Supporting Black Students’ Mathematical Identity

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Taajah Felder Witherspoon University of Alabama at Birmingham

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The author provides an instructional plan on African contributions designed to engage and empower African American students in mathematics.

Like many other teachers, I want to motivate ­students to become excited about learning mathematics. As a consultant, I began providing intervention—three days a week for four weeks in an urban district in central Alabama with ninth- and tenth-grade Algebra students—to increase proficiency in mathematics. The students in these classes were similar to the overall demographics of the school (51% black, 25% white, 23% Latino, and 1% other), where 63% qualified for free and reduced lunch. Although these students were primarily compliant during the math period, we spent a lot of time refocusing or convincing students to engage in mathematical tasks. As I brainstormed ways to increase engagement, I was reminded of a task that I occasionally used to motivate middle schoolers during summer camp. The fifth- through eighth-graders were inspired to learn when I implemented specific tasks to connect them to positive images of Africa and Black people. That experience inspired me to replicate a version of the session with these 52 high school students, which I coined the African Connection task.

There is a substantial amount of literature focusing on the importance of culturally relevant teaching that emphasizes connecting the school’s curriculum with the culture of students. This approach can be accomplished through the concept of ethnomathematics. The root ethno, coupled with mathematics, refers to the intersection of mathematics and culture. LópezLeiva et al. (2019) provided a refined definition: ethnomathematics studies how cultural groups practice and use math in daily activities (e.g., playing, counting, measuring, and building). The first strand of ethnomathematics as discussed by Vithal and Skovsmose (1997) challenges the traditional history of mathematics, which is criticized for ignoring, devaluing, and omitting the contributions of non-European cultures, including sub-Saharan Africans. Thus, I designed the African Connection task to help students gain a broader perspective that highlights the contributions of Africans as well as help them ground themselves with a mathematical identity.

HIGH SCHOOL IMPLEMENTATION

Day 1: Engagement

To engage the students, I created a digital slideshow (see supplementary material [link online]) based on research to facilitate questions and discussions about Africa. This presentation included a video, photographs, charts, and text for students to analyze. The discussions were primarily initiated through questions, most of which were prefaced with “Did you know . . . ?” to highlight some of the extraordinary facets of this geographical region.

I began the session by displaying a silhouette map of Africa without naming the continent and inviting them to state everything they knew about the image (see Slide 1 [link online]). As anticipated, despite the ninth and tenth graders being very familiar with the map of Africa, the limited knowledge shared was overwhelmingly negative (e.g., “they are poor . . . they live in huts . . . they chase animals . . . I would be afraid to live in a jungle”). Unlike past groups, these students also focused on various types of animals (e.g., lions, cheetahs, zebras, hippos, elephants), the abundance of natural resources (e.g., diamonds, gold), and water shortages. One student made a connection about the impact that Africa has made on the food, clothing, and hairstyles of African American culture.

Teacher-Led Presentation

This exploration phase provided students with opportunities to learn about and make connections to the African continent. Each student received a Connection Task-Presentation sheet (see Figure 1) to take notes with, during the slideshow. To resume the presentation, I proceeded by reading the following quotation (see Slide 2 [link online]):

A people losing sight of origins are dead.

A people deaf to purpose are lost.

Under fertile rain, in scorching sunshine there is no difference:

their bodies are mere corpses, awaiting final burial (Armah, 2000).

Figure 1
Figure 1

Connection Task - Presentation Notes

Citation: Mathematics Teacher: Learning and Teaching PK-12 117, 3; 10.5951/MTLT.2023.0094

After reading the quotation, I stressed the importance of knowing our history and then used an image of an Egyptian statue with a defaced nose in front of an Egyptian pyramid to segue into information presented in the form of questions, such as, “Did you know that archeologists believe Africa is the continent where humans first originated?” (Smithsonian National Museum of History, n.d.). More specifically, Kemet (Black) people were leaders in developing ancient civilization with advanced tools approximately 50,000 years before and served as a guide for Greek, Roman, and European cultures (Chang’ach, 2015; Dove, 2002). Chang’ach further contends that Africans laid the foundation for modern science and provided breakthroughs in mathematics through the powers of 10, fractions, and complex operations for algebra, geometry, and trigonometry.

