Contrary to popular belief, math is more than just numbers, algebraic formulas, and ancient algorithms. It can serve as a vehicle to help our students make sense of the world in which we live, but current events and real-world issues have generally been integrated only into subjects such as English, science, and social studies—math has been considered its own little island.
After years of searching for lesson plans and resources that would help me bridge the gap between math and real-world issues, I decided to create my own unit project to do that. I polled my seventh-grade students to find the right topic and created a three-week project that focused on the intersection between law enforcement and communities of color in Boston. Other topics of interest to them included immigration, poverty, homelessness, pollution, and creating more youth jobs in our economy—there are many possibilities for this kind of work.
A 4-Step Process for Connecting Math to Students’ Lives
1. Selecting the topic or issue: I started with the idea that the topic would have to be relevant to the racial and cultural composition of my students, and to the communities in which they lived. The best way to select the topic was to ask them what would really matter to them. My students, who were predominantly African American and Latinx, chose the topic of police brutality because it had personally impacted them.
If you try this, choosing the right topic will guarantee a high level of student engagement throughout the project. You can create an interest survey or questionnaire to give your students so they can share in great detail the real-world topics they would like to explore—this might work better than initially asking them to discuss ideas as a whole class, as it takes some pressure off.
Once you’ve determined the topic, write it up as an open-ended focus question that your students will work toward answering throughout the project. For the topic of police brutality, I worked with my students to come up with the focus question: “Can more diverse police forces prevent instances of racial profiling?”
2. Gathering background information: The next big question for a math teacher is, “What specific data points are needed to effectively answer the focus question?” Since students are going to explore the topic through a mathematical lens, you’ll need to consider what quantitative data points they can study in order to draw their own conclusions about the topic.
These data points—statistics, graphical representations, geometric diagrams, or functional relationships, for example—must not only be available for contextualization within the scope of the topic but also accessible to your students so that they can apply the appropriate math skills. My project highlighted national stop and frisk statistics, population data, and demographic data on police officers as data points that would help answer the focus question.
In addition to the quantitative data your students will use in their math work, they need qualitative data—news reports, books, etc.—to more deeply understand the issue they’re exploring. In my opinion, gathering this information is the most difficult step of the process because you have to compartmentalize your personal biases, which can influence how your students think about the topic. You need to present the multiple perspectives that people have about the issue so that your students have the information necessary to build background knowledge and develop their own thinking around the issue.
Primary sources are the most reliable information sources to use because they’re original and were written or created during the time of the issue. Examples of primary sources include manuscripts, books, newspaper articles, historical documents, videos, photographs, and interviews. In other words—and they’ll probably ask—students should not use Wikipedia.
3. Identifying math skills and connecting them to standards: Once you’ve identified the appropriate data points, you’ll want to determine the specific math skills your students will use to analyze the data points and construct mathematical arguments.
The math skills should be developmentally appropriate for the grade level you teach: Recognizing that our racial profiling unit was heavily focused on statistical concepts, I determined that students could analyze the data points using such skills as conversions between rational numbers (decimals, fractions, and percentages), measures of central tendency (mean, median, and mode), and two-way frequency tables.
Next, you’ll need to align the math skills you’ve identified to the appropriate academic standards for your state, whether that’s the Common Core State Standards or the academic standards for your state. Identify the standards that best align with the math skills that you expect your students to master for this lesson.
4. Determining the final work product: Finally, in thinking about the product your students will produce, you need to take into account their diverse academic needs. If you teach in an inclusive classroom setting, I highly recommend that you collaborate with the special education teacher on this step. They can assist you in creating a scaffolded or modified version of the final work product that is developmentally appropriate for each individual student receiving instructional support.
For this project, I gave students three options for the final product. They could participate in a whole-class Socratic seminar and engage in dialogue with each other by providing textual and statistical evidence that would support their response to the focus question. The second option was to write a letter to the police commissioner to express their concerns around the issue of racial profiling by law enforcement in Boston, including relevant data to support their argument. The final option was to write a paper stating their argument, with statistical evidence to support it and at least two solutions they thought would address the issue. My students opted for a whole-class Socratic seminar.
Ultimately, the final product should provide multiple access points for the diverse learners in your class and allow them to best demonstrate mastery of math skills and their knowledge of the topic.