Unpacking Identities and Agency through the Voices of Black Boys

By Robert Berry posted 08-15-2018 07:28

This blog is for The Virtual Conference on Mathematical Flavors. I am honored to be a keynote. The discussion below is based on what I consider to be my seminal work as researcher and educator. Unpacking the mathematical experiences of Black boys is a "flavor" that we must be intentional about if we are serious about equity work.

Bilal's Story
Bilal is an eighth-grade Black boy who has been successful with school mathematics and school in general. Bilal stated that mathematics is an easy subject for him to learn because he likes mathematics and he loves the challenge of problem solving. In fact, he credits his father for helping him develop a love for mathematics. When Bilal was younger, his father would play mathematics games, do mathematics puzzles, and teach him mathematics tricks. Because of Bilal’s early experiences, he has always done well in mathematics. In fact, Bilal was labeled academically gifted (AG) in the fourth grade.

When Bilal was in sixth grade, his achievement in mathematics fell from his typical performance of earning A’s to logging C’s. Bilal stated that his underperformance was due to his mathematics teacher’s inability to convey mathematics concepts in a way that he could understand.  When Bilal’s parents met with the teacher during the first semester, they were told that the advance course for sixth graders was too challenging for Bilal and that he should be placed in a lower level mathematics course. Bilal’s parents found this recommendation to be odd because Bilal’s work in mathematics class was not that bad. The teacher did not offer suggestions or advice about how they could help Bilal with his mathematics. Furthermore, Bilal was the only Black boy in this course. From the parents’ perspective, the teacher was more focused on removing Bilal from the class than helping him achieve. With the help of his parents, Bilal worked hard and earned a letter grade of B in an advanced sixth-grade mathematics course. He went on to earn an A in seventh-grade prealgebra and has done well in algebra one as an eighth grader.

Bilal’s story reveals that he sees himself as being a good student who is good at mathematics. When considering the context and the perspectives of Bilal’s parents, we see Bilal’s interwoven identities: a middle school Black boy who is good at mathematics and is identified as gifted. This short excerpt along with other interviews and observations reveal that Bilal, like other Black boys, negotiated several interwoven identities. Consequently, when Bilal was confronted with being placed in a lower level mathematics course, we can imagine that he began questioning his interwoven identities. Am I being recommended for placement in a lower level course because—

  • I am no longer a good student who is good at mathematics?
  • I am no longer identified as gifted?
  • middle school is different from elementary school?
  • I am a Black boy?

I do not know whether Bilal’s sixth-grade mathematics teacher knew his story or understood the complexities of a Black boy negotiating interwoven identities. Imagine the impact on Bilal’s identities and how different his experiences would have been had he been placed in a lower level mathematics course. Would Bilal still see himself as a good student who is good at mathematics? Would his peers see him differently? If so, what would that mean to Bilal? Would other mathematics teachers see him as being a student who was good at mathematics?

Teacher Supporting Identities and Agency

Mathematics identity is defined as how these learners see themselves mathematically and how they are seen by others (teachers, parents, and peers) as doers of mathematics. It also refers to a perception of self as a participant in mathematics. Agency is one’s identity in action and the presentation of one’s identity through participating in mathematics in personally and socially meaningful ways. Teachers support students’ identities and sense of agency in values that they communicate through their words and actions. In the mathematics classroom, values are often situated as teachers having high expectations and showing care for learners. For many students, expectations and care are outward signs of how their teachers value them as people and learners. For example, math student Darren was asked, “How does a mathematics teacher show that he or she cares about you?” He commented on ways that Ms. Blaine demonstrated her values of him as a person and learner:

My teacher, Ms. Blaine, cared about all of us. She would bend over backwards to help us when we needed it. She really helped me. She talked to me and told me that I had a lot of potential in math and that I should use it to get ahead in life. [She thought] I was capable of doing a lot in math. That’s what really motivated me . . . she understands that there is a lot of pressure put on African American males. . . .  She lets me know I can be cool and smart at the same time.

