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Mathematizing for Empowerment

NCTM News Bulletin (May/June 2009)

by Jacqueline Leonard and Nora Ramirez

TODOS: Mathematics for ALL and the Benjamin Banneker Association—both NCTM Affiliates—support giving students opportunities to engage in rich and rigorous mathematics. However, teachers often have difficulty in finding examples of how to engage students who are typically underrepresented in mathematics classrooms in meaningful, rigorous mathematics. To help all students learn mathematics, teachers must first break down the barriers that prevent them from learning. Some students find the mathematics presented in the classroom uninteresting, irrelevant, or disconnected from their everyday lives. It is important for the context to be accessible and make sense to students. This means that the mathematics should draw on the cultural and social capital that diverse students bring to the classroom.

Opportunities for culturally relevant teaching can be found in almost any everyday experience. For example, in the current economic downturn, everyone is trying to stretch a dollar. It is important to understand the power that someone holds in choosing where to spend his or her money. The ability to “do the math” becomes empowerment as individuals make informed decisions about their lives. Teachers can pose everyday problems to help students mathematize their experiences. Mathematizing is the ability to identify the relationships and quantities that exist in specific contexts. When students work in everyday contexts on activities such as comparing the prices of consumer products to make better economic decisions, they discover that they can generate an abundance of mathematics and data to advocate for social justice.

For example, students can urge theaters in their neighborhoods to show particular movies. Actor Jamie Foxx mentioned at the 66th Golden Globe Awards that Dreamgirls opened in only 800 theatres nationwide; Meryl Streep stated that The Devil Wears Prada opened in every theatre in the country (Leonard 2008). Clearly, ticket sales are affected by the number of theatres in which a movie runs as well as by how long it runs. Likewise, prices at local grocery stores often fluctuate from one ZIP Code to another. Students of all ages are interested in investigating the possibility of price gouging in their neighborhoods. Teachers can guide them to collect and compare data, analyze graphs, and apply equations in this work. Students can use Google maps to find stores within specific ZIP Codes or a specific radius. They can compare prices for certain items—staples such as milk and bread, for instance, or snack foods—at different grocery stores, including stores in the same chain but at different locations. Students can weigh trade-offs between shopping close to home and traveling across town for better prices. If students find discrepancies in prices from store to store, they can write letters to the management to voice their opinions. All of these activities can be used to enrich students’ mathematical competencies and accelerate their mathematical learning.

Such activities not only teach children how to make informed decisions and advocate for equity and social justice in the marketplace (Leonard 2008), but also serve as steppingstones to engage students in challenging mathematics. These types of problems provide the rigor needed for academic success, allow students to develop cultural competence as they mathematize life events, and present opportunities for students to challenge the status quo (Ladson-Billings 1994). These three elements are consistent with Ladson-Billings’s (1994) definition of cultural relevance.

Problems with culturally relevant contexts help to promote mathematical literacy and equity. Mathematical literacy involves being able to do the math as well as understand the power of the mathematics to support change (Gutstein 2006). Equity increases when marginalized students use mathematics for their own purposes, which include making decisions, changing the status quo, and learning the mathematics that provides access to higher education and job opportunities. Students can ask endless questions as they learn how to mathematize the events in their lives, develop critical thinking and problem solving skills, and use mathematics for empowerment.

About the Authors

Jacqueline Leonard is president-elect of the Benjamin Banneker Association, and Nora Ramirez is president of TODOS: Mathematics for ALL.

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