Geometry and Race

Can you have a conversation about Black History Month without discussing race?

Important question? Bold question? Irrelevant question?Let me digress here to share an exchange I had with my grade 3/4 students during math class in February.

I’m a math teacher. Although the conversations that take place in my class go deep within and far beyond the math curriculum, I love inviting my students to make connections between real life and the mathematical ideas we explore.

In an integrated unit on Data Management and Geometry, my students were invited to investigate and name the many attributes of 2D figures with a focus on the properties of polygons. They learned the latin prefixes used to name various polygons based on the number of sides. We engaged in an angle scavenger hunt all over the school, classifying the angles we noticed as acute, obtuse and right angles. We also wrote a song that highlighted our learning, adding verses as the learning progressed throughout the unit (https://heartandart.ca/?p=3638).

In a particular conversation about the similarities and differences among quadrilaterals, I questioned my students on the need to classify polygons and then further classify them within the category of quadrilaterals. I then invited them to name the other ways in which things or people are categorized based on different attributes. Almost immediately some students shouted, “skin colour!” Was I shocked? A little bit, but I thought, let’s go there. I had never really engaged in an conversation about race with this group of students and I was curious to hear what was on their minds about the subject. The conversation then delved into discussing the confusion between incongruent language that is often used to describe skin colour when the actual colours in questions were browns, tans and peach-like hues. This conversation invited students to voice questions and make connections between the experiences of fitting in and not fitting in in particular spaces – in a similar way that a trapezoid fits into the category of a quadrilateral, but not in the experience of being a parallelogram. It was an interesting conversation that led to what one student called it as being “shape racism” and another student naming it as “social injustice.” Students have a lot on their minds – I was intrigued with what they shared and the ways in which they articulated their thinking and confusions about the experience of labeling.

Race and geometry were intertwined in that one conversation. Who would have thought? So back to my original question which may, depending on how you look at it, or may not be related to everything I just articulated. Can you have a conversation about Black History Month without discussing race?

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Updated: February 20, 2016 — 2:32 pm

The Author

Tisha Nelson

Tisha has taught in five schools in the Greater Toronto Area over the past seven years. She has experience as both an Occasional and Contract teacher teaching in Primary, Junior and Intermediate grades. Tisha is a workshop presenter and blogger for The Heart and Art of Teaching and Learning. She also is an AQ instructor and an author of the book Rights and Equality published by Rubicon Publishing (The Sankofa Series). Tisha’s passion for teaching and learning can be summed up in her six-word philosophy of education, “Love and ingenuity commands sustainable transformation.”

1 Comment

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  1. Ms Tyrell says:

    Authentic learning at its best! I imagine your students will always remember that conversation as a time when they could voice their true feelings and questions about their world. It may even lead them to make more of these authentic “text to world” connections in the future!

    In a world that is not black and white, and where people are not just black or white, NO, you should not have a BHM unless you are willing to be open and dynamic and discuss race.

    Your post reminds me why I love teaching!

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