#GMDReflects: Noticing (Concerning) Patterns in Our Work
This is part 2 of the year-long #GMDReflects series. In part 1 (linked here) I introduced the practice of Self Study as a tool to help guide our actions as math educators to better reflect our values as human beings. I also extended the invitation to join in a Self Study project of your own. In each part of this series I will be sharing prompts to guide your self-study, they will also be shared on Twitter with the hashtag #GMDReflects.
The inspiration for my first formal Self Study project was a research paper on teacher-student contact in Ontario classrooms like mine. The study found the following:
- Teachers talk to boys more than girls.
- Teachers discipline Black boys most often.
- White, middle-class boys get more positive contact with a teacher than any other group.
I wanted to see if I, a Black woman, would have the same dynamic in my classroom. For about two weeks I informally kept track of which students I spoke to throughout the course of a day. The results were upsetting. I found that, in the classroom, I had more interactions with boys than girls and that White, middle-class boys had the most contact with me. While I was dismayed, I was committed to better understanding the dynamics that created this imbalance, so I continued to observe without changing my behaviour, but this time focused on who initiated conversations and the types of engagement we had. In this round of observation I was struck by how often and how easily that same group of students — White, middle-class boys — initiated contact with me and asked questions compared to their peers. In addition to whatever bias I was showing, this new focus on student-initiated contact left me wondering why some individuals feel more comfortable talking and advocating for themselves in the classroom.
Here I will take a step back and point you to a short twitter thread by Dr. Jessica Calarco, a sociologist who studies families, schools and inequality, and the author of Negotiating Opportunities: How the Middle Class Secures Advantages in School.
In this thread, Dr. Calarco shares the results of a series of poll questions that she posed to her students about situations where they might ask for help — during a test, to round up a final grade, for a parent to deliver their forgotten homework — broken down by parent education level (a proxy for class). A clear pattern can be seen: students’ likelihood of asking for help in each scenario was positively correlated with their parents’ education level. This pattern matches the findings of her book, Negotiating Opportunities, in which she explains:
“Through their parents’ coaching, working-class students learn to follow rules and work through problems independently. Middle-class students learn to challenge rules and request assistance, accommodations, and attention in excess of what is fair or required. Teachers typically grant those requests, creating advantages for middle-class students.” (Calarco, 2018)
As we examine our biases and behaviour as individuals it is crucial to also step back and examine wider social dynamics. While some individuals may use these as excuses to not change their practice (it’s not my fault! What’s the point?), for those of us who are committed to serving every student to the fullest this kind of information is invaluable. Beyond the impact of class-based culture, I’ve taken a broader lesson from Dr. Calarco’s work: there are all kinds of subtle cultural forces influencing the dynamics of my classroom and without examining them I will perpetuate the status quo.
Early in my career I assumed that my good intentions, and in fact my very identity, would insulate me from being “part of the problem”. The first step in my Self Study journey was asking myself “am I part of the problem?” and it was a powerful shift. But along this journey of learning I have come to find that the more realistic question is “how am I part of the problem?”.
Knowing that student-initiated contact made up the bulk of my engagement throughout the day, I began to intentionally connect with the groups of students least likely to walk up to me, raise their hand, or interrupt a lesson when they were struggling. I incorporated the following routines into my day:
- I intentionally sought out quiet students to build connections.
- I intentionally spent time talking to Black girls and boys about their learning.
- I intentionally sought out opportunities to validate or praise the thinking Black boys.
- I made sure that I interacted with every student at least once beyond a greeting.
As you begin to notice patterns in your own work that result in inequalities, I ask you to remain curious about what small changes you can make now to disrupt those patterns. Human interaction is complex, and the road to understanding our biases is a long one, but we don’t have to have it all figured out to begin shifting our practice.
I look forward to connecting with you at #GMDReflects. – Idil Abdulkadir (@idil_a_)