Ferguson by the Numbers

I have been drafting this post since August 9, 2014. But words have failed me.

Late-August. I was driving about 5 mph above the speed limit when I passed by a police car. My heart rate accelerated slightly. I looked back in my rearview mirror for flashing lights. Nothing. I sighed in relief. Then it hit me. My own white privilege. My own nervousness about getting a ticket paling in comparison to the fear that people of color must experience each time they look into the mirror for flashing lights. Words failed me, but tears came.

September…Too busy with the new semester. Tentative plans for teaching about Ferguson postponed. Words delayed.

October…November…Absorbed with teaching a wonderful group of prospective high school mathematics teachers. Words forgotten.

November 24, 2014. More tears. Anger. Can’t hold the words back anymore.


In my research and teaching, I advocate for exploring social issues through mathematics. In the back of my mind, I’ve been drafting a post to contribute to #fergusonsyllabus that mathematics teacher could use. I’ve been putting off writing the post because I wanted to take time to do it right. I wanted to offer teachers something that they could easily use…something that would incorporate relevant mathematical content in their high school courses… But enough with the excuses. I’m writing instead to encourage you to take time SOON to talk about Ferguson in your mathematics classes. Mathematics content or not. I’ll be doing the same in my mathematics method course this afternoon. No fancy lesson on teaching mathematics for social justice. Just open dialogue about why Ferguson matters. Why it is so much bigger than Michael Brown. Why teachers, even the ones who teach mathematics, should take note – educate themselves, speak up and listen to their students.

But I understand if it feels overwhelming. I understand that it feels scary. I also have no idea how my students will react. What will I do if someone says something offensive? What will I do if someone cries? What will I do if I start to cry? But no matter how scary, I think we, as educators, must create that space for students to talk about issues that really matter. Sometimes the numbers have to take a backseat.

In browsing the #fergusonsyllabus resources, I found this article, which offers 5 ways to teach about Michael Brown and Ferguson. I think that the first suggestion, asking students what they know and what they want to know, can be a great place to start. It can be a way for you to learn more about your students’ reactions and opinions in a more private way (if you do it in writing). You may be surprised by what they already know or how they’re thinking about these issues (Perhaps you question what that surprise reveals about your own assumptions. Try to see things from your students’ perspectives, which may be different from your own.) Asking students to reflect in writing could help you feel more empowered to have these difficult conversations with your students. It may also give you information about what students want to know, and you might find ways to help them learn more through mathematics.

Once you’ve opened up a dialogue to talk about what is happening in Ferguson, don’t let the conversation get lost. Keep the dialogue going. In some ways, this is even harder than starting the conversation.

Maybe you create mathematics lessons to help students explore connected, broader issues.There is some evidence that white Americans view the events in Ferguson through a radically different lens that Black Americans. So it will be important to think about your particular students and what perspectives they might bring. In the case of white students, this exploration might help them begin to understand how racism impacts the daily lives of people of Color and how their own privilege allows them to ignore the ways racism permeates our society. For students of Color, using mathematics to explore racial profiling in a broader context may empower them to make bolder (evidence-based) claims about their own experiences with racism and to advocate for change. For example, here’s a curriculum (or here) that focuses on using probability to examine whether or not racial profiling is a factor in traffic stops.You could adapt the lessons to use data from a local geographic area or from Ferguson. Or here’s an article that describes an activity that uses geometry concepts and density to explore an issue raised in 1992 following the Rodney King verdict. This could help students examine the broader social and historical issues that surround what is happening in Ferguson. This site has an excellent summary of additional links to resources and suggestions for engaging students in thinking about what’s happening in Ferguson and connecting to broader issues. They are not mathematics specific, but they will be important for helping both you and your students make sense of the larger social, historical context. I’ll say it again. Educate yourself. There’s a wealth of sociological research that puts Ferguson in context.

Maybe all of that is too much. But try not to get overwhelmed. Maybe you just take time to talk about what students are hearing in the news. Give them a chance to ask questions or to talk about how they’re feeling. Support them in becoming critical consumers of media. There are certainly plenty of opportunities to help them become critical quantitative consumers. Here are some places you might start and some questions you might consider:

Whatever you do, just do something. Learn alongside your students. Fight for our children. Dare to hope.

To me young people come first, they have the courage where we fail And if I can shed some light as they carry us through the gale


Edits – Additional links to articles that might be of interest

Ferguson specific resources

Understanding Racism, more broadly

Considerations and reflections for white teachers & students:

Resources from Teaching Tolerance – including blogs & news articles

Great conversation starter for a lesson:Broadway Stars Gather In Times Square To Send A Message About Police Violence & Eric Garner!


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