Math is the new civics? How Educators Use Media Literacy in the Classroom

Imagine you are sitting in a high school algebra class and reading a word problem. Both Ali and Bo receive $150 speeding tickets. Bo earns $7,000 a month and Ali only earns $1,000. Bo can save $200 a month, but Ali can only save $50. So how long will it take each person to pay for the ticket? Doing the math, it would take Bo a month and Ali three months.

Well, is that right? OK, what if for every month she couldn’t pay, the city added a $35 fee. Now, how long will it take to pay? Is it right? What if the city needs more money to fix the roads and doesn’t want to raise taxes, but is considering increasing the fine for traffic tickets or late fees? What would be better and why?

This is a situation that happens all the time in cities across the country. But that probably doesn’t sound like a conversation you’ve ever had in math class.

Karim Ani thinks it should be. He thinks math is the new civics. He is a professor of mathematics and founder of Citizen Mathematics. How many times have you or someone you know been in math class solving, say, a quadratic equation and exclaimed “When are we going to use this in our real lives?” Millions of kids have probably said some version of this phrase at school, and Ani thinks they’re sort of right. He says the key to answering that is instead of using real life as a way to look at math, to use math as a way to look at the world.

“When teachers have the opportunity to do that, to use math as a lens to look at the world, I think that’s when we as a society can really start talking about these issues in a non-partisan, more respectful way that is more critical, rational and analytical,” he said.

Ani was one of the presenters of the Illinois Civic Center recent conference. Starting this school year, every public high school in Illinois is required to teach a media literacy unit.

The meeting focused on how the principles of civics and media literacy can be used in all subject areas, not just in a civics or social studies course. And the math class? How about learning how to spot fake health information in a science class? And how can social-emotional learning facilitate these difficult conversations for students?

Maureen McAbee knows a little about this last example. She is the director of the Social-Emotional Learning Hub through the DuPage County Regional Office of Education.

“The importance of relationships in the classroom and how that ties into conversations about democracy and how those can really be fostered by giving students a clear voice in the classroom,” she said.

Many teachers present at the annual meeting teach civics classes. And many of the schools represented are part of the Schools for Democracy Network which promotes civic learning in all of their buildings.

The newly required course unit on media literacy should include an analysis – among other topics – of the included and excluded viewpoints of the media; how the media can influence behavior; and the importance of obtaining media from multiple sources.

Candace Fikis is a civics and economics teacher at West Chicago Community High School. She says her classes are just starting conversations about news literacy and misinformation. In fact, his students brought him the conversation.

“There has been misinformation on social media about the SAFE-T law which was adopted by the State and the Governor. I had three or four students who came and asked me: “What is this act? They’re going to release everyone from jail on January 1st?!’ said Fikis. “You know, it was the perfect time to stop and say, ‘What do you guys see? Alright, how do we get through this?’

She was able to help them begin to learn how to check facts, discern if a source is trustworthy, and then talk about it with their classmates.

“Being able to have these respectful conversations, right? The models are not very respectful. So how can I disagree with someone in a respectful way? ” she says.

Fikis says her students want a space to talk about these issues. In fact, Illinois students helped pass the new media literacy law. But, in an extremely divisive political moment, these discussions can be difficult. And engaging on these topics often leads to issues like race, equity and inclusion.

Vickie Trotter is the Executive Director of Professional Learning for the DuPage Regional Office. She helps give teachers the tools to have those courageous conversations.

“Sometimes when we talk about it, it’s a little uncomfortable,” she said. “But I think to help them become really good citizens, we really need to start having these difficult conversations and let our students see the world as it is and allow them to be involved in some of the decisions.”

Jennifer Burdette teaches social studies at Spoon River Valley High School. This is their first year as a school of democracy. She says that students benefit more from civic education when it is participatory. Whether it’s talking about real political topics or raising concerns about issues in their community.

“Students want to do civics,” Burdette said, “and that when civics is taught in a way that it’s not, you know, let’s just recite the Constitution—students are ready to board and they can’t wait to do things.”

Dan Fouts, government teacher at Main West High School, wants more people to know that media literacy is crucial for everyone.

“Civic education is about making good citizens,” Fouts said, “[it’s] recognition and acknowledgment that no matter what we learn in school, everyone should become a citizen.”

And – it is hoped – with this approach, a citizen better prepared for the real world.


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Donnie J. Milburn