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How to Teach Math for Social Justice in Ways that Align with Your Curriculum

Every day, educators strive to implement engaging and meaningful lessons that are relevant to and reflective of the lives and communities of all the students in their classrooms. We see this becoming more and more prevalent, not just in English language arts and history or social studies, but in mathematics as well. One way we see this is when teachers use mathematics lessons for social justice in the classroom. At their most basic level, these lessons are accessible to all students, honor all students’ needs and cultures, and help students use mathematics as a lens through which they can examine and address issues of social justice important to their lives and their communities. In other words, teaching mathematics for social justice (TMSJ) is about emphasizing equitable opportunities for each and every student as well as developing an orientation toward using mathematics to read and write their world (Gutstein, 2006; Conway, et al. 2022). As more resources for TMSJ become available, it is helpful to think about how these lessons connect to the overall goals and curriculum of our math teaching and learning.

When we talk about curriculum, we think of it as “the substance or content of teaching and learning” (Stein, Remillard, and Smith, 2007, p. 321) expressed in three forms: written, intended, and enacted. In other words, curriculum is what you teach, how you plan to teach it, and how you actually teach it. How might you connect your written, intended, and enacted curriculum to your efforts to teach mathematics for social justice?

Written Curriculum

The written curriculum is often seen as pacing guides, textbooks, and other lesson plans that emphasize what and how something will be learned and practiced (Stein, Remillard, and Smith, 2007). These curricula are most often situated around the important mathematical concepts for a particular grade. When implementing mathematics for social justice, lessons should draw on the mathematical goals that your curriculum defines, as well as your social justice goals. You may want to consider incorporating social justice goals from Learning for Justice Standards.

For example, in Middle School Mathematics Lessons to Explore, Understand and Respond to Social Injustice, lessons are organized around the substance and content of middle school mathematics curriculum, such as ratio and proportion; expressions, equations, and functions; and statistics and probability. These lessons also leverage a Teaching Math for Social Justice framework, which helps teachers use equitable teaching practices to guide students in using social and mathematical understanding, investigation, and reflection to identify and engage in authentic and challenging mathematics to address and take action on what students identify as social injustices that matter to them, as seen here.

Source: Conway IV, B. M., Id-Deen, L., Raygoza, M. C., Ruiz, A., Staley, J. W., & Thanheiser, E. (2022). Middle school mathematics lessons to explore, understand, and respond to social injustice. Corwin Press.

At the center of these lessons are opportunities for students to achieve both mathematical and social justice goals (Gutstein, 2006). Lessons aim to provide authentic and challenging questions or concerns from the students that build on their interests and curiosities, drive their learning, and empower them as change agents.

Intended Curriculum

The intended curriculum comes about when a teacher takes the written curriculum and creates plans for how they might implement it. When teaching math for social justice, your planning should build on a foundation of five equitable teaching practices (Aguirre, Mayfield-Ingram, and Martin, 2013), which include:

  1. Going deep with mathematics
  2. Leveraging multiple mathematical competencies
  3. Affirming mathematics learners’ identities
  4. Challenging spaces of marginality, and
  5. Drawing on multiple resources of knowledge (mathematics, culture, language, family, community).

Planning should incorporate actionable steps that empower students to be agents of change. This process will look different for every teacher, classroom, and situation, because it is important to implement curriculum in ways that are specific to your own context and your own students. For example, in a sixth- or seventh-grade lesson that uses ratios to explore human rights  (see “The True Cost of that $29 T-shirt In the Store Window”), students can choose to evaluate clothing from their favorite brands or local retailers as a way of making it relevant to them. For other lessons around topics like minimum wage, gerrymandering, or accessible playgrounds, you can use local data and locations to modify your lesson. You may also choose to adapt the mathematics you’re focusing on and the social justice goals based on your school’s location and your students’ interests and  mathematical needs.

Enacted Curriculum

The actual implementation of the curriculum is described as the enacted curriculum. One of the largest factors in how curriculum influences student learning is how teachers actually use it in the classroom. Part of the enacted curriculum includes selecting what to include or exclude from the instructional materials provided to you by your school leaders or district, as well as how to supplement these materials. For example, some teachers may adapt every lesson—modifying the topic, mathematical goals, and social justice goals on a daily basis, while others may supplement their curricular materials with TMSJ lessons once a week or once a unit.

As you move towards implementing social justice math lessons as part of your curriculum, it is important that you:

  • provide opportunities for students to investigate mathematics that empowers them to understand and change their world.
  • maintain the cognitive demand of the task you use by facilitating appropriate conversations with deep questioning strategies.
  • incorporate reflective components on the important mathematics and social justice topics of the lesson.

Takeaways

As you travel down the road to including lessons for Teaching Math for Social Justice, you need to become familiar with your primary curricular goals and instructional materials, modify them to suit your own content and context goals as you plan lessons, and implement your lessons with your own students in mind. As you move from the written curriculum to the intended and enacted curriculum, it is important to acknowledge what should be maintained but also what can and should be revised. At the center of teaching mathematics for social justice, students should see themselves in the enacted curriculum and be doing real mathematics.


References:

Aguirre, J. M., Mayfield-Ingram, K., & Martin, D. B. (2013). The impact of identity in K-8 mathematics learning and teaching: Rethinking equity-based practices. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Conway IV, B. M., Id-Deen, L., Raygoza, M. C., Ruiz, A., Staley, J. W., & Thanheiser, E. (2022). Middle school mathematics lessons to explore, understand, and respond to social injustice. Corwin Press.

Gutstein, E. (2006). Reading and writing the world with mathematics. Routledge.

Stein, M.; Remillard, J. & Smith, M. (2007). How curriculum influences student learning. In F. Lester Jr. (Ed.), Second handbook of research on mathematics teaching and learning (pp. 319-369). Charlotte: Information Age Publishing.

Written by

Basil M. Conway IV is an associate professor of mathematics education in the College of Education and Health Professions at Columbus State University and serves as the mathematics education graduate programs director.He has served in various local mathematics education leadership positions and organizations including Transforming East Alabama Mathematics (TEAM-Math), Auburn University’s Teacher Leader Academy, East Alabama Council for Teachers of Mathematics, Woodrow Wilson Fellow, National Mathematics and Science Initiative, and A+ College Ready.

Eva Thanheiser is a professor of mathematics education at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. . She has served in leadership roles at AMTE and the Psychology of Mathematics Education–North America as well as on editorial boards of the Mathematics Teacher Educator and the Journal of Research in Mathematics Education.

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