Kendra Din darkened the room, flicked on the projector and gave the 30 girls in her 9th-grade algebra class a surprise immersion in a world far grittier than anything they’ve known in their own East Harlem.
- A 15-year-old girl worked in a clothing factory in Sri Lanka this week for 40 cents an hour. A 16-year-old boy performed sexual favors for male tourists in Thailand this week for 50 cents an hour. Together, they earned $47 for the entire week. How many hours did each teenager work for this small amount of money?
- A six-year-old girl’s family in India couldn’t afford for her to attend school, so she was forced to beg for money in the streets every day for a full year. A 17-year-old mother of a newborn also begged for a year with a baby in her arms at the Mexican-American border in Mexicali, Baja California. The two girls’ daily earnings totaled an average of $7.97 per day. The young mother averaged $2.33 more per day than the six-year-old, because she begged from wealthy Americans. How much did they each make per day, on average?
The problems were to be solved with equations (x=number of hours girl worked; y=number of hours boy worked).
But getting the right answer wasn’t entirely the point.
Din wanted her students to see — forcefully, even hyperbolically — that mathematics is tied to the real world.
And she wanted them to learn something about themselves: compared with millions of other young people around the globe, they had many more opportunities before them — and they shouldn’t blow them.
“Stop thinking about unimportant stuff, and pay more attention to your teachers,” she told them as the class ended for the day, one girl loudly complaining about discovering a hole in her sweater. “We all have Masters degrees, and we care about you, and we want to keep you going to school because we want you to have better lives.”
Did they listen? Possibly. As one of the students later answered a homework assignment: “It broke my heart how both the boy and girl had to work in their terrible jobs for a week just to earn a meager amount of money that I would easily blow on pointless objects like another pair of sneakers that I really didn’t need. It made me realize how hard I need to work in high school, so I can go to college and get a good job.”
The scene was the Young Women’s Leadership School, a well-regarded public high school of 440 students, meeting in a converted office building on East 106th Street. The student body is more than half Hispanic, one-third black, and all girl. Most would be the first from their families to attend college — and the school boasts excellent college-acceptance rates (100 percent in 2010).
Din, 37, had created the word problems from scenes she had experienced in her own travels around the world and from growing up in Southern California near the Mexican border. She’d devised them during precious off-hours, so pressed for time that she realized only later that the first problem wasn’t solvable; she hadn’t provided enough information for students to come up with an answer.
She had been inspired by an article in Rethinking Schools magazine. The authors, Eric (Rico) Gutstein and Bob Peterson, teachers in Chicago and Milwaukee, proposed “to teach math in a way that helps students more clearly understand their lives in relation to their surroundings, and to see math as a tool to help make the world more equal and just” — a hot potato of an argument that has some critics seeing math class turning alarmingly into a forum for left-wing propaganda.
But Din wasn’t trying to start a political argument. She just wanted her students to be less bored than they are by the usual word problem.
“‘Sandy bought a chocolate bar for 43 cents, and Carlos bought one for 50 cents. But if Sandy bought 10 more than Carlos’ — who cares about candy bars?” Din said in an interview. “It’s so unimportant in the real world. Why not put some actual economic issues in the problems so that students can learn something about the real world while they’re learning the math?”
Highlighting the point, Din had prefaced the lesson earlier that day by asking her class: “How many of you think that math has nothing do with real life?” Almost every hand went up.
Din wants to dispel the notion that math is useless. That goal’s in line with the new Common Core Standards, the ambitious curriculum changes that are coming soon to more than 45 states.
“The high school standards call on students to practice applying mathematical ways of thinking to real world issues and challenges,” says the Common Core website.
Earlier this year, wanting “to show that statistics is important, especially in light of Nate Silver predicting the outcome of elections very well,” Din organized her higher-level students in a fantasy baseball league.
The girls resisted at first “because there was a lot of math involved” and because few were keen on baseball. But the girls warmed to the project, stretching it to two months, as it turned into a game and their statistical analyses made increasing sense to them. A screening of the movie “Moneyball” opened eyes.
“You could see it was changing the way they thought,” Din said with a grin. “One girl said she might become a statistician.”
Din’s experiment with real-life word problems was a work in progress. Kristina Kasper, a teacher coach who was sitting in, said that while the goals were commendable, the teaching method fell short. “There was too much talking from the teacher and not enough doing from the students,” said Kasper, an instructional specialist with New Visions for Public Schools. “I was surprised to see the kids being so passive.”
Din gave her students two additional word problems that day. One involved a pair of children who worked for hours, selling postcards to tourists in Istanbul (“If they worked a total of 23.5 hours in an entire day and sold 686 postcards total, how many hours did they each work?”).
The last problem concerned two graduates of the girls’ own Young Women’s Leadership School. Both got into the same Upstate New York college where tuition was $53,000 per year. Girl 1 studied six times as hard as Girl 2, and her tuition was $53,000 less. “How much is Girl 1’s tuition? How much is Girl 2’s tuition? Which one got the scholarship, and why do you think she got it?”
This wasn’t really a math problem. The answer was given away. But it was a true story, and Din emphasized the point by showing a video. Here on screen was the real-life Girl 1, opening her college acceptance letter and erupting in joy.
Din’s students watched raptly, some dabbing their eyes.
The girls’ homework was to write answers about the lesson’s meanings. Why had they been presented with questions like these? Which problem had affected them most?
Not one student objected to the content as being too raw or too salacious.
“Ms. Din was trying to say that our lives aren’t as bad as we portray them to be,” one girl wrote. “We complain about the smallest things, such as the homework or the temperature of the room. It’s better to get a lot of homework than to skip school to beg for money…
“This lesson had a profound effect on me. I feel privileged that I can go to a small school with great teachers and great education.”
Another girl wrote about the scholarship winner: “It was such a touching story that made me wanna cry [sic]. This will definitely affect my choices in high school. This will happen because the look on her face made me want to feel that happiness.”
All in all, Din considered the lesson a success. A few girls who’d dragged their feet on homework began to show some enthusiasm for the class, she said in an email. Others were “still as silly as they used to be with their childish complaints, but now I can remind them that their lives could be a lot worse, and they know exactly what I’m referring to.”
“I think I need to come up with other interesting plans of that sort to keep their attention,” she added.
“It’s a lot of work.”
Story and photos by Howard Goodman. Image of student work courtesy of Kendra Din.