I live in Leadville, a little town in the Colorado mountains. We have two claims to fame. First, we are the highest incorporated municipality in the country at just over 10,000 feet in altitude. Second, we host a bunch of high-profile endurance events, culminating in the Leadville 100 Trail Run, a 100-mile ultramarathon in the mountains around Leadville each summer.
There’s a pretty absurd culture of athleticism here. Many of my coworkers have run the Leadville 100 or completed the 100-mile mountain bike race, and many who haven’t regularly run local trail marathons or participate in 25-mile backcountry ski races. It’s a funny place. I might casually talk to the barista at the coffee shop in town about how the snow finally melted off the Mt. Elbert trail so he could run to the top (Mt. Elbert is the tallest peak in Colorado). Or I might go for what I feel is a hard morning mountain bike ride with a friend, to later learn that he ran 20 miles later that afternoon. I’ve definitely pushed myself further here than I would have living somewhere else, whether through implicit comparison, jealousy, or just the practical goal of keeping up with friends.
There’s also a negative side to this culture. Many folks in town are intimidated by the athletes, thinking that matching the serious racers is impossible and that it seems like a waste of time to try anyway, because they’re endowed with some special abilities the rest of us mortals aren’t. There’s a particularly tough gender divide — the mountain bike races are typically 80-90% men and the other races aren’t far behind. The dynamics of the gender divide are self-perpetuating, and while many folks feel motivated to push themselves many more feel left out of the dominant culture.
To summarize, seeing people working hard and achieving at high levels motivates some people, but alienates others, particularly those who are already in the “out-group”.
This isn’t so different from my math class.
Some students share much more often than others. This might motivate some folks to work harder, but also alienates others as they believe working hard and engaging in class is for someone else. Every interaction they have either reinforces these paradigms or works against them.
Here’s something I want to work on to try and mitigate the inequitable outcomes of this cycle:
I want to work on paying attention to students. Sounds easy. But when a student is sharing, either to the whole class or in a small group, I want to watch the other students. Who is listening? Who is staring off into space? Who looks frustrated or hopeless? There’s a lot to see in young people’s faces when I look.
My instinct is always to watch the person who is speaking. It always has been, unless I’m scanning the room specifically for misbehavior. But the more I pay attention to all of my students — how they listen to or disengage from the conversation when certain peers share — the more I learn about the social dynamics of the class and the ways that students experience learning in my room.
It’s not surprising that I’ve pushed myself to keep up with the Leadville endurance scene. I’m a tall white guy from an upper-class background. I saw lots of people who looked like me, so it seemed natural to join in. In the same way, I need to look at my class and ask myself: which of my students see pictures of academic success that they feel like they can strive toward? And which of my students interpret learning as something for someone else, something risky, and something not worth their effort?