Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Wrong on the Left Coast!

"The evidence is abundant and clear. This movement represents a dangerous trend in education not only because students won't learn math content, but also because they'll be indoctrinated with leftist claptrap."

The quote above is from Darren, of Right on the Left Coast blog. It concerns the idea of the combination of math education and social justice education. Specifically, it references "ReThinking Mathematics" offshoot of "Rethinking Schools". I plan to debunk it. In order to truly and honestly respond, I must offer a few confessions.
  1. I don't teach math, and didn't do well in math in high school. If I misuse some terms or concepts, please forgive me, as I consider it my fault and not that of my past math teachers.
  2. I do teach in an urban school district.
  3. I do have something to do with the "L" word. Liberal, that is. I'd like to think I'm pretty moderate, but I acknowledge the fact that your position on the political spectrum is all relative. I wouldn't, however, call myself a leftist. I've always been right-handed.

Now, with that out of the way....

I was introduced to Rethinking Schools through a project I worked on roughly four years ago. I have been interested ever since.

I will tell you that some of the most thought-provoking and most interactive lessons that were not of my own doing were from RS. Teaching in an urban school district, I've realized our students define their world by the boundaries of their neighborhood. These boundaries are set by what interstates run through their community, where the territory of rival or hostile gangs begins or ends and where the public transporation will take them. More often than not, my students' world is contained within their zip code. In their mind's eye, everything that is good, holy and important occurs within this small area.

The lessons that I have used from RS are powerful. They are so powerful that they blasted the students into orbit and out of the confines of their interstates, rival sets and zip codes. They were able to see the bigger picture behind things outside of their zip code. They saw how people, culture, ideas, government, math, science and life in general collided in ways that were completely alien yet comfortingly similar across the world.

One lasting impression that I have had was using a poem regarding the election of Allende and then his overthrow and installation of Pinochet in Chile back in the 1970's. Long story short, it is a spoken word piece from two points of view, one of a peasant woman with a family and another woman of the upper class. Through the poem, you see the changes in the country as the result of Allende's reforms (including land reform) which are positive for the peasant, but frustrating for the rich woman. His overthrow and Pinochet's rise to power make life better for the rich, but miserable for the peasantry.

The reason that poem sticks in my head is because of the reactions of my kids after they heard it. It struck a chord with my young ladies, many of them asked to keep a copy of the poem. I of course obliged.

Yes, Allende was a socialist, and the last time I checked, socialism is a leftist political value system. So yes, kids learned something about a leftist political/economic country that didn't glorify the superior nature of free market capitalism.

On the way out, I didn't hand them each a copy of the Communist Manifesto, nor did I give them an "Impeach Bush" bumper sticker. I didn't text them the address of a leftist website, nor did I give 'em a podcast about evil Republicans. Nor did I want to.

When I teach politically sensitive lessons, I make sure to tell the kids that I'm not teaching them something that is right or wrong, I'm just teaching something that happened. I try to examine ideas from both points of view; sometimes I take positions on items that I myself abhor. I do it so that my students can critically examine ideas, people, issues and items of the day. I cringe when my kids look at me and half-ask, half-tell me that "You voted for Bush in the last election, didn't you? I know you did." I just want to scream, "No I didn't!" but I don't ever tell my kids who I voted for.*

I think it's wrong to condemn an entire movement simply because of a lack of faith in individual teachers. That's what it boils down to-- a lack of faith in the ability of our fellow warriors in the trenches to discern the source of a movement and decide for themselves how they want (or whether they want) to integrate the ideas, lesson plans or activities of this movement into their instruction. The unspoken word here is that teachers will simply regurgitate the prepackaged material, just as the leftists have planned it. (Diabolical music plays in the background.)

The idea that social justice is leftist claptrap...is quite honestly...claptrap itself! (Kudos on the use of claptrap, as I rarely run across it in my travels throughout the blogosphere).

The social justice movement is one that encourages students to take an active role in their communities. Unfortunatley, adults in power see "active role in communities" and think "Hey, now someone can rake dear old Mrs. Stutley's lawn." That's not community service-- that's corporal punishment.

The idea of social justice (and this concept of course extends to unionism, but that is a different post altogother) as it is taught in the classroom is that we use the curriculum to pique our students' interests in the world around them, in the plight of others in their community (local or world) and move them to action to solve problems of discrimination, inequity, inequality and various other sundry topics.

Gosh darn liberal, leftist tree-hugging do-gooders. We'll fix 'em in the next election.

* One more confession, I do tell my students who I voted for. The only time they can ask me is when they're getting ready to walk down the aisle to go onto the stage right before "Pomp and Circumstance" is playing. Call it a perk. Graduation has its privilleges.



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10 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm considered a liberal by all who know me, but I believe in a very conservative approach to learning math. Thinking is of upmost importance. Analysis of problems is essential. But, nothing takes the place of drill and repetition to learn the basics. Studies have been done to show that US kids lag behind other countries where drill is pushed more than connections to real life math.

Anonymous said...

I happen to be left-handed. I could see making kids aware of what's going on (even if Fox News says it isn't) but I don't think math class is the place for it--it seems more a social studies thing.

Of course, I also hated math, so perhaps I shouldn't comment. To me, the whole left-wing thing is about supporting working people, like the kids we teach will grow up and become.

Jonathan said...

