Familiarity is what makes this Africentric high school class unique
'You look around and your neighbour looks like you, it's a little comforting'
The posters on the walls in this math class resemble ones in any other classroom at Auburn Drive High School in Cole Harbour, N.S.
Its teacher is bound by the province's curriculum. And in June, these Grade 10 students will take a nail-biting provincial math exam just like their peers.
And yet, this class is one of a kind in Nova Scotia: all 24 students learning new math skills here are African-Nova Scotian. Auburn Drive is the first and only high school in the province to offer the Africentric course.
"The thing that makes it different in the math class ... it's the learning environment for them and the support for each other," said teacher Kevin MacNeil, who is also head of the school's math department.
"They're in a classroom where their comfort level — compared to what I've seen in other years ... when there may be two or three African-Nova Scotians in a class of the rest being European descent — is just tremendous."
Student Tyasia Morton said she's already noticed a positive impact.
"My grades got better," she said. "They were in the 70s, 80s, but now they're like getting up to like, 80s, maybe 90s."
The biggest change MacNeil has seen is a boost in the students' confidence.
"They're in a room where they're … not afraid to feel like, 'Do I look a little silly when I answer a question?'" he said.
In class, teachers and mentors incorporate discussions about the students' cultural backgrounds, lived experiences and learning styles. For example, when MacNeil taught them trigonometry, surface area and volume, the class discussed building Egyptian pyramids.
"The pyramids were all built by black people in Africa before there were any technologies and everything, and it just shows how brilliant we all are," said student Burrell Atkinson.
Burrell spoke of the comfort he feels sitting a classroom of all black students.
"We all bounce our ideas off each other and work together as one big team, one big family," he said. "I'm excited to come to math every day. I never used to like math as much as I do now."
The aim of this course is to encourage these students to take advanced math and to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
MacNeil, who has more than 30 years of teaching under his belt, admits that the optics of being a white male teaching an Africentric course was definitely on his mind when it started.
"You know, you talk about you don't understand 'til you walk in a mile in somebody's shoes. Well I've always been in a mixed-race school, but I've always been in the dominant race," he said.
"All of a sudden, for the first time in my career here, I am the only Caucasian in the room and I had some trepidation about that before I started, what that was going to feel like."
However, his concerns soon disappeared, he said, because of the students' kindness, positivity and support.
"The way they support each other is just like no other class I ever taught before."
Just four months into the program, MacNeil has already identified at least six students that will be moving on to pre-calculus math next year.
During a recent visit to the class, small groups of students sat around tables helping each other with algebra and factoring. The energy in the room was high and the mood was light.
At one table, a pair of students got extra help from one of two mentors in the class, Dario Brooks. Brooks is a graduate student in math at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
"I think it's very important for them to see somebody who actually looks like them … has the same type of background as them, and seeing somebody that has come from where they are and succeed in math and even exceed in it, it really gives them something to aim for and it shows them that they can actually do it," he said.
Brooks said he's surprised by how much progress the students have made since he first met them.
"They're miles ahead of where they were before … in ability and confidence," he said. "You can see it go up each time that they solve a problem, each time that they get the concept."
Student Tamia Thomas said the main difference about their math class is the sense of community.
"You can get other people's … methods or ideas on how to do things and maybe it works for you, maybe it doesn't," she said. "But it's cool to see how other people learn.
"You look around and your neighbour looks like you, it's a little comforting. I've never experienced anything like that."