I have a couple of questions about “Social Justice Math”


I have a couple concerns regarding “Social Justice Math” that I don’t think I’ve seen addressed. (If they have been, please let me know.)

From what I’ve read SJM is billed as a way to bring real world problems into the classroom with a “justice” lens. Problems related to climate change, economic inequality, racial equity, etc., would be used in class as frameworks for learning different math concepts. (Read more on that here.) In fact, it sounds a lot like Project Based Learning but with a more refined list of suggested issues to study.

The first concern I have is that, like it or not, “Social Justice” is associated with the political left.

Do those advocating for SJM openly say this is a political slant on mathematics and embrace it as such? (Let’s call this “motivation A”.)

Or do they argue they’re talking about social justice (fairness to people in general, without the political connotation) and not Social Justice? (Let’s call this “motivation B”.)

In the former case I’d have real concerns if I was conservative minded person and my child was in that class (or independently/liberal minded and concerned about one political viewpoint seeping into mathematics curriculum). In the latter case the perception will still almost certainly be taken as a leftward spin on math, again because “social justice” is attached to the political left.

The second concern I have is, what exactly is the “social justice” aspect of the math. Is it simply the selection of the topics chosen? Or is it in the conclusions that come from the students’ analysis? Will the teacher point out that social problems are complicated and that both the left and the right have something to say about their causes and solutions?

I can imagine a teacher trying to present these problems in an unbiased fashion and letting students arrive at a variety of remedies to the problems (motivation B folks). But I would bet money that many teachers implementing SJM will be pushing students to arrive at solutions from the political left (motivation A folks).

If they weren’t, then why call it “social justice” math? Why not call it “real world mathematics” or some other less politically charged title that still acknowledges you’ll be analyzing problems that humanity faces? (Again, this seems a lot like a political form of Project Based Learning.)

I fear “Social Justice Mathematics” is the title because they don’t want students to learn to take a dispassionate approach to the problems. They want students to take a certain, Social Justice approved, approach to analyzing the problems. If this is the case then I think we’d be right to push back against SJM, and if it isn’t the case then SJM will face a branding issue for the foreseeable future.

Are my concerns justified or am I way off base? I’d love to discuss it in the comments.

We should always be learning something new

Last week I started auditing a class on Hapkido, which is a Korean martial art. A friend asked if I’d be interested in attending the once-a-week class with him and I said I would. Having never done any martial art at any time in my life (I don’t even think I’ve watched any of the Karate Kid movies in their entirety), I was nervous. However, partway through the class I realized that there is clear value in learning something completely new.

I want to list a few feelings I had, as I think they reminded me of what it’s like to be a learner, as an adult or a teenager.

  • I didn’t want to make any mistakes. When the instructor demonstrated something, I wanted to do it perfectly. This notion is ridiculous because, as the instructor also pointed out, it takes thousands of repetitions before something becomes muscle memory. For as much as I preach the importance of mistakes in learning, I was shocked at how somewhere in my guts I still didn’t want to make them.
  • I didn’t want the instructor to come by me. Or at least if he did I wanted to be working on my right side (which I thought I was better at). I was afraid he’d find something I was doing wrong. Which I consciously knew would not be bad as it would get corrected and then I’d improve.
  • I compared myself to the people around me, unconsciously ranking myself. Better than that person, worse than those two, etc.
  • Frustration. I’ve never been particularly coordinated and I was consistently frustrated at knowing in my mind what I wanted my body to do, but struggling to make my body do it.

I walked off the mat at the end of class and my mind was reeling.

“Now I know why students are apprehensive to ask questions.”

“Now I understand better why a student might get uncomfortable while I hover over them watching them work out a problem.”

“I have to constantly remind myself to embrace the difficulty. That’s where growth comes from, but it’s difficult to do in practice.”

“Having an instructor that recognized we were all learning was incredibly helpful. He created an atmosphere where mistakes were not viewed as setbacks, but part of the process.”

My main takeaway was that these are feelings I need to constantly grapple with. I need to try to put myself in situations in which I’m the learner, with relative frequency. It helps me better understand where my students are coming from and I think will ultimately help me become a better teacher.

Also, here’s one more thought that has popped in my head recently and probably doesn’t need an entire blog post, but fits with the theme in this one. I’m in my fifth year teaching precalculus, AP calculus, and algebra II and I can feel myself having less empathy with my students, with people learning the concepts for the first time. The first year I taught these courses I think I had a better understanding of their struggles as I was solidifying my understanding of the concepts prior to teaching them as well. I’m not entirely sure what this means for my teaching now, but I think awareness of it is important.

4 ways to leave School at School

If you had told me that it would take me 5 years of teaching to figure out how to mentally leave work at work then I might not have continued in this career. I’ve gotten incrementally better at it each year but this year I’ve committed to prioritizing it. Here’s a few things I’ve learned that help me do that. I hope you can, especially if you’re just starting out, find a piece of advice that will help you live a more balanced life.

