, more humane, and more aligned with love and care.

The images I share on this screen are a reflection of what I find inspiring, to keep me grounded, and to keep me feeling alive. The work of research and practice in education that is dedicated to equity, to unlearning racism, and to enacting antiracism, is draining. I believe in the importance and power of self-care practices as a staple in my diet of “to dos.” I also believe in the importance of collaboration. It is impossible for the great problems, issues, and quandries of our time to be solved by a single person alone, Instead, our issues must by solved collaboratively. As such, I focus my work as a community-engaged scholarship through building partnerships and improving communication.

When I ponder who I am today and how my past experiences have shaped me, I wonder… Perhaps its the fact that I’m a middle child (communication is important, we must collaborate to get this done!), or perhaps its the fact that my parents are divorced (again, a key here is the need for effective communication), or perhaps its the fact that I spent only 2 years in a high school classroom prior to formal study of mathematics education research (here, I have a longing and sense a deep need to link research and practice in my work, why else would anyone conduct research if not for the betterment of practice? I suppose the creative aspect of theory building is rewarding as well, and will eventually inform practice…).

With all that to say, I am in transition. Like the bodies of water that ebb and flow, and freeze over in the winter, and harbor life. My work as an academic yogi mama is to root into the needs of my community, to improve mathematics education for my own children and for the children that are yet to be born. It is my responsibility to engage in practices that support both the idea and the practice of antiracism in education, our children’s lives depend on it.

Plan overview

  • Play music while students enter the room to set the tone, have the course syllabus projected on the board and the schedule written on the white board
  • Introductions – get students to sketch an “identity” wheel, share their identity wheel with a partner, then sketch a few of those aspects on an introduction card. students will introduce themselves, practicing comfort in oral presentations
  • Norms – principles for our time together – reflect on these at the beginning, and end (expect students to take notes)
  • Share syllabus, texts, and connect to themes
  • Why this course?

Inspired by Amy Ellis, I’m trying out an “ungrading” process this semester in the course syllabus. We will use past syllabi, some guiding frameworks, and learning goals of the course to establish three rubrics:

  • Oral presentations / participation via speech
  • Written work
  • Overall grade

Let’s take it one at a time. What are key components that should be included in this rubric? What is it that you’ll be learning? What will be indicators of mastery? Progress?

Looking ahead. I’d like to close with thoughts on:

  • Readings and Discussion Leaders (who will lead next time?)
  • Homework #1: Identity (Nicole to demo)
  • Guiding principles for our interactions

%d bloggers like this: