Cogens for Social Justice • Part 3

This is the third 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 3: Post-Activity Reflections

The activity
After my second cogen with the students, I gave my activity a facelift. I transformed what was a straightforward, task-oriented activity exposing injustice in the farming industry into an immersive and celebratory experience that turned my students into farmers of color and me into U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

The farmers had been “invited” to Washington D.C. to complete a USDA debt-relief application. I wore a suit and tie, just like Secretary Vilsak would, and explained everything to them on day 1, which included summarizing several recent NYTimes articles on the issue and showing a video from ABC News. Groups of 3-4 students were assigned to one of seven fictional farmers of color. To get to know each other and add context, each farmer read their profile out loud to the class right before they started their applications.

I allotted a week for the students/farmers to complete their debt-relief application. The application itself hinged on what we’ve learned about compound interest and exponential regressions, but I also mixed in average rate of change. I owe the math department at my school lots of credit for helping me get all the math straightened out!

Embracing the performative nature of the activity, I asked the farmers/students to wear name tags each day and added a refreshments table that I kept stocked throughout the week with snacks and water.

Name tags that my students wore each day to identify them as one of seven fictional farmers of color
My USDA refreshments table, positioned in the middle of the room

In the end, the activity worked out pretty much how I envisioned it. The students/farmers spent a solid four days working through the application. As they worked, I walked around with an “APPROVED ✅” stamp to certify the various parts of their application as they got them correct. It felt official! The fifth and final day took on a more casual, celebratory tone, which included me giving each farmer/student a laminated check in the amount of their outstanding loan balances that they computed in their application. This was the cherry on top.

Laminated checks that each of my students/farmers received when they completed their debt-relief application

The only part that didn’t work out as I had planned was the final act: watching I’m Just a Layman in Pursuit of Justice: Black Farmers Fight Against the USDA. We watched 10 minutes of it on day 4 and another 30 minutes a week later on the day before spring break, but I wish the film could have played a bigger role in our work. This was bittersweet. Next year, I hope we can watch (at least portions) of the film earlier in order to bring in details of the featured farmers into the problems. This way, the film can be an integral part of the activity instead of a supplement. A huge shoutout goes out to filmmakers Shoun A. White and Waymon Hinson for giving me access to the film. It is awesome and speaks directly to the activity.

The complete set of handouts can be found here.

The feedback
On the last day of the activity (today), I gathered the students together for one last cogen to reflect on it. Excluding my regular cogen who also helped me reflect on it, I met with a total of 9 students in two separate groups. All but one of the original 10 students were able to make it. Below is a synthesis of the students’ feedback from the cogen and a whole class survey I gave on day 5.

  • The group work worked. The students appreciated the size of the groups and how each group (and group member) werey all working on the same thing. My frequent check-ins and small group instruction enabled students to get their questions answered and helped keep their learning flowing. This made everything go better.
  • There was a nice balance between math and social justice. Both during the cogen and in the survey, the students reported that the math and social issue complemented each other well; each section of the application revealed a different aspect of the injustice and paired it with a different math concept. Several students said that they liked the variety of math topics the application required. Interestingly, one student told me that there was more math than she expected going in and that she appreciated this.
  • Isolating race allowed for a better understanding of the discrimination farmers faced. Students mentioned that because their Geometry project on farmers focused on so many factors (race, gender, education level, marital status, etc.), it become overly complicated and eventually took away from their understanding of the mistreatment of socially disadvantaged farmers. Because this activity took a simpler approach, students felt they learned more about the issue. Just 52% of students reported a connection between this activity and that one.
  • Choosing an alternative launching-off point was effective. Initially, I was going to use the Geometry project as a starting point for this activity (vertical alignment, yay!), but decided against it after the first cogen in the series. For these students (next year might be different), I’m convinced that this made a huge difference in how it landed with them. On day 5, when I did bring up what they did in Geometry, there were groans.
  • Role playing sparked joy and increased engagement. The lack of excitement during my second cogen caused me to find a dramatically new way of framing the activity: role playing. And it paid off! The students loved “being” the farmers and getting their loans paid off. Refreshingly, the cogen students sighed and grumbled when thinking about partaking in this activity any other way.
  • Students had a strong understanding of the mathematics and systemic discrimination in the farming industry. Before the activity, students feared that not knowing the math would prevent them from engaging with the social issue in a meaningful way. Both during the cogen and on the survey, students reported high levels of understanding of the math and the inequitable treatment of the farmers of color. Quiz scores on day 5 confirmed this. Teaching the required mathematics before starting the activity (as was recommended in the first cogen) was an important factor.
  • The problems could have been more clearly written. Students felt that several of the problems should be revised to elicit a clearer pathway of what they needed to do mathematically. Though the mathematics wasn’t new to them, it wasn’t clear when and how they had to apply it to the problems. The small group instruction helped me get over this hurdle, but students recommended doing an opening example at the start of class also.
  • Studying the farmers was worthwhile. Overwhelmingly, the students felt that studying the farmers in this way was an interesting and worthwhile use of class time. This was a pleasant surprise as I had serious concerns about the relevance the activity would have to urban youth. To elevate the activity and make it more relevant, one cogen student suggested that I find a local issue and integrate it with the farmers.

The takeaways

  1. Curriculum change. Over the course of my career, I’ve tried to tackle issues of race, gender, and other forms of discrimination in several ways, but I’ve always failed at interrogating and modifying my curriculum. As the bedrock of my instruction, it has been the hardest to modify. How could I teach to the Regents and make the curriculum antiracist? This activity was a personal challenge to find that intersection and one of the biggest reasons why its success is so important for my growth as an educator.
  2. Cultivating Genius. Gholdy Muhammad’s equity framework, as detailed in her book Cultivating Genius, was a driving force in how I designed this activity. Considering I never did it before, working through and applying the five pursuits of her framework, Identity, Skills, Intellect, Criticality, and Joy, was extremely valuable. My reflections on this dimension of the assignment deserve a separate post, which I hope to write soon.
  3. Cogen impact. I knew the cogens would be important to the development of the activity, but I think I underestimated how much I would need them. The students provided guidance both by what they said and what they didn’t say. Employing cogens in this context (before and after a particular lesson/activity) provided me with another model for how they can used to improve the classroom.
  4. Personal learning. I didn’t feel comfortable engaging with the systemic mistreatment of farmers of color without doing mounds of research beforehand. Like, a lot. Naturally, I learned so much about the issue. In this way, my students and I were at the edge of knowledge together for this activity. How refreshing.
  5. Simulating Justice. When my planning began, I saw this activity as being entirely informative. I wanted it to expose my students (and our school community) to a particular form of inequity. As my planning unfolded, however, my stance changed to be oriented more around justice. Instead of simply uncovering systemic racism, I wanted the activity to simulate justice and fairness. Though it transpired in a small corner of the universe located in a humble school in the Bronx, I wanted the activity to honor the love that farmers of color have for the land. Above all else, it had to celebrate their agricultural excellence and perseverance.


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