Before you leave work

I use a to-do list like it’s a religion, so before I leave school I go through my list (in Todoist) and do three things.

  • I check off everything I completed but forgot to check off during the day.
  • I look for anything on the list that can be taken care of in less than two minutes. If time permits, I do those things. I schedule times to do the other tasks.
  • I look for any task I can do now, that will save me exponentially more time in the future.

This leaves me cognitive space for the way home and when I get home. I don’t have to worry about when I’m going to tweak that lesson, write that letter of rec, or grade those papers. I may have 20 tasks to do in the next 24 hours but each one has a time pinned to it.

The drive home

First, if you have more than a few minutes to drive from work to home, leverage that time to mentally leave work. I’ll do a few things to do this, depending on how the day went.

  • If I it was an especially busy day and I have lot’s on my mind I will ride in silence and simply let my mind think about whatever it wants in regards to school. It’s like letting a cold run it’s course. I just get out of the way and let my mind go. Although I am thinking about work, this gives my mind a chance to empty. If I don’t, like if I turn on a podcast or audiobook, I find that although I distract myself during the ride, my concerns about work pop back when I get home. If I empty my brain in this way, I don’t think about work nearly as much at home.
  • After I’ve done the above, or if I don’t think I need to, I often listen to stand up comedy. Laughing puts me in a good mood and also helps me walk through the door with a positive attitude. I sometimes listen to novels or music that I’m really into. Anything that puts me in a good mood and provides for a transition from work to school.

Embrace the moment

Yeah, this is cliché, but if you take it to heart and try to frequently exercise this idea you’ll be in a better place at home (and at work). The success of this, at least for me, depends a lot on the previous two points. When I’m home I try to focus on my kid, my wife, my dog, cooking, or whatever I’m doing. This is important for me because I want to enjoy the limited time I have to spend with them. But it may be more important for them to have a husband/father that is present in the evening and not thinking about why 8 of my students blew off the activity from 3rd hour. (And by the way, I’m not gonna be able to fix it at that moment anyway, so it’s wasted cognitive energy.)

Understand you can’t fix everything

Somewhere deep in the dredges of my brain I used to think that if I just spent as much time as possible thinking about how to fix the problems that arose at school (or in education in general) then I’d be able to fix them.

This is obviously not the case.

I’ve found that teaching, not unlike many professions, is a push and pull between idealism and pragmatism. The fact is that there are a lot of problems that I can’t influence. And many problems I could influence, but only with a large amount of time and effort, that would end up with uncertain results.

The takeaway for me was that I need to pick and choose carefully the problems I’m going to tackle. And then only take on those problems that I have space in my cognitive bandwidth to deal with. If it means that I’ll be sitting at the dinner table trying to figure out how to solve the problem of poverty in my community or big money in high stakes testing, my resources are probably misdirected and infringing on my life in other ways.

They’re problems. I’d like to solve them. But I don’t have the time, skill set, or resources to do it. So I let them slide out of my mind.

I see teachers all the time that are just surviving. Trying to get from one hour to the next, getting beat up along the way, and then dragging all the stresses from school home with them. We are inclined to do this. We go into the profession to help kids and we love to see them succeed. When they aren’t, we take it personal. So it invades our personal lives. But I’ve been there, and I can tell you it’s not worth it.

You can’t solve all the problems. There will always be kids that don’t meet their potential, think your activities are boring, have awful home lives, and otherwise break your heart. I’m not saying I’m okay with it, I’m just saying that I’ve gone the route of devoting an inordinate amount of mental and physical energy to worrying about it, and guess what. I still had those problems. And by trying to solve them all, all the time, I harmed myself (mentally through stress) and my relationships (stress spillover, not being present, etc.).

Take care of yourself and the time you do devote to your students and profession will be more effective.

This is something I’m passionate about. I know people always say, “post your thoughts in the comments”, but I really am curious as to where people are on this. Do you have other ideas for going home with a clear mind? Do you struggle with other aspects of work-life balance that I left out?

Thoughts on “GPSing our Students”

In June Dan Meyer posted Your GPS is Making You Dumber and What that Means for Teaching. In it he makes the argument that providing step by step instructions for math concepts results in students being able to get from point A to B, while not understanding much about the concepts they’re supposed to be learning. His argument can be summed up with this paragraph, and is somewhat inspired by what Ann Shannon wrote in what teachers should Look for in the CCSS Mathematics Classroom.

Similarly, our step-by-step instructions do an excellent job transporting students efficiently from a question to its answer, but a poor job helping them acquire the domain knowledge to understand the deep structure in a problem set and adapt old methods to new questions.

I would tend to agree. I do give students steps occasionally but it’s often in order to simplify concepts and, if I’m being honest, to some degree avoid students truly struggling and grappling with the concepts.

