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To Enliven Lessons, Teachers Bring Social Justice Into Math Classes

From incorporating rap into lessons to using the "Hejný method," educators are increasingly looking for creative ways to make math more interesting to students and more applicable to "real-world" situations.

One of the latest trends is "social justice math," a teaching style that combines math with political, economic, and social issues as an alternative way to try and involve students by relating materials to their communities and personal lives.

Transforming the learning experience by incorporating social justice into the classroom is how one algebra teacher at South High School in Minneapolis, Minn. is drawing students into math, while also helping them better understand issues regarding injustice and inequality in society, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Through crime statistics and data, Stephanie Woldum tries to engage her class by connecting math to community issues. Students in Woldum's class collect various social data about Minneapolis neighborhoods that lead to questions about race, income, crime, and policing. They then use statistical methods to analyze the data, and present answers.

"They don't ask, 'Why do I need to understand this?' They don't ask me how they are going to be graded," Woldum told the Star Tribune. "Their focus is on the learning."

The idea of social justice math isn't new. The organization Creating Balance in an Unjust World holds an annual conference on math education and social justice that began in 2007. The conference, sponsored by Radical Math, provides training, lesson plans, and resources for social justice math educators covering a wide range of topics and issues.

A recent self-study by Lisa Harrison, an assistant professor at Ohio University, suggests that social justice math can be a new learning experience for teachers, too. For "Teaching Social Justice Through Mathematics," Harrison reflects on her time as a guest teacher at a 7th grade class that integrated social justice and math. Not only did she find positive transformations within the students; she said her own understanding of social justice issues was also challenged. 

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