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Math is the new civics? How educators use media literacy across classrooms

Imagine you’re sitting in a high school algebra class reading a word problem. Ali and Bo both get a $150 speeding ticket. Bo makes $7,000 per month and Ali only makes $1,000. Bo can save $200 a month but Ali can only save $50. So, how long will it take for each person to pay off the ticket? Doing the math, it would take Bo one month and Ali three months.

Well, Is that fair? Okay, what if for every month she couldn’t pay, the city tacked on a $35 fee. Now, how long will it take to pay off? Is that fair? What if the city needs more money to fix roads and doesn't want to raise taxes, but is thinking about raising the fine for tickets or late fees? Which would be better and why?

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

Karim Ani thinks it should be. He thinks math is the new civics. He’s a math teacher and the founder of Citizen Math. How many times have you or someone you know been in a math class solving, for instance, a quadratic equation and exclaimed “When are we ever going to use this in our real lives?” Millions of kids have probably said some version of that sentence in school and Ani thinks they’ve kind of got a point. He says the key to answering it is instead of using real life as a way to look at math, using math as a way to look at the world.

“When teachers have opportunities to do that, to use mathematics as a lens for looking at the world, I think that is when we as society can really begin to talk about these issues in a way that isn't partisan, that is more respectful, that is more critical and rational and analytical,” he said.

Ani was one of the presenters at the Illinois Civics Hub’s recent conference. Starting this school year, every public high school in Illinois is required to teach a unit on media literacy.

The convening was focused on how civic learning and media literacy principles can be used across disciplines -- not just in a civics or social studies class. How about math class? What about learning about spotting health misinformation in a science class? And how social-emotional learning can make these tough conversations easier for students?

Maureen McAbee knows a bit about that last example. She’s the director of the Social-Emotional Learning Hub through the DuPage County regional education office.

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

Many of the teachers at the annual convening teach civics classes. And many of the schools represented are part of the Democracy Schools Network that promotes civic learning throughout their buildings.

The newly-required unit of instruction on media literacy has to include analysis on -- among other topics -- the points of view included and excluded from media; how media can influence behaviors; and the importance of getting media from multiple sources.

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

“There was some misinformation on social media about the SAFE-T Act that was passed by the state and the governor. I had three or four students come up and ask me, ‘What is this act? They're going to release everybody from prison on January 1?!’” said Fikis. “You know, it was a perfect time to stop and be like, ‘What are you guys seeing? Okay, how can we go through this?”

She got to help them start learning how to fact-check, discern if a source is trustworthy and then talk about it with their classmates.

“Being able to have those conversations that are respectful, right? The models aren't very respectful. So, how can I disagree with somebody in a respectful way?” she said.

Fikis says her students want space to talk about these issues. In fact, Illinois students helped drive the passage of the new media literacy law. But, in an extremely divisive political moment, those discussions can be challenging. And engaging with those 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 brave conversations.

“Sometimes when we talk about that it's a little uncomfortable,” she said. “But I think in order to help them to be really great citizens, we really need to start having those difficult conversations and letting our students see the world for what it is and allowing them to take part in some of the decisions.”

Jennifer Burdette is a social studies teacher at Spoon River Valley High School. It’s their first year as a Democracy School. She says students get more out of civics when it’s participatory. Whether it’s talking about real political topics or raising concerns about issues in their community.

“Students want to do civics," said Burdette, "and that when civics is taught in a way where it's not, you know, let's just recite back the Constitution -- students are willing to get on board and they look forward to doing those things."

Main West High School government teacher Dan Fouts wishes more people knew that media literacy is crucial for everyone.

“Civics education is about making good citizens," said Fouts, "[it's] recognition and acknowledgement that no matter what we learn in schools, everyone has to become a citizen."

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

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.