“Lift Ev’ry Voice” for Math

Authors: Dr. Vanson Nguyen, College of Alameda, and Dr. Jamylle Carter, Diablo Valley College

The needs of Black, Brown, Asian American and Indigenous students are often overlooked in college classrooms, creating challenges and barriers to course completion. Faculty are uniquely positioned to improve the experiences and outcomes of racially minoritized students through their instruction and classroom approaches.

We believe that to understand what students need, we must hear directly from them. This blog is based on information that Dr. Carter gathered as part of a sabbatical project in 2018 to lift up student voices. Written in collaboration with Dr. Nguyen, a math instructor at College of Alameda in the Peralta Community College District, it provides recommendations from both faculty and student perspectives.


Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing

The song Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, written by James Weldon Johnson with musical composition by John Rosamond Johnson, is most fondly known as the Black National Anthem. This song emphasizes the importance of liberation, freedom and affirmation for African Americans and, as such, holds a special place in African American culture. We included the title of this song in our blog to emphasize the importance of lifting the voices and perceptions of racially minoritized students in discussions about their math education.


Listening to the voices of African American students

Dr. Carter interviewed 13 students from Diablo Valley College who identified partly or solely as African American. These students spoke about their experiences in their mathematics classes, which ranged from pre-algebra to precalculus. All the students were part of the Diablo Valley College Umoja Learning Community, an affiliate of the multistate Umoja Community, which promotes the success of African American and other students at the college level.


Understanding feelings of disconnection

Students from the learning community expressed that they felt isolated within their classroom settings — both from other students and from instructors — and that feelings of disconnection were due in part to community and cultural differences.

“It’s a little bit difficult to get to know people because you’re not in the same community. … you could be the only African American in that class with international students and Caucasians and Latinos. It could be difficult when you’re an Umoja student.”

“I feel like, when you’re in a math class, you have to take it very seriously. … there’s no ‘How are you?’ or ‘How’s your day going?’”


Exploring student experiences with negative perceptions

In addition to feeling disconnected from their instructors and classmates, Umoja students were acutely sensitive to negative assumptions that their classmates and professors might make. Students’ broader communities also played a role in shaping how students approached math in college.

“Because you’re the only one asking questions and you’re the only Black person in the room. It’s like everybody’s kinda making assumptions. Like ‘Well, she’s a certain race so she’s not gonna understand it like … we do.’”

“You don’t have to talk to me like I’m stupid. I can totally tell the difference if a professor talks to us … It’s obvious.”

“Math isn’t hard. In the Black community … growing up … people said math is hard, so I set that in my mind. But it’s really not.”


Improving the student experience: faculty perspective

Based on student perspectives and our own experiences as math faculty in community college settings, there are a number of practices that faculty can implement to improve the math experience for racially minoritized students.

Build community.

Set the tone of the class by beginning the term/semester with community-building activities that create more student engagement. Community is never individual. These activities should be done within student groups. If helpful, instructors may want to engage the help of colleagues who are well versed in building community in classrooms to share ideas and conduct some community-building activities as a demonstration. Community-building activities could include:

  • Asking students to create inspirational quotes for the term/semester, and then reading the quotes back to the class as the term/semester winds down.
  • Creating a list of characteristics of good teachers and successful students; these become classroom practices (norms).
  • Determining class policies, such as regular due dates, time extensions and number of exams.
  • Engaging students through group work, projects and presentations.

Help students see themselves as successful mathematicians.

Many math rules are named after European men, which can discount the mathematical brilliance of people of color. Pythagoras, for example, is credited with the theorem, despite the fact that he studied in Africa — where pyramids were built well before he was born. Helping racially minoritized students see STEM professionals of color may motivate and inspire them to succeed in class.

  • Curate a list of articles by and about inventors and STEM professionals of color, past and present. It’s helpful to have students see STEM professionals across all backgrounds, especially women of color.  
  • Prompts can include: “How does this article motivate you to succeed in our class?” “What did you learn from this article?”  


Student perspectives for improving their experience

The Umoja Learning Community students who were interviewed shared their recommendations for increasing feelings of belonging and connection in math classes. 

  • Be friendly. “Just be more interactive … be human. They’re acting like androids nowadays … just come on, be friendly.”  
  • Allow for student mistakes. “… don’t look at it as a failure, look at it as a bounce back. If you bounce back, there’s no such thing as a loss.”  
  • Make students comfortable. “I feel it would be helpful if the professors were less intimidating and more comfortable with welcoming students into the classroom.” (see community building activities) 
  • Make course material relatable to students. (see last section)  
  • Counter the narrative that math is hard. “If you really put the time into it, it’s not hard, but I think everybody’s always been trained and socialized to find math hard.”  


How you can help

Hire faculty of color.

An essential way to improve the student experience is for colleges to hire faculty of color across all STEM disciplines. When students see themselves in their professors it’s easier for them to envision their own success.

Understand your students’ lived experiences and let this inform your instruction.

Math classrooms can feel like unsafe spaces and racially minoritized students — Black, Brown, Asian American and Indigenous — can face different barriers than their white counterparts. As a result of the dynamics in the classroom, these students may wonder about their math skills and feel isolated or perhaps even judged. Ensuring that racially minoritized students feel involved and accepted can go a long way toward countering these feelings and improving students’ experiences of math courses.