Girls + Math: “Math is for everyone”

May 10th, 2012

In the last installment of our Girls + Math series Chris Confer, coauthor of Small Steps, Big Changes, shares her personal history with math and how she found herself in a “less stressful” math class in seventh grade.

Marissa’s hurt brown eyes looked unhappily at me across the class full of eighth-grade math students.

Surprised, I asked myself, What did I say? I mentally replayed my last comment. A building contractor uses functions as he plans building projects with the same house design.

He. It suddenly hit me. My poorly worded example had completely excluded Marissa—and half of the class. Marissa knew it, and her eyes communicated her dismay. I immediately corrected my pronoun use, noting that both women and men can be contractors. Relief washed vividly over Marissa’s face, and I made a mental note to talk with her later.

Mathematics is my love and my passion. I’ve been a mathematics educator for thirty-five years, and a consultant for more than twenty of those years. I’ve dedicated my life to helping all students find their genius for mathematics, their own passion for math, and their voice to claim their place in classrooms and in life.  So how could I fall into the same trap that I have talked about so many times with groups of teachers?

In “Debunking Myths about Gender and Mathematics Performance,” Jonathan M. Kane and Janet E. Mertz share some answers to my question. Differences in boys’ and girls’ rates of participation in mathematics and the small differences in their levels of performance are most likely due to “a variety of sociocultural factors present in their environment.” Specifically, the authors note that equity in society, employment, and pay correlates to the socioeconomic status of the home. The article states that “well-educated women who earn a good income are better positioned to ensure that their own children’s educational needs are met.”

As I read the authors’ conclusions, I reflected back on my experiences as a child. How did I ever become a mathematics author and consultant? Surely good fortune smiled on me, because the sociocultural factors present in suburban Tucson, Arizona, in the 1960s and 1970s most certainly did not.

I remember my beloved third-grade teacher answering my question about the procedure for adding fractions with, “Don’t ask why, Christy. Just do it.” I was a good little girl. So I stopped trying to make sense of math.

I remember my conscientious sixth-grade teacher worrying about too much stress in junior high, and recommending that Jimmy, who also got all As, take high math and average reading. I, a girl, should take average math and high reading, he decided.

So in seventh grade I found myself in a classroom with students who were practicing their multiplication tables, which I had learned years ago. My schedule didn’t get changed until the spring semester, when I finally joined the high math class. I struggled for the remainder of the year, having missed an entire semester of learning. This one event impacted my choices for the rest of high school and college.

I remember that, as a sophomore in high school, I consciously chose wrong answers on a standardized test, to try to gain the acceptance of my peers who looked down on “those smart kids.”

I know that the world of today has shifted profoundly in many of its assumptions about girls and math. However, the specter of old habits and words—and even beliefs—peers out from the shadows, anxious and ready to hop out at a moment’s notice, eager to recreate yesterday’s culture.  Just as I did, we teachers invite that ghost from the past into the present through our words and misstatements. How often do teachers say that they’re not good at math, unwittingly giving permission for their students—especially the girls—to give up? How often do teachers forget to highlight that success in math is the key to opening doors in college and careers?

Girls need chances to use mathematics in the games that they play, by building with blocks (not just the pink and purple ones), and through mental math (I occasionally invited my daughter to keep the change if she could figure it out before we got to the cashier). Girls need to learn that they are good problem-solvers, that they can justify their thinking, and that math is an exciting, vibrant tool for making sense of the world. Girls need to see mistakes as learning opportunities, and success as a cause for celebration.

I sincerely hope that Marissa stays in the game of mathematics, that she develops confidence born of solid skills. I hope that Marissa can continue to challenge unthinking remarks such as mine—not only with her eyes, but by raising her hand to question them—knowing that she has the solid support of her peers. I pledge to continue to do my part, to remain vigilant, to make sure that “math is for boys” becomes “math is for everyone.”

Entry Filed under: math

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