Thursday, May 7, 2009

What I've Learned

I've been teaching for 14 years, and I've learned there is always more to learn. Some trends in education come back around over the years, and others disappear as new research brings forth new ideas. You have to be a very flexible person to be a teacher, able to bend with the times, the changing landscape of education, and the changing demands of the job. It's not easy, but it's never boring. I always tell people that a teaching career is a long-distance race, not a sprint - you have to pace yourself. It's a fantastic career, but not a job you should consider as a fall-back position (as in, "If nothing else, I can always teach"). If it's not in your heart to be a teacher as your life's work, you probably shouldn't do it.

The field of education is getting more complex by the minute. Federal and state laws and regulations, district requirements, etc... are always changing. Public education is very diverse in its opportunities for teachers and students. It's not equal for all, or even adequate for all, that's for sure. But there are so many reasons to believe in public education and to be a part of a teaching staff that reaches out to students to help them find themselves in this world.

Sometimes I am tired. Sometimes I get disgusted. That's the nature of the job. It's tough. But sometimes I have those moments in the classroom that make it all worthwhile.

I live for those moments. They keep me going.

I am always proud to say I am a public school teacher. (Don't I sound like an ad for NJEA?).

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Abstract and Final Summary


The purpose of this project was to examine how Social Justice Math can help students in urban school districts make real-world connections between the mandated curriculum and issues and topics of need and concern in their own communities. The goal of Social Justice Math is to help students not only become more aware of the needs of their community through units of study such as this, but to become agents of change themselves. We selected Newark as our target community, and began our project with a walking tour of the city and neighborhoods encompassing several of its public high schools. Our tour, recorded in the form of field notes, revealed that the type of stores, businesses and services readily available to Newark citizens was severely limited in the poorer neighborhoods. This particular disparity between the poorer and more affluent neighborhoods gave rise to a lesson plan and unit analyzing community businesses and services in poorer neighborhoods of Newark, and drawing comparisons to more affluent communities. Using SJM can enable students to “read their world” and develop creative solutions to real problems.


As we wrapped up our project, I realized that I had learned quite a bit about Social Justice Math, but even more about teaching. I knew nothing about SJM, and basically assumed it was another way to teach what I would call “life-skills math.” As I researched I discovered it is more than playing with baseball statistics or converting a recipe from 4 servings to 6 servings. As a starting point, SJM is a method to analyze an area of concern or current issue and come up with potential solutions. But way beyond that basic starting point, SJM can provide students with a way to “read the world” and empower them to become activists to change what is wrong in their worlds. Social Justice Math can bring real solutions to community problems, not just teacher-created problems for the classroom. Most importantly, SJM can bring equity to a world in which one’s race, ethnic background, religion, socioeconomic status, etc. often determines the boundaries and limitations of one’s existence.

What I learned that surprised me was that many teachers are against this innovative form of mathematics because it cannot be easily compartmentalized in little lesson plan boxes in a teacher’s plan book. On that note, SJM also cannot easily be compartmentalized in the little lesson plan boxes in a teacher’s head. I believe SJM is met with resistance because it is open-ended in the direction it will take once it has begun, and clear-cut goals and outcomes are not necessarily easy to construct at the outset. Goals and outcomes evolve as the work project begins. This is counter to what teachers are used to, counter to how we are trained to plan ahead, counter to how we logically plan something from start to finish.

Another reason why SJM may be met with resistance by teachers is because it is more student-directed than teacher-directed. This is also counter to the traditional methods of teaching in which we are generally trained. Of course we learn to create literature circles, cooperative groups, pair-share situations in the classroom, etc. But primarily we are taught to take charge, take control, and run the room. SJM throws off that balance of power for the adult in charge.

This project was definitely a learning experience!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Summary of Project Findings

Our inquiry project led us to explore how Social Justice Math can connect curriculum to the community for students in urban districts. As we wrap up our research and synthesize our findings, I am struck by the connection between the disaster of No Child Left Behind, “teaching to the test” and the struggles of inner city districts. The lower the scores on so-called high-stakes tests in a district, the more that district’s curriculum is hyper-focused on teaching to the test. This limits, and often eliminates, possibilities for creative curriculum, project-based learning, and genuine student-directed inquiry and exploration. “Teaching to the test” is NEVER student-driven. It is completely teacher-directed.

