At the beginning of class I showed this to my students:

They came up with lots of interesting things.

*There are three variables**They are functions**They are different colors**The units are millions and years**The scale for the millions is by 500,000’s and for years is decades**The domain of all 3 functions is 1920 to 2010**The range is 0 to 2.5 million**All of the functions are positive over their domain**The average rate of change for the red graph from 1920 to 2010 is positive**The average rate of change for the light purple graph from 1920 to 2010 is close to zero**The greatest average rate of change for all functions appears to occur from 1980 to 2000.*

Then I asked them to predict what the graph was about. Most felt it detailed some sort of economic situation. Or population. Then came the reveal:

They were shocked. We talked about possible causes for this situation, like the school-to-prison pipeline and the privatization of the prisons. More eyebrows raised. I brought up the question of what the racial breakdown of the prison system might look like. It was an important conversation.

And then we moved on to the regularly scheduled program: the lesson.

That was this week. While this class opener wasn’t directly tied to work that we’ve been doing in algebra 2 and was relatively brief, I felt compelled to have this conversation with my kids. This summer I began thinking about how to deepen the connections between social issues and math. Since I suck at projects, I thought about making these connections in smaller, bite-sized ways — comparable to problems found on a typical NYS Regents exam. In an ideal world, I would find (and write some) problems around social issues that are directly tied to the algebra 2 curriculum and discuss them with students. But this is really, really hard. Factoring by grouping doesn’t exactly lend itself to talking about racial inequities.

I was upfront with them. I said that its hard for me to relate some of the mathematics we learn to their daily lives, but we can do it in other ways. I told them that it was my responsibility to help you see how math can you uncover your world. Graphs are one way.

Through this graph of incarcerated Americans, I’ve myself learned that periodically presenting an interesting graph or data can be another way to build in time for important discussions around social justice and empowering students through math — even if the discussion isn’t wrapped up in a “problem” or directly tied to what we’re studying. This is not unlike What’s Going On in this Graph from the NY Times.

bp