Teaching math for social justice


Move aside algebra and geometry. Some students in New York public high schools are learning a new math curriculum—Math for Social Justice.

Rachel Adler-Kaufman, a first-year teacher at the Academy for Young Writers in East New York, is one of the teachers trying to show students how to use math to explore societal issues, such as racism or entrenched poverty.

The biggest unit of the course concerns the lottery. Students examine statistics and the miniscule odds of winning by looking at maps and studying why people in certain neighborhoods in New York with low median incomes are spending a great amount of money on the lottery.

“The lottery is a tax on mathematically illiterate people,” Adler-Kaufman said. “It preys on hopeful poor people who don’t understand that you are more likely to get struck by lightning twice than you are to win the lottery.”

The idea of building math skills by applying them to social justice issues has been a central theme in research by Marilyn Frankenstein, professor in the College of Public and Community Service at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, since 1978. She was among the first to publish articles on the subject

Social justice has emerged in high school courses in various ways in recent years. Make the Road New York and the Institute for Student Achievement partnered with Brooklyn College in 2009 to create the Bushwick School for Social Justice, where students are supposed to look through the lens of social justice in every subject.

Adler-Kaufman learned about Math for Social Justice from Laurie Rubel, an education professor who taught her at Brooklyn College and who has helped push the curriculum.

“I have always been an advocate for social justice,” Rubel said. “And I found ways to marry my activism with my mathematics. To do so, I seek to connect mathematics to the lives of my students, in terms of their everyday or potential experiences, but also in terms of giving them opportunities to use mathematics to analyze and respond to issues of social justice. ”

Adler-Kaufman, who did a large portion of her student teaching at the Bushwick School for Social Justice thanks to Rubel, said there had not been a Math for Social Justice class at that school.

“The point is to make people more aware of social justice,” she said. “It became less of teaching from a textbook and more about what actually happened.”

For example, in a regular core curriculum geometry class, students measured the volume of trash in landfills and rescaled maps of the boroughs based on different crime statistics.

Today, the Jessie Streich-Kest Memorial Fund, which is dedicated to a teacher from the Bushwick school who died during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, provides annual scholarships to students from Brooklyn who are committed to social justice for all.

When asked if she thought the math curriculum reached any of her students, she was uncertain.

“It’s a curriculum in progress,” she said. “But I hope that they were able to see our world a little more clearly.”

And if there is controversy, that’s no problem.

“People ask me, ‘Why would you want to give [students] more reason to be angry?’” Adler-Kaufman said. “And I say to that, ‘They should be angry!’ It’s anger that pushes change.”

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