By exploring the neighborhoods surrounding several of the public high schools in Newark, we began to notice something we would never have seen had we never left the classroom (or the computer). We saw a pattern of types of businesses clustered in certain areas: check cashing, fast food, flat tire fix, mom-and-pop grocery store… As one of my project partners put it, “rinse and repeat.”

What started out as something peculiar and funny to us developed into a concern for the availability of certain businesses in poorer urban areas. Our lesson/unit was built upon developing awareness of this pattern, documentation of specifics through math applications, and comparisons with more affluent areas. The ultimate goal of this unit of lessons, and any social justice curriculum, is to empower students to act upon what they learn.

I learned that real-world curriculum is just a starting point. Social justice math is one way to bring the real world into the curriculum. Social justice-oriented teaching inverts the curriculum, as the author of "Spectacular Things Happen Along the Way" stated. It takes the emphasis off improving standardized test scores and puts the emphasis on the needs and interests of the students. Students can delve into issues in their own communities that impact directly upon their lives, with the ultimate goal of agency. What did we learn? What changes need to be made? How can we become a part of that change?

Back in the olden days, there was a saying: If you are not a part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Online assignment: the families of "Unequal Childhoods"

1. Review the families in Unequal Childhoods, and see if you can create a chart that reflects the following demographic and cultural information: Race/ethnicity, Language, Religion, Economics and employment, Housing, Geography, Food, Norms and values, Politics, Relationship with local geography, Formal Education and level/type of education, Structures and Institutions You may not be able to fill out the columns at this time.

Bringing chart to class

2. Turn to the NJRCL report and pay specific attention to the information provided about Essex County, and the concerns, challenges, and recommendations in the report. Review the six families in Unequal Childhoods, and make connections between the NJRCL report and the realities these families might face if they lived in Essex County, NJ.

The Self-Sufficiency Standard for Essex County 2008 sets a minimum self-sufficiency wage of $32,184 for one adult and one school age child. With two adults and one child, that minimum is raised to $53,722 per adult; with two adults and two children, $50,716 per adult. The only families that would survive in this county would be the Tallingers, the Williamses, the Handlons and the Marshalls. Even among these middle class families, there is a difference in the ability to live comfortably. The Williams would live the most comfortably, given the fact that they have only one child and a yearly income of over $200,000. The Tallingers, with two working adults and three children, make about $175,000, would also live comfortably, but with considerably higher expenses due to their larger family of three children.

The other two middle class families, the Marshalls and the Handlons, would certainly survive but would probably have to cut back on things that are not necessities for living. As the Self-Sufficiency Standard for Essex County sets the two-adult plus children income at over $100,000, I believe the Marshalls would be okay given their annual income of $100,000 and the fact that they have two school-age children. However, they are constantly concerned about the future, due to the rising cost of just about everything and the lack of job security. The Handlons, however with an annual income of $85,000-$95,000 and three children to care for, may have more of a struggle for survival in Essex County. Both families would probably have to cut back on the extras, such as vacations and extra-curricular activities.

I don’t believe the working class families (Taylor, Driver, and Yanelli) or the poor families (McAllister and Brindle) would survive in Essex County. Within the working class families, the Taylors have one adult and two children and are living on approximately $20,000 a year; the Drivers have two adults and three children, and live on $35,000-$45,000 a year, and the Yanellis have two adults and two children, working off the books in manual labor jobs. None of these three families is even close to what the Self-Sufficiency Standard sets as a minimum for families of their size, given the high cost of housing, food and transportation alone in Essex County.

The outlook for the poor families (McAllister and Brindle) would be even grimmer. These families depend on public assistance, food stamps and Medicare for their survival. They would also struggle to find adequate affordable housing given the size of their families and people who depend on them. Ms. McAllister is the head of her household; she receives public assistance, and cares for four children, two nephews and her twin sister. Ms. Brindle also receives public assistance, and cares for a family of three children.

3. Look at the two reports from the LSNJ on living in poverty. What further information can you glean from the reports regarding the struggles the poor families in Unequal Childhoods might face if they lived in NJ?

In “The Real Cost of Living in 2008: The Self-Sufficiency Standard for New Jersey,” a comparison of Jersey City, NJ and 11 other cities across the country ranks this Hudson County city as the 4th highest in hourly self-sufficiency Wage needed for one adult with one preschooler and one schoolage child; that figure, $22.61 per hour, is particularly noteworthy when you consider that the minimum wage in New Jersey is only $7.15 per hour.

