Cogens for Social Justice • Part 2

This is the second 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 2: Planning and Revision

The last several weeks have been a wild ride. After my preplanning cogen with the students a month ago, I was encouraged by the feedback they gave me, but I still didn’t know what social issue I was going to explore using compound interest. Were my students doing to study the experiences of Black farmers? Or were they going to learn about predatory lending?

I do some research. PayDay loans companies aren’t new, so looking into them turned into a rabbit hole pretty fast. John Oliver’s hilarious take provided a great start. It didn’t take long to find prepackaged ways to help students learn about their outrageous interest rates (examples: here and here). Turning to the farmers, I reread the article in the NYTimes that originally put me on to bank lobbyists’ efforts to block the $4 billion debt relief plan that’s part of the American Rescue Act. I saw this article as the launching point; I envisioned students studying farmer’s loans and interest rates and how much money the banks would lose to do right by the farmers. I hope to relate it to the promise of “40 acres and a mule” and what that land might be worth today.

After spending a couple weeks looking into both issues, I was torn. Both could evoke worthwhile discussions and expose discrimination. Both were interesting — I was learning a lot! But I couldn’t spend all my time reading articles and watching YouTube videos. I needed to make a decision and commit.

In the end, I went with the farmers. The vertical alignment with my Geoomery colleague — who also studied injustice in the farming industry — was simply irresistable. Plus, my reading allowed me to dive deep into a part of our country’s history that I knew nothing about. I wanted to know more; designing the project would satisfy my learning needs, too.

The activity
I figured the activity would span a week at most. Using student feedback, I would teach compound interest for two days up front. Then, on day 3, the farming industry would be introduced by showing students a video from ABC News and reading, as a class, the Times article about the bank lobbyists.

Students would then work through a series of problems based on seven fictional farmers of color that currently have outstanding balances on their loans. I included photos and wrote personal narratives of the farmers to humanize them. I wanted to capture their passion for farming and love for the land, but also the historical context of the racism and discrimination they and their families have faced. All of the details are based on actual farmers I came across in my readings. Included in each farmer’s profile is info about their land and loan.

A few farmer profiles that I created to illustrate their love for farming, but also the inequality experienced

Originally, I wanted the mathematics was to focus on strictly on compound interest related to the farmer’s loans. As I gained momentum in my planning, that quickly flew out the window. I created problems that brought in average rate of change, exponential functions, and profit functions, too. Here are a few.

Meeting with students
I wasn’t finished writing up the activity when I asked the students to meet with me for our 2nd cogen. I wanted to present them with what I came up with and hear their thoughts. A few students couldn’t make it, but I still was able to meet with 6 of the original 9 during a lunch cogen.

We opened with me reminding them of the feedback they gave me at our initial meeting. As I described the activity and gave them the handouts to look over, I explained how their feedback was used in my planning. One of the first questions from the group was, “Mister, how long is this going be?” After I said “probably 4-5 days,” the students sighed in relief. They were fine with the activity, but didn’t want it to drag on; they had bad memories from the Geometry project that extended past their comfort zone. That said, they saw the alignment with the Geometry project, which was good. The students also wondered about how they were going to be graded. They preferred credit for effort and group work and I told them about the need for a 1-2 problem quiz every couple of days. They recommended that I utilize an answer key for groups to check their work as they progress through the activity.

Near the end of the cogen, I admitted my skepticism about studying farmers. Reminder: we live in New York City! I’m concerned that my students’ disconnect from farms could lead to disengagement. To this point, one student playfully suggested that I take them to a farm. We laughed. I can’t do that, but I did mention that I am in communication with Shoun Hill, co-writer and director of the documentary I’m Just a Layman in Pursuit of Justice: Black Farmers Fight Against the USDA, about guest speaking with us via Zoom at the end of the activity. Before his visit I want us to watch at least part of the film in class. The students liked this.

Post-cogen revisions
After the students left, I spent the next several hours thinking deeply about how our conversation went. I couldn’t place it, but something didn’t feel right. The students engaged with me, asked questions, and offered suggestions, but there was still something missing.

Adding to my uncertainty was a comment from one of the students later in the day. We were in class and I thanked her in private for her time at the cogen. She smiled and politely said that learning about farmers wasn’t interesting to her in the least bit, she just didn’t feel comfortable mentioning it front of the whole group. “Why can’t math class just be about math?,” she asked.

Upon reflection, I think my biggest takeaway from the cogen wasn’t anything the students said. Instead, it was what they didn’t say. The students had an indifferent reaction to the activity and our cogen took on an apathetic mood as a result. That was the real feedback: their lack of excitement. Even for the young lady who admitted that she wasn’t interested in farmers, I believe her concerns were rooted in how utterly boring the activity was. All of my well-intentioned research and planning generated little anticipatory energy amongst the students. What was that something that was missing? Gholdy Muhammad would call it joy, a critical element of her five pursuits.

This was bothersome and I went to work to find some way to help my students experience joy in the activity. What could I do that would excite them? Given a foundational aspect of the activity was using math to expose systemic racism, I knew that encountering joy in the content would be a stretch. Could I instead elicit joy through the learning process?

Then it hit me: make it an immersive experience. Instead of having students study the farmers, why can’t they be the farmers? This question caused me to reimagine everything. Here’s what I came up with.

The activity is no longer an exploration of the discrimination farmers of color have faced; it’s now the process of completing a debt-forgiveness application with the USDA. As my students walk in the door on day 1 of the activity, they’re going to be transported to Washington D.C. I will welcome them wearing a suit and tie and give them a nametag with a farmer’s name on it (3-4 students will “be” the same farmer, i.e., be in the same group). I’m going to be Tom Vilsack, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, and also will wear a nametag.

In accordance with the American Rescue Act, I’ve invited them here to pay off their farm-related debts — given they complete the application correctly. The students/farmers, of course, will be highly confused, and that’s when I’ll start providing the historical context and significance of our gathering. And I will be a gracious host: there will be light refreshments and snacks out on the tables when the students/farmers arrive. I’m going all in!

The inside cover of the “application” my students will complete

And what will the application consist of? The original problems, of course! It’ll take some reconfiguring, but I’ll use the problems to distinguish the different “sections” of the application. Each farmer’s application will be personalized with their info.

An example “application” cover page. It displays the personal narrative and farm/loan info.

As the students/farmers complete their applications over 2-3 days, I will check work and hand out checks in the amount of their outstanding balances.

This all sounds way more fun and engaging than what I had before. Will it spark joy in my students? I hope so!


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