Saturday, December 16, 2006

Bob Moses and the Algebra Project

Educator equates algebra, success

Professor and civil rights advocate Bob Moses visits city to push math model.

By Laurel Rosenhall - Bee Staff Writer
Published 12:00 am PST Saturday, December 16, 2006

Bob Moses sees algebra as a civil rights issue -- if poor children don't learn high-level math, he argues, they'll never get the jobs they need as adults to pull themselves out of poverty.

The math professor who fought in the 1960s to earn black Southerners the right to vote was in Sacramento on Thursday and Friday to talk with local educators about bringing his model for math instruction to area schools. It's a prospect still in the early stages of development -- no one has decided yet which schools or districts would participate, or when the effort would begin.

But teachers, administrators and community members at Friday's meeting were intrigued by the possibility of becoming part of the national Algebra Project, a network of schools and teachers trying to improve math education for needy students through methods developed by Moses.

"We recognize that success in math and science lays the foundation for success in school and beyond," said David Oshige, of the California Teachers Association and the Sacramento Valley Organizing Community, a group that set up Moses' trip to Sacramento.

During the meeting at the Celebration Christian Center, Moses demonstrated how participants in the Algebra Project teach mathematical concepts. The approach starts with students doing something, then asks them to talk about it in laymen's terms, then talk about it in scientific terms, then draw it, and finally, convert it to conventional algebraic symbols.

In the example he presented Friday, Moses asked two meeting participants to stand next to each other at the front of the room and say their names: Dr. Richardson and Ms. Vierra, they said.

He asked the rest of the group to write two sentences about which of the two women is taller and which is shorter. "Dr. Richardson is taller than Ms. Vierra," a participant said. "Ms. Vierra is shorter than Dr. Richardson."

This, Moses said, was what he calls "people talk," or describing something in common terms.

Then Moses asked the group what feature of the women the exercise focused on: Was it their weight? Their shoe size? No.

"The feature we're talking about is their height," he said. "Now write a sentence that starts with the feature, 'The height.' "

People read their sentences aloud. Some wrote that the height of Dr. Richardson "surpasses" the height of Ms. Vierra. Others wrote that the height of Dr. Richardson "is more than" or "is greater than" that of Ms. Vierra.

"That's feature talk," Moses said.

Then participants took turns drawing symbols to represent their sentences. And finally, Moses translated the picture sentences into conventional symbols by writing:

H(Dr. R) > H(Ms. V)

H(Ms. V) < H(Dr. R)

From there, he said, students learn the concept behind terms like x > y and y < x.

"The letter x is a conventional way of representing a feature, in this case the height," said Moses, who studied math philosophy at Harvard and is on the faculty of Florida International University.

Participating in the Algebra Project means a lot more than changing the way math is taught.

It also requires that schools commit to the program for five years and offer the Algebra Project classes to a substantial number of students performing in the lowest quartile on state tests. Schools must also release teachers for training in the Algebra Project technique, provide teachers with graphing calculators and other technology, and hire enough teachers so that students can take 90 minutes of math each day.

"The main cost is getting these extra teachers," Moses said.

He suggested the Sacramento community begin to identify teachers and schools that want to participate in the program. Once the schools and teachers are selected, the program could start with a few eighth- and ninth-grade classes in the 2008-09 school year, Moses said.

The Algebra Project and affiliated efforts now operate in Chicago, Boston, Miami and Jackson, Miss. Schools in Milwaukee, Oakland, Atlanta, Indianapolis, San Francisco and Los Angeles also have participated at different times in the Algebra Project's 20 year-plus history.

The Algebra Project grew out of Moses' experience volunteering in his own children's classrooms in the early 1980s. Before that, from 1961 to 1965, he headed the voter registration drive in Mississippi as part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a key group in the civil rights movement.

"We used the right to vote as a tool to organize sharecroppers so they could demand their political access into the political system," Moses said. "What we're doing now is using mathematics and math literacy as an organizing tool for the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the sharecroppers across the country to get them to access their educational and economic opportunities."

Adam Berman, director of curriculum for the Grant Joint Union High School District, was among the educators at Friday's meeting. Afterward, he said he wants to learn even more about the Algebra Project.

"It involves concepts that are promising for closing the achievement gap," Berman said. "We'll investigate this further."

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