My Choice to Encompass Social Justice in My AP Calculus Class

If you’re like me, you have probably seen yourself as someone who can make a difference in the lives of students.  Teachers make a difference in students’ lives in a variety of ways, including some of the following:

  • Elementary school teachers lay the foundation and mold students into the adults they will become.
  • Junior high and high school English teachers expose students to worlds they never knew.
  • History teachers equip them to function in a democratic society.
  • Science teachers help students see the influence and imprint they make on our planet.

All of these contain some element of social justice. By social justice, I mean that our efforts prepare students to participate in a democratic society and equip them to challenge the inequities they will inevitably encounter, as real difference-makers.

Yet, if you really are like me, you may teach a subject that does not easily lend itself to the idea of social justice. The notion of making a difference through your coursework may seem elusive.

However, as an Advanced Placement Calculus teacher, I am choosing not to allow myself that excuse. I vow to transform myself into a teacher who truly encompasses social justice through my mathematics course.

Two overarching goals that guide my transformation will include:

  1. Helping students develop sociopolitical consciousness, a sense of agency, and positive social and cultural identities;
  2. Creating a classroom environment that fosters social justice, where I focus on the culture of the class, the social norms, and ultimately the routines. This focus may lead to systematic changes in how the classroom is run as well as students’ access to the curriculum.

The first step toward fulfilling those goals is that I need to truly understand the environment in which I teach. I plan to keenly observe the community of the school. There are many social dynamics that constantly occur in the hallways and open spaces that often go unnoticed. If I am aware of the injustices that occur in those places, then I can make sure they are not reinforced within my classroom.

Next, if my course is intended to transition students to college-level work, then it would be prudent for me to know what college mathematics looks like. This will allow me to build an effective bridge of understanding for my students, especially for those from underserved student populations who may be the first family members to attend college.

This bridge will prepare them to navigate their way through the challenges they may face as college freshmen. Hopefully, students will come to realize that an AP class is more than simply a cost-saving investment. It is preparation for real college-level work, college-level living.           

My third step toward fulfilling the two over-arching goals will be to help students develop a sense of agency using AP calculus. In order to do this, I will require them to visit a relative’s place of employment, identify ways calculus could be used in this setting, perform that calculus, and then bring back those results to share with the class.

This sharing will make the mathematics meaningful and allow students to contribute to the learning. Of course, for me to expect my students to do this well, I need to model this sense of agency, by visiting a parent’s place of employment and completing the assignment.

In this way, I will do so much more then merely model a task. I will foster good will and partnership with families.

With my fourth step, I plan to push the boundary a bit, and show students how calculus can be used to address social justice issues. For this, we will take a field trip to a baseball game—a Colorado Rockies game to be exact.

While I cannot control the many variables that exist in a ballpark, I can say for certain that there are elements of social justice, as well as calculus, evident at these games. From the price and grouping of seats that certain groups of people seem to gravitate to, to the vast difference in wait time men and women experience while in line for the bathrooms, each student will make his personal observation and bring it back to the class, thereby developing a sociopolitical consciousness.

Furthermore, after students have worked through the issues of social justice at the Colorado Rockies baseball game, they will apply that same analytic lens to our own school. Once they have applied that lens, I expect there will be a need to advocate for change. What that will look like can be explored later. But the fact that my students will use calculus to analyze variables is a thrilling prospect!

My last and final step in transforming my course instruction is for my students to contribute something they design to their community. The last unit focuses on constructing figures and finding their areas and volumes. My students could then create something related to their community. This creation should have a purpose, but also be something that students derive using calculus. The assignment culminates when they present their creation to the community or city officials.

My intention here is to share my personal journey as a difference-maker, and the steps I plan to take to transform my AP Calculus course into one that is not only real and relevant, but also raises social awareness in my students.   My hope is that in sharing my plans, you may be inspired to do the same, so that students don’t leave our classes simply smarter. They also leave us as wiser, selfless observers who might make a real difference in this world.

