For me, it was really weird… I came up in the Pittsburgh Public Schools in the mid to late 1970s. At that time, experimentation in public education was ramped. There was forced busing at my elementary school (East Hills, if you know anything about The Burg); white kids from other parts of town were bused to my neighborhood (the black one); like that was supposed to fix the academic achievement problems, LOL! Also, my elementary school was brand new at the time, and was a model of the “open classroom learning environment” that was popular at the time. I just remember constantly being distracted because you could always be able to see and hear stuff going on in the other classrooms.
About the only good thing I remember during that time was my selection to be in the Pittsburgh Scholars Program, which was a city wide accelerated learning curriculum aimed to prepare students for college. I was placed in the reading and math track. I remember being so proud when I got the selection letter. My mother took me shopping and got my hair done to celebrate! LOL
So I breezed through elementary school math with no problems… the only time I had a little trouble was in 4th grade when I had to convert fractions into percentages… but I got through it with the help of my older brother… (I recently had flashbacks when Nia came to this in her 4th grade math curriculum, but she didn’t have a problem with it at all… they teach it differently now, it’s very visual…)
Anyway, I was fine until I got into 6th grade and entered into junior high school (back then, junior high was 6, 7 and 8, and “middle” school (at least the term) didn’t exist. My 6th grade math teacher was Mr. J. (just the first initial) To put it mildly, he was strange. First off, he always seemed to have an attitude; like he didn’t like coming to work every day to teach us. He would teach a concept then ask us if we understood it. If anyone dared say NO, he would start screaming and asking us what’s the problem… it’s easy…… he was very impatient; and short tempered. I remember feeling “beat up on” after leaving his class; afraid to ask questions, or say I didn’t understand, so I just shut down. In short, my breeze through grade school math came to a screeching halt! I remember actually failing one of his math tests and I was devastated! I was so confused. I asked myself, “How did I become so DUMB in math?”
SO WHILE THIS WAS GOING ON IN MATH CLASS..
Towards the middle of the year, there were tryouts for the school play… I jumped at the opportunity because my then I had decided that I wanted a career as a performing artist… I remember distinctly going to the gym after school for my audition. Much to my surprise, I discovered that the director of the play was going to be Mr. J! WHAT??….. How did he go from being a math teacher to a drama teacher? Shouldn’t he be in charge of the Math Club or something like that!
Well, I got in the play and remember rehearsals; Mr. J was like a different person when he was preparing us for the play. He was full of energy, happy, and very passionate about his role as director and choreographer. But back in math class….. OOOhhh, how I HATED his class!!
At the end of the 6th grade, my math grades had dropped significantly. I was put out of the Math Track of the Pittsburgh Scholars program and placed in the regular math curriculum. I feel humiliated and ashamed. There began my official “hatred” of math!!!
My negative feelings about math continued through 7th and 8th grade. I had such severe anxiety about math, I blew it off; telling myself that I wouldn’t need it in my career since I was going to be a famous performing artist, (and I guess was going to have all my money stolen from me too, LOL) I truly just did the minimal amount to get by to pass. My confidence in math had been shattered. I felt like math just wasn’t for me, and there was no one in my school or community to tell me differently.
Of course, once I entered high school, I had to take algebra and geometry to graduate. My 9th grade algebra teacher, (the first female math teacher I had ever had!) noticed that an alarmingly high number of students coming from my junior high school were lacking the pre-requisite skills needed to take her algebra class. They determined that a majority of us had been instructed by Mr. J! (I could have told them that… all my friends were in class with me!) Unfortunately I was one of those students. So by this time, we were so far behind, our 9th grade math teacher ended up having to teach pre-algebra for most of the year, and only got to full algebra by the last quarter. I was so discouraged by then… I struggled through algebra and 10th grade geometry. In 11th grade, I bowled out of math all together and took a home economics class which served as the final math credit needed for high school graduation.
Two years later, I am a freshman at Howard University and had to take the dreaded Functions Math class which was a university wide freshman requirement.
After miserably failing that class, I was put in a remedial math class in the math department in order to increase my skills to the level of being able to pass Functions.
