Table of Contents

  • Free Editorial

    Just Math

    By the editors of Rethinking Schools
  • Free Whose Community Is This?

    Mathematics of neighborhood displacement

    By Eric (Rico) Gutstein

    Students use advanced math to study gentrification, displacement, and foreclosure in their neighborhood.

  • Transparency of Water

    A workshop on math, water, and justice

    By Selene Gonzalez-Carillo, Martha Merson

    Community educators bring math into an intergenerational exploration of the environmental, political, and economic issues surrounding bottled versus tap water.

  • Free Beyond Marbles

    Percent change and social justice

    By Flannery Denny

    Middle school students analyze a classroom full of social justice issues, armed with their understanding of percent change.

  • Other Features
  • Free Responding to Tragedy

    2nd graders reach out to the Sikh community

    By Dale Weiss

    When a racist attack kills members of a local Sikh temple, a 2nd-grade teacher involves her students in a journey of connection and solidarity.

  • An Unfortunate Misunderstanding

    Saga of a promising new charter

    By Grace Gonzales

    Helping create an independent charter school seems like a dream job. But teachers, parents, and children soon confront all-too-familiar charter school woes.

  • Creative Conflict

    Collaborative playwriting

    By Kathleen Melville

    A high school drama teacher searches for ways to encourage students to write about their lives without replicating stereotypes.

  • “Hey, Mom, I Forgive You”

    Teaching the forgiveness poem

    By Linda Christensen

    An English teacher builds community as her students write a poem about forgiving or not forgiving. She starts with her own story.

  • A Pure Medley

    Poetry By Adeline Nieto
  • Free Paradise Lost

    Introducing students to climate change through story

    By Brady Bennon

    The film Paradise Lost - about the rising ocean that threatens Kiribati - proves an evocative introduction to a unit on climate change.

  • Departments Free
    Action Education
  • Seattle Test Boycott: Our Destination Is Not on the MAP

    By Jesse Hagopian
  • Good Stuff
  • Encounters

    By Herb Kohl
  • Resources
  • Our picks for books, videos, websites, and other social justice education resources.

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Transparency of Water

A workshop on math, water, and justice
Transparency of Water
Martha Merson

If you are an environmental organizer, like Selene, your classroom is a conference room, the community garden, or a church parking lot. Your students are everyonefrom toddlers to the elderly; they come with a variety of levels of formal education.Your goal is to increase environmental justice, community well-being, and individuals' health.

If you are a math educator/curriculum writer with an interest in data, like Martha, you teach in adult ed and K12 classrooms, libraries, and living roomsanywhere you can sneak in math. The teaching starts with a provocative statistic or a document with unfathomable numbers. Your students are often math averse. Their motivation could be to earn a high school diploma or simply to learn more. Many have plans to put learning to use in their communities, churches, and families. Your goal is to encourage adults and youth to take a new look at numbers, to ask questions.

Statistics for Action (SfA) brought us together. SfA provides organizers and community members with tools and resources for understanding and using scientific data in communities affected by environmental contamination. During the project, we led an SfA-inspired workshop in Spanish designed to probe participants' distrust of tap water and arm them with skills and knowledge to take on water quality/delivery issues.

Do You Drink Chicago's Tap Water?

We made coffee and set up a water taste test. At 9 a.m., volunteers recruited for a six-week leadership program filed in for their 4th session. Among the participants were Carmela, a single mother, college student, and intern at Little Village Environmental Justice Organization; Elena, who is studying for a commercial trucker's license; and two middle school students, Luna and Maria, who brought along their pet rooster. The eight participants ranged in age from 10 to 60. Their project facilitator, Norma, also a neighborhood resident, has a long history of social justice work.

We began a taste test of Mountain Spring bottled water, filtered water, and tap water. Selene instructed the participants to sample water from each of three pitchers. They examined the water in their cups, swished it around, and swallowed.

Carmela: This is good because I'm dehydrated.

Sandra: I'm a dummy; they taste the same to me.

Carmela: It's all the same water, I get it. She laughs, then: Is it?

Elena: It's between A and B.

Although divided in their prefer ences, most surprising to them was their difficulty in discriminating between bottled and tap water.

Martha then asked: Do you buy bottled water?

We wanted to understand why and to what extent the participants paid for bottled water. We hoped that some of their reasons would be examined in The Story of Bottled Water (, which we had queued up.

Yoana: I buy bottled water because it's cleaner.

Carmela related what happened when her girlfriend offered her water: I'm like, What are you doing?' because that's tap waterforget about it. [But] the tap water tasted better and I would tell my mama, Drink water from the tap, it tastes very good,' and she would say to me No! Are you crazy? It has chemicals.'

We didn't judge participants' choices. Distrust of tap water can run deep in communities of color. Little Village, the Chicago neighborhood where the participants live, is home to more than 90,000 residents, nearly half of whom are immigrants, according to the University of Chicago. Many come from places with a history of serious water issues. In a 2011 study published in Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, of the parents surveyed, Minority parents were more likely to exclusively give bottled water to their children. Reasons cited included taste and safety.1

In 2008 the Environmental Working Group published results of their investigation of 10 popular brands of bottled water in nine states and found a total of 38 chemical pollutants... with an average of eight contaminants in each brand, including industrial solvents and fertilizer residue.2 Consequently, the reliance on bottled water in communities of color is a serious concern. In addition to the ecological and economic issues related to bottled water use, these communities are disproportionately at risk for health consequences associated with bottled water.

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