The next topic allowed students to share who they thought were some of the richest people to ever live (see Slide 3 [link online]). After a short delay, the students began to say expected names such as Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jay Z. Surprisingly, students also mentioned Einstein and El Chapo. Immediately following their responses, the students engaged in the short TED-Ed video entitled, “Who are some of the wealthiest people who ever lived?” The students seemed shocked to learn that 14th-century African leader Mansa Musa was possibly one of the wealthiest people who ever lived. One student responded with excitement that he had heard about him before. Other students seemed pleasantly surprised.

I continued to develop their knowledge as I inquired, “In addition to being the birthplace of one of the richest men to ever live, did you know Africa was the continent that blazed trails for higher learning in math and science?” Then, I displayed a slide with a map of West Africa and the following text from the National Geographic website (see Slide 4 [link online]):

Timbuktu was a center of Islamic scholarship under several African empires, [and] home to a 25,000-student university . . . for the spread of Islam throughout Africa from the 12th to 16th centuries. . . . The great teachings of Islam, from astronomy and mathematics to medicine and law, were collected and produced here in several hundred thousand manuscripts (National Geographic, 2018).

As I transitioned the conversation to the map of Africa, I affirmed some of their prior knowledge regarding oil, diamonds, and gold. I directed this conversation to an area of greater appreciation for students as I raised the question, “Did you know that a multitude of natural resources are extracted from Africa to build your smart phones and laptops?” We briefly reviewed the slide with the visual that correlates with the title “A world of minerals in your mobile phone” (see Slide 5 [link online]).

To reinforce the current global relevancy of Africa, I quickly progressed through several positive images of Lagos, Nigeria; Nairobi, Kenya; and Cairo, Egypt (see Slides 6–8 [link online]) and asked, “Did you know Africa looked like this?” Amid oohs and ahs, several students made expressions of shock: “Wait, go back,” “Wow, look at that,” “I didn’t know Africa was that pretty,” or “I wanna go to Africa.”

To acclimate the students to the next transition, I prefaced the slide by saying, “To integrate a little math, I would like for you to analyze this graph and let me know what you notice” (see Slide 9 [link online]). After a few minutes, students stated, “White children are performing better than Black students in all grades.” Another student stated, “The [achievement] gap was larger in tenth grade.” I used that statement as a building block for the next question: “What do you think is causing this ‘achievement’ gap?” After an awkward silence, one student boldly stated, “These students don’t care.” Another student chimed in and said, “Parents can’t help their children.”

I advanced to the next slide (see Slide 10 [link online]) and stated, “It may be surprising to learn that this gap is happening for two primary reasons: (1) there are deeply ingrained biases communicating blackness equals inferiority and (2) poor teaching. I would also like to add that researchers have begun to replace the phrase achievement gap with opportunity gap.” (Delpit, 2012). This slide ushered in interesting dialogue that caused students to defend their teachers or affirm the reasoning of poor teaching. One student recalled his favorite math teacher who made learning math fun, while another student stated that although she has an A in the subject, she really doesn’t understand math.

To further stimulate cognitive dissonance about the “achievement gap,” I transitioned to the next slide and prefaced the title with the question, “Did you know, there is no achievement gap at birth?” I summarized the research cited by Lisa Delpit (2012) that indicates that Black babies have slightly higher cognitive skills and considerably superior motor skills than their European counterparts (see Slides 11 and 12 [link online]).

These findings are often faced with silence or skeptical looks until I share information about African immigrants garnering the highest educational attainment in the United States (see Slide 13 [link online]). African immigrants had a higher percentage of bachelor’s degree attainment (40%) compared with all immigrants (30%) and the U.S.-born population (31%) (New American Economy, 2018).

At the conclusion of the session, each student was given the chance to write a reflection that included at least two insights and one wondering prompted by this presentation.

