Today is International Day of the Girl. It is intended to focus on the needs and challenges that girls face. In some places around the globe, those challenges are central to their very survival. In other places, the challenges are not quite as large and all-encompassing but they are never-the-less very real.
Today, I’ve been thinking a lot about what girls need in a math classroom. My list derives from the lessons that my girls have taught me.
Girls need each other. There is a lot of research about the effects of stereotype threat and how it plays out in terms of performance (I highly recommend Claude Steele’s book, Whistling Vivaldi). Every year, I see the truth of it in my classes, no matter how hard I work to mitigate it.
Somehow, every year the magic of the master schedule hands me one class that is 75% female and several classes where the class is 70% male. Every year, there is magic in the air of that mostly girl class that produces tremendous growth in each and every one of the students (including the boys). I think that the girls feel safer taking academic risks and growth comes with that venturing forth. I also think that the class becomes an incredibly collaborative place during that hour.
While I can’t give each of my girls the gift of a classroom dominated by girls, I try to give them as much of that magic as I can. I could choose to mix up my table groups and use the girls to help manage classroom behavior, but I don’t. I choose instead to make my table-groupings single-gender groupings. A few years ago, I started asking the girls in the boy-dominant classes if this was something that they would prefer. Every single time, the girls have chosen to stick together.
Girls (all kids, really, but especially girls) need the chance to make sense of math. It is not enough for most of them to learn a set of procedures or sequential steps. They need to see how ideas fit together and why things work. If they are given the chance to explore ideas and to look for connections, they discover that they are good at math. Too many of them (even though they are Gifted) have to learn the oh,so important lesson that everyone can be good at math.
Girls need time to do math. When I take away the pressure to work quickly, girls are free to think more deeply and they perform better. They thrive when they get the message that “good at math” does not equate to speed, especially when I back that message up with instructional choices (e.g., letting them stay after class to finish a test or come in during lunch to get an early start so that they don’t feel so much pressure during the test).
Girls need to know that I believe in them. Girls need to be asked the hard questions, not just the easy ones. They need to know that I know they can answer them and will stick with them until they do. They need to know that I know just how capable they are.
Girls need to know that math makes a difference. Seeing how math makes a difference in the world, how it can make the world a better place, makes math more meaningful for girls.
Girls need to know that it is OK to make mistakes. Girls have often received the message that they have to be perfect. They need to know that perfection isn’t all it is cracked up to be. They need to know that making mistakes and then figuring out where the miss-step or misunderstanding is can be incredibly powerful. They need to learn that mistakes can be fixed. They need to learn to be brave, sometimes even fearless.
Today, on International Day of the Girl, and everyday, here’s to all the girls that are learning to be brave and bold and strong and discovering that they can indeed do anything.