Dr. Erica Walker, Associate Professor, Mathematics EducationBy mst • Mar 5th, 2009 • Category: Lead Story, Mathematics Education
We welcome Dr. Walker back from sabbatical. She spent the time working on her current research project exploring the peer and mentoring networks of African American mathematicians.
7-year-old Erica Walker was doing homework at her neighbor’s house when he exclaimed, “You are very talented at math, but you make careless mistakes by writing too quickly!” He happened to be a math teacher, and was already recognizing her talent. In high school, Dr. Walker’s homeroom teacher also happened to be a math teacher. She encouraged Dr. Walker to take AP calculus and eventually to major in mathematics.
Dr. Walker received her bachelors degree in mathematics from Birmingham Southern College in Alabama and, after graduating from the Master Teacher Fellows Program at Wake Forest University with her masters in mathematics education, immediately started teaching in public schools. She noticed many students arriving early to school with nothing to do, so she created a before-school tutoring program. Here, she examined peer group networks and started asking questions about how they could facilitate success in mathematics. She went on to doctoral study at Harvard, with the intention to become a school superintendent or principal. Somewhere along the way, she realized her true passion was research. In her dissertation, she explored a question puzzling her since high school: “What happens to students who take Algebra I in 8th or 9th grade? Do black and white students continue to take college prep mathematics in high school at the same rates?” To answer this question, she used quantitative methods to analyze longitudinal national data on course taking patterns. In her Post Doc at Teachers College, Dr. Walker took a more qualitative approach to this question. She began working with a local school to examine peer group networks and their impact on high achieving mathematics students’ persistence and performance in math. The results were intriguing. She found that teachers and administrators are largely unaware of the peer networks forming around high achieving students. “They’re doing math in the cafeteria, on the bus, talking about math after school!” Her next study created an after-school peer tutoring program to build on students’ existing networks. Here, students worked with other students and used teachers and TC graduate students as a resource. Dr. Walker found that “some of the kids were really good tutors. By the end they looked like High School math teachers!” The most important lesson for her was that, “Kids can be arbiters of math knowledge. It doesn’t have to be an adult or a teacher. Students can take their time, think, discuss, and come to a solution. That’s a really powerful thing.”
At TC, Dr. Walker teaches several courses, including the Doctoral Research Seminar, Number Theory, Mathematics in the Elementary School and Mathematics and Multicultural Education. “I am a teacher to my core! My main goal when I teach pre-service teachers is to help students think about the applications of what we’re doing in class to their own teaching lives, and to think about research critically.” One of Dr. Walker’s most memorable experiences was speaking at a math honors ceremony at a local high school. There, she gave a speech so moving that parents approached her afterwards. She said, “I had not considered that something I was saying to high school students could also have a big impact on other people, especially parents.” Her speech encouraged rethinking math. “I think that people have always liked math at some point. When I speak to audiences, I now always try to hook everybody back in—young people, adults. I think that people have a very narrow view of what mathematics is and of their ability to be good at it. If I can expand that view, which I think I am doing in my work, I’m doing my little part in changing that.” Reflecting on her life, Dr. Walker says “It was probably serendipitous that my homeroom teacher happened to be a math teacher and said, ‘Why wouldn’t you go on to be a math major? You should go on.’ That was a very important moment.”