Student-Led Exploration

The next day, each student was given a digital copy of the African Connection Task Menu (see Figure 2), which allowed them to explore websites and keep track of their reflections independently or in pairs. The menu of options provided opportunities for students to delve deeper into topics related to Mansa Musa, Timbuktu, and African natural resources at their own pace. Additionally, students were provided with opportunities to read a chapter from Delpit’s book and information about contributions of sub-Saharan Africans to the U.S. economy.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Connection Task – Menu

Citation: Mathematics Teacher: Learning and Teaching PK-12 117, 3; 10.5951/MTLT.2023.0094

At the conclusion of the module, every student had the opportunity to engage in a 3–2–1 reflection, which involved three insights they gained, two aspects they found interesting, and one wondering that arose from the information presented or read.

Debrief

After providing students individual time for reflection on their learning, I subsequently invited them to express any new insights they acquired as a result of the recent lessons. It is interesting to note how students’ perceptions quickly transformed to a more positive image of Africa when I showed them its meaningful contributions and helped them connect with a mathematical identity. It is also noteworthy to mention how several African American students transitioned from disassociating themselves with Africa to making personal connections with statements such as, “I am glad I am Black; I’m glad we came from Africa.” One student exclaimed, “I am supposed to be good at math because we are from Africa.” This task can be easily adjusted to focus on other continents or countries that have a connection to other marginalized groups. According to Corneille et al. (2020), using culturally relevant content that resonates with students can enhance students’ motivation in STEM.

ADAPTATIONS FOR ELEMENTARY IMPLEMENTATION

Day 1: Engagement

To frontload the fourth-grade students for the materials in the supplementary material (link online), I briefly presented a world map and then shared a page with numbered photographs and asked, “Where in the world do you think these images were taken?” (see Figure 3). After students thought quietly for a minute, they discussed the potential setting for each image with a neighbor. The students were immediately drawn to Images 2, 7, 8, and 12, as they guessed New York, New Jersey, or Hawaii. Some students deemed that Image 6 was most likely taken in China, whereas many confidently believed Images 1, 4, and 9 were taken in Africa. As I asked them why they were confident about the latter images, one student indicated that people in Africa are poor. Interestingly, no student made guesses about the potential whereabouts of Images 3, 5, 10, or 11.

Figure 3
Figure 3

Where in the World

Citation: Mathematics Teacher: Learning and Teaching PK-12 117, 3; 10.5951/MTLT.2023.0094

Next, I displayed the silhouette of Africa (Slide 1) and solicited information about their knowledge of the unnamed image. Rather than providing information about the continent, they simply indicated, “It is . . . a map, a country, a rhino, a black-and-white Earth, and Ohio.” Although some students connected Africa to the photographs, only one student indicated that the silhouette may be an image of Africa.

For elementary students to better understand the aforementioned quotation by Armah (2000), I prompted ChatGPT to “imagine a story about people who don’t know how great they are,” which resulted in the following text:

Once upon a time, there were people who didn't know just how amazing they were. They had special talents, but they hadn't discovered them yet. As they went about their days, a magical spark waited inside each one, ready to shine brightly (Slide 2).

Even when the students were explicitly asked to think about who the people might be who did not know how amazing they were, the students only made responses regarding the defaced statues (e.g., “They have no noses,” “Somebody took their nose,” “Those are people from 5,000 years ago,” and “I think they are Egyptians.”)

During the next slide, it was interesting how vastly different these students’ ideas of the richest person to ever live compared with the high school students. They informed me of YouTubers that I had never heard of, such as the Stokes Twins, Andrew Tate, Mr. Beast, and Jake Paul. The students also indicated the President of the United States, Elon Musk, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Will Smith, and The Rock as the richest people to ever live. Shortly after the video started, the students gasped when they learned about Mansa Musa as being the richest man to ever live. Immediately following the video, the students asked many questions that were already answered in the video (e.g., “How did he get so rich?” and “What part of Africa was he from?”) This observation helped me to see the importance of showing a video more than once.