There are several interesting findings in “Not Enough to Live On: Characteristics of Households Below the Real Cost of Living in New Jersey.” They are: employment is necessary for self-sufficiency, although it doesn’t guarantee it; income inadequacy rates are higher in families with children than those without, and disproportionately higher among families headed by single mothers; a high percentage of households with no working adults have incomes well below adequate levels (100 to 200 percent of the federal poverty level); education is directly correlated with income adequacy for all demographic groups; and the difference in the rates of income inadequacy among different demographic groups varies with gender, race and ethnicity.

What would this mean for the McAllisters and Brindles of Unequal Childhoods? Given some of the survival statistics for New Jersey families, it is not difficult to imagine why these families would struggle to live in New Jersey. Many of the findings listed above (employment, education, providing for children, and demographic issues such as gender, race and ethnicity) speak directly to the difficulties both families experience. Both families are single-parent homes headed by a female (mother), receive public assistance, live in poor, racially segregated communities, and have family members who have struggled with alcohol and drug addiction. The McAllisters are African American, and described as living in “formidable economic constraints,” including inadequate and dangerous housing in the Lower Richmond public housing projects, barely enough food to get by, and marginal medical and dental care. The Brindles are white, living in run-down, inadequate housing, and are on public assistance, food stamps and Medicare. Often the Brindles let the bills go to provide for a few extras, and are in danger of losing their housing.

Both families are marginally existing, and considering that the cost of living is much higher in New Jersey than in most of the country, would likely find life much more difficult in this state.

4. Finally, turn inward and think about who you are as a budding urban educator. In what ways is this information useful (or not) for you? In terms of better understanding a community? What do you need to learn, or what skills and dispositions do you need to develop related to demographics and economics to be a successful urban educator?

As a working teacher, I feel it is essential to know as much as you can about the community and its people. Before I began my teaching career in my school district, I worked for the same town but in another job. I was able to become familiar with the town’s neighborhoods, the diversity of its population, and the politics of the community. I learned that things are not always what they appear to be on the outside. It does seem ridiculous to think it’s useful to know what religion your students are, how their parents vote or what kinds of jobs they have, but it is so important. You can’t teach a child unless you know where he is coming from and what baggage he brings to the classroom every day. Much of this information is so personal and private (and sometimes embarrassing) to the families, but it always helps me have a better picture of the child with whom I’m working. The more you know as an educator, the better equipped you will be to deal with situations as they arise and hopefully come up with creative solutions and strategies.

Why is the politics of a community important? You need to understand, or at least be aware of, the sentiment of parents toward the field of education, teachers in general, their own educational experiences and that of their children. Parents – often unknowingly – view their children’s school experiences through the lens of their own memories of school. NEVER forget that these parents will also be your fellow teachers, administrators AND board of education members. It doesn’t get more political than that!

In general, I think the most important skills a teacher needs to develop are persistence, compassion, and good observational and listening skills. These skills will help teachers learn about their students and their community, as well as plan creative educational experiences that may actually be based in their student’s world.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

What I'm Learning About My Inquiry Question

After beginning our reading and trying to hone down the topic of social justice math to make it pertinent to an urban district, we have settled upon the question that now drives our research and data collection: How can social justice math help connect curriculum to community for students in urban school districts? Specifically, our urban school district of focus is the Newark public schools. Our group took a walking tour of the city, and specifically focused on four high schools, three of which are poor performers in the NCLB arena, and one which is a top performer.

We are beginning our research paper with a discussion of NCLB and its impact upon students, teachers and schools. We tie this discussion in to the Newark schools and their struggles with low test scores and failure to make AYP (adequate yearly progress). The city of Newark is an old city but has a young population compared to the state average. As is the city, its school district is huge and diverse. Its schools run the gamut from high performing to low performing, no matter which benchmarks of performance are applied. The district has been under state takeover for years, and though scores and graduation rates have risen, it’s not enough. Most recently the superintendent of the Newark schools has announced that two poor-performing middle schools will be shut down.

We then discuss the teach-to-the-test curriculum that is driving the Newark Public Schools and other urban districts. The number one goal in the Newark school district’s two-year strategic plan is the improvement of student achievement, defined as “improved test scores.” We have found quite a bit of research that has pinpointed how teach-to-the-test curriculum leaves many students feeling disconnected from and discouraged about the purpose of their classroom efforts.

