A few weeks ago, I joined a group of wonderful prospective high school mathematics teachers to talk about adapting existing curriculum to be more relevant to students and the world they live in. During this discussion, I shared the work that Sheila Orr and I did last summer to develop a mathematics unit to guide students’ exploration of literacy rates. I wanted to give the prospective teachers an inside look at how Sheila and I adapted the arbitrary context of an already rigorous mathematics task. Our goal in transforming the context of the task was to allow students to explore relevant and important issues from their school experience and their communities, while fostering conceptual understanding of variables and variable expressions. 

The discussion with these prospective teachers revealed their reluctance to adapt existing mathematics tasks to explore authentic issues important and relevant to students. Their hesitation to attempt linking mathematics and social justice stems from a major concern: How do I respond when students say something controversial? Introducing political and social issues so explicitly in the mathematics classroom opens up space for students to ask the hard questions or to share an opinion that other students may find offensive. What do you do when a student says something like, “People on welfare are lazy”? How do you respond without forcing your beliefs on the student? What about your students whose parents are on welfare? How will they react? AAH! Scary, and also very real.

Based on what I’ve learned from working with other teachers and from doing the work of linking mathematics and social justice myself, here are some things to consider:

1. Students say controversial things all the time! Whether you link mathematics and social issues explicitly in your class or not, controversial statements and opinions will pop up. As a White teacher in a high school with predominantly African American students, I can’t count the number of times that a student said to me, “You won’t let me go to the bathroom because I’m Black.” In other settings, I’ve noticed the frequency of phrases such as “That’s gay.” or “You’re retarded.” But addressing these statements in a productive way is challenging. It takes tremendous skill, meaningful relationships and considerable time to open up space for dialogue with students about why some statements might be problematic or to unpack students’ claims. 

2. Use mathematics to productively respond. There’s so much mathematics to cover. There’s so little time. Who has time to have meaningful conversations with students about social issues in the math classroom? BUT what happens when you just ignore the issues that students bring up spontaneously?

Although I addressed the claim, “You won’t let me go to the bathroom because I’m Black.” sometimes, at other times I chose to dismiss it or ignore it altogether. I know how much that damaged my relationship with certain students in my class. They felt that I didn’t care about their perspective or their needs (they told me directly), and as a result they had little respect for me. They were often disruptive during class and rarely engaged in mathematical tasks in a meaningful way. By not taking time to address issues that were important to my students, I inadvertently sacrificed more time to dealing with classroom management issues. 

Over time, I’ve come to view students’ controversial statements as an opportunity both for relationship building and for valuable mathematics learning. There’s a Taoist saying that goes something like this, “There’s so much to do. There’s so little time. We’d better slow down.” This saying nicely summarizes the way that I view teaching now. With so much to do and so little time, it’s important to slow down and listen to students. To build relationships that promote more meaningful engagement with mathematics, for all students.

In this chapter, Julia Aguirre provides an example of a teacher who did just that. The teacher, Mr. C. was disturbed by a student’s claim that another student was suspended because he was Mexican.  Aguirre describes how Mr. C. developed two lessons to explore the validity of the student’s claim about the relationship between race and school suspension. Students learned how to use mathematics to investigate issues that are important to them and how to use mathematical evidence to support their claims and propose changes. In this way, Mr. C. was able to open up space for meaningful dialogue about this important issue while at the same time deeply engaging students with mathematical content required by the curriculum standards.

3. Be proactive. Responding to statements that students make spontaneously can be a great way to connect mathematics and social issues, but that approach to teaching mathematics for social justice also presents significant challenges. What if the necessary mathematics for investigating the social issue doesn’t link to required content for the course you’re teaching? On the lesson plans page, you’ll find examples of lessons created for algebra and geometry content. But matching specific content to social issues can take considerable time and planning, and isn’t always possible when building these types of lessons around students’ spontaneous statements or questions. When planning to link mathematical content to social issues, you can be proactive in preparing for controversial statements or emotional responses that the investigation might spark.

For example, when Shelia and I planned the lesson to investigate literacy rates, we didn’t want students to walk away from the lesson feeling more discouraged. What if they concluded that people like them (people of color, people of low social economic status) just can’t and don’t read, so why bother? What if they assumed that was because they were less intelligent? Anticipating these potential reactions to the raw literacy data, we planned to offer a counternarrative. After investigated literacy statistics, the students listened to an NPR article that discussed the publication of children’s books and how children of color were underrepresented in those books. Then they explored actual data about children’s books published in the United States by race of characters in the books and by race of author (see lesson plan page for more details). We chose this particular focus for the lesson as one explanation of why the literacy statistics may look the way they do. Literacy rates are lower for people of color, perhaps because they can’t relate to the characters in the books available for them to read. Our hope was that the students would offer other counternarratives and feel empowered to propose changes that might promote literacy in their school or community.

Whatever social issue you choose to explore with your mathematics students (or whatever issue they choose to bring up for you), you might be proactive by considering alternative perspectives. Doing a little bit of digging, I uncovered this article that presents 10 myths about poverty and facts that challenge those commonly held beliefs. This article would be a great resource for addressing a statement like, “People on welfare are lazy” (something that came up in a lesson I taught last summer.) Making a similar list of myths, stereotypes or common beliefs about other social issues can be one way of being proactive as you anticipate student statements and questions, both in the context of math for social justice lessons and in everyday interactions with your students.