And I chose the most traditional math text books available, I believe (Dolciani et al), but I add all sorts of fun stuff, as time allows, or where it naturally fits.

But, math for a full period? It can be tough. I often interrupt class to talk about something else. Sometimes a kid hits a tangent, and we run with it. Other times I pick the topic.

But there's a lot of social justice kind of stuff. Easy, I'm not a social studies teacher, so it feels freer. You know, off topic is off topic. Sometimes school policy. Groundhog Day. Whatever. Tomorrow I will see if I can get them to trash Trump.

Oh, nice site. I've blogrolled you.

Jonathan said...

Oh, and if you are interested in early 70's Chile, there's a film, Machuca, should be out on video now. Highly recommend it (Two boys, one rich, one poor, become friends just before the coup. We see the world through both kids' eyes.)

Anonymous said...

If the idea of “social justice” was just to pique students’ interest, it wouldn’t be as controversial as it is.

The real concern is that it will become another attempt at leftist social indoctrination. The anti-Pinochet example you cite does little to mitigate these fears. Can we expect to see stories of how the poor suffer under Castro, for example? I think not.

We know the teachers unions are highly politicized towards the left. We know higher education is also (but at least there one has a choice of schools and classes). It is quite rational to expect that the social justice movement is just another attempt to make political indoctrination more palatable. Maybe you won’t so exploit it, but many others will if given the chance. Isn’t there enough interesting literature that isn't overtly political?

Science has already become politicized with stem cell research being the most egregious example (Global Warming and Intelligent Design being two additional examples.)

There is precious little time for science and math instruction as it is without introducing “social justice”. If you cannot make these topics interesting to your students without “social justice” you are not much of a teacher.

Finally, when it comes to math, perhaps there is one “social justice” topic that might be relevant — the Larry Summers blow-up at Harvard when he had the temerity to suggest that perhaps there are non-bias reasons for the apparent disparities in the male/female represention on elite faculties in technical fields. Do you suppose some math teacher will discuss the pro-Summers side as detailed here in mathematical detail?

Jonathan said...

Homeslice tries to show both sides of an issue (read the post again), and the ideology driven phd (doctor) objects to anything that looks evenhanded, and suggests the right-wing ideology-drenched Summers stuff?

The amazing thing is he must have really expected smart people not to notice.

Anonymous said...

What good is anything that students learn in the classroom if they are not also taught to better understand the world and the contexts in which they might improve their own lives? It bothers me greatly when anyone -- educator or otherwise -- finds the notion of social justice education a threat. Ignorance does not make a just society, which is what I like to believe is a poignant goal of democracy.

Anonymous said...

Jonathan’s response to my comment does a good job of adding additional support to my fears about how “social justice” would be used in the classroom.

Nothing in my post suggests that Homeslice is anything but a fair person. I explicitly say that I have no reason to suspect that he would exploit “social justice” to interject left-wing ideology into the classroom. What I claim is that others would, especially since “social justice” is a code phrase for certain left-wing political views. There is nothing politically even-handed about it.

At the same time he objects to “the right-wing ideology-drenched Summers stuff” Did he read the article I referenced? It is 99% mathematical. There is one impolite reference to feminists at the very end. Otherwise it shows with mathematical rigor that, using real-world data, the underrepresentation of women on technical faculties of elite Universities is to be expected. The report reaches a conclusion that some do not even want to discuss as a possibility. This is the very essence of ideology, an inability to even consider the possibility that you are wrong. Therefore all those with contrary views are to be labeled ideologues in their own right whose ideas are not worthy of serious debate.

Is it not rational for me to expect that the same ideological forces that arose to drive Summers from Harvard would also be present in other educational forums? I believe there is more than enough interesting material to teach so that both religion and politics can be kept out of the classroom.

Jonathan said...

I discuss the Simpsons episode where they segregate the boys and girls into their own schools. Lisa sits in the girls' math class where the teacher asks "How does 7 make you feel?" or something like that. Out of frustration she sneaks in the bushes next to the boys' math class and looks in. I think she sees the teacher ask for the solution of "y^2 = 25" and she shouts through the window "y equals five" and a boy corrects her "plus or minus five"

It's good for helping them remember to consider both square roots.

And to indoctrinate them with my extremist belief that mathematical ability is not gender determined.

Darren said...

If it's debunking you want, I did what I consider to be a thorough job of it regarding the Rethinking Schools people.

http://rightontheleftcoast.blogspot.com/2005/07/math-for-social-justice-part-1.html
http://rightontheleftcoast.blogspot.com/2005/07/math-for-social-justice-part-ii.html

As I say in the opening of the 2nd link above:

"Rethinking Mathematics is nothing more than an attempt to politicize the teaching of math." I identify some of the so-called lessons in Rethinking Schools, and show how they are social studies issues, not math issues. Math is neither good nor bad, Left nor Right. It has no slant, no bias. The same cannot be said of social studies. In fact, I offer this advice:

"Social science should not be injected into a math curriculum. Rather, math (as a hard science) should be injected into the social science curriculum (a soft science)--that would truly be teaching "across the curriculum". Don't bring your politics into math; rather, use math to justify (or disprove) your politics."

Again, I encourage you to read the (rather long) posts I referenced above. You'll see that the Rethinking Schools people (including a former Weather Underground terrorist) are very clear about their political leanings and what they hope to accomplish.

Click on the Rethinking Schools label on my blog to read all that I've written about these people. They're extreme.

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