Belonging and Barbecue
At our school’s ironically named “End-of-year” barbecue I talked with a couple of students who have been enrolled in our school for a long time. They are both in their twenties, both male, both students of color. While they both have a history of struggling in school they both are poised to graduate when the school year actually ends on June 28th. They both spoke about how important was to feel a part of something as they reflected on their successful school experiences. They recalled feeling like they were connected, and that everybody was on their side and we were working together. It was a very interesting conversation that stayed with me for some time.
As I returned to my desk I found Ilana Horn’s article Who Belongs In Our Math Classrooms? in my twitter feed and saw an amazing set of connections between the conversation I just had and her blog post. The post describes the alienation that students feel in schools, especially in math class given the cultural norms and assessment driven pressures that surrounds the subject. “For most students, alienation can be overcome by teachers who create a sense of belongingness.” Horn writes in the post “Belongingness comes about when students experience frequent, pleasant interactions with their peers and teacher.” I was instantly reminded of my conversation about the two students who could quickly list off the classes and the teachers that created that culture and created a sense of belonging. They contrasted the sense of belonging with other teachers’ classrooms where they felt alone and had to “fend for themselves”. In Horn’s article she describes the negative consequences of creating a competitive culture as “competition sends a strong message that some people are more mathematically able than others.”
Horn goes on to describe a number of other things that made me think of ways to help other students. These include using students actual names even when it is difficult to pronounce, not treat students differently based on their cultural backgrounds, and not looking to correct things that are inconsequential. “If our students are learning English as a second language, speaking a pidgin or African American Vernacular English (AAVE), our focus on correct grammar in situations where it is inconsequential may disinvite their participation.” It was a great post, and one that would probably resonate with others as much as it resonated with me on Friday afternoon.