Teaching Math for Social Justice

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Last week was the final convening of the Social Justice Math study group, where a group of elementary through community college math teachers came together to try and figure out what it means to be a math educator with a social justice lens.

While there are many entry points to the concept, our 6-session survey course examined some of the dominant ideologies that are framing the current conversation:

  1. What is Social Justice Math?
  2. Math Literacy as a Justice Issue
  3. Integrating Economic and Social Justice Issues into the Classroom
  4. Culturally Responsive Teaching
  5. Motivating and Equipping our Students Towards Action
  6. Being a Social Justice Math Educator Connector

If you would like to explore this concept more, additional resources from our group are available at socialjusticemath.acoe.org. We will be facilitating another round of this group next year, with an increased focus on lesson design and refinement of pedagogy. Stay tuned for future posts with more information!

-Celine Liu, Math Specialist

Girl Power! A Discussion of Gender Empowerment in Toys and Books

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picture-books-about-strong-girls-1Recently, a well-meaning relative gave my four-month-old daughter a stuffed pink turtle, and her young male cousin a stuffed astronaut. When the two toys were juxtaposed, my relative exclaimed, “I should have bought them both astronauts!” A few days later, another relative noted to me that she is good at buying toys for boys because she has a male godson, but does not know what to buy girls. “The same thing,” I answered, to which I was met with a look of genuine puzzlement.

This subconscious, and seemingly innocuous, gender bias has gained its fair share of criticism recently, prompting major retailers such as Target to take action to stop the gender labeling of toys in their stores.

And toys are not the only culprits exposing our your girls to gender stereotyping. In a 2011 study on 20th century children’s books, only 31% of popular books have central female characters, and only one Caldecott Award winner has a sole, central female character.

It is important to empower our young girls with the knowledge and inspiration necessary to make them successful leaders in today’s world. This includes exposing them to reading materials that instill courage, intelligence, and decision-making abilities encompassed by female characters they can relate to. (Additionally, we cannot discount the importance of sharing these books with our boys, who are missing a key lesson in empathy by reading only books with central male characters.) Below are a few of our favorite literary resources for young female readers:

  • Empowering Books for Girls – PBS’s lists of books that include central female characters overcoming obstacles (separate lists for preschool, grade school, and middle school)
  • A Mighty Girl – a nice selection of chapter books suitable for young readers (age nine and up) or as read-alouds for younger children
  • No Time for Flash Cards – 21 Picture Books about Strong Girls – these picture books are perfect for our youngest of readers
  • I See Me – although not specifically a female empowerment site, this publisher creates personalized books for children, which means that the girl in your life can have her name (and photo) printed in their books; I chose ABC What Can I Be! for my daughter. This book provides a career choice for every letter of the alphabet, beginning with A for–you guessed it–Astronaut.

-Maria Vlahiotis, Literacy Specialist, ACOE Core Learning

P.S. To continue the conversation and raise awareness about empowering our young girls, consider joining one of the following online communities:

Who Has Access to Your Google Documents?

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Image Courtesy of Lifehacker.com

In the push for collaboration between students (as well as their own teacher colleagues), many teachers have turned to the Google suite of products, and specifically Google Drive, which enables users to collaborate on documents in real time. In Drive, the original document must be “shared” with one or more collaborators, which are given editing rights to the document. Additional viewing rights may be granted to one person or to the world in general.

Sometimes, however, individuals who were meant to be given viewing rights are given editing rights. These individuals would in turn be able to alter or even delete the aforementioned documents. Even more problematic is when editing rights are given to everyone!

Typically, in order to view who has editing rights within Google Drive, one must right-click on the folder or document in question and select “Share…”. If multiple documents or folders are in question, this process can become quite cumbersome.

Luckily, there is an easier solution. WhoHasAccess is a website (and also a Chrome app) that will scan one’s Google Drive and provide a list of everyone who has rights to one’s documents. Clicking on each person on the list will yield another list of the documents/folders that s/he has rights to, as well as the type of right (editing or viewing). After twenty-four hours, the WhoHasAccess servers will delete the information they gleaned from searching one’s Drive; one can also press the red button at the bottom of the results page to delete this information instantaneously.

Teachers can use this valuable tool to see which students have access to their files, and students can also benefit by running the WhoHasAccess search periodically to ensure that they have not given editing rights to those they should not have. WhoHasAccess is an essential tool for all who are collaborating on Google Drive!

-Maria Vlahiotis, Literacy Specialist, ACOE Core Learning

Robot to the Middle

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Robots have long been used to help students with geometry.  In 1971, Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon wrote a paper called “Twenty Things to do with a Computer” in which they talk about using a robot they call a turtle to draw geometric shapes.

