Teaching Mathematics For Social Justice Education Essay

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Reflecting on the last few months of this course is a daunting task. I walked into this course loving mathematics and being confident in my understanding of it. I left this class, from day one, with exponentially more questions than I brought to the table we congregated around weekly. As many of my peers, professor, and the authors we digested would agree, this is the true mark of learning. There is little to no room for certainty in the world of mathematics education, only questions ready to have their layers delicately peeled back from every angle. This idea was hard for me to accept because my very basis for being passionate about mathematics had been rooted in the contrary. Mathematics posed a problem, I could find the answer, there was one right answer and it could be rationally proved. I feared my love and passion would disappear with my certainty about the subject.

Choosing to be an educator, pursuing my master's degree and taking this course all stemmed from my love of pure mathematics. If you had asked me upon walking into EDMT why I was there, I would have simply replied, "because I love numbers and always have". My passion for the subject, in my opinion at the time, came from the success I had achieved in previous years doing drills in books and almost always being right. I can now thoughtfully deduce that I previously enjoyed the subject because of the confidence, sense of entitlement, superiority, certainty and opportunity it brought me. Humbled is the only word I can use to most closely represent the evolution of my teaching, philosophy and world view over the last semester. The most powerful takeaways from the readings and discussions that have directly changed my teaching and thoughts about mathematics include some of the following.

My understanding of how to make mathematics real to students was brought to an entirely different level. Coming into the class with only two year of experience, I believed that I needed to be able to prove things by visually representing them, be able to explain when they might use this in the "real-world" one day, or throw in a problem every once in awhile that included a topic that would grab their interest. I have now learned that through teaching mathematics I need to address the needs of the whole child. For mathematics to be real to them, and thus productively aid in the future success of a greater good, I need to get to know so much more about my students than I had anticipated. I need to be able to relate each concept to each individual child so they can make their own connection with it. I most importantly need to be guiding them to learn how to think in a way that explores their own world to find injustices and critically analyze how mathematics can be a tool in the relief of oppression.

This brings me to my next realization that mathematics cannot be kept in a "neat and tidy box" and be effective. Useful mathematics is so intertwined with other "subjects" that it cannot be separated from them, but somehow we have managed to do that. The isolation of mathematics has forced educators to create imaginary situation that pull math out of its naturally occurring environment. Therefore, students are forced to learn a skill that they will never see independent of other knowledge again. This sort of game, that I masterfully played, is not useful for the generations to come. In a world that is rapidly changing it is vital for us to keep math where it belongs, in a messy mix of reality.

In exploring the reality of mathematics I had to discover my true passion for the art that it is often forgotten to be. No longer could I be disillusioned by the confidence it gave me, or by the comfort I found in it, I had to look at it for what it was; a messy, tangled, web of bigger problems that can be used for "wonders or horrors". This again uncomfortably addressed the lack of certainty that is truly embedded in mathematics core. By stepping back and taking a look at what the subject really meant to me, and through reading the capabilities mathematics has in the world, I was able to no longer see math as a way for me to be right, but a way to spark change, big and small. Learning about how mathematics education has been used throughout history and still today to keep a chosen population suppressed was heartbreaking. To have my eyes opened to the power I have as an educator to empower my students to change society required that I take my job much more seriously. It reminded me that educators are professionals and I believe that if more teacher preparatory programs enlightened aspiring teachers to the power they hold, the profession would demand more respect. The curriculum our students need should not be mandated by people who have not met our students nor have they spent hours working with them. How can we ever have mathematics education without some sort of oppression if we are not considering the whole child when decided on what we believe is important for them to learn? More importantly how can we expect a group of people to do that for an entire state or nation in which no two students are alike? It needs to be remembered that there are more than two groups of students, minority and majority, also that "teachers should view students' home cultures and languages as strengths upon which to build, rather than as deficits for which we need to compensate" (Gutstein & Peterson 2005). If teachers were treated as professionals it would be clear that we should be trusted to work with our students to devise a plan or curriculum that meets their individual needs as well as the communities we are hoping they will be active participants in the future. As much as no one wants to admit or take blame for it, we have moved to a one-size fits all curriculum that cannot possibly be a success (whether by defining success as test scores, or creating citizens ready to contribute to a just society ) with such a diverse population.

While the hundreds of pages we have read over the last few months have lead me to begin a needed process of self exploration, I have arrived at few answers and have left with newly emerging questions weekly. I can no longer naively go through my day as an educator, engaging in conversations, observing situations, or teaching lessons, without having additional dimensions to ponder regarding my philosophy of mathematics education. I am still struggling with the best way to implement teaching math for social justice with the younger students I currently teach. Much of the readings focus on examples from high school classrooms and higher education. As I am slowly working towards integrating social justice into my classroom, I have had a hard time knowing what my students can handle. I am hoping that continuing my education and reading pertaining to teaching math for social justice; it will become clearer how this can be used in elementary classrooms. Real-world mathematics is not neat, pretty whole numbers. However, younger students start learning mathematics as though it does. Incorporating reality into elementary mathematics is a drastic change from what is currently being taught. I am trying to find the best way to ease my student through a transition from neat, happy imaginary-world mathematics, into messy, ugly and thought provoking real world mathematics that they are certain to encounter in years to come. Thinking about this exact dilemma I deal with on a daily basis, has led me to wonder when and how the idea of teaching math for social justice should start. Should it be rolled out like the Georgia Public Standards have been? Should we all start slowly at the same time? Should it start in pre-school? Is it ever too early to start? A large part of me feels it should start in our universities and work its way down. Until the upper level educational institutions change and accept what we hope to do, I feel I am doing a dis-service to my students if I do not teach them in the way they will be expected to learn later in life. You need to know how to be successful in our current education system in order to be successful (as society defines it) in life. If we teach math for social justice in elementary school, and that same student fails pre-calculus because they have never had to learn through lecture and book work, have we failed them? Will their voice be heard if they are not a college graduate with an outstanding GPA so that they can be in a position of power? Where is the balance of equipping our students with the skills they need to take a stand for the changes that need to occur to create a just society, but also enable them to jump through the necessary hoops to be taken seriously?

The fact of the matter is… there are no answers. While that is frustrating, it is also inspiring and comforting. It is nice to know that I am welcome to explore and find what I believe is best for my students and their individual and collective futures. They hold the key to ensuring my grandchildren live in a less oppressive society. It inspires me to keep questioning and finding what meets the needs of society and the individuals I will encounter. This class has most importantly shown me that I can, and will, do my part to open the eyes of my students to the injustices of the world. I now clearly see that my students and I are part of a bigger picture and I am merely a stepping stone to the greatness they can achieve through an awareness of social justice and an understanding of the power of mathematics.