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Community Based Mathematics Project of Philadelphia

Creating Locally Relevant Content

We call our approach locally relevant because we adapt and design context-rich mathematics curriculum to reflect and leverage resources in a student’s local community. Our approach is relevant to students because it places them at the center of the curriculum and takes into account the contexts of their lives, what they know, do, and are interested in. We also consider the institutional structures and social communities in which they are situated and the social realities and issues that matter, both to them and for them.

The lessons on our site are locally relevant to Philadelphia, and even sometimes to particular neighborhoods or schools in the city. However, you can easily adapt many of these lessons to fit the lives of YOUR students, or use them as starting points to develop your own lessons for your students.

Suggestions for designing locally relevant curriculum

1. Learn about your Students. Collect input from them and find out what excites or concerns them. Interview students informally or hold group conversations to learn about what they do outside of school, their interests and concerns, and how they participate in the local community.

One of the first lessons we developed used the high school application process as a locally relevant context, because 7th grade students told us they wanted to know more about this process.

2. Use current events and local or national news to find issues that have local relevance to your students, then consider how they can be explored with mathematics. We have developed lessons from proposed laws or ordinances, community development, local elections, or issues of general human interest.

We have used “Stop and Frisk” policies in place and a proposed “Added Sugar Tax” to develop lessons on probability and proportions. 

Locally relevant curriculum is not necessarily limited to the local community. When students have a genuine and personal interest in national news, we use it in our lessons.

In 2008, many of the students we worked with were deeply motivated by the election of Barack Obama. After watching the inauguration, one 6th grade classroom replaced a generic map activity with a map of the inaugural parade route.

3.     Consider locally relevant topics that have meaning for students’ lives. Not all locally relevant contexts are based on students’ interests. Some focus on issues that are consequential to them, such as neighborhood resources, blight, sugar content of popular drinks, or elections.

Some of our lessons involve comparing the proportion of community assets (like libraries or basketball courts) and liabilities (like abandoned properties) in different neighborhoods or zip codes. Although this was not a topic identified by students, they became motivated to examine the conditions in their neighborhood and look for ways to make change.

4.     Look for opportunities to replace contexts or data in your current curriculum with others your students value. Look at graphs and tables and consider types of local data that would have similar mathematical properties that could be used to teach the same concepts. Consider activities in your students’ lives that could be used to introduce math problems. In adapting, it is critical that the mathematics is not reduced or obscured by the new context, however.

We like to replace generic maps with maps of the local neighborhood, and use data students know and care about. For example, we adapted a textbook lesson on functions by replacing the table of data comparing taxi rates per mile with one on cell phone rates per minute, a context that leveraged middle school students’ interest and experience.

5.     Use current data that is readily available. The Internet has a wealth of data to be mined. Some of our favorite sources are census data, Google Maps, data on local sports teams, nutritional information, city and neighborhood statistics, land-use or election maps, and school- or district-level data.

For a lesson on data analysis and representation, we had students use current data on the Philadelphia Phillies players’ annual salaries, data that is published annually by USA Today and other news outlets.

6.     Link locally relevant contexts to the content that is tested. After students have explored and developed an understanding of the important mathematics concepts within the local context, build a bridge between that understanding and the types of questions they are likely to see on tests or in other school contexts.

We used street maps to allow 7th graders to explore intersecting, parallel, and transversal lines. We then connected these lines to more standard geometric representations of lines.

7.     Follow mathematics explorations with action. Once they learn about issues in their lives through the lens of mathematics, students may want to take action. They can write letters, organize information sharing campaigns, advocate for change, or make change themselves by raising money or planting a community garden.

After learning about the high school application process and the lack of resources for students and families, a class of 7th graders created a resource guide about area high schools.

8.     Collaborate with other teachers. Collaboration is key to the creative process and can help you accomplish your goals. Find colleagues to work with to create locally relevant lessons. Start with a question about the context, then explore it with others to see where it takes you and what other questions it raises. Work through the mathematics together. This can also help you home in on the mathematics and think about ways to make the content accessible for your students.

Taking action provides an opportunity to collaborate with teachers of different subjects, from social studies to music and more. Use mathematics class to understand the issue and social studies to decide how to respond.

One teacher developed a lesson where her students would listen to popular songs and describe the structure of the song by using ratios—the ratio of chorus to verse, for example. After presenting this lesson idea to the group, we further explored the mathematics by looking specifically at the bar model and how it could be used to help represent the structure of popular songs. After that session, another teacher decided to teach that lesson to her 7th graders, having students use the bar model to map out the parts of a song together and then do the same for a song of their choice. At a subsequent CBMP meeting, she shared student work and some video clips of this lesson. She posed some new questions for the group around how to focus more directly on the mathematical concepts of comparing ratios. The group came up with several new ideas, including using a clear framing question to structure the activity (Do all songs have the same ratio of chorus to verse?), introducing the use of percentages to make those comparisons, and brainstorming ways that the ratios and percentages students found could be recorded in a graph to identify similarities and differences. Other teachers planned to teach this lesson in their own schools and realized that they could collaborate with the music teacher. Over time, this lesson idea grew and evolved through the sharing of ideas in a professional learning community.