When Math Meets Social Justice at TCS
At The Children’s School, our social justice curricular goals support our academic goals. Current events and community problems provide a context for social studies, science, history and math. Yes, you heard that right, math! For example, middle school students and their math group teacher, Ms. Gloria Mitchell, recently explored the how government fines can disproportionately hurt the most vulnerable in a community.
“Over the past several months, students in my math group have extended their understanding of algebra by investigating linear functions, linear equations, inequalities, and systems of equations,” says Ms. Mitchell, who also serves as TCS’ High School Transition Coordinator. “In one recent activity, students examined the impact of municipal tickets on people of different income levels.”
The students wrote and graphed equations to show how adding a late fee when an original ticket goes unpaid affects the total amount paid. They also showed how this total amount changes according to how quickly or slowly someone is able to pay what they owe. Students were able to show the cost of the initial fine (the y-intercept on the graph) as well as monthly late fees (the slope on the graph), and calculate how much people would end up paying under different fine and fee structures.
“The students observed that if someone did not have enough savings or income to pay a fine immediately, that person would eventually have to pay more money -- sometimes thousands of dollars more -- to settle their debt,” says Ms. Mitchell.
As a final reflection, the middle schoolers compared municipal fines in the U.S. to those in Finland, where fines are higher for wealthier citizens, and used what they had learned to argue the pros and cons of each system.
“In an activity like this one, students meet important grade-level standards in algebra by modeling a real-world situation mathematically. They understand and use multiple representations of linear functions, including tables, graphs, and equations. They contrast the properties of linear functions and explore the relationships between symbolic expressions and graphs of lines, paying particular attention to the meaning of intercept and slope. They also use symbolic algebra to represent situations and solve problems,” explains Ms. Mitchell.
“In this case, the situation gave students a context for understanding that the solutions of a system of linear equations are the point or points where the lines intersect. Students were able to observe that if the graphed lines were parallel but not identical, meaning that they had the same slope but different intercepts, there would be no intersection and therefore no solution.”
TCS student Phoebe says,"It was kind of confusing at first, but a good activity for graphing and easy to understand once you start. I definitely learned how to find the point of intersection in a system of equations."
At The Children’s School, the study of mathematics encourages a deeper grasp of the thought processes behind problem solving rather than rote memorization of math rules.
From a social justice standpoint, the task conveyed how income disparity can make fine systems more punitive on one group of citizens versus another. More importantly, students learned why and to what extent those disparities happen based on solid mathematical principles. More importantly, they could see how to collect, interpret and use mathematical facts to describe and perhaps solve similar problems in the future.
Aaron, another student working on the graphing task says: ""I learned about the laws around fines and civic violations, as well as different increasing values and the point of intersection on a graph. It was a hands-on activity, and I liked that."