NEW: Click hereto download "A Guide for Integrating Issues of Economic and Social Justice into Mathematics Curriculum", by Jonathan Osler, founder of RadicalMath.org. The guide contains a more detailed version of the information on this page.
I. Examples of "Social Justice Math" Topics (partial list):
There are at least two related ideas behind "Social Justice Math". The first is that you can use mathematics to teach and learn about issues of social and economic justice. The second is that you can learn math through the study of social justice issues - the development of mathematical literacy itself being an incredibly important social justice issue.
Economic and Social Issues
Prisons, racial profiling, death penalty
Poverty, minimum/living wage, sweatshops
Housing, gentrification, homeownership
War, defense budgets, military recruiting
Public Health: AIDS, asthma, health insurance, diabetes, smoking
Environment: pollution, hunger, food and water resources
Credit cards, managing debt, paying for college
Saving/budgeting money, opening bank accounts
High-cost loans. check cashers, loan sharks
The study and celebration of mathematical practices from various countries and cultures from both historical and contemporary perspectives, including: symbolic systems, spatial designs, games and puzzles, calculation methods, measurement in time and space, architecture and design, problem solving, etc.
II. The Benefits and Pitfalls of Teaching Math from a Social Justice Perspective
Recognize the power of mathematics as an essential analytical tool to understand and potentially change the world, rather than merely regard math as a collection of disconnected rules to be memorized and regurgitated.
Engage in high-level thinking about big mathematical ideas
Deepen their understanding of social and economic issues on local and global scales
Understand their own power as active citizens in building a democratic society and become equipped to play a more active role in this society
Become more motivated to learn math
Participate in actual (not just theoretical) community problem-solving projects
Answer this question for themselves: "Why do I have to know this?"
Differentiate their curriculum more easily
Create interdisciplinary units and partnerships
Learn about their students families and communities, and develop a socioculture consciousness
Assess learning in a contextualized, holistic manner
Standardized Testing - Because of NCLB pressure, it is challenging to avoid "teaching towards the test." However, it is possible to prepare students for such exams and still teach about social justice.
Mandated Curriculums - Many schools have textbooks that they require their teachers to use. This is both a local and national battle we need to be having with our administrators and officials. You will have to decide on your own if you are willing to teach something other than what you're being told to teach.
Good Math isn't the same as Good Politics! - There are several good math textbooks (although there is much debate over which these are) that have great ideas about group work and skill-development, and are set inside larger contextual problems, but have nothing political in their material.
Good Politics isn't the same as Good Math! - It is easy to think that a unit or lesson is a great one just because it covers important issues. But you need to be sure that the math itself is strong, that it allows for multiple access points, has room for exploration and discovery, and was developed with standards in mind.
Time - It takes time to write good curriculum. Be patient - it's worth the work.
III. How to Integrate Social Justice into a Math Class
-- The Basics --
It is important but not necessary that all projects and units have a solution-based component. Don't just focus on the problems your students and their communities are facing - it's the creative solutions we're generally short on. So one of your goals should be for students to understand the issues and think about how to solve them.
One good way to design a project or unit is by partnering with a community-based organization and do a project on their behalf. For example, find a group that wants to learn about how the community feels about an important community issue (ie. pollution, police presence, affordable housing). Your class could survey the community and present the results to the organization.
It is also useful to have students share the information that they've learned with their friends and families. You can have several homework assignments that involve them teaching something they've learned to family and community members, or have them present their findings to school administrators, local politicians, and other community members.
Last, and probably most important - Start With The Math. Find an issue that fits the math, not the other way around. When you try to make the math fit an issue you want to cover, most likely, you will end up sacrificing some of the mathematical content.
-- The Specifics --
Identify the math concept/skill you want to teach, and download this chart to think about social issues that could help students understand this skill.
Talk to your students. See what issues they are concerned with at school or in the community - these are probably what they will be most interested in working on and learning about.
STUDY THE STANDARDS. Everyone has a different opinion about which standards are the best. Here are some to consider:
Set the unit in the context of a broad, open-ended question that does not have one specific answer (often called an Essential Question). A larger question students should be asking is: "What are the problems my community is facing, and how can I use math to understand and address them?" But more specifically, pick a question that will guide the math and give focus to the unit. For example: "Which neighborhoods in our city have the highest rates of incarcerated youth, and what can we determine about the economic and demographic make-up of these communities?" or "Does race play a factor in who is getting mortgage loans in our city?". The question should have both a mathematically and social component to it.
Start by introducing the social issue to get students interested. Young people think a lot along the lines of fair/unfair, so help them to see what is unfair about the issue you're going to study. This will also work to get them engaged in the class and the lesson/unit. You can introduce an issue by bringing in guest speakers, showing video clips from movies or documentaries, going on field trips, etc.
Begin introducing some of the mathematical concepts so that students can start to understand how these skills can be useful in solving the larger unit problem or to understanding the social issue more deeply.
It is important not to stray too far from the Unit Question and the social issues, but it is fine to take a few days during the unit to do worksheets or other skill-building activities that you feel will help teach or reinforce the math skills and concepts. Sometimes you introduce the math in the context of the social issue, and then reinforce students understanding of it through more traditional practices... And other times you can teach the math first, and then help students deepen their understanding of it by applying the skill to a real-world problem with a social justice focus.