I’m curious as to what others think about his post and the notion that GPSing students leads to less learning.

“Nah, you could do something great.”

Educators, teachers specifically, have a serious perception problem. No doubt many teachers recognize this but in the last month or two this has become painfully clear to me.

The other day I was asked, as I’m sure most teachers are, “why did you want to become a teacher?” I explained a few of the reasons and then they asked me if I had siblings and what they did. I told them that I had one brother and that he works at IBM. I jokingly said that he frequently reminds me that “he could get me a job working there” so if they bugged me enough I might not show up on Monday.

Student: “Wait, Mr. Cresswell, you could work for IBM??”

Me: “Well, yeah, probably. There’s a lot of other things I could be doing besides teaching.”

Shock came over the student. I would choose teaching over other careers that other math majors pursue.

One more anecdote. Today a student asked me if I was going to teach for thirty years to which I said I wasn’t sure but that I could see myself teaching that long. From there he said, “Nah Mr. Cresswell you could do something great.”

Hey, damn it, I thought I was doing something great.

The public’s perception (at least a fair amount of the public) of the teaching profession is kind of garbage. I understand that it’s not all of the public but I think a lot of people think to themselves, “yeah teaching is probably tough but I could probably do a decent job at it. I mean I did spend twelve years in school…” I would argue that this perception contributes to a lot of the top down decisions that frustrate us the most.

Teaching well is an incredibly difficult pursuit. It takes years to become a high-quality teacher and that’s only if the years are spent in deliberate, reflective practice. With this, students, parents, administrators, and laws are constantly changing, creating a state of near constant flux. We do enjoy some benefits, such as summers and holidays off. However, I’ve yet to take a summer off (conferences, grad school, odd jobs, etc.) and holiday breaks are nearly always partially occupied by hours of work (planning, grading, etc.). This is not to complain, but merely to point out a reality true for most educators. The expertise it takes to ensure knowledge is somehow attained by another individual is too frequently taken for granted.

Lest we forget that if we, as teachers, do our job well then we help mold generations of critical, creative thinkers.

And that, I believe, makes teaching a worthy and, dare I say, great profession.

Unfortunately the notion that teaching is easy or that “those who can’t do, teach” is a permeating misconception and it hurts our profession in multiple ways, with the lack of trust and respect being the worst symptom.

Tips for New Teachers from a Newish Teacher

I just completed my second year of teaching. In only two years of teaching I’ve learned an incredible amount of stuff as compared to when I graduated college. I want to lay out a few things that I’ve learned that might help new (or other newish) teachers as they embark into the wild world of education.

  • Ask Questions: You will have questions. Ask them. If don’t know where something is located or are confused on a certain procedure, don’t spend hours trying to figure it out on your own. As a new teacher spare minutes are difficult to come by and the more time you can save yourself the better.
  • Have a Reason for Everything you do: When someone says to you, “why do you do that in your class?” do your best to make sure you have an answer. From their, growth is easier. You can then reflect on your reasoning and evaluate whether that action is justified. In fact, lot’s of things are easier: Parent-teacher conferences, administrator evaluations/observations, and the constant questioning from the students.
  • Reflect: You have to reflect to grow. And you need to keep growing. You need to keep learning. Try to find somebody with whom you can reflect and vent. Write to reflect. Even if it’s two sentences a day about how the lessons went.
  • Own Your Professional Development: Your district provided PD might be great. Or, it might suck. Or, one year it might be great, and the next year it might suck. And even if it is great, you’re going to need more. Own your PD. Read books. Subscribe to blogs of great teachers. Read articles. And, most important, get on Twitter! You will join a community of great educators and get a glimpse into their brains. Almost every day of the week there is an #edchat that relates to education. These are jammed with great discussions on topics in education. It also puts you into an excellent professional learning community.
  • Get that First Year Nailed Down: You probably won’t set the world on fire your first year. That’s okay. Take your first year to get comfortable with the content, stay consistent, stay organized, and lean on your colleagues a bit. Be careful with changing a lot of things, all at once, at the same time. It becomes too difficult to put a finger on what works and what doesn’t. You want to have a solid base that you can build on during your second and third year.
  • Ask for Feedback: Get people in your room to observe you and give you feedback. This is one thing I wish I had more of in my first and second year. It is tough to see your class from within. Get feedback from those with more experience than you! Just like your students, your growth depends on consistent feedback.
  • Listen to your Students: Do I need to add anything to this? Talk to them. Build relationships with them. Ask them for feedback. Do a student survey at regular intervals throughout the year. Look for general trends in their responses and adjust accordingly.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten some important advice but I think that covers the major bases. Remember, you are not in this alone. There are people that want to support you and ensure your success. If there is something you’d like to add, please feel free to put it in the comments!