Math literacy: A civil rights campaign

September 23, 1994|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,Sun Staff Writer

Robert Moses is staring at 13-year-old Kia Shantel Wooten, waiting for her arrive at the same conclusion as August Ferdinand Mobius, a 19th-century German mathematician.

Dr. Moses hunches next to her silently, patiently. He knows Kia and the rest of her eighth-grade class can get the right answers to Mobius' complex math exercise.

He knows it like he knew Mississippi sharecroppers would pass the literacy test required to register to vote in the 1960s.

In the same way he gathered fellow workers around him in Mississippi to recruit black voters from 1961 to 1964, Dr. Moses is gathering steam for a new kind of civil rights campaign -- mathematics literacy.

After winning a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant, Dr. Moses created the 12-year-old Massachusetts-based Algebra Project to prepare middle-school students for more advanced mathematics in high school and for an increasingly technological world.

Yesterday during a visit to Harlem Park Community School in West Baltimore, Dr. Moses said technological advances in areas like computers require greater mathematic skills than many students, especially African-Americans and poor students, are prepared for.

"Basically it's the same literacy citizenship issue applied in the '60s to voting and political participation, and here now you're applying it to math literacy and basically economic participation," Dr. Moses said.

The fight for political participation for blacks took Dr. Moses, originally from Harlem, to Mississippi in 1958 at age 25.

For several summers in the 1960s, he and other "freedom riders" suffered jail and beatings to teach and escort black Mississippians to register to vote.

After the whirlwind of several years in the Civil Rights movement, Dr. Moses lived in Tanzania from 1966 to 1976, where he taught high school math and raised a family.

Dr. Moses, who holds a doctorate in mathematics from Harvard University, and his 20-year-old son, Taba, spent two days this week teaching several classes of sixth, seventh- and eighth-graders at Harlem Park as part of the school's effort to implement his math curriculum next school year. It was his second visit to the school this year.

While most of the school's students sat at their desks and listened to a teacher, Kia and her classmates pushed the desks and tables to the edges of the room to make room on the floor for Dr. Moses' canvas tarp, painted with green, yellow and red bars.

For almost two hours, the students huddled in groups of four and five to do factoring exercises. When they had grasped Mobius' function, they took turns standing in the center of the tarp and walking along the colored bars that matched their set of figures.

Shanell Pryor, 13, said that she likes Dr. Moses' approach to math.

"He's going in deeper," she said. "The teachers, they just tell us how to do it, but he's telling us how to get the answer."

Using games to teach concepts is a large part of the Algebra Project's curriculum, which also incorporates life experiences, like riding the subway.

"If you can find a way to embed some important mathematics inside the learning of the game, it can motivate the kids to learn math," Dr. Moses said.

Last year, 116 schools had adopted the math program, which relies on parental and community involvement. Chicago plans to incorporate the Algebra Project into all 500 of its middle schools in the next five years, according to the project's executive director, Linda Grisham.

"The schools in systems which are moving ahead . . . are the white upper-middle-class programs and so you get the racialization problem," Dr. Moses said. "The Algebra Project itself can't address it. The Algebra Project can point a way."

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