This leads us to the topic of social justice math, which can help students both “read the world,” in Paulo Freire’s words, as well as become activists for change. I had never heard of social justice math before, and as I read more about it, I feel strongly that it holds great possibilities for giving disenfranchised students a sense of empowerment to understand the world and change it. It is so much more than what we used to call consumer math or life skills math. It’s about looking around and tackling something within the community that affects its residents, attempting to define and analyze it, and look for ways to improve upon the status quo.

I outline this paper on my blog tonight to help me get a clear sense of where we are going. I tend to want to jump right into the topic, but I have learned from my project partners that we can draw connections to important issues in education, such as NCLB, to build our case for using social justice math in the classroom.

So, what have I learned so far? I’ve learned that I have closed my eyes to the real disaster that NCLB is for urban districts such as Newark. Granted NCLB has had an impact in the school district I work in – we were cited for not making yearly adequate progress on test scores and were monitored for two years to bring up those scores. Math in particular always seems to be the biggest struggle in standardized testing. But like good little soldiers we taught to the test, did god knows what to raise the scores, and achieved what our superintendent touts on the website as “high performing school district.”

But ever since reading Jonathan Kozol in my Critical Thinking class at MSU, I am completely convinced that the issue and problem that does not go away in our urban centers is poverty. It’s very hard to deal with day-to-day school issues when kids come to school hungry, live in unsafe neighborhoods and carry the heavy burden of emotional baggage with them every day.

At this point in our research and data collection, I believe that we as teachers need to come out of that ivory tower and teach our students to make real-world connections with their own communities. Why would students care about the theory without the practical application to something they can put their hands on? They need to make that emotional connection. People don’t learn what they don’t care about.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

And So It Begins

As we begin to gather research and refine our project goals, we have tweaked our topic. Here it is, once again: How can social justice math help connect curriculum to community for students in urban school districts?

We targeted Newark for our urban center, and decided we would research social justice math, tour the city to come up with issues and ideas upon which a lesson plan/unit incorporating social justice math could be built. On Friday, April 3, Mark, Jin and I did a walking tour of Newark. We crisscrossed Newark several times, getting a feel for the downtown and the surrounding wards and taking lots of pictures. We specifically targeted the following high schools and their neighborhoods: Shabazz, East Side, Barringer, and Science Park High.

I was amazed at the size of Shabazz, and the beautiful, modern looking addition (main building?). Shabazz had a lot of wide open space around it, and a great field and field house across the street – more like a small college campus feel than a high school. Shabazz was the nicest structure in the neighborhood.

East Side reminded me of Hoboken. The school is right in the middle of a city block, with a nicely design city park across the street. The building itself was unremarkable, kind of mundane looking. The neighborhood was old, small single and multi-family homes, but did not have a closed in feeling thanks to the open space across the street from the school. There were many school-age kids playing ball in the park.

Barringer was kind of tucked into the end of a block. This was a formidable looking school. The first thing you see is a gigantic model airplane in front of the building, denoting its air and space studies. If you walk the length of Barringer, you run right smack into the parking lot of a beautiful cathedral that looks more like it belongs in Italy than in Newark, NJ. The neighborhood was tightly packing in with older small homes and small corner stores.

Science Park High was a modern, interesting looking building. The neighborhood had larger, older homes, and was fairly well kept up. Kids lingered on the steps of the schools, talking. This was the only school we saw kids just hanging out in front of the building.

We also walked through and photographed some areas of obvious gentrification. Some of the developments were gated communities. Many of the buildings were low 1- and 2-story townhouses, and were very pretty and well kept. Some of the townhomes were surrounded by construction and gutted buildings. Not many felt like settled communities. They looked a bit lonely and desolate.

One thing we kept bringing up on our walking tour was that we kept seeing the same conglomeration of stores: fried chicken, check cashing, flat tire repair, mom and pop corner store, liquor store. We began to wonder about city planning in general. Why so few banks, so few large supermarkets, so much fast food and few sit-down restaurants? How does this affect residents’ daily lives? As we talked it over, we began to formulate some ideas for possible lesson plans to incorporate social justice math. Mark laid out a rough draft of a lesson idea (below).