  • lindakennedy

    Social Justice

    I really like that you are addressing justice issues in your classroom.  We should all take this to heart.  All classrooms are global classrooms any more.  What we do has a huge ripple effect beyond our classes.

    I teach from the first day that my students are to engage each other in “reasonable respectful relationships” because my school is very diverse.  We have students from 26 different countries and all major religions.  I try to model what I teach by being very respectful of them.  I borrow from other cultures.  I tell them that in Islamic tradition, a statement has to pass through 3 doors before it is spoken.

    1. Is it true?  2. Is it necessary? 3. Is it kind?

    In science, we can remind each other that our DNA is 99.8% identical.  Only 0.2% makes us female, black, asian, tall, differently abled, gay.  Science removes the foundation for bigotry by emphasizing our humanity.

  • akrafel

    The Environment In Which We Teach

    I really like the part in your post about understanding the environment in which you teach.  So often we teachers get so isolated- for many reasons and we do not hang out in the halls or playgrounds much. We are too busy prepping for our next class. So we can be unaware of what students are experiencing at school. I loved the way you took this idea in so many directions. Very ambitous. Would never have thought about doing all that in an AP calculus class.

    At our school, a small K-8 of 180 students, we really made a huge effort to pay attention to what was going on in the hallways and at recess on the playgrounds.  We decided to make sure that we modeled and insisted on the 3 door idea that Linda brings up. Did not know that was from Muslim culture. Thanks for letting me know that.

    But starting in your own classroom seems like the most potent place to model kindness and respect to students and between students. But studing the hallway culture in a high school sounds really interesting. I bet students could do a large part of that.

    After studing the kid culture in open spaces, we found that if we did not rigorously as a staff- including playground supervising, be aware of and intervene on bullying, teasing, name calling and picking on students with low social status the culture of the school, including the culture that flows into the classroom could deteriorate pretty quickly.  If socially just structures don’t appear in the classroom then the students will not trust each other enough to really share themselves or what they are thinking about. Injustice in the halls flows right into the classrooms. Over a period of many years, constant attention to this issue helped create a culture, now maintained a lot by students, of kindness and acceptance of each other overall. Takes time and constant attention to be sure. But as you point out at the very least we can create socially just classrooms by having a set of norms, and modeling and enforcing those norms constantly. Constant being the operative word I think.

    Thanks for this post.

  • SandyMerz

    Concrete example

    The first lesson for my algebra kids this year was to calculate how many days we have to learn the subject. The calendar says 180, after taking away time for early release days, testing, and the like. Then calculating that for every minute we waste every day we lose about four days over the course of the year. Answers ranged from 120 actual days to 140. Next, we determined what we control – behavior, transisitons, entering class, etc. and came up with means by which we could share responsibility to save some of those days. The kids were completely into it and we’re saving time right and left for learning. 

  • Lawrece Shirley

    Social Justice in Mathematics Classes

    Here are some references to help with teaching social justice in mathematics classes: good statistical data from National Peace Corps Association (also Peace Corps' WorldWise Schools), US Census Bureau, UN (including the UN Millennium Goals), Population Reference Bureau, World Bank, the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality (with graphs of many types of inequalities), etc.; webpages of Worldometer, WorldMapper; the groups Rethinking Schools, Radical Math, the Algebra Project; various works by members of the International Study Group on Ethnomathematics (such as Lawrence Lesser who wrote about Statistics with Social Justice)–also many links on the group's webpage, etc.

  • John Golden


    Matthew Felton has a couple of articles in the NCTM trades you should read:,, and The Southern Poverty Law Center has a great Teaching Tolerance site: And Rochelle Gutierrez is the go to for me for classroom equity:

    Good luck and keep writing about it, please!


  • Jenn Henderson


    I agree with Alysia!  I love the idea of learning more about the environment in which we teach.  I am at a new school this year, so finding out about my students, their lives, families and communities is very important to me.  Even though I have taught in this same area for many years, my new school has a high population of refugees.  This opens up so many opportunities for me to learn and grow as a teacher so that I can better understand the social issues they face every day and better support them in working to fight for positive changes.  Thanks for your dedication – it inspires all of us!

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