Robot TurtleTurtle Robot

Last year at the MakingMath Expo we had two versions of this, drawing bots and a program where you could draw with a virtual turtle robot.

cbnxlamwkaehvru Drawing Bots (foreground) and Virtual Turtles (background)

This year we are going to use the bots to raise the question, “How can you figure out the exact middle of various shapes?”  Students will start with a rectangle and move through other shapes like parallelograms, triangles, and circles.  At each shape they will have to justify how they know they are right about where the middle of the shape is before they are given a robot.  Once they have the bot they will drive it with a remote control to the exact middle then stop.  In the classroom, however, they would have to program their bot to go from the origin and stop in the center on its own with minimal information about each shape.  Here’s what the entry document might look like.  At the expo there will be a leader board with a prize going to the closest at the end of the day.

Come join us at Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland on March 12th between 9am and 1pm, tickets are still available (and free) but are going fast!

Hope to see you there!

– Jim Town MakingMath Specialist


From Learned Dependence to Learned Independence

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During workshops that aim to deepen knowledge of Common Core State Standards (CCSS), I hear a consistent message from teachers – “My students are already behind with the current standards so it is no surprise they struggle with the new, more rigorous standards?” Or, “My students are high performing but we are afraid they won’t perform well on the SBAC Assessment performance task.” These are valid concerns. Often our instincts are to scaffold pretty heavily so students don’t experience too much difficulty. We want them to feel comfortable in class and stay as motivated as possible. In some cases, complex text and challenging math have been systematically removed from the hands of our struggling students albeit with the best of intentions. The consequences are stark. Many students, especially our lower performing students, have become very dependent learners and have not built the academic muscles necessary to excel at the table of scholarship. While our high performers don’t struggle as much, they too are pretty dependent and how well are we meeting the needs of those kids who already know it? Students at all performance levels need 21st century skills so they can have options when they graduate.

The key shifts in the CCSS ask us to interrupt this dependency cycle by ensuring that all students experience complex texts and tasks that require critical thinking and deep levels of engagement. There is a key document linked here provided by Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium outlining their emphasis on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) that is not a “one size fits all” approach but rather utilizes “flexible approaches that can be customized” that “gives all individuals equal opportunities to learn.” The CCSS challenge us to think K-16 for all learners. But how will we do this?

Consider using provocative, ambiguous questions to frame learning and provide real world lenses to set purpose for authentic learning using technology to enhance engagement. Put engaging, relevant text related to the question in front of students frequently starting off with shorter, accessible complex passages working towards greater text length and complexity reading goals. Students need to learn how to annotate and summarize text across content ideally utilizing consistent procedures. We need to make the invisible, the language of our disciplines – text structures, academic vocabulary – visible to students so they can express the sophistication of their thinking and access core content successfully.

Most importantly this work needs to be built in collaboration with teachers! In my collaboration with teachers around Common Core, I see that teachers really get it! They understanding the need to move students towards independence and how time crunches and incoherence have led dependence. When given some tools to collaborate – to sort, anchor, calibrate and share ideas, teachers and instructional leaders have the expertise.

We just need to get them the right tools and get out of their way!

Sasha Kirkman, Literacy Coordinator

LEDs, Circuits, and Math–Ohm My!

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Have you ever wondered how designers integrate lights, BlueTooth, fitness trackers, and other technology into clothing and accessories? This year, #MakingMath Expo participants will have an opportunity to explore the math behind wearable technology.

An example of wearable technology, these sensors detect muscle activity and movement, which are then processed through a program to translate sign language gestures into English. Credit: Texas A&M via LiveScience.com

Targeted to ages 6-90, this experiment involves discovering the difference between series and parallel circuits, as well as comparing the brightness of the different colors of sample LEDs. Participants will have a chance to analyze the forward voltages of various LEDs, using Ohm’s Law to calculate the resistance for different color lights.

The best part about the #MakingMath Expo? Folks who may be confused or intimidated by the math and science described above get to interact with the activity in a low-stakes, fun way. By the end of it, you will have a better understanding of at least one new math or science concept. We practically guarantee it (no money-back guarantee because the event is FREE!)

Come get inspired at our Making Math Expo on Saturday March 12,  where educators from around the Bay Area will be showing off their #makingMath projects at Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland.  This is a day dedicated to the fun and exciting world of Problem Solving, where students, teachers, and parents will have various opportunities to apply their math and problem-solving skills.  Come experience an assortment of non-traditional problems that will work your thinking muscles, and understand why the Mathematical Practices must be an integral part of every math classroom.  All participants will leave with strategies and tools to improve student problem-solving abilities.


