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Friends of Zearn

In solidarity: A message from Zearn

June 2020
By Shalinee Sharma, Zearn CEO and Co-Founder

A week ago — blanketed in the raw anguish of George Floyd’s torture and murder — a new friend asked me, “What are you doing to help all Black children love learning math?” (In case the new friend is reading this email, thank you for indulging my paraphrasing.)

It is an important question today, and it is a question that has animated our work since inception. At Zearn, we believe all children can love learning math. It is our mission. We see each child as bursting with potential, as a person our society must invest in to ensure humanity’s collective progress. We see universal access to an excellent education as a human right denied to too many.  We build Zearn for all our children.

But that doesn’t mean we are naive enough to say that we don’t see color. To answer my friend's question, we invest as an organization to intentionally support Black children to love and learn math. And while we do that, we also must do so much more. First and foremost, while all children need mathematics instruction so that math makes sense and feels worthwhile, we must acknowledge that the world of math and STEM inside and outside of school is often unwelcoming to Black children. (The world of math and STEM also turns a cold shoulder towards others, as well.) This is unacceptable. Because I must adhere to some semblance of a word limit in this letter, I would specifically like to share two ways we work to support Black children to feel that they belong in the Zearn world of math.

Let’s start with windows and mirrors. As a child, I remember rushing to the key chain rack that had pre-printed names on them at the mall trinket store. I would spin the display case looking for my name, “Shalinee.” No surprise, I never found it, and yet, I kept looking and hoping. That simple desire of wanting to belong is what each child walks into each school each day and wishes for with their whole heart. Math classrooms especially damage that sense of belonging and tell Black children they don’t belong in the broader world of learning. This is a deep, often silent, violence we perpetuate on Black children with a frequency that is hard to meditate on. This damage can negatively impact life trajectories and robs us of our collective human potential. When we build our video-based digital content, belonging is our first design principle. We make intentional choices so that Black children can see themselves belong and see themselves as successful in the world of math. That is why our cast of students and teachers is diverse and inclusive. And that cast is voted into Zearn videos by a diverse and inclusive set of students. We also carefully select problem contexts to welcome all children into the world of math. We know the real work of building inclusive communities is done by teachers and leaders in school buildings.  Important scientists like Carol Dweck and David Yeager have improved our understanding of how to intentionally cultivate belonging. Our desire is to facilitate the work of teachers with our content, and to ensure we do not harm it.

Another example of how we support Black students is best described by Robert Q. Berry, the former president of the National Council of Teaching Mathematics who, as a mathematics professor, has investigated how Black children succeed in mathematics. He describes bringing belonging into math pedagogy through participative mathematical dialogue. Too often belonging stops at the door of the math classroom. Dr. Berry describes this inclusive math pedagogy this way: “In too many mathematics classrooms, mathematical competence is assigned solely on the basis of quickness and correctness, giving the mistaken impression that only some students are ‘good at math.’ Correct answers matter but not as indicators of who is able to do mathematics. Engaging in mathematical discourse is essential for developing mathematical identity and should be recognized as a better indicator of mathematical competence.” Think of a classroom being presented with this question, 203 - 154  =  ?. Most of us can imagine what happens next based on our childhood math classroom. A couple of children shouting out the answer, the rest nervous or disengaged. Imagine how children might respond instead if the teacher said, “Please take a look at this problem. Please don’t shout out answers. Remember, we are real mathematicians and engage in discourse. Take a minute to work on your whiteboard, and then I’d love to hear a few friends share their first step.” Running a technology organization, I would prefer employees who conceptualize mathematical questions the second way because that way of thinking and collaborating is much closer to STEM work we do in the real world.

Despite these examples, we don’t do enough to support Black children to love learning math. There’s more we must do at Zearn. I am grateful for your continued questions that allow us to learn and evolve to support all children to love learning math. Please keep them coming; they are a gift. We also recognize that math learning and education is only one piece of the work to confront systemic racism. While I couldn’t have fathomed such a difficult 2020, I am inspired daily by the courage and leadership of teachers across the country. I am hopeful that we will work in partnership to build it back better for our children on the other side.

With warmest regards,
Shalinee Sharma
Zearn CEO & Co-founder