“How do we help teachers teach math to Black kids?” My Response
“What can our schools, districts, or teachers do to impact the mathematics achievement of Black learners?” I am often asked some derivation of this question by educators who are looking to support Black learners in mathematics. Given that much of my work has focused on the mathematics experiences of Black learners, I expect such questions. However, I am surprised at the reactions to my response.
Recently, I tweeted about being asked, “How do we help teachers teach math to Black kids?” (see:
https://twitter.com/robertqberry/status/1222904228072456196). In the tweet, I hoped that I conveyed that teachers should have an appreciation of their students’ cultures, understand the development of knowledge within students’ cultural frameworks, and recognize that the interpretation of information and mathematics happens within students’ cultural and experiential frameworks. I situated my tweet within a Black social and cultural context. As I reflect, I wish that I would have added that opportunities to learn mathematics have significant impacts. Black learners are less likely to receive mathematics teaching consistent with high-quality mathematics teaching practices, and they are less likely to be exposed to rigorous mathematics content. The lack of exposure to high-quality teaching and exposure to content impacts their mathematics achievement.
I believe, like many educators, in the brilliance of Black children in mathematics. To me, such a position is foundational when working with Black learners, and it must be acknowledged in the ways one interacts with, talks about, and embraces the cultural knowledge and resources Black learners bring to schools and classrooms. As educators, we must be concerned about what it means to be inside the social, cultural, and political histories of Black people and how these influence perceptions of the world, thoughts, feelings, identity, ways of being, and ways of interpreting information.
Early in my career, I struggled to find resources dedicated to the experiences of Black learners in mathematics. There were hardly any resources focusing on the contributions and experiences of Black people in mathematics. I wanted to learn about research and theories focused on Black learners. I read three books that were foundational toward getting me on the path to unpack the nuances of Black learners’ histories and contexts with mathematics teaching and learning.
These texts gave voice to my experiences as a learner and teacher of mathematics. Many Black learners come to schools and classrooms with contexts rooted in the culture and traditions of the Black experience. As educators, I believe it is part of our work to know and understand the resources of Black learners and find ways to incorporate these into mathematics teaching and learning. Black learners are not melanated replicas of the dominant culture; consequently, we must be nuanced in our practice. Too often, policies and practices take on race- and context-neutral approaches that default to normalizing the mathematical experiences of White learners. My point here is not meant to imply that all policies and practices are detrimental to Black learners; instead, it is necessary to be thoughtful about the impact that policies and practices have on the experiences of Black learners.
For example, I grapple with the mathematical practice of constructing viable arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others and whether this practice puts Black children at risk when it occurs in spaces beyond the mathematics classroom. When Black learners construct arguments and critique the reasoning of those in authority or engage in this practice outside of mathematics classrooms, this may put them at risk of negative consequences. I understand and appreciate the intent of this practice and believe that engaging in mathematical argumentation is valuable for mathematics learning. However, mathematics educators must be mindful of the ways this practice is framed within mathematics with the knowledge that learners may engage in these practices outside of mathematics. Engaging in mathematical argumentation may involve the projection of voice, tone, positioning of bodies, proximity, and so on. The potential risk for Black learners engaging in argumentation is when their ways of engagement do not align with perceived ways of participating in this type of discourse, thus creating the potential of negative consequences.
Below, I have provided some resources I believe are helpful for educators who want to support Black learners in mathematics. These resources are intended to provide some foundational support for building depth in understanding.
I encourage you to invest part of Black History Month toward deepening your understanding of Black learners in mathematics. Please share your reflections on MyNCTM.org and let’s get a conversation going on Twitter.
Robert Q. Berry III
Thank you for this important reminder to teach to every student in ways that are thoughtful and productive. Though I am a retired teacher, the last 13 years of my teaching experience was in a school that was 75% minority; ... and still your comments, about how "the practice of constructing viable arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others" can be detrimental of black students when outside the classroom, gave me great pause.
I would also like to add an article to consider on the topic of helping teachers teach black students. It appeared in the third JRME journal in 2016. In my earlier years, teaching in my local community college, I saw first hand the rage in students who arrive at college unable to qualify for a credit-bearing math course because their high school math did not properly and rigorously prepare them. It is that rage, in mostly young black men, that caused me to leave that job and return to teaching in a local high school. The article, "More than just skill: "Examining mathematics identities, racialized narratives, and remediation among black undergraduates", is by Gregory V. Larnell.
Thank you for the insightful article! I recently was introduced to the book "Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain" by Zaretta Hammond. She makes some of the points you do, and reading it has made me look at and interact with my Black, Latino, and Muslim students differently. (Side note: We have studied a different African American mathematician every day in February. Just this week one of my black students said "Please just say 'black,' not African American. Hmmm...) I really appreciate knowing these things I have been trying to understand for some time. It is making be a better teacher.
Thank you for bringing awareness to this important focus and for providing numerous resources to support further understanding, discussion, and action.
Robert, thank you for sharing your insignt and these resources! I look forward to future conversations with you about these issues after I get a chance to catch up on the literature that you have shared.
Great resources. It is also important for educators to know that learning about how to teach African American students and any students is an ongoing process. I will continue to learn by reading the literature you recommend and by working with teachers to learn about the local context as is necessary to improve instruction.
Thank you for this article and all of the resources that you have provided. You have supplied a lot of food for thought about teaching students of color. I am a retired math teacher and an Ignatian Volunteer working at an urban high school in Boston where the students work one day a week to help pay for their tuition. I look forward to sharing your post and the readings that you have given with the teachers and administrators at the school. There is much to be gained for our students by delving into what you have highlighted. Thank you very much.
Bonjour Robert!I shared your message with all the team @Buzzmath. We'll read and discuss the different resources you listed here. Merci 😊
Thank you for this much needed, thought-provoking article!
Will you be presenting about this at the annual NCTM conference in Chicago? I would love to hear more from you about this. I teach at a highschool where about 30% of our students are Black, and about 2/3 of our students are on free/reduced lunch. We are always looking for more ways to help our students be more successful in math.
Julie, I will be on panel of Black men in mathematics education at the Centennial. The panel will discuss a range of issues, but I will be happy to have a conversation with you and point you to resources.
Thank you for this post. One idea really resonates for me: "Black learners are not melanated replicas of the dominant culture; consequently, we must be nuanced in our practice. Too often, policies and practices take on race- and context-neutral approaches that default to normalizing the mathematical experiences of White learners." Your example of argumentation is powerful. It prompts me to reflect on who gets to engage in argumentation, why, when, and how? As a teacher and researcher, this is a great reminder to constantly reexamine the assumptions I make daily. I look forward to diving into these resources with my students. Thank you!
Bill, Thank you for your Twitter post. I hoped that my message would foster conversation and create opportunities for people to engage in critical conversations.
Thank you Barry for this article. I work in a school with about 10% of the students are African American and I'm working on a research study involving African American students. So these rescources will be helpful!
I hope you will be willing to teach us all about your research. When your research is completed, please consider submitting a proposal to the NCTM Research conference and NCTM's meetings.
ThanK you Robert, I had a misspell.
Thank you for this important blog post. The resources are very helpful.
I hoped that my message would create opportunities for people to learn and think deeply about policies and practices
Thank you for these great references. One was already on my list to read and I just added another. Will be writing a review of research regarding practives that increase access and equity in middle level math students.