What is social justice math?
History of...
Where is it being used? Urban/suburban/rural schools?
Advantages/disadvantages, concerns

demographics of Newark, NJ
discussion of walking tour, photos - impressions of the downtown, neighborhoods, gentrification, high
schools (Shabazz, East Side, Barringer, Science Park High)
unit of outlined lessons teachers in Newark high schools could implement to connect local
projects/issues/concerns to math curriculum

One possible lesson plan:

CITY PLANNING/For a potential lesson/unit, have students go to each of the different wards in Newark (with parental supervision and I guess a car unless they're seniors) and canvas one square mile. Different groups could go to different square miles. In their drive around, they would list and tally the different types of stores (auto place, fast food place, mom & pop grocery, liquor store, etc). They would then bring these stats back to class and determine a class average amongst the groups. Next they would learn of pick's theorem and use that to calculate the square mileage of each ward. Then using proportions and maybe excel, students can predict the number of each type of store in each ward.From here, students could compare and contrast the different wards. Then have students participate in a similar survey of several suburban areas (like Ridgewood or Summit), and have them use similar store-groupings to list and tally types. Using pick's theorem again and proportions, they could compare a suburban area to an urban area. Maybe they could also use some of the stats listed on that webpage to compare populations, average incomes, and people per square mile out of which they could ask and think through critical questions concerning equity.

Summary of what we learned about SJM
SJM's usefulness in urban classrooms
How SJM can be applied to Newark high school math classrooms

statistics, demographics of Newark, NJ
statistics, demographics of schools

interviews with professors familiar with/using SJM
walking tour of Newark neighborhoods surrounding several high schools, photos
research on SJM and related topics: ethnomathematics

Some Thoughts on "Unequal Childhoods"

As I was reading the last few vignettes of the students in the author’s study, a few thoughts came to mind. As teachers and educational administrators, we send a mixed message to the parents. On the one hand we want them to be involved, active participants in their child’s education. But on the other hand we want them to defer to the wisdom of educators. “Parent participation” is like a slogan on a bumper sticker – everyone believes in it because it’s the right thing to do. We absolutely want the parents at our parent-teacher conferences, our special programs, our trips, and actively involved in the PTA. We want their assistance in the classroom, their follow-up at home to our specific requests and concerns regarding their child. What we don’t want is for them to cross the line and intervene. Remember that old saying, “Children should be seen and not heard”? Well, that’s almost the position we take with parents. As the author states, in a perfect world the parent is energetic and takes a leadership role in monitoring his/her child, but stops considerably short of intervention.

I have to admit, that would be my perfect scenario, too. That’s my favorite kind of parent, the one who is easy to reach out to, responds to calls and emails, monitors his/her child’s progress, takes well to our recommendations and basically doesn’t meddle farther than that. They are the easiest parent to work with. The underlying premise, of course, is that the school system is doing the right thing by this child to begin with.

However, in reality, we are empowering both students and parents in the educational system. And that’s a good thing. The educational system fosters concerted cultivation. We are reasoning with the students, explaining the whys and the hows, not just feeding them information for digestion and regurgitation. We encourage our classified students with disabilities to be advocates for themselves at the high school level, and get involved in the planning of their school career, job training, and their adult life. And we encourage our parents to be actively involved in their children’s academic careers. In my district, and in many others, parents are offered “transparency” – an online look at up-to-date grades their children have earned so far on quizzes, tests, projects, homework, etc. All these things are good. But we want students and their parents to advocate on their behalf only so far, before stopping short of the point of no return.

There is a fine line between a helpful, concerned parent and a helicopter parent who constantly flies overhead, constantly dipping into the educational scene to intervene on behalf of his/her child. Sometimes the empowered parent makes a situation far worse than it needs to be, and at the same time creates a helpless child who cannot advocate for himself. Scenarios laid out by the author remind me of a few of my own personal experiences with parents. We call those parents “well-meaning but misguided.” That’s actually a polite way of putting how we really feel at times.

Connected to this empowerment of parents and students through concerted cultivation is the notion of “code switching.” I think this is related to the difficulties we often have in dealing with well-meaning parents who give directives to their children that are at odds with the school’s rules and culture. Often parents, under stress to help their kids get through difficult situations, direct them to do something that is against the school’s rules, such as standing up for one’s self by hitting another. We all – parents, teachers, students and administrators - need a lesson in code switching, navigating the varying discourses of one’s life, from home to work to school. This is a tremendous life lesson we can help our students learn, one of the most important skills they need to acquire to survive and thrive in the world. Our parents need to understand that the culture of their home may be very different than the culture of school. As teachers and administrators we have to have understanding of the cultural practices of our student’s home lives.

It’s all about creating a peaceful, respectful environment in which we all feel empowered yet connected to each other. In that perfect world, I guess we are just looking for good judgment and reason to take hold before insanity prevails, as well as a faith in the school system to do the right thing.