Math as a Means to Social Justice

It was a high stress week for educators.  I saw more posts than I can count about concerned educators trying to deal with repercussions in their classroom environments from the election and a country that seems to become more divided  by the day.  The question was asked of me more than once, “what did you teach on Wednesday?”.  I struggled a bit myself with how to handle my class Wednesday knowing there would be mixed opinions about the election results.  I knew there would be children genuinely concerned about their future and the lives of their families and others that were happy with the election results.  In my own house my five year old daughter was sad Hillary didn’t win while my eight year old son was a Trump supporter.  I don’t bring my political beliefs into my house, my classroom, or even this blog as I think that is a choice every person has to research, reflect on, and decide for themselves so I struggled greatly with how to handle a divided classroom Wednesday.

After some early morning reflection it came to me… my job as a math educator isn’t to shape children’s political beliefs and it isn’t to tell students how they should think or feel about this election or any other politically charged event happening in this country.  Instead my job is to help students learn to use math to make them a better citizen.  My job is to show them how math can be used as a spectrum to see issues both political and otherwise from multiple angles.  My job is to teach them how they can use math to strengthen their own arguments and make a case for change.

So Wednesday when news stations were busy analyzing results, politicians were writing speeches and strategizing, and others were tearing down people of opposing views we spent time in room 406 using math to learn about social justice.  For 60 minutes we didn’t use the words Hillary or Donald, we didn’t talk about the things that are too late to change,  and we didn’t make judgements against people we don’t know.  Instead we talked about what we thought was fair and how they could institute change in their own generation.  On this particular day we actually looked at the cost of parking tickets and what happens when someone can’t pay their ticket the first month it is owed.  We had some open and honest discussions about what a $250 ticket meant to someone who is making minimum wage versus what it meant to Lebron James.  We learned about Finland’s income based fine system and about the stiffness of penalites for traffic violations in countries like Japan.

In the midst of all that discussion we did some difficult math.  The kids wrote linear equations, graphed lines, and solved multiple systems of equations but that isn’t what they will remember.  If you ask them what we did in class Wednesday they will say that we talked about what it means for things to be fair and they each got to form their own opinion on what that meant for them.  Some kids left believing we needed to insititute a system like Finland’s and others left more resolved than ever that what we have works just fine but the important thing was now they had data, graphs, and evidence to back up their claims not just meaningless words.

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As we continue to face a time of division within our own country my resolve to use math as a means to teach kids about social justice issues is stronger than ever.  I believe whole heartedly that it is our job as a teachers to help kids discuss issues and brainstorm solutions not focus on politics.

*To check out this social justice lesson and MANY other impactful lessons for your classroom head on over to www.mathalicious.com.  You won’t be disappointed!

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