The power of numbers

I teach a remedial/developmental math course at the college.  This is a course that is specifically designed for students who have not tested into traditional college-credit courses. Frequently the students who take this course are students who have either not been in a math classroom in many years (such as returning, or non-traditional aged students) or students who may have always struggled with math concepts through their traditional schooling.  Last summer, two other faculty members and I re-wrote the course, and decided to approach it in a new way. With the re-developed curriculum, we work with the students in collaborative settings to begin to become mathematical thinkers.

On the first day of our course meeting, the topic at hand is the power of large numbers. Sometimes, it is difficult for students who don't think mathematically to even begin to imagine values in the millions and billions.  Last semester, I asked my students to work in teams and measure their shoulder spans.  Then, with that information, they predicted the average adult human shoulder span.  With that, they then were asked to determine how many people would need to line up, shoulder to shoulder, to span the distance of a mile.  The students were surprised at the outcome.  They initially were unable to even contemplate how to go about estimating this answer- their estimates were absolute guesses.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to participate in an empowering historical event, the Women's March in Washington DC.  This march, organized to unify women and feminists of all sexes, genders, races, and religions, was originally granted a permit with an estimate of 200,000 attending.

I made plans to meet up with friends early.  The rally began at 10am, and the 2 mile march to the White House was to begin shortly after 1pm.  I planned to meetup with my group several blocks away at a local coffee shop at 8am.  My group was made up of family (my husband and daughter), friends, a former student, a former colleague, and the brother of a good friend.  We figured we had plenty of time before the rally started, so walked several blocks in the opposite direction to meet up with the Global Women's Institute from George Washington University.  As we walked from one place to another, before we even got to the rally, we were energized by the throngs of people walking in.  Religious groups, worker's unions, drummers and dancers, school groups, and friends gathering from all over the country.

Once at the rally, we did notice that although the crowd was predominately white and female, it was not overwhelmingly so.  I saw racial representation, several men, and a great turnout from the LGBTQ community.  There were veiled Muslim women, and Christian priests.  There were children and elderly folks in wheelchairs.  The chant "Show me what a feminist looks like! This is what a feminist looks like!" really rang true.

Speaking of chants, like the signs that people carried, there were many.  It was beautiful that so many who had different objectives were able to come together with unity. Black lives matter was both a frequent and enthusiastic chant, as well as sign.  Some carried signs about health access and supported Planned Parenthood.  Some carried signs encouraging the government to respect treaties, and continue work towards NoDAPL. Others carried signs about science and climate change, and I even saw a few for veganism.  Some signs really made you chuckle.  One I loved was "If the librarians are marching, you know it's bad." and another featured a pictures of  Betsy DeVos and a grizzly bear with the slogan "One of these is a danger to students in the classroom.  The other is a bear."

There is power in numbers.  We tried to get closer to the stage, but got funneled onto a parallel street, with the thought that we'd be able to loop around and see it from the other side.  There was no looping.  As several thousand other people had the same idea.  By 1:30, as we were packed together on the streets with our now closest friends, we learned that the march wouldn't be able to proceed as intended, because so many people were in attendance that we filled the streets for the entire 2 mile route, in addition to the side streets (on which I stood for a few hours). The cell towers were kaput, no one was able to receive any information.  Our main source of updates was a delightful 11 year old boy in attendance with his mother who had climbed a tree and shouted back news to the crowd.  "Evan! Evan!" we shouted for him, and his smile made us all laugh!

If you know Washington DC, you know that the area west of the Capitol building, stretching almost 2 miles to the Lincoln Memorial, is called the National Mall.  The Mall is a vast, public space area that is grassy and often used for assembly.  The Mall was off-limits to us, as it was still set up for Friday's Inauguration.  However, there were so many people, we naturally spilled into this space.  When we were told that the march wouldn't be able to take the sanctioned "Parade Route", we all took it on ourselves to march to the White House by other means.  We filled the National Mall.  We all started moving west, waving our signs, with the awesome DC Police officers making arrangements and stopping traffic for us. Although I knew close to 50 people who attended the rally, there were so many there, other than those in my small group, I didn't see anyone else I'd hoped to.

There is power in large numbers.  The march organizers originally anticipated 200,000. Now, estimates of the rally (based on METRO ridership) sit between 500,000 and 800,000.

I start the new semester on Wednesday, and plan to teach the large numbers lesson to my developmental students on Thursday. This seems like an amazing and timely teachable moment.