Wrapping up With Some Social Justice

After doing our project on the X Games, and then doing some statistics lessons like our paper airplane competition, I had my students do a final project on whatever they wanted. I asked them to pick a topic and create a survey. We talked about topics related to social issues, topics for changing the school, fun topics, whatever. But giving freedom to algebra students isn’t always easy. My students have had a hard time with math, and school in general and when they are given the chance to say what they really think, it can get a little unruly. Many of them wanted to talk about immigration issues and I had to listen to some loud rants about racism, which is not normal ground for classroom discussions in math, and can be pretty dicey. I tried to handle it with respect to the ranters while keeping us moving forward with the discussion. One of my classes was a bilingual algebra class and one of the students who is undocumented came in one day and began with, “You know why I love this class? Cuz there’s no white people in here!” (full disclosure, I’m white, but my Spanish is fluent enough so that students often forget that fact, maybe another post on that topic for another day). When rebellious and angry students are given a chance to have a voice, they test you to see if you really mean it. One day while we were talking about a less controversial topic, the song, “Fuck Donald Trump” came blasting from the bookshelf behind me. I saw this recently, a “senior honors project” from Dan Goniprow from the University of Rhode Island entitled, “Where Have all the Protest Songs Gone?” Well this song is a protest song. The positive kind that is about people of all races coming together and uniting under a cause. It could be our modern day “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Still, I had to confiscate the hidden bluetooth speaker and the phone of the student who did it but then I had to go back and talk to this group that wanted to do their project on Trump’s presidential campaign. I needed to show them that it could be done and how to ask the best questions to get the best results. That way they knew that they weren’t in trouble for what they were doing their project on, just for the way the brought complete and total mayhem to my class (which a part of me secretly thought was awesome).

It sounds like we weren’t doing math at all but my goal was to get them to think of good survey questions that would generate data that they could actually analyze. It’s an important mathematical skill, check out this article for a deeper discussion of teaching students about surveys. Here is what I did. I created “Case Studies” and “Problems.” The case studies were just examples taken from the students own projects from the class. I would show a case study such as the one where a student asked the question, “Does our School Value Working Students?” And then we would have a large group discussion before I would present the problem they would work on in their own project. Having large group discussions in an algebra 1 class such as mine are not always possible or beneficial, so I would get them working, then go around and talk to the groups to pull more information out of them and help them develop their topics more thoroughly. Then I would pick someone to be the next day’s case study. Here is my google slide of the whole thing.

Our final products weren’t necessarily the best. Most students just turned in some slides and didn’t want me to share them, others did. Other groups never finished slides and I let them make posters. I had originally envisioned them as presentations with videos for people who could help them effect change, letters to senators, or face to face meetings with school admin,  but the end of the school year put a damper on all that. Next year, I might do this project earlier to get better results before the kids and I are totally burned out. But the discussions along the way were good for all of us and helped me to end the year in a way that empowered some students to have a voice and a new way of thinking about how math can be used as a tool for change. Now time for reading books, making music, and playing with my own kids at the beach for a while. Happy summer!

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