Saturday, June 11, 2016

Algebra is another freedom

Three recent American visitors to Kilcullen were today’s leaders of an educational movement in the US which was born from the US Civil Rights tensions of the 1950s, writes Brian Byrne.

Maisha Moses, along with colleagues from the Young People’s Project Nell Cobb and Charlene De Leon, were on a week long trip to Ireland introducing what’s known as ‘The Algebra Project’ to students of a course at Dublin City University.

Maisha’s father Bob Moses left his studies of the philosophy of Mathematics in Harvard University in the 1950s to join the Civil Rights movement in the Mississippi Delta region, where he became field organising secretary for the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, and was mentored by longtime Civil Rights campaigner Ella Josephine Baker. He was heavily involved in campaigns such as the ‘Freedom Summer’ and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which famously demanded to be seated at the 1964 Democratic National Convention on live television.

“He later had to leave, and went to Tanzania, where he had three children, including me,” Maisha says. “As we were growing up, he started teaching us maths, and when we came back to the US he continued to. I was in the eighth grade and he thought I was ready for algebra, but there was nobody in the school able to teach us, so he began coming in himself to teach.”

That was when Bob Moses saw how some children were ‘falling off’ mathematics, and then tracking down to lower overall educational levels. He came to the conclusion that it was a ‘civil right’ that all students should be able to access mathematics, particularly algebra, and then go on to achieve a full education. Thus was born the ‘Algebra Project.’

“The difficulty was that when students were introduced to algebra, it was done at a very abstract level,” Maisha says. “Mathematics has its own grammar, and often that’s where kids will say, ‘I don’t get any of that stuff’.”

What the Algebra Project did was develop a set of ‘concrete’ examples of mathematical processes, to make them more easily understood. Such as looking at ‘integers’ like a trip, where the numbers represent movement and direction on a journey. That establishes concrete understanding of abstract processes.

Professor Nell Cobb from De Paul University in Chicago comes into the story when she took over as Executive Director in that city of the Young People’s Project, a movement set up in Mississippi in 1996 by former Algebra Project students. The model was for a youth-led organisation that centres around young people teaching each other mathematics. It developed into a series of national workshops and other events, and reached Chicago in 2002.

“The idea was that we hired college students to mentor and teach high school students mathematics, and these high school students became leaders to teach the younger student grades in the schools where we worked," Professor Cobb says. "Eventually I joined De Paul University as a professor in the College of Education, and I brought the YPP and AP programmes with me.”

The recent trip to Ireland by the three was organised by Rachel Linney of the National Council for Curriculum Assessment, who was very interested in how Professor Cobb had integrated the principles of YPP and AP into her courses, with students using them in their pre-service training. “They’re here to show how to incorporate YPP and AP into a course at DCU,” says Rachel, who is originally from Athy and is a friend of Brendan O’Connell of Kilcullen. Hence the visit to Kilcullen, where they were particularly ‘blown away’ by the Bridge Camphill Community.

The visit to Ireland was sponsored by Science Foundation Ireland. Pictured are Charlene de Leon, Professor Nell Cobb, and Maisha Moses, with Rachel Linney of the NCCA.

This article was first published in The Kildare Nationalist.