While in grade school, historian Arturo Alfonso Schomburg was told by a teacher that Black people had no history, heroes, or noteworthy accomplishments.
I first learned of this information after skimming through a “Little Leaders” book from the shelf of my 18-month-old son. I immediately thought about my work as an educator, primarily in elementary math, and considered the disparities in the content that was taught. Arguably more important than the content itself is the context in which it is taught.
What is being presented to students and how it is being presented are two different species that happen to live in the same habitat.
Content is the skill, concept, or instructional goal we want students to reach.
Context is how we frame the information.
The likelihood of students (or anyone) taking genuine interest or actively engaging in something increases drastically when it applies to their life. Providing familiarity through a cultural reference makes the content more relative. Thus, giving students more of a reason to feel like part of the learning and actually care on a real level.
Mirrors and Windows
Coupling this with Schomburg’s experience, there has to be a question of: What is missing in educational content, especially with regard to Black children? Unfortunately, Black history and black cultural representation for these students are normally not very prevalent outside of February. So, the connection (context) to the material (content) is essentially non-existent.
Think about this in terms of mirrors and windows. Mirrors provide a reflection of ourselves, which can promote and empower us to love who we are. Windows allow us to view outwardly into the world and understand that there is more in the world that we can learn and experience. Both are necessary. However, what is the result for children who never have the “mirror” experience with the content they see in school? They constantly stare out the proverbial window and see the greatness in everything except themselves. This is why teaching core subjects, such as math, should include Black history and culture contexts.
A 2019 study from the researchers at the University of Kansas stated that, “mathematics taught with students’ sociocultural backgrounds in mind has a wide range of benefits to learners from diverse backgrounds.”
So, not only would Black students receive the “mirror” experience, but non-Black students would provide a “window.”
We tell children that they can be whatever they set their minds to, but we also know how much more impactful it is to have a real example.
A simple illustration is this:
Students before and after the election of President Obama.
Many of them were told that they could hold that very office someday. Who do you think believed it more?