Making Math Classes More Welcoming for Black Students
When Black students’ lives are reflected in math instruction, they’re more likely to achieve success.
The history of the United States is filled with depictions of how the educational system was not intended for Black people. This article is inspired by historian Carter G. Woodson, who wrote The Mis-Education of the Negro. In it, he states, “The thought of the inferiority of the Negro is drilled into him in almost every class he enters and in almost every book he studies.”
Unfortunately, today Black students often receive messages, explicitly and/or implicitly, that they do not belong in their mathematics classes.
For example, there can be mismatches regarding students’ mathematics performance between a teacher’s low expectations of their Black students compared with higher expectations that Black students place on themselves.
Too often, teachers’ biases and assumptions about Black students’ performance in mathematics are informed by systemic educational and societal structures that threaten students’ mathematics learning experiences. Because of the aforementioned issues and several others, many Black students struggle to find a sense of belonging in their mathematics classrooms.
In her book Motivated: Designing Math Classrooms Where Students Want to Join In, scholar Ilana Seidel Horn writes that belongingness refers to “people’s innate need to establish close relationships with others. … When students experience frequent, pleasant interactions with others or feel that those around them are concerned for their well-being, they feel like they belong.”
Cultivating Black students’ sense of belonging in mathematics classrooms is dynamic and ongoing, and it requires flexibility. Given that relationships are critical to belonging and inclusive classroom environments, the following three approaches provide opportunities for teachers to learn more about their students, build relationships with them, and deepen their students’ connections to mathematics, learning, and the classroom environment.
3 Strategies for More Inclusive Math Classes
1. Empower and challenge your Black students by incorporating windows and mirrors. Students solve problems posed by others in many mathematics classrooms. These problems describe a contrived situation that usually does not connect to Black students’ communities and lives.
Instead, students should be provided with opportunities to learn more about their own experiences that connect to mathematics (mirrors) and appreciate information or perspectives from others (windows). In other words, teachers should consider mathematizing their students’ lives, inside and outside of school. Mathematics isn’t siloed. It is about using the world and spaces around students to create contexts with which to think about and engage in mathematics.
Mathematizing is an approach to mathematics instruction that emphasizes making connections to students’ lived experiences and communities through engaging in problems that are meaningful, purposeful, and supportive of them as critical thinkers.
Given the racial and economic inequities in Black communities (e.g., subprime lending, high-interest-rate loans), students can be engaged in calculating the financial risks of different loan types. For instance, calculating how long it would take to pay back a high-interest loan engages students in mathematics skills and increases their awareness about racial justice.
2. Listen and learn about students’ learning experiences. When mathematics teachers listen to students, it provides the foundation for rich and democratic learning environments that promote inclusivity among all students. Listening to students’ learning experiences creates a bridge to develop relationships, which are imperative to set the stage for access to mathematics. It’s important to note that belonging is shaped by and strengthened through positive relationships.
As teachers, we must think seriously about how we set up a supportive learning environment where Black students feel like they belong, matter, are cared for, and are valued.
Creating space for students to share their thinking and learning is essential for effective mathematics instruction. Further, when teachers amplify students’ voices, through listening to their learning experiences, they can better understand how to support students in the classroom from the students’ point of view.
Inquiring about students’ previous learning environments at the beginning of the school year, facilitating midyear check-ins about current learning experiences, and assessing students’ experiences from their point of view at the end of quarters can provide teachers with important insights about students’ interests, experiences, and needs.
Check-ins and assessments during the school year can be powerful in continuing to refine teaching approaches, improve the learning environment, and strengthen partnerships between teachers and students.
Additionally, these approaches ensure that student needs remain at the center of our pedagogy and praxis.
3. To empower Black students, build on their brilliance. Professor Asa Hilliard said, “I have never encountered any children in any group who are not geniuses.”
Envisioning Black students excelling in mathematics raises critical questions, such as, what can we do to create more space and opportunities for Black students to do and excel in mathematics? One way is to make explicit connections between mathematics and Black students’ brilliance, which can help center them as producers of knowledge.
Before the end of the first month of school, teachers and students should be able to name at least one brilliant thing about your Black students. For example, the student is confident in their decision-making.
There is a great connection and opportunity for empowerment here as learning mathematics contributes to decision-making—from shopping and buying to budgets, planning, and strategizing. It’s crucial to invite young Black children into discussions and considerations when making decisions while solving mathematics problems.
However, in school, mathematics teachers often focus on finding one answer instead of cultivating problem-solving skills, critical thinking perspectives, sense-making, etc. We must envision Black students not only as capable, but also as people who can excel when they are engaged in and supported through developing multifaceted mathematical skill sets, such as those listed above.
Cultivating Black students’ belongingness in mathematics classrooms is empowering because it can contribute to Black students’ opportunities to make sense of and critically examine their mathematical understanding inside and outside of their learning environments. A sense of belonging in mathematics classrooms can give Black students greater ease and confidence as they experience various challenges and joys while learning the subject.
Lateefah would like to thank Derrick Brooms and anonymous reviewers for their feedback on this article.