It is clear that Ms. Blaine affirmed Darren’s mathematics, racial, and social identities by telling him that he was good at mathematics and acknowledging the pressure of being a Black male. We can imagine that a teacher like Ms. Blaine might be part of Darren’s consciousness as he negotiated among being cool, being smart, and being participatory or nonparticipatory in school.  For Darren, Ms. Blaine provided him with an academically and socially safe space for him to negotiate his identities. Ms. Blaine demonstrated caring not as an affect but as a means of  shaping his disposition toward mathematics, molding his interwoven identities, developing his sense of agency by helping him believe that he was capable of doing mathematics, and affirming his behaviors of being a doer of mathematics.

Teachers who recognize and position students’ backgrounds as a resource in their mathematics teaching can connect students’ identities with building a sense of agency and support students’ participation. When teachers anticipate learners’ thinking, actions, and problem solving, it can be perceived as knowing and understanding learners’ identities. For example, math student Jabari had this to say about Ms. Jackson’s thinking and actions:

I don’t know how she does it, but sometimes she knows what we are going to do and say before we do and say anything . . . she knows us so well that she gets us out of trouble before we get in trouble. . . . In math, she knows the right thing to say to help us with our work.

When teachers anticipate students’ thinking and actions, it is a form of helping students develop their identities because it conveys to them that he or she cares enough about them to understand how they think and see the world. Because of forward thinking by teachers, students may perceive that they cannot get by with minimal effort because their teachers know them well enough to set them up for success.

I think it is important that we make connections between teaching practices and students’ identities and agency. As related to Black boys specifically, we must develop an appreciation for the complexities faced by Black boys by framing identity and agency as the constructs to reflect on our teaching practices to support Black boys as doers of mathematics. As teachers, we should consider not only focusing on teaching mathematics content but also the interwoven identities that are important to students. Identities are dynamic and develop over contexts and time. With this understanding, teachers play a significant role in helping and contributing to the development of students’ identities. Mathematics teaching practices can shape identity and foster agency. For this to happen, teachers should understand students’ interwoven identities, know the context of students’ realities, and how these identities and realities interact to support agency. One way for teachers to understand their students’ identities is to gather stories through interviews, autobiographies, and observations. Consider the questions below as you think about your teaching:

  1. What are the interwoven identities of your students?
  2. In what ways, if any, do you affirm the identities of your students?
  3. What teaching practices do I use to support and affirm students’ mathematics identity?
  4. How do students demonstrate a sense of agency in my mathematics classroom?
  5. How do I model a high sense of agency?
  6. How do I provide opportunities for students to demonstrate a high sense of agency?

Additional Commentary

Why Black Boy(s)?

Often I am asked why I use Black boy rather than Black males. This additional commentary addresses this question. Too often,Black boys are positioned as hyper-masculine. This depiction negates the normative existence of their developmental needs as boys. Consequently, the use of the word “boy” is intentional in this conversation because it implies a developmental perspective positioning Black boys in need of support and mentoring and imparts vulnerability and youthfulness. Black boys are often not positioned in an appropriate developmental space. Recently, I was at a meeting in Cleveland, the city where Tamir Rice was killed. Tamir Rice was a 12-year-old Black boy who was positioned as being beyond his developmental space as a boy. Would Tamir be alive if he were positioned as a boy? Tamir Rice was a child, and positioning as such acknowledges his vulnerability. An argument can be made that when Black boys are positioned in developmentally appropriate spaces, adults engage them in age-appropriate ways. Too often, Black boys are not seen as developmentally evolving youths in need of support and mentoring.

The word boy has been used historically in oppressive ways toward Black men, and the word is rejected by some Black men because of its historical connotation. My intent is to position boy as a developmental marker for Black boys. I believe that the disassociation of boy from Black contributes to some of the trauma and narratives that impact Black boys. It also inhibits working toward finding solutions for boys who are often positioned in developmental spaces beyond their years. I recognize that as a Black man my use of the word “boy” may be perceived differently from a white man’s use of the same word. This is why one must be explicit in describing the intent when using boy as a developmental marker.