DSN Math Teachers Explore Citizen Math

Last spring, two DSN math teachers–Kyla Maletsky (George Washington, 2017) and Steve Miller (Morton West, 2017)– participated in a book discussion of Karim Ani’s book, Dear Citizen Math. In this book, Mr. Ani presents an approach to math where  “ students (are challenged) to think critically and collaborate openly around key cultural and societal issues impacting them today. This approach builds individual confidence, deepens peer relationships, and more fully readies these young people to actively participate – and make a difference – in the world they will soon inherit.”  As a result of that discussion, they wrote a grant (which was approved) that would provide the opportunity for some of our schools to use the Citizen Math program (interactive tools, student and teacher materials) with their students for the 2022-23 school year. They were joined by Michael Meadows (Senn, 2017), Matthew Fluga (Spoon River Valley, 2022), and April Schermann (Normal West, 2016). All five teachers have a subscription to the Citizen Math program, and–at some point during this school year–will use the materials with their students.  This is a pilot where our members are exploring the program–taking a critical eye to consider what works well with the program and what doesn’t. The questions that follow were developed by the group at the beginning of the project to provide a focus for the year-long study and feature some brief responses from members of the group.  At the conclusion of the study, we will present a more comprehensive report.  

How well does the lesson (or program itself) teach students the math concept we intended (or math concepts, in general)? Is the lesson (or program) better for introduction to a unit, practice throughout, or wrapping it up? Does it push their mathematical thinking? 

The one I did (about fines for speeding – “You’re so Fined”) and the ones I plan to try are better for wrapping up a unit so that we can focus on the discussion rather than the mathematics skills. Although they might not push mathematical thinking, they show my students an example where relatively simple math can be consequential in people’s lives. 

I thought the lesson did a really nice job of helping students understand linear functions in context. These are juniors, so none of these concepts were new to them. I think the lesson was a nice way for students to see linear functions in a meaningful way, and I think that meaningful connection helps solidify and reinforce the content for students. That said, I could also imagine this lesson would be good for students who are still developing the concepts.  

All the ones I have done are good, real-world connections to math. They are grouped by general age group and topic, which is helpful for teachers constrained by preset units/curriculum. It also pushes students to consider the limits of math and what information math doesn’t give them.  

I have used three of these in a classroom setting and agree they are better for wrapping up the topic being addressed than introducing it.  I like that there is at least some more real-world application to some of the topics that we are discussing in class.  

How well does the lesson (or program in general) teach students about the social/civics/real-world concept intended? Do students need background on the issue before starting the lesson? Are students interested or invested in understanding the issue? 

Speeding tickets are something freshmen understand even though they haven’t driven yet, so it’s relatable. Also, determining the cost (and possible late fees) for speeding tickets is determined by local/state government, so it’s a real-world civics problem. They were reasonably invested in it because it pertained to money and that interests students. 

The health insurance activity (“Licensed to Ill”) is a little less relatable, but students understand money and they also understand about medical problems, so it should be interesting. It has a civics component because part of the activity involves determining the pros and cons of a government-provided health insurance program. 

I thought the video clips provided some nice background and context for the lesson. Students were very invested in the real-world issue from the start, but there were a couple of things I wish I would’ve been prepared to more deeply explore. First, was that the data provided was for Seattle, LA, and New York City. It made for great, general discussions about the issues, but during our discussion, some students expressed that “those cities need to figure it out” as though the problems were unique to those cities. I think in the future, also having the relevant data for Chicago would’ve been helpful to help students recognize that the situation (rising incomes –> rising rent –> rising # of people experiencing homelessness) holds true in the majority of major cities in the U.S. The other interesting topic that came up was that of gentrification. Although the lesson did not explicitly reference gentrification, my students were pretty quick to bring it up. It made a ton of sense for students to bring up gentrification, but I wish I had been a bit more prepared to have a nuanced conversation there.  

These lessons definitely start good conversations about real issues. “You’re so fined” made students think a lot about how fees and late fees are calculated, and the implications for people in different economic positions. “Wage War” also helped my class think about one aspect of minimum wages, though I also supplemented it with case studies, somewhat like the ones presented in the book High School Mathematics Lessons to Explore, Understand, and Respond to Social Injustice. The supply and demand numbers in the lesson on Citizen Math were not actually based on anything real.  

I considered using the lesson “Billions and Billions,” but in exploring the lesson ahead of time, I noticed that they kept using the terms “developed” and “developing” countries (language the world bank no longer supports) and presented an over-simplified and American/European-centric version of the world. In particular, I felt that the following question on a Citizen Math student worksheet obscures the fact that most climate change comes from richer countries and does not acknowledge that fact that in most cases, “developed” countries gained their wealth from colonialism, exploitation, and slavery. : “While humans share one planet, countries are organized into two “worlds.” Countries in the developed world industrialized over the past 300 years and are wealthy, while countries in the developing world are industrializing now. Over the next century, most new population growth will come from developing countries. Watch the video about Bangladesh. As humans continue to grow, what are some challenges you envision, and how do you think developing countries can improve their standard of living while ensuring a healthy climate?” This question really bothered me on many levels.  

