When math class becomes a black history lesson
How to engage a distracted crowd of black students during the Black Lives Matter movement
Both students and adults have heard the “I’m not a math person” saying. But is it really that students who love reading and writing don’t care for math? Or, is it that they’re not finding topics that are relevant and interesting enough to make them want to explore science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines?
In a 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessment, students in various grades (fourth grade, eighth grade, twelfth grade) answered survey questions about their interest levels in mathematics, reading and science. The results were more positive than one may expect.
Students who reported that mathematics, reading or science was their favorite subject or activity scored high on the 2015 NAEP assessment compared to students who reported less interest. More male than female students reported that mathematics and science were their favorite subjects and expressed more positive views of these subjects. More female students reported that reading was their favorite activity and expressed more positive views of reading.
And while it’s easy to come to the conclusion that boys like math more than girls, or that students who enjoyed any of these three topics may be “smarter” than others, there’s one school subject that doesn’t get explored enough. If it’s utilized more, it may be the bridge that helps both male and female students appreciate mathematics even more: social justice.
Connecting Family to Math
Databases like 23andme and Ancestry can be used as powerful tools for contextualizing mathematics, according to a 1996 study completed by Jacqueline Leonard (University of Wyoming) entitled “Black Lives Matter in Teaching Mathematics for Social Justice.” Inspired by Alex Haley’s book series “Roots,” the mathematics teacher used genetics and genealogy “as a way to engage my students in culturally relevant mathematics.”
For any student who has completed a family tree, initially Leonard’s assignment does not sound particularly unique. Students traced their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on. One African-American student was able to trace her family for six generations. A white student realized she was related to inventor Benjamin Franklin. Other students showed their “roots” creatively, with family tree displays in a dot matrix printout and a tree carving in a wooden countertop. So what does this have to do with math, other than the general documentation of ages, years and birthdates? That’s just it. The math lesson for these students was tracing their genealogy, and it felt less like a traditional math problem and more of a personal connection to each other.
By taking on personal issues to make students feel more connected to the math they’re doing, they could arguably be more engaged. This tactic is a fine line between English and Writing, History, and Math. Even the teacher got involved, tracking down Census records for her own grandmother at the age of 12 in 1930 and the age of two in 1920. Sifting through archives and using number research helped her follow in her students’ footsteps, digging up information about her fourth great-grandfather, who was born in 1801. While there was nothing stopping her from doing so outside of the classroom, Haley’s stories and her students’ hard work inspired her to do more in her own educational scope.
From Family Values to Social Justice
The impact of racism not only affects the relationship between mothers and their children, according to MarketWatch. Racial profiling and racial bias also puts black students at more risk of being suspended or expelled as they grow older. And while they’re fighting to stay on the right track in school, untreated trauma, poor self-image and untreated trauma just backpack onto the stress-load of African-American students.
Judging from the murder of Trayvon Martin, even doing something as simple as walking through one’s own neighborhood with iced tea and Skittles is grounds for being profiled and attacked. So while other non-black students may be able to sit in math class with a clear head and innocently brainstorm on simple math questions about how Train A and Train B will meet at ___ a.m./p.m., black students’ are too often feeling like they’ve been hit by a train just trying to get through life.
In an Inc. report, “10 Ways to Immediately Improve Your Listening (and Networking) Skills,” the first suggestion is to focus on what the other person (ex. teacher) is saying. The goal is to not allow other thoughts or sounds to sway one’s concentration. But depending on the weight of the concern, that is much easier said than done.
So let’s play Devil’s Advocate. What if, instead of ignoring what a student’s distraction is, instructors use it to their advantage by teaching these thoughts within lesson plans?
In a 2005 book from Eric Gutstein and Bob Peterson entitled “Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers,” Gutstein investigated Driving While Black or Brown with his students in Chicago. Students used probability to compare the number and percentage of traffic stops by race. Those data numbers (i.e. teaching math) linked into other popular academic topics: letter writing (English and Creative Writing), public service announcements (Social Studies) and civic engagement (History).
Even if students are not traditionally “math people” and lean more toward English — and enjoy social justice topics — ideas like these help connect African-American students to topics that they may not (or may) be interested in. Additionally, for black students who already enjoy math, this is yet another way to engage with them. (Honestly, how long do we expect students to stay interested in questions about making change in grocery stores? Or, how many cups of flour to use in a recipe?) There’s nothing wrong with these questions, but at some point, they become less thought-provoking and use less constructive thinking skills.
Meanwhile, math instructors have the ability to figure out ways to make any open-ended writing prompts into a math question. For example, here are a few ways to spin the lesson plan from the Division of Adolescent and School Health (DASH)’s questions found in “2021 YRBS Questionnaire Optional Question List.”
- Original question: During your life, how often have you felt that you were treated badly or unfairly in school because of your race or ethnicity?
- Rewritten question: During your life, what would you guesstimate the amount of times that you have felt you were treated badly or unfairly in school because of your race or ethnicity? What percentage of the time did you (or a peer) report it to a higher authority in education?
- Original question: During your life, how often have you felt that you were watched closely or followed around by security guards or store clerks at a store or mall because of your race or ethnicity?
- Rewritten question: When entering a neighborhood store or mall in your area, what is the probability that you will be followed by security guards or store clerks? Were you followed more when picking up higher-priced items? What was the price?
- Original question: During your life, how often have you felt that people assumed you are less intelligent because of your race or ethnicity?
- Rewritten question: When taking standardized tests, what scores were considered less intelligent in your lifetime? Which ones were high scores? Which demographic groups were most likely to be linked to those higher or lower scores?
- Original question: During your life, how often have you felt that you have gotten poor or slow service at a restaurant or store because of your race or ethnicity?
- Rewritten question: If/when you have received slow or poor service at a restaurant or store, what was the average amount of money you planned to or did spend? Was treatment worse or better depending on the value of the items purchased?
- Original question: During your life, how often have you seen your parents or other family members treated badly or unfairly because of the color of their skin, language, accent, or because they are from a different country or culture?
- Rewritten question: During your life, if your parents or other family members were treated badly or unfairly, what percentage was because of skin color, language, accent, a different country or culture?
By rewriting the questions with mathematical techniques, this can intrigue both math and English enthusiasts, as well as inspire them to stay on track with the course. For students like those in the NAEP survey who were none too thrilled with math, reading or science — and who may be more likely to have lower educational scores — questions and exercises like these may be what they need to give them a second stab at enjoying lesson plans. Math instructors should pay special attention to which questions (above) catch students’ attention the most, and even give them the opportunity to create their own new math problems from standardized test questions or traditional textbooks.
Is the Math Distraction Worth It?
Listening is an acquired skill. Selective listeners and biased listeners have one thing in common; they listen to your point long enough to make theirs. So while verbal communication and written communication (common skills in English classes) make for great debating moments within the classroom, more often than not, students can end up leaving the classroom with their same opinions. By incorporating math, there’s less of a chance to be able to lean one way or another. As rapper Jay Z said in “Reminder,” “Men lie. Women lie. Numbers don’t.”
Math has the distinct advantage of being inarguable, to an extent. While one student’s answers may differ in the rewritten questions above, the bigger goal here is to be able to properly showcase what their answers are instead of debating whether they’re right or not. Pie charts. Line graphs. Bar graphs. Histograms. These are all mathematical skills to help students be able to exercise a different learning muscle. With this in mind, they can then benefit from being distracted.
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