Cogens for Social Justice • Part 4

This is the fourth and final 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 4: Reflections on Ghouldy Muhammad’s Five Pursuits

Last month I taught a multi-day lesson that honored farmers of color and interrogated the injustice they have faced in this country. The lesson applied compound interest, average rate of change, and exponential regressions to the lives of seven fictional farmers. The lesson continued the work that my students’ did last year in Geometry when they used triangle congruency to explore the same issue.

After combing through survey data, grading post-lesson assessments, and speaking with students, I’ve humbly concluded that the lesson was a success. Looking back, a key to its success was undoubtedly Gholdy Muhammad’s Culturally and Historically Responsive framework. I discovered it after reading her book Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework a few years ago. The guidelines she lays out in the book were a guiding light that steered my planning and something I found myself constantly referring back to as I met with my cogen students.

Her framework has five pursuits: identity, skills, intellect, criticality, and joy. Each is rooted in the research Muhammad has done on Black Literary Societies and how they served Black folks in the 1800s. The ideology behind the pursuits challenges the notion that learning standards should focus primarily on skills and knowledge.

While I love the theoretical foundations of Cultivating Genius, I needed more specific examples of how the pursuits look in practice. I found many of the examples in the book too broad to be meaningful when I was planning my lesson. Luckily, I supplemented my reading by attending one of her trainings and one of her talks which clarified a lot. These experiences gave me a better sense of how her framework looks on the ground and to strive to make each pursuit a goal of my lesson. My efforts were modest, but I tried.

When it comes to Identity, Muhammad’s guiding question in Cultivating Genius is, “How will my instruction help students to learn something about themselves and/or about others?” (p. 70) While my lesson does an admittedly poor job at helping students explore their own identities, it does a respectable job at helping them understand the experiences of farmers of color who were at the mercy of the USDA and its discriminatory practices. It achieves this through a compelling juxtaposition: my students, all urban youth, play the role of several fictional farmers. Assigned the role of a farmer and given personal details about their life provides historical context and, I hope, helps my students “become” the farmers. This naturally lends itself to perspective taking.

The Skills component of the lesson develops my students’ abilities to understand compound interest, average rate of change, and exponential regression. As a skill-driven teacher and a foot soldier for the New York State Regents, Muhammad speaks directly to me when she claims, “Teaching skills is important, but teaching them alone is problematic and also should not be privileged over other goals or pursuits.” (p. 96) With her inspiration, the lesson was my first real attempt to map key ideas from Algebra 2 to an issue of social justice. Armed with their loan and land information, students use mathematics to run all kinds of numbers on the farmers. The regressions were the only thing that was new — everything else was review, but somehow it didn’t feel like it because of the unique context.

According to Muhammad, Intellect “is the understanding, enhancement, and exercising of mental powers and capacities that allow one to better understand and critique the world.” She goes on to say that it “creates space for students to apply their learning in authentic ways connected to the world.” (p. 104) For this lesson, my students draw connections between exponential functions, the financial realities of the farmers, and the inner workings of the farming industry. They do this by completing a USDA debt-relief application designed to mimic the restitution granted to socially-disadvantaged farmers in the American Rescue Act. The application, which has four sections and is the crux of the lesson, requires students to use their knowledge of Algebra 2 to analyze farm loans, property values, and crop yields.

Muhammad defines Criticality as “the capacity to read, write, and think in ways of understanding power, privilege, social justice, and oppression, particularly for populations who have been historically marginalized in the world.” (p. 120) The historic mistreatment of farmers of color at the hands of the USDA is the centerpiece of lesson. The carefully staged role-playing and mathematics of the debt-relief application bring this to light and nurture criticality. Both of these pedagogical strategies surface historical context for students and reveal how our government has wronged farmers of color, many of whom are still alive today. In this way, mathematics serves as a tool for justice.

Joy was one of the tricker dimensions of the framework to address in the lesson. At one of the workshops I attended with Muhammad, I distinctly remember her emphasis that the work we do with students should be rooted not in oppression and loss, but instead with joy. Oppressive currents direct much of how social justice is studied in schools, and this can be easy to overlook. For me, it wasn’t until after my second cogen that I realized how role-playing and the debt-relief application could not only honor farmers of color, but also simulate justice and spark joy amongst my students. The farmer bios highlight the farmers’ passions while the immersive environment — including everyone wearing name tags and me donning a suit and tie — made it fun and engaging from the moment students walked in the door. At the end of the lesson, every student (a.k.a. farmer) received an actual check in the amount of the farm-related debts, courtesy of the USDA.

Looking forward, not every lesson I teach will be connected to a social issue. All things considered, that’s impractical and even undesirable. But for those lessons that are, including this one, Muhammad’s framework has proven to be an outstanding resource to guide my planning. It’s not enough for me to have an idea and the willpower to see it through. I’m not skilled enough to pull that off. I need a systematic and informed blueprint to turn to as I look to try this again in the coming years. Fortunately, coupled with my cogenerative dialogues, Muhammad’s framework provided exactly that.

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