Teaching Social Justice in the Math Classroom

Last August I was watching the news about the skyrocketing prices of EpiPens and immediately I knew there was a math problem in the story.  I couldn't necessarily apply the math to our current topic of study, but I knew that it was a good problem to talk about in both of my Honors Algebra 2 and Algebra 1 classes.  I created a 3 slide Desmos Activity which generated rich discussions in both of my classes.  Out of that mini lesson came a personal goal to create a 15 min. social justice problem each week.  These problems have become one of my favorite things that I do with my students.  I haven't met my goal of doing these problems once a week, and my students have been asking for another one recently.  In all honestly, I've tried to write many problems this semester, however, with our current political climate I have struggled to write an unbiased problem.  I finally forced myself to sit down and create a new social justice problem.  When students found out today that we were doing a social justice problem, they cheered.  The problem students worked on today dealt with the issues around the Flint Water Crisis.

I've modeled every problem after that first EpiPen problem.  The questions begin with an "Engage" piece.  I love the Desmos overlay feature that allows the class to see their peer's predictions.  Some students thought this would be an exponential model, others thought linear and a few students had some other predictions based on reasoning.

The second piece of the activity is to "Learn" something new.  This might involve calculations, but it usually involves reading and interpreting graphs.  At this point in the school year, I didn't know my students very well.  It was fun to see their personalities come out in their responses.
The third piece of the activity is for students to "Decide" about where they stand on the topic.  It is really important to me to be purposeful about giving my students decision making opportunities in all of my lessons, and this was a natural fit.  Students drag the blue dot to the side they agree with and write comments explaining their choice.  Then, we open up the conversation for a dialog in the classroom.  The thing that convinced me that I had to do these kinds of problem frequently is that while we were discussing as a class, blue dots were going back and forth in the overlay view on the SmartBoard.  Students were changing their mind in real time based on the reasoning of their peers!

As a math teacher, I have always appreciated the "cleanliness" of math class. I'm not a huge fan of debate or "hot topics", and it made me so uncomfortable to present an activity that would engage the different viewpoints of students.  I found that when I opened up the conversation for students, they had really fruitful dialog without me ever giving my opinion.  I was surprised by how well students could have respectful disagreements.  Other benefits were hearing from students who don't typically volunteer in math, and I learned things because they shared what they were learning in other classes.  I believe that I've become a better teacher by being open to these conversations.  

I've tried to keep a few things in mind as I've written these problems. I am trying hard not to write biased problems, or biased questions.  One of my friends suggested that I write a positive problem, to show that these issues aren't all doom and gloom.  The activity about life expectancy in Rwanda was created with a positive story in mind.  I decided that with each issue, I wasn't going to force the math if it wasn't there.  I didn't want to contrive a problem, just to fit the math. Some problems have more engaging mathematics than others, but that wasn't the point of these problems to begin with. If students don't practice using math to understand the complicated issues we experience around the world now, how will they know how to do this in the future?

All of my social justice math problems are posted here.