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:
- Helping students develop sociopolitical consciousness, a sense of agency, and positive social and cultural identities;
- 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.