I used the Magic School website’s Text Leveler tool to convert the secondary text to be more accessible for elementary students on Slide 4. Although the students’ responses were similar for Slides 4-8, the elementary students’ responses were very interesting. After the students were encouraged to independently study the graphs on Slide 9, one fourth-grader immediately responded that the image was racist. When prompted to elaborate, the student stated, “They got the Black people lower than white people on all the charts.” I acknowledged the student’s observation by pointing to the charts, and then I encouraged the student and his peers to extend this observation or share other observations. Another student stated that white people read better than Black people. After more invitations, another student noticed this same pattern for graduation rates. One student noticed the reading rates were for grade level 4. Another student stated that it was weird talking about these things because “Most of us in here are Black.” Interestingly, no student mentioned the rates for algebra, which may indicate that they made no connection to the subject. Perhaps in the future, I should include math in the header.

When I transitioned to Slide 10, I informed them of the research in child-friendly language as presented by Lisa Delpit (2012), which indicated that “Black babies have better thinking and movement skills compared to White babies” (p. 5) I referred back to the previous image and asked students to think about why the achievement/opportunity gap may be happening. As students wrestled with cognitive dissonance, they began to make comments like, “Black kids can do what white kids can do.” After I prompted one student to speak more about that, he further stated, “White children get more opportunities than Black children.” Other students alluded to the impact of segregation and unfair treatment of Black people from the Civil Rights era to now. After the students shared their ideas, I stated, “It may be surprising to learn that this gap is happening for two primary reasons: (1) there are strong beliefs that Black people are not as smart and (2) poor teaching” (Delpit, 2012). One student looked at his teacher and wagged his finger up and down at her in a joking manner to indicate his disapproval of this new insight. Many of us laughed and then resumed our conversation.

Before discussing the data in Slide 12, we focused on the term immigrant. After defining the word immigrant, three students were able to provide authentic examples when they shared the birth places of their parents: El Salvador and Guatemala. As we discussed the data regarding the highest educational attainment of African immigrants, one student stated, “Whoa, I need to go to Africa.” To connect this chart to the research regarding the performance of African babies and their European counterparts as cited by Lisa Delpit (2012), I explicitly posed a question as to how these two concepts connect. The students did not seem to grasp the correlation, as evidenced by their lack of responses.

At the end of the session, I called the students’ attention to the first slide titled, “Where in the World,” and then informed them that all the images are from Nairobi, Kenya. As they responded with surprise, I asked them why they assumed the images of the man dressed in a suit, the little girl standing outside of what they deemed in a school, and the beautiful beaches were from the United States (New York, New Jersey, or Hawaii), and why the other images were from Africa. The students indicated that they perceived the U.S. as a beautiful place and Africa where poor Black people live. When the students were confronted with a question that helped them to acknowledge poverty in other places, including the U.S., I inquired as to why they were overshadowed with negative images of Africa. The students stated, “That’s what we see on YouTube.” To counter this narrative, we concluded the lesson by restating facts we learned about Africa, such as the fact that the richest person to ever live was from Africa, and they raved about the beauty of the African continent.

Day 2: Teacher-Led Exploration

Although the second day could have enabled the students to have more autonomy through math menus, I facilitated the sessions in a whole group setting to further observe the students’ thinking as they engaged with the tasks.

Task 1: We watched and discussed portions of two videos from the NgenTVAfrica YouTube network. The NGen Gorillas episode (link online) was strategically selected to positively represent Black youth being filmed in Uganda and feature narration and performances by Black teenagers and children engaged in STEM. Similarly, the Fossils of South Africa episode (link online) was selected for students to realize the evidence pertaining to origins of life on the African continent.

Task 2: We listened to and discussed the audio book Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe (link online). After listening to the text, the students made immediate connections to the traditional Cinderella story that students were well aware of, while only one student had previously read this version. I asked the students, “Why might it be important to hear other versions of the Cinderella story?” The students overwhelmingly communicated their appreciation of seeing diverse characters, and one girl indicated she enjoyed seeing someone who looked like her.

