Twice as Less

Twice as Less: Black English and the Performance of Black Students in Science and Mathematics, by Eleanor Wilson Orr

I picked up this book based on its title.  Having noticed that my black students often use different phrasing than other students (in particular, “take away” rather than “subtract” or “minus,” which to my way of thinking is a rather arcane usage), I thought it might help me close the comprehension gap.

The first examples given in the book brought recognition and a ray of hope:  I had seen papers like this and thought the students in question were hopelessly confused, or perhaps even suffered from some processing issue.  Indeed, the book brings up the fact that black students are inordinately put into special education classes when compared with their white counterparts.

Unfortunately, I found the book to be extremely dense and hard to follow as it parsed example after example, and I began to get discouraged that I could get through the book at all, much less glean any sort of useful information from it.

I felt much like my students must, reading page after incomprehensible page and feeling over my head.  But rather than give up, I went back to the table of contents.  I decided to start at the end, with the discussion of Black English usage and the conclusions that the author drew.  Once I read those, I went back and re-read the examples to have a better context for them.

The main issue seems to be the use of prepositions in Black English when compared to standard usage.  For example, some words are used interchangeably:  at/to, in/to, on/in, by/from.

It is harder to correct this kind of dialect than it would be to teach a whole new language, since in the latter case a foreign language speaker just has to substitute on word for another, whereas a dialect speaker must often dismantle their whole language and then build it up again.  This may account for why black students are seemingly “left behind” while immigrant students often are not.  The biggest difficulty is that we as educators may think we know what students mean when they try to explain their reasoning, but we may be missing the meaning entirely.

This is further complicated by the fact that students tend to combine nonstandard usage with standard usage, for example, using a standard usage given in class in a situation where it is not appropriate, or mixing standard usage for a generalized concept with nonstandard usage when asked to explain their own reasoning. The author diagrams these usages and calls them compound sentences, that is, sentences that seem to have two meanings happening concurrently, but are difficult to parse without essentially diagramming the sentences.

It would seem like this would be a job for these students’ English teachers to correct, but as the author points out, usage in Math and Science differs significantly from usage in other subject areas.  In other words, as Math teachers, we can’t just leave this for someone else to solve.  As we get in to the common core standards, particularly asking students to explain their reasoning, we will run into these issues more.  In fact, we may join our English teacher colleagues in taking home piles of student writing to parse.

Going forward, the goal is to create engaging lesson plans that seek to get students thinking in larger, problem solving ways.  Part of this is due to the upcoming change in California to the Common Core standards.  But a larger piece is trying to be more effective at getting students to retain content, think rationally, and not to give up.

I like the exercises that the author used for sample work.  They emphasize thought process over mathematical operations and thus get students to start thinking about why they do something, rather than relying on rote memorization, or worse, random association.  I have adapted some of them to use in the classroom: Twice as Less Exercises