One day, when Nicole M. Joseph was in the third grade, she raised her hand in class to answer a math question. The teacher did not call on her.
Her mother happened to be standing outside the door observing the classroom and was unhappy about what she saw. It seemed to her that Nicole, a Black girl, was being ignored by her teacher, a white woman. So she saw to it that her daughter moved to a different class — an advanced class.
That little girl went on to study math and economics in college, then became a math teacher and a teacher-coach. Today, Joseph is an associate professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Vanderbilt University and the director of the Joseph Mathematics Education Research Lab.
EdSurge recently talked with Joseph about her new book, “Making Black Girls Count in Math Education.” It shares findings from her research about the experiences Black girls and women have when it comes to math education, and it lays out what she describes as “a Black feminist vision for transformative teaching.”
This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.
EdSurge: Please tell us about your own journey as a young student in math and how that informs your work today.
Nicole M. Joseph: I’ve always really loved math.
When I was a younger student, I was that kid who was able to do school. I knew how to talk to the right people and figure out what classes and things that I needed. That’s not because I had a legacy family that all went to college. That was because I just had something in me where I learned how to network and interact with people very, very early. And I just began to observe how folks [who had] what I thought was more power, I just observed to see how they moved in the world and began to engage them.
That third grade class, where I open the book, really did change my life, because my mom advocated for me. And that’s a key thing throughout the book that I tried to really elevate: We have to advocate for Black girls. It was all of maybe 15 or 20 minutes that changed the trajectory of my life in terms of mathematics.
Getting to middle school, where I had a counselor, Mrs. Bennett — God rest her soul — she was a Black woman who told me, “You really need to be in the advanced courses.” And I said, “Sure.” I took the test. I didn’t pass the test for the math part, but she put me in the class anyway. And that was another real experience that showed me what advocacy can do. So I was able to take algebra, for example, in eighth grade, which put me on the trajectory to make it all the way to statistics past calculus once I got in high school.
So it’s advocacy that really changed my life.
I enjoyed math because of its power to help me understand things. Not to just sit in the library and do a long problem; it wasn’t about that for me. It really is like, man, if you can be math literate — I don’t care if you’re an artist, if you’re a nurse, if you’re a janitor — math literacy is going to help you push forward in your life and just open up so many opportunities. So that’s one of the reasons why I think I really fell in love with math, and why I enjoyed it, and why I try to help my students and everybody else around me see its power.
What are the signals that Black girls receive that maybe they don’t belong in math settings?
I think some of those signals include erasure of their ways of knowing.
For example, I’ve learned through some of my research that Black girls want to be able to have more of a family, relaxed environment — to be able to laugh and be social — while at the same time doing their math work. And that can be considered disrespectful or off task in particular math classrooms because most math classrooms are like, “You need to be focused. You need to be stern. You need to pay attention.” When some of them show up in spaces where, you know, they want to sing about the math, or whatever, those things are not welcome. Those ways of knowing are not welcome in the class.
I think another one is the stereotypes of adultification. Black girls are adultified as early as age 5, where teachers feel like they should know better, that they should be on task every single minute, and if they roll their eyes or do something like that, teachers take that as an affront, and oftentimes they’re sent to the office.
Another signal that they don’t belong is when teachers haven’t taken the time to really understand, broadly, Black girlhood, but also just the Black girls that are in your room, in your class.
It sounds cliche — get to know your students, or build relationships with your students — but those really are key practices that can make a difference that I think a lot of teachers just don’t take the time out to do.
In contrast, what are the types of math classrooms and climates that support what you call Black girls’ joy? What fosters learning and joy for Black girls in the classroom?
Laughter and socialness, and having a vibe.
Black girls have said they love to be able to have a connection with their math teachers. So they have to kind of pass the vibe test. She might want to just go up and say, “Hey, Mr. Smith, what did you do for the weekend?” or be able to talk to their math teacher about anything, it doesn’t necessarily have to be math. And those things help them to have stronger connections, which then helps them to want to try harder, take more risks, do what it is that the teacher is asking them to do.
And so those are the types of environments that we need, that it’s more relaxed. And honestly, a lot of other students probably would love to have that type of environment. But I’ve just learned from some Black girls that that is really, really important.
You mentioned some examples in your book of learning environments that embrace those concepts. One of them is called eMode, and it’s a Saturday math enrichment academy run by an educator named Norman Alston. What does that example show?
Those types of spaces disrupt stereotypes and controlling images of Black girls, one of them being that they are “loud” and “obnoxious,” or whatever.
So at eMode, I think I even have a quote in there, Brother Alston basically was like, “I want boldness. I want a big voice. I want to hear you. You know you don’t have to worry about being quiet in this class.”
So first of all, there’s a disruption of a narrative that just doesn’t seem to go away in our society, and more importantly in our schools. The number of Black girls that have just said, “Why does my teacher always call me out for being loud? Everyone’s talking.”
[The goal is for] girls just being able to bring their full humanity to the space. And I don’t want people to think that it’s just willy-nilly because that’s not what it is. It’s actually very orderly and very robust when the instructor knows how to teach and how to engage in pedagogy that is humanizing, that is rigorous, that is a way that really understands the students that are in front of them.
Power dynamics are shared. It’s not “I have to have all the power” from the teacher. But it’s actually engaging in math problems and math conversations that are actually empowering the girls. And when they feel empowered, they feel like they can do anything. They’re gonna try, and take more risks.
I’m curious to hear your thoughts about the role that standardized tests play when it comes to Black girls and Black women in math, and what trajectories they’re set on because of these tests.