IT WAS AS IF A LIGHT HAD BEEN TURNED ON
First time EVER I had an African-American math teacher. First time EVER I was taught about the rich legacy Africans have had in mathematics and science. We were told that society had let us down. There was nothing wrong with us; there was something wrong with the educational system that discouraged young African-American students (especially females) from achieving in math and science. We were exposed to our historical greatness! We were told we came from a people who were at the forefront of inventions in science and math. We were taught about the mathematics used by t he ancient Egyptians who build the great pyramids; about great African math scholars, scientists and universities and how people from all over the world traveled to Africa to learn from them. Wow! I had no clue… I just did not know… those lessons changed by entire perspective, and even though I was still going to pursue a career in theater, I was going to work my butt off to make it in that Functions class… Now, I knew, Mr. J. was a jerk! He had low expectations of me and did not believe in my success. Therefore, neither did I, but all that had changed in an instant!
When I re took the Functions class, I worked my A** off. I bugged the teacher asking for extra help. I got friends to tutor me and even got my Mom’s boyfriend to help! LOL I ended up getting a C in Functions! But, you could not have told me that a C did not feel like an A!
SO WHAT’S THE POINT?
As we continue to push our young people, especially girls in STEM related fields, let us keep in mind that there are still countless numbers of girls like me who are falling through the cracks. Many of these girls will not succeed in math; not because they lack the intellect; they continue to be stymied by a multitude of cultural and societal factors that have nothing to do with their brain.
Today’s global economy is urging young people to pursue technical careers that focus on STEM. Our girls must be prepared by taking rigorous courses in science, math and technology in grade school. We’ve got to spark a passion and love for STEM in these girls and encourage them to dream about career paths outside the box of what society says they should aspire to. You may think it sounds trite, but trust me… it will make all the difference in the world!
PARENTS: HERE’S WHAT YOU CAN DO!
Advocate for your child! Make sure your school district offers the intense math and science classes needed for college entry.
- Make math a learning activity in your everyday life; and make it fun! For example, buy a bag of MM candies and have your daughter estimate the number of green MMs she will find. Then count to see if she is correct. (Ask your daughter’s teacher for ideas that are grade level appropriate, most teachers would love to offer them!)
- Make a cake, or brownies or something yummy! Reading recipes and following measuring directions is always a sure thing.
- Allow your daughter to operate a summer time or weekend lemonade stand; reinforcing math and entrepreneurial skills.
- Just like reading; make sure your daughter is practicing her math skills EVERYDAY for at least 15-30 minutes a day; depending on her grade level. Oh, and that is AFTER the MATH HOMEWORK IS DONE!
- Expose your daughter to the great female pioneers in STEM! Women like Ada Lovelace, Evelyn Boyd Granville, Madame Marie Curie and Mae Jemison (and so many others) should be household names
- Stay on top of your daughter’s math curriculum at school, work closely with her teacher and jump on any sign of trouble she is developing; hire a tutor if you have to… but be on point immediately.
- Make use of the many online math games and math education resources available on the internet. Go to the library if you don’t have a computer at home.
- Teach your daughter to network with STEM professionals, living and working in your community. Use community resources to find them. Ask around! Seek out people through community centers, libraries, local businesses and universities, churches, social and civic groups, friends and family. Be bold… go up to someone, introduce yourself and your daughter and ask if you could set up an “information interview.” (Really, what do you have to lose, most people would be flattered!)
- Encourage your daughter to join STEM related clubs at school; like the science club, IT club, etc… find summer time activities directly related to STEM. I plan on putting Nia is a robotics camp this summer.
- Finally, encourage your daughter to believe that she can do anything she wants! if she wants to be in a STEM related field, then tell her to go for it… don’t let anyone, or anything stop her… the sky is the limit.
Here are some resources to get you started…. Get to it!!
P.S. I found out years later is that Mr. J had been a drama teacher in a school district outside of Pittsburgh. He had lost his job and was thrown into teaching a math class; having had no formal math education training; no experience teaching math… he just got the job…. SMH