#Scratch-ing the 6th grade Math Itch

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Our first project highlight for the 2nd annual Making Math Expo is “Using Scratch for 6th grade Math,” where 6th graders will teach attendees how to use the computer program Scratch while sharing their final projects from their work with the program. As attendees learn Scratch firsthand, creating their own coded projects, students will share how they linked blocks to build a “code,” building both programming and mathematical proficiency.Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 4.12.11 PM.png

As programmers, participants must strategize about the choice of coding blocks in order to make their code more efficient, and as mathematicians, they develop a conceptual understanding of positive and negative numbers as they move objects around the xy-grid, using academic vocabulary to describe their location in the grid.

Want to scratch your coding itch and do some math in the process? Come play with this and more at the Making Math Expo on March 12! Registration is free but limited slots are available, so sign up today!

-Celine Liu, Mathematics Specialist at ACOE

Social Justice + Math = Education

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Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.                    –John Dewey

People are aware that they cannot continue in the same old way but are immobilized because they cannot imagine an alternative.      -Grace Lee Boggs

Over the course of the year, our Social Justice Math study group has been hard at work, trying to figure out what it means to be a math educator with a social justice lens.

There are many approaches to this question, from looking at math literacy as a civil rights issue, to understanding how culturally relevant pedagogy impacts student achievement, to integrating economic and social justice issues into our classrooms, among others.

Regardless of where we land on the question of what social justice math is, it has become more clear with each conversation that math education through the experiential lens of working-class communities of color is an essential principle of education if our goal is to grow a self-determined, powerful human force to continue to evolve the way we live as humans in today’s society.

Grace Lee Boggs was an “evolutionary” who worked for a lifetime in Detroit to address the systemic injustices that the city’s residents have experienced through the years. She posited that “the community itself with its needs and problems must become the curriculum of the schools,” where learning is not just about skills and information, but the ideas, principles, and struggles needed to transform their community.

Want to know what this might look like? Check out Max Ray’s talk on how math teachers are the key to ending racism. Or see how Rico Gutstein and a group of 9th graders analyzed a Chicago redistricting proposal that could have resulted in upheaval and increased racial tensions for the students and families living in the neighborhood. Or listen to Saraswati Noel share about Seattle World School’s campaign to lock down a permanent school site after bouncing from location to location for years.

How would it look in your classroom? How different would your school be if the community was an active asset and participant rather than an occasional resource? How are you educating for social justice in your math class?

For more information on the Social Justice Math study group, see our site at socialjusticemath.acoe.org or contact Celine Liu, Math Specialist at cliu (at) acoe.org.




Parent Resources

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Understanding the CA Common Core State Standards

Helping Students Develop Proficiency in the Content and Practice Standards


Additional Resources

March Math Making Madness

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Join us for a month of #makingMath!  A whole month of free activities brought to you by the Alameda County Office of Education Core Learning Math and Technology team to promote Making in the Math Classroom.

In our Make and Take series, educators will work on a specific, standards-aligned project to take back to their classroom. They will leave with a better understanding of how making can be embedded into the classroom, and construct a whole new meaning from the phrase: “use appropriate tools strategically.”

2003-01-01 00.23.32

Thursday March 3rd is the Make and Take: Gravity Car workshop, participants will make a “gravity car” using simple tools, recycled materials, and just plain tinkering. They will struggle with the question: “What math can my students learn by making a gravity car?”

Participants will:

  • Experience making a gravity car using various materials and mathematics
  • Plan a MakingMath gravity cars lesson/project to take back to their classroom


Thursday March 10th is the Make and Take: PVC Flute workshop, participants will make a flute using simple tools, PVC pipe, and math.  They will struggle with the question: “What Math Can Your Students Learn by Making an Instrument?”.

Participants will:

  • Build a PVC flute using mathematics and simple tools
  • Explore ways math can be applied to designing and building musical instruments
  • Plan a MakingMath instruments lesson/project to take back to the classroom
  • Leave with a better understanding of how making can be embedded into the classroom


Finally, on Saturday March 12, come get inspired at our Making Math Expo where educators from around the Bay Area will we showing off their #makingMath projects at Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland.  This is a day dedicated to the fun and exciting world of Problem Solving, where students, teachers, and parents will have various opportunities to apply their math and problem-solving skills.  Come experience an assortment of non-traditional problems that will work your thinking muscles, and understand why the Mathematical Practices must be an integral part of every math classroom.  All participants will leave with strategies and tools to improve student problem-solving abilities.