Sisi Mitchell pores over tables of data showing the number of homicides, assaults, arrests and community engagements with police in Minneapolis. Her task is to find which precincts have the most positive interactions with police, compared to arrests and crimes.
She’s not an analyst at the police department. She’s a freshman in an algebra class at South High School.
“Sometimes you think, ‘Will I ever use this in real life?’ ” Mitchell said. “But we tend to do a lot of stuff that you are going to do in real life here.”
Stephanie Woldum, Mitchell’s teacher, draws students into math through statistics and data that reveal disparities and other inequities in society. Just weeks after the police shooting of Jamar Clark, and amid protests by Black Lives Matter activists, crime statistics nabbed their attention. It was part math, part current events, and from the students’ perspective, unusually interesting.
“There are very few math teachers that have figured out how to bring social justice into the math classroom,” said Sara Van Der Werf, president of the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics. “Most math classes are what you remember math looking like.”
Other educators have taken note of Woldum’s teaching style. She is a finalist for the 2015 Presidential Award in Math and Science Teaching, the nation’s highest award for teachers in those fields. Morgan Fierst, another math teacher at South who worked with Woldum to create the social justice curriculum, also is a finalist.
Touring city data
Throughout the school year, the teachers come up with various “data tours” and challenges for their students. The first lesson in Woldum’s class is called the Magical Statistical Tour, set to the soundtrack of the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour.”
Students examine data about Minneapolis neighborhoods, from income to race to housing.
From there the students submit questions. One student wrote, “Why is it that only three communities have $100,000 income?” Another wanted to know why so few white people live in north Minneapolis.
Five questions were focused on crime and policing. So Woldum dug out the crime statistics and the students started searching for answers — which sometimes proved elusive.
“You don’t think in a math class that you’d come away with more questions than answers, because in math there is always only one right answer,” Woldum said.
Students found that the majority of positive contacts with police happened in southwest Minneapolis, the city’s whitest and wealthiest area, while the majority of arrests in the city happened in poorer, more diverse neighborhoods.
“You can really see over-policing in certain areas,” said Jewel Ferguson, a student.
By the end of the year, the students will produce their own projects — gathering data, coming up with questions to analyze and presenting their findings at a schoolwide event.
Ray Aponte, the South High principal, said that event is emotional because students don’t just focus on math concepts. They talk about their struggles as people, Aponte said.
“I cry every year,” he said.
A committee of math and science educators selected Fierst and Woldum as state finalists for the national teaching award.
One math teacher and one science teacher are named winners from each state. The White House is expected to announce which of Woldum and Fierst will receive the math award, which comes with $10,000, by summer 2016.
Fierst, 34, and Woldum, 33, did not set out to become teachers. Woldum began as a biology major at the University of Minnesota but graduated with an art degree. Fierst, who grew up in St. Paul, has an economics degree.
Each turned to teaching after seeing students struggle to engage with school.
Woldum, a South graduate, considered teaching art but turned to math because it was difficult for her as a student. She even failed her algebra class in high school.
“It provides me insight for what students most struggle with,” she said, “and I tell them with persistence they can master anything.”
Fierst and Woldum began teaching at South about seven years ago.
“I had a lot of stand-alone projects,” said Fierst, who teaches an advanced algebra course to juniors. “Students weren’t impressed and engaged.”
After meeting at a training, Fierst and Woldum worked together to create a yearlong curriculum that would incorporate social justice data.
“They don’t ask, ‘Why do I need to understand this?’ They don’t ask me how they are going to be graded,” Woldum said. “Their focus is on the learning.”