A Freedom Summer Activist Becomes a Math Revolutionary

In the Algebra Project Robert Moses uses subway rides, gumdrops and everyday experiences to help kids cope with exponents and negative numbers

Robert Moses
Wikimedia Commons

"On a warm Saturday morning in spring, a bunch of rowdy sixth-graders take over a gymnasium in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Shouting, daring, flashing their white tennis shoes, teams warm up, then take their best shots in an elimination tournament. Parents, coaches, teachers, fans are up and screaming as the lead goes back and forth. Then the King Open School teams whips out their pens, factor numbers from 1 to 200 into primes and tape their answers to a matrix spread on the hardwood floor. Referees shout "Correct!" and King Open storms off the bench with the city championship . . . in Algebra."

What is going on here is a result of The Algebra Project, a way of making abstract math interesting and intelligible to inner city children, the children of the rural poor and, indeed American kids generally who desperately need math to compete in the modern job market, but are famously confused about it, especially algebra, and reluctant to try. The project is the creation of Robert Moses. Three decades ago Moses was renowned organizer of civil rights campaigns, especially with a view to register black voters in the South. But since 1982 he has been a man possessed by the need to spread the advantages of the Algebra Project around the country. "The idea of citizenship," he says "now requires not only a reading-writing tool, but a math-science tool."

Writer Bruce Watson spent weeks watching Moses at work and interviewing teachers and student and parents who use the Algebra Project techniques. The program begins with gumdrops and toothpicks used to make geometric constructs. It moves on into subway trips, with the stops becoming positive and negative numbers, then into narratives of the same trips and identification of various points of interest. These then are assigned symbols. Students get involved, dealing with both abstractions and practical logic, at first learning ratios at first by mixing lemonade one part sugar, three parts lemon juice. It sounds simple-minded but it works. In schools that use the Algebra Project a far higher number of students go on into high school Algebra than they ever did before. And they do well.

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