We know that they’re biased. However, it is not my fight, nor my lane, to try to get rid of them because they’re just not going to go anywhere. That’s my personal conviction and opinion about standardized tests.
So having said that, what is it that we do? … How do we have transparent-slash-courageous conversations with our girls about the realities of things that they are going to face in our global society? And testing is one of those things, right?
I think being honest about what’s out there is very important. So let me give you an example. When I was teaching, math journals were a part of what I did. I was teaching in like 1999, 2000, way before these things were popular. But I went to an outstanding teacher education program called Pacific Oaks College that really helped me learn how to be a critical, reflective instructor.
And so math journals were a part of that. The kids would not only write about math, whatever it was, fractions, but they would also talk about the social side. How did they feel? Where did they take a risk? What got them stuck? Why?
The other thing that I would do — just like other teachers — I had a “word wall” on my wall, and I had vocabulary that [students] needed to know and understand. So I would do things like, “OK, when you’re talking to your neighbor, use whatever resources you have at your disposal.” I wasn’t correcting their language, none of that. But I would say, “There’s a test that we have to take. It’s called the WASL, Washington Assessment of Student Learning. They are looking for you to explain your answers with words, numbers and pictures, and they’re gonna have vocabulary in here that you know you’re gonna need to know.” So I would have them write, for example, a paragraph, and I would say, “You need to do at least three of these vocabulary words that are on the word wall.”
So we had that intersection where I was keeping their humanity intact and letting them bring their full selves, while at the same time helping them to understand that there is this world, and I’m not gonna send you out there and you’re not prepared.
That is my mantra for teachers and families, is that you can’t completely ignore the system. I would love to just tear it down — do the Karl Marx. But the reality is that we can’t do that. So how do we help Black girls find themselves — bring their full selves — while also helping them to understand that there’s a real world out there that they need to be a part of? And how do we get them there, while also keeping them intact — their identities, personal regard, all of those things intact? It’s challenging work, but that to me is the best that we can do.
There are conversations going on about whether and how to reform math pathways to be more equitable to students. Some of the questions that get raised are, is there too much emphasis on algebra and calculus? Is rote memorization good or bad for certain students? Will changes to the curriculum make math less “rigorous”? What do you think about these debates that are going on?
Until higher ed changes how they operate, and I’m talking about math classes and math pathways, I think we have to probably keep the scope and sequence, or the pathway, to higher ed.
Let’s just take Vanderbilt. If they are still requiring three to four years of mathematics, and they’re specifically looking on the transcript for particular courses in order for someone to apply or be able to get in … I think we have to ensure that those courses are on students’ transcripts in K-12.
In terms of what those experiences are, the actual learning in calculus or trig, yes, those things can be made, I think, a little bit more relevant. So to me, “rigor” is not “more work,” or making sure that you have shown that you have had this pathway of courses. To me, I think of Webb’s “depth of knowledge.” Can students analyze, apply, create, innovate?
I don’t think that rote memorization is good for anyone. The reality is when you get an engineering job at Boeing or somewhere else, there is going to be a computer, a calculator, there’s going to be something that is going to help you.
Now understanding what needs to go into the computer or what is the modeling or the programming behind it? It’s important. But you know, memorizing is just not good.
I just love projects. How do we create projects for students to engage in? Because what you do is, you give them a motivation to actually need to learn the math that’s connected to whatever that project is.
You give some examples from history about the significance that historically Black colleges and universities and women’s colleges have played in supporting Black girls and women in math. What’s important about those institutions?
My doctoral student, Micaela Harris, she talks about how when she was at Spelman and Smith — she actually went to both places — first of all, they have commitments, ideological commitments, to ensure that women, Black women, are developing as leaders. When that is the core of what you do, then you are ensuring that everything — from how you live in a dorm to classrooms to extracurricular activities — is built around supporting women, built around sisterhood, built around empowerment, all of the things that are important. I believe that those women’s colleges have contributed greatly to Micaela and other women who are in my lab who have undergraduate degrees in mathematics — to their confidence and ability.
Micaela actually said that it wasn’t until she began to teach that students themselves were questioning her, “Did you even take calculus?” She was teaching a calculus class. That just shows you the pervasiveness of these ideas in people, in society, even in our children, for them to ask this person if she’s even taken calculus when she has a full-blown undergraduate degree in mathematics.
So I think that the historically Black colleges and women’s colleges have done an excellent job around really helping these women who choose to major in math see themselves as belonging, see themselves as developing strong math identities. And when they walk outside of that space is when all hell can break loose, if you will, when we get into the systems and institutions that say that women don’t belong, actually, in mathematics.
What does mathematics as a field miss out on by missing Black girls and women?
I think the field misses out on a lot of innovation; ways of solving problems. Black women are some of the most innovative people that I know. Ingenuity. Vivacious. Charismatic. Deep problem solvers. I feel that they can help us solve some of the most knotty problems that we have.
Is there anything else that you wanted to mention?
Part of me is wanting to take up this agenda with a national campaign of Black women and girls deciding to do this work together without completely relying on our systems.
Part of the transformative vision in the book is where I’m saying, I want Black women to actually lead this charge. How do we engage our young Black girls into mathematics in a way that we know to be productive and humanizing?
I’m thinking more about informal spaces, informal opportunities outside of schools, and I’m seeing some of that happen around the country.
I want to have the Black feminist campaign for Black girls in mathematics learning. I don’t know what that looks like, but that’s a dream of mine that I’m gonna be working on in the next five years for sure.