The teaching aha moment came to me in a CrossFit class in Southern California. Gary, the trainer and gym owner, was so good at helping people meet their goals that about 20 of us regularly attended his 5:30am class that felt more like a personal training session.
Gary would always write an advanced workout and another one for beginners on the board. That morning, seeing the 800-meter run on the board filled me with dread. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder. “I know you hate running, but this is great cardio and less impact on your knees,” Gary said, pulling out a rowing machine. As the workout progressed, I noticed him circling the room, motivating people, correcting their form, asking them to slow down or take a break, and modifying exercises to fit people’s needs.
As a high school math teacher at the time, I kept thinking, “Gary is the best teacher I’ve ever seen. Why can’t math be like this? Why can’t it be taught using a lesson that helps everyone achieve their own goals instead of the teacher’s goals?”
One of the secrets to Gary’s training style was that he chatted with students before and during class, not just to get to know you, but to understand your goals. Gary put me on the rowing machine because he recalled a story I had shared t weeks earlier about how I hate running. Shouldn’t all teachers know their students well enough to accommodate their learning styles? Shouldn’t math teachers individualize instruction while also fostering a sense of community? If Gary could do it, couldn’t I?
After this experience, I began scouring the internet in search of ways to transform my class into a space where kids could learn collaboratively, yet achieve the goals they were passionate about. I learned about complex instruction, then group-worthy tasks, growth mindset, project-based learning, and culturally responsive pedagogy. But when I learned about social justice math education, which incorporates these different pedagogies, I knew I’d found exactly what I had been searching for.
I began participating in a conference called Creating the Balance, organized by scholars, teachers, and community members to help other teachers engage with mathematics for a purpose. To help others see the unseen. To critique the world around us. And, ultimately, to create change.
This journey took me from teaching high school math to serving as a vice principal, to working as a consultant across the country, to my current doctoral program on the east coast and, ultimately, joining Just Equations as Math Educator in Residence. The webinar I recently hosted, Social Justice Math in Action: From Educational Model to Educational Movement, allowed me to share the insights of amazing educators who are engaging with social justice math.
Given the turnout and enthusiasm for this webinar, I’m clearly not the only one with this interest.
Educators are pushing the boundaries to obtain a greater platform for this transformative style of teaching and learning. Now, so many educators can see injustices that once were unseen. We heard from educators like my former colleague, Mele Sato of High Tech High, who told us, “Mathematics is not just a tool for understanding and interpreting, it’s also a tool for influencing and changing society.” She also shared an algebra exercise she did with students to analyze police stops in San Diego by race.
John Staley, a math expert with the Baltimore County Public Schools and former president of the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics, spoke about a terrific book he and colleagues developed, High School Mathematics Lessons to Explore, Understand, and Respond to Social Injustice. And a team of educators from San Francisco State University’s Metro College Success Program highlighted their work to develop a social justice statistics course for college students.
As the webinar underscored, social justice math has the power, the potential, and the propensity to help students, teachers, and families continue to engage with the improvement of their communities. One common critique of mathematics is its lack of relevance, lack of personalization, and lack of communal connection. But if CrossFit can do this, so can math. Social justice math is one avenue for cultivating students as doers of mathematics, not just for the sake of math, but for the sake of justice.