In thinking about my curriculum this year, I’m trying to find ways to make it more socially conscious. To make a long story short: I’m struggling. Well, if I’m honest with myself, I haven’t tried that hard. I bought a book and have been skimming it for ideas. Benjamin Dickman kickstarted an Algebra 2/Social Justice collaborative that I’ve tapped into. He’s also been tweeting a lot of useful ideas that I’ve been trying to digest, and of which I’m thankful. But because I’m chained to the Common Core’s version of Algebra 2, I am having a hard time busting out of the standardized box that it has me in. I also don’t think it helps that I’ve designed my course around non-thematic units.
But there is hope! I’m notorious for building the plane while I fly it, so I might be able to inject some level of consciousness into the curriculum as I go throughout the year. I’m thinking that a starting point could be the themes I used last spring. But an issue I have with those themes is that they weren’t married to any of the standards for the course (at least I didn’t attempt to do this) and they definitely weren’t Algebra 2-specific. And in thinking about the Common Core standards for the course, those related to statistics naturally lend themselves to exploring social justice. That’s promising. I also think all graph analysis we do could be an avenue. And exponentials too.
Despite my optimism, I find that much of what is packed into the course is abstract and hard to conceptualize through a social justice lens. There is lots of factoring and rewriting expressions into equivalent forms. Then there’s systems of (nonlinear) equations. And sequences. And rational exponents. And graphing trigonometric functions. Surely, my inability to draw immediate connections from these concepts to issues of social justice falls on me and lack of ingenuity and practicality with mathematics (that’s another issue altogether). But this curriculum — and most math that is learned in schools, in my humble opinion — wasn’t constructed to speak to the social conscience of students. This is disappointing. That said, I am feeling rather down about the Algebra 2 curriculum this year and how detached it is from my students’ realities.
But, again, there is hope! After reading For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, and Pedagogy of the Oppressed this summer, I began to reimagine my pedagogy and the role it plays in empowering my students. Despite having a hard time squeezing social awareness out of the math, I began to wonder how my methods themselves could be a model for social justice. How can I use them to meet my students on their cultural and emotional turfs? How can I be critical of the inherent power structure that exists within the classroom while meeting the needs of my students? How can I privilege their voice and perspective by including them in the ongoing decisions that are made in the classroom?
These are the types of questions that I started asking myself as I read. They aren’t directly tied to my curriculum and they don’t require any immediate change in content. What they do is deepen my impressions of how content is experienced and received by my students — and what those things should look like. They focus me on method; on the structure of the classroom and what that structure communicates to students about what matters. In Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Postman and Weingartner underscore this by saying “the medium is the message” and that “the invention of a dichotomy between content and method is both naïve and dangerous…the critical content of any learning experience is the method or process through which the learning occurs.” (p. 19) In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Friere declares that “Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students.” (p. 72)
Viewed through this lens, content is rendered secondary and pedagogy is thrust to the fore. This idea runs contrary to the three things that high school teachers are made to believe that matter the most: content, more content, and even more content. It positions my students as knowers, as experts that should be relied upon heavily to make content come alive. I think this goes beyond me merely using students’ “prior knowledge” to inform instruction. I must do that, yes, but I must also invite students to teach me how to teach them. Their lives should be reflected in what happens in the classroom, not just their “prior knowledge.” My students should have the agency to determine how the class functions and what aspects of math are explored. This is what Chris Emdin refers to in his “reality pedagogy” framework for teaching. He states that “the key to getting students to be academically successful, is not to teach directly to the assessment or to the curriculum, but to teach directly to the students…[to] teach from the standpoint of an ally who is working with them to reclaim their humanity.” (p. 40)
So while the oppressive weight of the curriculum lay on the weary backs of my students and I, there is hope. Through my struggle to introduce social justice to the Common Core, I must remember that my pedagogy can itself be liberatory and full of humanity. My pedagogy can be the model. I can do this by adopting routines that not only seek out and honor student voice, but those that use my students’ voices to shape and reshape the class in meaningful ways. This form of pedagogy posits that teaching math is a function of my students’ realities — not my curriculum. In this way, my methods can embody the social principles that I want the mathematics to eventually explore.