Enumerating Positive Change

by Neil Armstrong

photography by Sofie Kirk

When Jude Kong was growing up in Cameroon, his friends played a major role in encouraging his passion for mathematics.

“From middle school onward, we had a math assignment every day. When I got home, I would relax a bit, then immediately jump to my homework, struggle and ensure that I understood it (at times with the help of my sisters or people in my community) in a way that I could explain to someone. Then I rushed to my friend’s house to work together as a team,” says Kong, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Science’s Department of Mathematics & Statistics.

Whenever he explained the concepts to his friends, there would be a light-bulb moment for them – something finally clicked that they couldn’t understand in class. “Gradually, I gained the nickname ‘Prof’ from my friends in middle school.” 

These moments eventually led him to develop what he calls a family-oriented approach to teaching mathematics – especially for students who are Black or from economically disadvantaged communities and were made to believe that someone like them could not do mathematics, he says.

“Despite the indispensability of mathematics, a substantial number of students have ‘mathematics anxiety.’ This makes it difficult for them to participate in math classes, as they have the impression that they know nothing and thus will make a mockery of themselves if they try to ask or answer a question.”

To address this, when Kong became a secondary school teacher, he thought about ways to minimize this anxiety. Remembering that in his childhood his mother always left whatever she was doing to attend to him when he was scared, and how safe it made him feel, Kong decided to create a family-oriented environment in his classroom.

What Professor Kong has actually created is a space in which Black mathematics students can come together and feel comfortable and safe to express their true feelings while receiving academic and emotional support from each other

“If I was called up to say something at home, I was usually very articulate and had all my thoughts together, compared to when called up elsewhere to say something. This is because, at home, I felt like no one would judge me irrespective of how ‘stupid’ I may have sounded; I knew that if I made any mistake, my siblings would help me. I was surrounded by people who loved me unconditionally.”

His formula to engage students in his class includes sending a welcome email to each student, giving them a reason to want to come back to his class, calling students by their names, creating communities through WhatsApp and other social media platforms where they meet and exchange ideas, and creating incentives for them to meet and solve exercises together.

While teaching, he switches between discussing mathematical concepts and having students become a part of his stories to ensure that he keeps them focused. “Everybody loves stories,” he says.

Calling students by their names builds an environment in which their voices are heard and creates incentives for them to work together. An important aspect of the success of this family-oriented approach is for him to be available, so Kong has his Zoom link open for students to get in at any time, and he ensures that he is present. He notes that there are students who started his class fearing math and now achieve A grades.

His creation of the “YorkU Black Mathematics Family” in the math department has become an essential support, a chance for students to have a voice and help each other.

“ ‘Family’ is truly the best word to describe this group. The first set of questions we ask at every meeting always has to do with how we are doing mentally and emotionally,” says Sade Rose, a student who has started her career in education. “What Professor Kong has actually created is a space in which Black mathematics students can come together and feel comfortable and safe to express their true feelings while receiving academic and emotional support from each other. This helped me tremendously in my studies. I could always find someone who is ready and willing to lend a hand when I was struggling with difficult concepts taught in my lectures. Professor Kong and the YorkU Black Mathematics Family helped me to discover my passion and begin walking in my purpose.”  

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