Posts Tagged ‘education’
You all know there’s some debate about why girls are good at math until about puberty, and then we suddenly start underachieving. There are a lot of theories about why: learning math anxiety from female teachers, people telling them girls just can’t do math and science as well as boys, Barbie.
So now I’m going to tell you a story. Once upon a time, when I was a middle schooler, I was good at math. Okay, that’s an understatement: I was great at math. I routinely scored over 100% on our tests (the highest I managed was 131% on a geometry test), finished homework quickly and easily and actually enjoyed the work once we got past things like memorizing multiplication tables (something I still have trouble with). I think my class average for the year was 103% or something.
I also knew, as a fifth grade girl, that there would be people who didn’t want me to be good at math. I was ready for them. I dared my teachers and fellow students to tell me I wasn’t supposed to be good at math. I flaunted my high grades; humility was a trait I hadn’t mastered yet, and why shouldn’t I be anything but proud of my high grades?
So then came sixth grade. I was no longer with the math teacher I had done so well with, though I remained with the same home room teacher, who quickly became my nemesis. I got bored and turned into a little monster. If I had been in her shoes, I probably would have hated me. I finished our entire workbook early in the year and proceeded to spend the rest of the time alternating between thinking up ways to annoy her and playing video games. (I’d get in trouble for one and switch to the other.) She couldn’t really tell me I had to pay attention, either, since I always knew the answer to the question she’d ask me and I continued getting really good grades.
Sometimes, when I wanted to feel like I was involved with the class, I would help my friend JT. I showed him how to do the work. (We sat together in the back of the classroom.) One time, my poor, frustrated teacher told me that if I knew the work so well, I should teach it. So I went up to her overhead and did so… probably not what she was expecting.
“We get it, Fangirl, you were good at math and you tormented your teacher because you didn’t have much else to do during class.”
I asked, early on in the school year, if I could be bumped up a grade level, as it was clear that I was competent in sixth grade math. Since the seventh grade is in another building in Nowhere, they said they couldn’t send me to seventh grade math classes. Could I be put in seventh grade and skip sixth entirely, since I was also proving more than competent in all of my other classes? Nobody ever told me why they couldn’t do that.
I found out recently that they took me so unseriously that they never asked either of my parents about this. Apparently it never once came up that little Fangirl was asking for a challenge. When my dad told my teacher I was leaving fake snakes in the bookshelves because I didn’t feel like I had anything else to do and like I was being ignored, she gave me more work. (Not higher level work, just more of the same.) I did some of it, got bored again, and fought with her when she threatened to give me zeros on the extra worksheets I didn’t do, because I refused to be held to a higher standard than the rest of the class without being held to a higher standard. (I won.)
What sixth grade taught me, basically, wasn’t that people would fight to keep me out of math classes, but that they would simply ignore me. It wasn’t that they actively wanted me to fail, they just didn’t particularly give a damn either way, as long as I at least passed and stopped rolling my eyes at the teacher. As a sixth grader, I had no idea to fight this; I did the best I could, but since the teacher wasn’t actively discouraging me, what was wrong wasn’t so obvious, and I didn’t know how to fix it. There weren’t dragons to hunt. I couldn’t come to a direct confrontation with her because she wasn’t being overtly sexist. She never told me “you can’t be good at math,” which is what I thought sexist people told girls; I had no way of knowing how to deal with this subtle sexism. I didn’t even think of it as discrimination; I just decided Mrs. H must be evil.
I wonder, now, how all of this would have played out if I had been a boy. It’s possible my teacher would have continued to ignore me, except when I acted out (which she did even during more traditionally feminine classes, like English, though that may have been out of spite for how I acted during math), but it’s also possible she would have taken me more seriously. I’ll never know, of course.
What ended up happening, ultimately, is that I stopped paying attention (which nobody noticed, because I continued to get high scores) for long enough that I eventually lost my edge and by the time I really needed to pay attention, I was a little lost, got discouraged and gave up because my teachers didn’t realize that I had stopped just not bothering to do the homework, but that I actually had no idea how to do it. This is mostly my fault, but not having been ignored when I told them I was going to stop listening if it was going to continue to be boring would have been nice.
I’m actually not terrible at math, at least not as bad at is as I think I am, though I’m much better in those subjects that later teachers encouraged me in (like media studies and social justice*).
It’s not always blatant attacks that keep girls out of math and science; in my experience, it was neglect that ultimately lead to me dropping the math ball and I’d be willing to bet Mrs. Hs are still all over the country, ignoring bored girls during math class, except to yell at them for reading while she’s talking. We need to teach girls how to identify and combat this more subtle sexism. What that would look like, I don’t know yet; I thought I knew how The Man was going to attack me, so I was prepared for a head-on assault, but what I got was a siege that lasted so long that I starved in my castle walls because I had no idea what to do, and I know there are other girls going through the same thing.
It’s not enough to get girls interested in math. We have to keep them interested in math, and we can do that by addressing the educational needs of individual girls and providing what we can to ensure those needs are met. (Which now gets me into a rant about the school system, but that will have to wait.)
Also, Mrs. H just needs to retire already.
*Hi, Mr. Bisson!