Saturday, May 9, 2009

Abstract and Reflection: Social Justice Math

The purpose of this project was to examine how Social Justice Math (SJM) can help students in urban school districts make real-world connections between the mandated curriculum and issues, topics of need, and concern in their own communities. The goal of Social Justice Math is to help students not only become more aware of the needs of their community through units of study such as this, but to become agents of change themselves. We selected Newark as our target community, and began our project with a walking tour of the city and neighborhoods encompassing several of its public high schools. Our tour, recorded in the form of field notes, revealed that the type of stores, businesses and services readily available to Newark citizens was severely limited in the poorer neighborhoods. This particular disparity between neighborhoods gave rise to a lesson plan and unit analyzing community businesses and services in poorer neighborhoods of Newark, and drawing comparisons to more affluent communities. Using SJM can enable students to “read their world” and develop creative solutions to real problems.

As I've written in other blogs, I feel as though my group and I have unearthed something really special in social justice math. In previous blogs, I've candidly admitted to being cautious of SJM. Enough of that. I want to write about the present and the future. SJM has really allowed me to see where I can take a mathematics class, which I never believed possible. Beforehand, mathematics was as I had learned it. As a student, I reveled in mathematics. It was to me, a puzzle that never ceased to interest. For all my reveling, however, I liked other subjects equally well. History and English, for example, were two favorites of mine. I greatly enjoyed analyzing a piece of poetry or prose, or reading of the plight of American's during the Civil War. I still do today: Why this Christmas, I finally read Vidal's Lincoln, an excellent read, for sure. But I digress.

Where I'm going is this: In History and English class, there was always the possibility of relating the class to the real world. I remember reading articles about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinski in 8th grade American History class, for example. In Junior Year Spanish, I read Spanish articles about the aspirations of select tennis students. All throughout undergrad, I read food articles for Travel-Writing class. In each of these cases, my teachers brought the real world to the classroom, and extended the curriculum by allowing us to interact with it.

Mathematics class, however, was never about the present or present situations. It was always about hypothetical situations and ridiculous notions. It was about two trains meeting in the night, or Chinese Postmen doing their rounds, or walking across bridges in eighteen-century Prussia. I loved that stuff. Most every did not.

I see SJM as a way to bring the joy I experienced in the non-mathematics classroom to the mathematics classroom. I see it as a way to make mathematics into a real, tangible, and practical tool that students see the necessity in. With it, math becomes something that exists outside of math class; it becomes a language spoken by people who are not math teachers. But at the same time, math is furthering these students' understanding of their world, the parts they play in it and the very real part they play in it. To me, this dual nature is powerful, as it says the following: First, mathematics is important; second, you are important. I think this sort of dual-empowerment is really necessary in the classroom, and is the sort of encouragement needed of students.

In closing, I'm very happy that I did this project (with the help of others) on social justice math. It's totally changed the way I look at the classroom, and opened doors like I'd never expected. It's also challenged me to discover future methods of tying mathematics to social situations, and allowing students to explore the mathematical underpinnings and truths of those situations. I find this combination of possibility and challenge very satisfying. It's enough to wonder, though, what else this teaching gig has in store for me.

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