Wednesday, February 13, 2013

STEM Fiereceness: (Almost) Dr. TJ

First, a little mood music. I submit On My Way by Reflection Eternal, one of my personal pick-me-ups, for your listening pleasure.

"Whether sunny or rain....Whether ecstasy or pain...I'm on my way!"
As a means of speaking my greatness into existence, I'll start by highlighting myself. Yup, gonna toot my own horn today. I take my commitment to increasing underrepresented students' participation in mathematics very seriously. As a teacher, teacher educator, and budding researcher, I want to do my part to provide students with quality mathematics instruction.

If you read my Ph.D story, you'll remember that I've had the opportunity to teach prospective mathematics and science teachers since I've been in graduate school. I'm grateful to work with faculty who have given me the space to create a course that I think is really special. In this class, we tackle tough issues like like the one I addressed in last week's post. Ultimately, the class is designed to have them think about everyday math and science classroom issues from an equity perspective.

One of our very first exercises is writing our mathematics and science autobiographies. People who teach math and science, especially at the secondary level, tend to be pretty good at the content.  Sometimes math and science teachers have difficulty working with struggling students because they are very adept at the subject matter. We call this the "expert blindspot" in education research. So, to think critically about how to reach struggling students, my students and I delve into our own mathematics autobiographies. We look for issues of privilege and oppression that shape who we are and how we approach teaching. Here's an excerpt of my autobiography that I share with my students:

My family has been incredibly influential in shaping my perceptions of myself as a learner of mathematics. My father, a self-taught computer programmer, always told people that I got my “math brain” from him. Growing up, I was never afraid of doing mathematics because my father always made it seem as if it were something that we were predestined to do and to be good at thanks to our “math gene.” On the other hand, my mother always raved about how proud she was to have daughters (my sister also had lots of success in math classes) who were highly successful in a subject area that challenged her.  To this day, she still talks about how she feels like our success in math is her victory,
When I look over my academic career, I also attribute my love and confidence in mathematics and my desire to teach it to several mathematics teachers that I had during my K-12 and college years. I would say that my curiosity and fascination with mathematics began in the third grade with Mrs. Gaylor and long division. Mrs. Gaylor was the first (and one of two) African-American teachers that I had. She always displayed her admiration and support for me both in and out of class. She made me feel mathematically competent by sending me to the board, having me explain answers to my fellow students, and allowing me to be her “helper”. In retrospect, while I felt like Mrs. Gaylor’s favorite, I would surmise that she was able to make many of her students feel the same way. Many of my classmates have similar feelings about Mrs. Gaylor and her class. Nonetheless, Mrs. Gaylor and her warm and heartfelt approach to teaching definitely shaped my feelings about mathematics and my desire to teach it. Additionally, having an African-American woman as a mathematics teacher gave me a frame of reference. I was able to see myself as one day being a teacher and teaching a “hard” subject like math. 
A second influential teacher, Mr. Parr, is, by far, the most knowledgeable math teacher that I ever had. He taught my Algebra 2 and Precalculus classes when I was in high school. He had a way of taking very complex material and making it accessible to my classmates and me. I attribute much of my academic success in college to Mr. Parr’s solid foundation. He was on the cutting edge of technology, as TI-82 calculators were fresh off of the assembly line. He always had an answer to the “whys” and “hows.” When I was a high school teacher, I often found myself thinking, “What would Mr. Parr do?” when I was faced with an instructional challenge. Mr. Parr opened me up to the intellectual rigor of mathematics. He made set theory and asymptotes seem totally approachable. I had the opportunity to thank him about two years ago. I am more appreciative than he’ll ever know.            
Dr. Harvey, my Calculus 2 and 3 teacher, was also highly influential to my development as a mathematics learner. I attended Florida A&M University, a historically Black college in Tallahassee, Florida. That experience alone was highly influential. Transitioning from being one of the only Black students taking advanced math and science in my high school to taking advanced mathematics with Black students from all walks of life, cultures, and backgrounds was amazing. It made Black excellence in mathematics the norm. This proved to be highly influential as I faced predominately all-Black classrooms during my first years of teaching. Learning mathematics from a classical AND cultural perspective never made me see excellence and being Black as dichotomous. Dr. Harvey, a well-known and respected professor in our department, appealed not just to our intellect, but to our spirits as well. He referred to everyone as “mathematician,” and so I began to see myself as one. He encouraged us to continue our education, for being African Americans with mathematics degrees was rare, and our collective voice was needed. 
Post-college, my identity as a mathematics learner has continued to be shaped and redefined. Being a woman of color in mathematics can be isolating at times. Sometimes I find myself wondering if I am being discriminated against on the basis of race, gender, age, dialect, or some other characteristic that makes me who I am. Other times, I realize that having a different, unique voice is needed and necessary. More than anything, my experiences have helped me to realize that learning math is equally affective as it is intellectual. Each day I engage with mathematics, whether teaching, working a difficult problem, or working with prospective mathematics teachers, I am aware that this story of my relationship with mathematics is still growing and changing.
There are a few things about my personal journey that I'd like to point out.

1) My family believed in me. While I now know that there is no such thing as a "math gene," my father's confidence in his little Black girl to excel in mathematics has been powerful in my quest to succeed in mathematics. He never doubted my sister and I for a second, thus, we didn't start our academic journey by doubting ourselves.

2) I had a supportive village. You know how people say, "I'm doing this for all the people who said I wouldn't be anything"? Well, I don't know what that feels like. My teachers and the people my parents allowed into our lives always held us up. They made us feel competent. They normalized excellence. I owe my success to church-sponsored oratorical contests and Bible drills. To the members of our church who honored us for making honor roll by presenting us with crisp $5 bills in front of the congregation. I was loved. I was nurtured. I didn't start to doubt myself until I forgot the things I learned from my parents and from my years as a child at a little store-front church in Stafford, TX.

3) I excelled in mathematics because I was attuned to it intellectually and affectively. Math doesn't have to be taught as a cold, distant subject. There's love and care woven all throughout my mathematics autobiography, and I hope that if some of my students ever write theirs, there will be some love and care interwoven - at least in the part about me :). While I can't teach new teachers to love their students and to be warm, I can make sure that they take affective issues into account as they teach.

As the Reflection Eternal song at the beginning of this post reminds me, I'm on my way - despite setbacks, doubts, insecurities, and procrastination. I'm. On. My. Way. Period. I'm off to go work on this dissertation (as always). I'm off to make my mark in the world. I'm off to continue drafting my mathematics autobiography.

Until next time . . . be on your way!

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