By Annie Perkins, posted September 12, 2016 –
Like many teachers,
I want my students to see themselves as mathematicians. To that end, I define “mathematician”
for them, and I try to name for them the moves they make that fit that definition.
I vocally encourage them to adopt this identity. What I’ve found, however, is that
“mathematician” is a harder sell to students than “writer,” “musician,” or “athlete.”
I didn’t know how to address this reticence until sometime last winter, when a student’s
question showed me what to do.
I was giving a lecture
on Pythagoras. Most of the class was giggling, having just learned that this mathematical
giant was afraid of beans. Some of them were probably pleased that I was telling
stories and not making them do math. One of my students, who rarely participated
in class, raised his hand to ask a question.
“Yes?” I said, eagerly
looking forward to engaging this hard-to-reach student.
“Ms. Perkins,” he
said, “Why do we always talk about white dudes?”
I wasn’t prepared
for this question. I should have been, but I wasn’t. I could have demurred. I could
have said that we have better records of white men. I could have insisted that Pythagoras
has earned our attention because of his accomplishments. I could have said, “Good
point,” and moved on. I wanted to do some of those things. As a white woman who
teaches students of color, I feel like I’m walking on unstable ground any time I
talk to my students about race.
But my student’s question
was an honest one, and it deserved an honest answer. I said that he had a really
good point. We do always talk about “white dudes”: Pythagoras, Gauss, Bernoulli,
Fibonacci, Turing, Euclid, Euler, and Newton, just to name a few. We might squeeze
in Ramanujan and pat ourselves on the back for being so inclusive, but the truth
is that we generally only talk about white, male mathematicians, and then we wonder
why our not-white-male students engage so little in math class.
Knowing this particular
student identified strongly with his Mexican heritage, I asked, “Would it matter
to you if I showed you a Mexican mathematician?”
He paused, got a weird
look on his face, and responded with one of the most depressing questions I’ve ever
heard: “Do you think there are any?”
I assured him
that there were, but when he asked who they were, and I came up with nothing, his
suspicions were confirmed. All the beliefs that I have about math and who can be
a mathematician told me that this couldn’t possibly be true, but I had no evidence
to the contrary for him. The fact that I didn’t know even the name of
one Mexican mathematician, but I did know that Pythagoras was afraid of beans, spoke
volumes about which mathematicians I valued.
This encounter cut
me to the core and made clear to me one of the reasons my students don’t see themselves
as mathematicians. They have plenty of examples of writers, athletes, and musicians
that look like they do, but not mathematicians.
Thus began The Mathematician
Project. That night, I researched a Mexican mathematician, Diego Rodriguez, and
prepped a five-minute talk on him and what he had contributed to mathematics. My
student was so excited that he stood up at the end and yelled, “Take that, white
dudes!” He had found a role model, and for the rest of the year frequently talked
about Rodriguez as a point of pride.
Since then, every
Friday, I spend five to ten minutes introducing my students to a mathematician who
is not a white male. If I ever forget, my students hound me. They have come to expect
it, and the majority of my students have pointed to it as their favorite part of
The project has evolved
over nearly a year and a half, and has had two important consequences:
- My students have
mathematical role models that they identify with strongly.
- I have learned
a lot about my students.
The next three blog
posts will detail how I went about this project, and I encourage you to consider
doing something similar in your classroom.
Annie Perkins teaches math in Minneapolis,
Minnesota. For the past three years, she has taught seventh-grade and
eighth-grade math at Lake Nokomis Community School’s Keewaydin campus in
Minneapolis. This year, she will be teaching tenth grade at Southwest High School.
She blogs at arbitrarilyclose.com, and you can reach her on twitter @anniekperkins.