How black girls benefit when math has social interaction and ways to learn together

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Take-out meals? Black girls want math teachers and classrooms that are open to social interaction and collective learning.

The study builds on a body of research showing how teachers in the United States – who are mostly white – often see and treat black girls differently from their peers in schools. The authors cite, for example, research who found math and science teachers to be more likely to view black girls as disruptive than white girls, and less likely to recommend black girls for honors classes. They also describe a study where 48% of black girls said they expected to attend college or vocational school, but only 5% of their teachers expected them to.

According to Joseph, these internalized stereotypes often cause teachers of black girls to focus on manage behavior. “These stereotypes get in the way,” she said. “So they don’t see emerging mathematicians because they’re so focused on the behaviors of girls.”

What teachers should instead focus on, she said, is “trying to figure out who these black girls really are and trying to figure out how they would like to engage in learning math.”

What black girls need

It starts with talking – and listening – to students. By analyzing interviews with 10 teens at different levels of math engagement, Joseph and his coauthors found that social interactions with their teachers were important for black girls. Girls compared positive math experiences to negative experiences, emphasizing patience, a sense of humor, and teachers’ ability to explain concepts in different ways. In the following quote, for example, a student explained why she considered her current math teacher to be effective:

“Because, like I said before, you know he’s not yelling at you for the wrong answer… He tries to help you out and sometimes makes jokes, which makes you feel better and more relaxed.” Because you’re like ‘Oh, you know he’s cool and maybe I can even talk to him if I have a problem.’ “

Building positive relationships may require educators to abandon traditional scripts of what math looks like, Joseph said. She recommended practices such as math autobiography homework and by regularly asking students about their lives. “These are some of the things I did as a teacher – it was long before my PhD,” she said. “I didn’t know all of those fancy names, but I knew deep down that you need to know your students. The payoff is that when students feel supported, rather than being seen as disruptive, they become motivated to work harder.

The black girls in the study also enjoyed collaborative learning in math classes. The researchers noted that while traditional white culture and school culture center individual achievement, interviews with the girls highlighted ways in which problem-solving together can increase the collective odds for success. As one student put it: “It’s better to work as a team… Because if you don’t have it, you can go to your teammates and ask them how they got it? And they will work with you primarily as a teaching assistant.

Joseph described a recent interaction she observed in a high school algebra class where a group of black girls sang in their algebra class after correctly solving some problems. Joseph cited the class as an example of a class where black girls could be fully themselves and motivated to learn. While some teachers might discourage singing and laughing as “blunders”, the teacher of these students did not care, “because the children were successful” in their work.

Humanize mathematics

Talking to students and feeling comfortable about not having all of the answers are essential steps in creating humanizing math classrooms, according to the authors of the Harvard Educational Review article. So keep learning. Teachers “need to read, read, read” to deepen their understanding of the marginalization of black girls, Joseph said.

As a teacher and coach in low-income majority black schools for 13 years before entering academia, Joseph knows that changing the paradigm of resources and opportunities is not easy. “At the same time,” she said, “if you choose to become a teacher, if you choose to teach in an urban setting, where a lot of black girls end up enrolled, then that’s the job.”


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