Cogens for Social Justice • Part 1

This is the first post of a four-part series where I explore planning and implementing a social justice-themed activity in Algebra 2. In addition to traditional collaboration with colleagues, my use of three cogenerative dialogues to develop and reflect on the activity were critical to its design and execution.

Part 1: Preplanning

For years, I’ve been in search of meaningful ways to bring social justice into my Algebra 2 class. I haven’t had much success, but there is hope. It comes in the form of the math department at my school as well as my students — namely my cogenerative dialogue.

Last year, the Geometry teacher at my school designed a project based on the 1619 Project podcast. It was a highly creative endeavor that focused on the historic discrimination in the farming industry. He used excerpts from the last two episodes which profile a Black family, the Provosts, and their experiences with their farm.

For his project, he presented students with fictional data of many plots of land. The data included info on plot sizes, bank loan information, and the demographics of the loan recipients. The goal was for the students to determine if discrimination was involved in handing out the bank loans. It was part of his triangle congruency unit (all plots of land were triangular). If two plots were equal in size and location, for example, are the two people of equal qualifications applying for loans given the same amount? Are there patterns of discrimination? Could students prove it in court?

He first ran the project last year during remote learning. He did it again this year. Intrigued by his creativity and willingness to embrace the intersection of social justice and mathematics, I’ve decided to build on what he started. More specifically, I see a throughline between his project’s focus on farm loans and how compound interest is explored in Algebra 2. Could I continue what he started — but instead of exploring plot sizes, could I anchor my activity on interest rates? Or extend it to discuss something like predatory lending and its impact on urban communities?

I brought this idea to the rest of the math department. We brainstormed. Our wealth of experience fueled my idea with momentum. In our talks, however, I wondered: what do my students think? If there’s anything that I’ve learned these last few years, it’s to make space to listen to students. Talking my head off with fellow teachers absent student voice is not something I want to do anymore. I pump the brakes on my planning to seek out some student perspectives. I want to hear what they think.

To do this, I begin planning for a series of three cogenerative dialogues (or cogens). The first cogen will be used to gather baseline info from students that will shape my planning. I’ll use the second cogen to present students with the activity itself, make space to receive their feedback, and then modify the activity based on what they say. The third and final cogen will occur after the activity’s conclusion and will be used to hear from the students how it went.

I identify students for the cogens by asking my Geometry colleague for recommendations. Who was active last year and can supply me insights into his project? He drops five students’ names. I also pinpoint four other students who are currently in Geometry and just experienced his project this year (they’re doubling up on Geo and Alg 2). I check all of their schedules and determine that lunch is a viable meeting time. I find them a few days later and explain that I want their feedback on an upcoming class activity. They agree to meet during lunch this past week.

Because of scheduling, I’m unable to meet with all of the students in a single session, so I hold two separate cogens. The first cogen has 7 students and the second has 3. I sketch out a few questions ahead of time to ask the students. I also consult my Geometry colleague for his input on what to ask. My questioning went a lot of different places during the cogen based on student responses, but here’s what I entered with:

  • What are your first impressions of the farming project you did in Geometry?
  • Was the project worth your while?
  • What advice can you give me as I plan a similar activity?
  • What did you think of the social justice aspect of the project? Is there social issue you want to explore?
  • Does me being a white man affect how comfortable you are exploring issues such as racism and sexism?

On the day of the first cogen, two students whom I didn’t invite were curiously hanging around the room. Noticing their inquisitiveness, I explained what we were doing. They seemed loosely interested and, before I know it, they are sitting down with us. Right place, right time. (One of them was part of my weekly cogen at one point this year, so she kind of knew what was happening.)

What follows is a synthesis of my students’ feedback from our cogen, which I will use to begin designing the activity.

  • Find balance. Most students commented that I need to strike the right balance between learning math and exploring social justice. This means possibly frontloading the mathematics and rolling out the social justice aspect of the project slower than I would have previously anticipated. There is genuine concern in the group about not understanding the mathematics before being asked to apply it.
  • Choose different launching point. Because of remote learning, last year’s students struggled on the Geometry project. They found it confusing and frustrating and struggled to say it was worth the time investment. For this reason, they recommend that I don’t use the Geometry project as a launcing point for our activity. If I do, it’ll probably cause dred and angst to sweep over our class on day 1 (many of these students rolled their eyes when I first mentioned the project to them). Instead, the kids suggest that I don’t even bring up the Geometry project — at least not initally. This was valuable insight.
  • Interest rates are relevent. From what I gauged, there was interest amongst the students in studying interest rates and how they could be used in things like predatory lending. The students offered up no other particular topics that they’d like to see us study. To their defense, I did put them on the spot with this question.
  • Don’t overcomplicated it. Students suggested that I be careful not to make the activity too complex. Social issues are inherently thorny and multilayered. I need to honor their complexity, but making it digestable for students is also important. Students don’t want their heads to be spinning because there’s so many factors to take into account.
  • Presentations should focus on different issues. If I ask the students to present their findings at the end of the activity, each group should have a different focus. This way, students can learn something new from each presenting group.
  • Be mindful of my teacher moves. The Geometry teacher is a white man — so is 60% of the math department (we’re 80% white overall). Almost all students in the cogen expressed no discomfort with exploring racism or sexism with him in the context of the 1619 project. They appreciated the need for social change and saw the project as a means to that end. That said, one young lady did wonder whether another teacher (of color?) could have led her through the activity, but did understand its purpose. I’m glad she said that because it spoke to the tension I feel exploring these sensative isssues given that I will never experience them firsthand. Another student said plainly, “Mister, it’s what you do that makes a difference.” His words were pointed and would stay with me for a long time.

As I move out of my information-gathering phase and begin planning, Gholdy Muhammad is in my head. In addition to her four pillars of identity, skills, intellect, and criticality — which I will try to address in my activity — one of her guiding principles is to start with joy. It’s terribly easy to see injustice and center it completely in activities involving social issues. Besides, what joy is there to find in predatory lending and payday loans and how they eat away at one’s finances? That said, I’ll need to ensure I make room to cultivate joy and love in whatever my activity asks students to do.

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