In looking at the lesson involving minimum wage, it was nice I could bring up the difference from state versus state or state versus national.  I am not sure how real the data is since we see a wide difference in minimum wage in Illinois versus say Iowa but the number of people willing to work does not have any impact, it seems, on being able to find employees.  I know that was not the point of the lesson, the point was to find the wage at which you could get the most workers for the right amount of money.  We discuss linear equations and solving systems often so it was a very nice tie-in for that, but I am not sure if it did a good job modeling the current situation we are in?  (Matt)

One way to ensure student engagement is to survey students to see which topics they are interested in (instead of having the teacher choose the topic). I created a form and had my students rank their top choices. This has most definitely helped prep students and get them excited to learn more about their chosen topic. 

What kinds of discussion did the lesson elicit in our classrooms? 

We listed reasons someone might not be able to pay a $42 speeding ticket right away (e.g., more important bills, rent, food costs, lost job) even though $42 does not seem like a lot of money. We also discussed fairness – a wealthy person is not financially harmed by a low-cost ticket nor deterred from breaking the law by a low-cost ticket. We also discussed how fines are needed sometimes for governments to have revenue to provide services like road repair (i.e., fines are a civics issue). 

We briefly discussed the fact that government policies, such as fines, are determined by voters or government officials. In other words, they learned that these policies can be changed by citizen involvement, whether by voting or running for office. 

I felt unprepared for the “Licensed to Ill” lesson because students frequently asked about universal healthcare systems like the one in the UK. I needed to know more about the UK, Canada, and Finland in order to sound credible on the subject. 

The conversations were really great. Definitely the best discussions I have had in class this year. I had the opportunity to teach about half of this class when they were 9th graders, and I have previously used this critical math literacy tool that I developed during my Literacy Masters Program. So, it was a group that was already a little prepared to think about how math is used in this way. Students definitely felt a certain way that the only facts presented about Amazon HQ2 were the 50k jobs with an average salary of $100k. They felt like the data that the lesson presented was needed to tell the full story. It led to some great discussions about whether or not a city would want Amazon HQ2. 

“You’re so fined” and “wage war” both elicited good conversations with students about what is “fair” and what “should be” happening in our country. Students had mathematical facts to back up their opinions, which is an important way to make clear arguments. I also did a lesson titled “XBOX XPONENTIAL: How have video game consoles changed over time?” Students were eager to share their interest in and knowledge of video games and even though it wasn’t a civic issue, it still improved student engagement. 

Looking at the memory-related activity, it really made students question how much of what they thought they remembered from the past was as they remember it.  Also that led to a discussion about what they remembered in their dreams and how accurately they remembered.  The video about those with 100% I feel like maybe should have asked each one individually so as to better see if they really remembered the exact days and events.  It was a very interesting lesson and it really made you question your own memory, along with the easy discussion about exponential functions. 

How do we feel about the resources (videos, student handouts, teacher presentations, etc) provided by Citizen Math? Did we need to remake materials? How well do they work for students with IEPs, ELLs, and others? 

I thought the material for “You’re so Fined” worked well as-is. The videos were good and teacher presentations were easy to figure out (i.e., prep for the lesson wasn’t cumbersome). The lesson might be a challenge for ELL students. Also, part of the video was a John Oliver clip and the humor went over the heads of most of my students b/c it’s sophisticated, college-level humor. 

I thought the materials were great overall. The online platform worked well (except I had some issue with the second half of the second video). In the future, I do think I would make another version of the same lesson that included data for Chicago. I would also include some sentence stems for my sheltered EL section. 

The materials are set up for a teacher-centered classroom with the teacher up front sharing all the information and steps. Students don’t have access to the interactive graphs and while there is space for students to consider their own opinions, there isn’t as much space for students to develop their own mathematical ideas. I have found more success in remaking the lessons rather than using them as is.  

I like the video resources, although as mentioned above, I wish they would have gone further in questioning those that said they had a perfect memory.  I did like the graph used to plot points but I wish I had made a larger one so that students could more easily graph the points.  The handouts are pretty easy to follow covering the topic and asking follow up questions along the way.  

How does the program fit into the Democracy Schools model? Is there a particular element that it addresses?

Design/Teaching Strategy: “Licensed to Ill” and “You’re so Fined” activities both have elements of civics design/teaching strategy. 

Design/Teaching Strategy: the overall idea of Citizen Math is good. I don’t love the way the lessons are implemented or presented, but I do think it encourages me to think about how to make other lessons that ask students to explore real issues using math. 

Current and Controversial Issues: The “Licensed to Ill” activity is about health insurance and whether or not mandated health insurance is a good policy. That is a current and controversial issue. 

Current and Controversial Issues: “You’re so fined” talks about government fee structures and “wage war” discusses minimum wage, both actual issues. 

Foundational Civic Knowledge:  “Licensed to Ill” teaches students the fundamentals of health insurance, which is an area the government is involved in and which well-informed voters need to understand. 

Foundational Civic Knowledge:  “You’re so Fined” helps students understand the role of and impact of government in making even simple policies, such as speeding ticket fines. The activity is useful for showing students the sort of policies they can use math to optimize if they choose to enter government as a career.