When Black Boy Joy and STEM Don’t Mix

As a kindergartner with Black boy joy, Carter excitedly began public school wanting to become a scientist. Carter considered scientists “some of the smartest people on earth,” because they could create things. His dream was encouraged by his family and friends in public housing because, despite the demonization of his community, they wanted him to succeed.

Defining student success should not be left solely up to teachers without the undergirding of local, state and federal resources to equalize educational attainment for all students.

Little did Carter know, the historical plight of unequal education for Black children would rear its ugly head in his direction as learning became burdensome, encroached with preconceived notions of his intellectual ability based on race, class, and gender. Sadly, the cultural positioning of Black boys in the United States is that they have no aspirations, no dreams, no goals; and Carter’s schooling reinforced this notion, placing him in a traumatic state while learning math and science.

Carter, currently a 10th grader, attends an independent studies school at the forceful advice of a basketball coach. Carter took the help because of his love for the sport and desire to re-enroll at a “normal school.” Carter was kicked out of his “normal school” because he failed several classes and needed to catch up on credits. The reality of Carter regaining his academic footing and returning to his old school proves problematic, as he reads on a second-grade level, crushing his scientist dream. When discussing science, Carter expressed how he never created science projects nor explored science in the natural world as his teachers feared for their safety in his community. “We didn’t make things, and teachers were scared to do any science activities outside of our classroom for fear of getting shot.”

K. Wilson/E. Micheaux

Growing up in the same geographical space but different public housing, Darius felt Black boy joy being nicknamed the “money man” by his family. Darius was good at counting money which was considered an asset in his community. Darius wanted to become a veterinarian as a result of spending time with his grandfather who cared for stray animals. Carter and Darius met and became friends in elementary school. But their friendship had to remain a secret as they were forced to walk out of separate gates in middle school based on a long-standing rivalry between housing projects. Carter and Darius would risk losing their lives if they were seen with each other, further debilitating their Black boy joy.

Today, Darius no longer has aspirations of becoming a veterinarian while attending a charter high school adjacent to Carter’s school separated by iron fencing. Darius struggles in geometry during the day, while balancing two algebra classes in night school. He blames himself for his math problems citing lack of communication with teachers about difficulties in reading and understanding geometry. Darius received math awards as a child but believes his present math struggles are the result of math teaching that doesn’t involve solving real problems in his community.

While my family wants me to do good in school, they didn’t have good math and science teachers themselves, so no one expects much.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows abysmal statistics of Black children’s proficiency in math and science as early as fourth grade. Subsequently, society remains confounded regarding the persistent underrepresentation of Blacks in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Leaving US education grappling with three phenomenon distressing Blacks’ STEM participation:

  1. Public school is failing Black children in math and science because it negates their families and communities.

After meeting with leaders of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), Education Secretary Betsy DeVos extolled HBCU’s as “pioneers of school choice.” Her ignorance minimized the fact that equal education has been and continues to be elusive for Blacks. While society denied Blacks the right to an education, their tenacity was unstoppable as they used their own money and resources to create their schools chronicled by James Anderson in The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860–1935. DeVos’ blatant disregard of the historicity of education for Black people while reducing their struggle to school choice illustrates how culturally relevant pedagogy regarding Black people is missing in US schools. Moreover, it leaves in-tact educational policies that have prevented Black students from equal education, let alone STEM participation.

  1. Black children are not the problem; teacher training and development in the United States must improve.

Under the Trump/DeVos leadership spectacle, Black children will remain traumatized in STEM with a proposed a 2 billion dollar cut to Title II funding for teacher development. These realities will arguably disincentivize investments in providing culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogy training for math and science teachers, thus perpetuating the idea that Black students are at fault for their lack of STEM representation. As a former elementary teacher in low-income Black and Brown communities, I had to disrupt my own biases and presuppositions as a beginning teacher on how students learn. My disruption began in an interdisciplinary master’s program and professional development workshops for in-service teachers—the very kind of support that Trump and DeVos seek to eliminate with the dismantling of Title II funding. During this time, I learned the importance of valuing the funds of knowledge and community cultural wealth children bring into schools. Knowledge established and recognized through interactions with family and community members that strengthen their belief and ambitions in math and science. These competencies do not occur in isolation as DeVos alludes.

Pre- and in-service teachers who are not provided the experience to confront their biases in math and science learning can be detrimental for Black youth. Teachers must disrupt Eurocentric and patriarchal ways of knowing in math and science. Teachers must wrestle with the reality of how math and science education privileges whites and “model minorities” and marginalizes communities of color.

  1. Math and science teaching and learning must transition from memorization to conceptual understanding, and recognition of the funds of knowledge Black children possess.

During a school visit in DC, DeVos expressed teachers are waiting to be told how to teach, instead of creating learning for students. She described waiting as teachers being in “receive mode.” Teachers occupy this position courtesy of top-down, standards-based reform and high stakes testing which has dominated K12 education for decades while simultaneously legitimizing Black students’ deficiency in math and science. Rote menial tasks should not consume math and science teaching and learning. Instead, students must be challenged to interrogate real issues requiring mathematical and scientific knowledge. Failed math and science education has produced intergenerational consequences for the Black community, as Carter explained, “while my family wants me to do good in school, they didn’t have good math and science teachers themselves, so no one expects much.” Darius’s quest for understanding geometry in real, relevant ways to transform his community speaks to the need of radically modifying math and science education.

As a Black boy with joy now a professor of STEM education at an urban university, I too, experienced schooling that did not value the mathematical and scientific knowledge I brought into the classroom. Teachers did not appreciate the knowledge obtained through gardening experiences with my great-grandmother. Thus, anthropological research in math and science teaching and learning must listen to the voices of black youth to foster and sustain Blacks’ STEM participation. Shifting prioritization in research on the sociocultural aspect of math and science learning to understand whether or not Black students are engaged in self-discovery, peer collaboration, and the natural world of their communities. Facilitating the joys of empowering Black children to develop math and science literacy requires teachers to co-construct knowledge with their students, abandoning the authoritarian teacher model, and placing confidence in students’ abilities.

As I engaged in the lives of Carter and Darius, I learned how schools have traumatized generations of Black children in their quest to learn math and science. Thus, we as a nation must come to terms with who is encouraged and supported in STEM education—because clearly, it isn’t Black people. I urge readers to visit a math and science classroom and observe the type of pedagogies and learning occurring among Black children. Are Black youth positioned to transform their communities using math and science? Are images of Black mathematicians and scientists visible? If the answer to any of these questions is no, Black boy joy and STEM will remain distressed, and this places math and science education in a state of emergency.

KiMi Wilson is assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at California State University, Los Angeles and studies math and science identity development for African American youth. Find him on Twitter: @profkimiwilson

Patricia D. López and Cathy Amanti are contributing editors for the Council on Anthropology and Education’s news column. If you would like to contribute, contact us at [email protected]jsu.edu and/or [email protected].

Cite as: Wilson, KiMi. 2017. “When Black Boy Joy and STEM Don’t Mix.” Anthropology News website, November 17, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.685

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