Task 3: The students were asked to engage in the bingo game entitled U.S.-Africa Connections that was inspired by Boston University (n.d.) (see Figure 4). The students were thoroughly engaged with the game board, especially when the multimedia was integrated through hyperlinks on slides where short snippets of songs were played, such as “Calm Down,” “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and jazz standards, as well as displaying an image of Picasso’s work. I read every question, played clips accordingly, and reminded students to write their initials under the questions that they could answer yes to. The three students who declared Bingo were required to orally expound on their answers, which led to meaningful whole group discussions. Just before we processed the information in the bingo grid, the classroom teacher pulled me to the side to inquire as to why Picasso was included. I informed her that Picasso and Matisse’s works were inspired by Baya Mahieddine, an Algerian artist (Drinkard, 2018). During this time, it was noted that students referred to Ghana, Kenya, and Egypt as cities and had no recollection of an African country. In hindsight, I realized the students need to have a stronger sense of our continent, North America, to fully grasp Africa as a continent. When asked what the items on the sheet had in common, most students realized that everything connected to Africa. This proved to be a great resource for connecting to and teaching about Africa, as well as assessing the information students retained from the lessons.

Figure 4
Figure 4

BINGO! U.S. – Africa Connections

Citation: Mathematics Teacher: Learning and Teaching PK-12 117, 3; 10.5951/MTLT.2023.0094

Debrief

Students were invited back to the carpet to discuss things they learned about Africa. The students stated, “We learned that Africa is a continent,” that the materials to make cell phones are from Africa, and “The richest man to ever live is from Africa.” They also mentioned several things from the U.S. Africa Connections sheet (Figure 4) such as chocolate, diamonds, gold, jazz, and okra. To reinforce the importance of representation, I reiterated the question about the importance of seeing people of color, specifically Black people, in books and videos. The students expressed their appreciation and indicated that they would like to “go to Africa” one day.

CONCLUSION

Cunningham (2021) highlights how structural racism in schools impacts how Black students see themselves as doers of mathematics, as well as their ability to perform in mathematical settings. Therefore, math intervention and improvement start when individuals develop a self-image of being capable of doing math successfully. Identity includes how individuals see themselves as well as their perception of how others see them. Thus, this task is important for students—as well as current and future educators—to view African American children as mathematicians. The African Connection task can also aid in reducing the impact of the stereotypical threat that plagues African American students, in which they may be perceived as dangerous and or intellectually low. This stereotypical threat is regarded as a state of psychological discomfort that occurs when members of a marginalized group encounter stereotypes about their own group where the negative typecast could be confirmed (Steele et al., 2002). These preconceived notions can help explain deeply ingrained biases that teachers may hold that communicate that blackness equals inferiority. To improve students’ identity in mathematics, Taylor (2012) encourages educators to create curriculum around the history and home life of Black students. Shortly after implementing the African Connection task, the classroom teacher and I noticed that it was no longer necessary to walk around the classroom and encourage students to start the math tasks at hand. The high schoolers began engaging in tasks within a minute or two and would often remind each other of their mathematical lineage. The higher level of motivation ultimately affected their mathematical performance, which was evidenced by the increased number of successful exit tickets.

Highlighting historical perspectives of how marginalized groups contributed to the evolution of mathematical ideas plays a pivotal role in shaping underrepresented students’ mathematical identity. It is also essential for students to see individuals who share racial or ethnic backgrounds achieving academic and personal success. When teachers prioritize developing these aspects of mathematical identity, students are empowered to embrace and excel in mathematics. _

REFERENCES

Taajah Felder Witherspoon serves as an assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham for pre-service early childhood and elementary educators. She has a passion for teaching with understanding and providing students opportunities to construct knowledge with reasoning for multiplication and fractions. She has developed her beliefs through her current position and previous roles as classroom teacher and math coach.

Access the Illuminations Lesson Plan and related materials here.

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