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How Civil Rights Pioneer Bob Moses Changed Math Education

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tags: civil rights, education history, Bob Moses



Civil rights leader and education pioneer Bob Moses (1935-2021), who died in late July, always looked at his evolving mission through the lens of citizenship and what educational processes were needed to achieve and enjoy its blessings.

His starting point was the preamble to the U.S. Constitution and, oddly enough, an effort by President Ulysses S. Grant, responding to the social revolution of Reconstruction, to make quality education a constitutional right. The Republican Congress was tiring of Reconstruction and did not go along; Grant’s objective has yet to be fulfilled. If we are to “achieve our country,” as Moses echoed James Baldwin, we must claim for all Americans the constitutional right to a quality education.

Bob Moses was inspired and mentored by Ella Baker, 32 years older, who had mastered the art of community organizing over half a century before she midwifed the birth of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960. She saw organizers as teachers who committed not to build up their own leadership but to develop leadership in others. She and Moses believed that everyone had leadership potential but it must be taught. Thus they created various forms of citizenship education and spread it widely. Because they centered leadership in the community—not in top-down charisma but from bottom-up, shared leadership among equals—they called it group-centered leadership. Participants were responsible to each other, holding each other accountable to the group’s values and mission. Group-centered leadership and citizenship education, aimed at securing voting rights for African Americans, were grounded in the community and in family support, both of these vital in the rural South.

More than a decade after the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Moses realized that the next frontier was economic justice, and that fluency in math and science was the springboard for peoples of color and low-income whites to be full citizens, fully enfranchised—the civil rights issue of the 21st century. While Moses was completing his Ph.D. in the philosophy of mathematics at Harvard with his four kids starting school, he grasped that in order for math literacy, algebra in particular, to be accessible to disadvantaged children, teachers-as-organizers would need to teach it like he and SNCC colleagues had taught community organizing—as experiential learning in one’s community.

Remarkably, Moses translated his dissertation supervisor’s philosophy of “set theory” into a process of teaching algebra through students’ active participation and empowerment. (Sets can perhaps be seen as the mathematical equivalent of human groups.) For example, whether in Boston, the Mississippi Delta, or Miami, students explored algebra problems by mapping bus or subway routes and “solving” the problem by reaching their destination, as if in a scavenger hunt. Self-directed students learned algebra by teaching and learning from their pals in solving real-life problems. These strategies developed into the Algebra Project, which, with support from a MacArthur “genius” grant, took off exponentially (as it were). Though still not mainstream, over the past 40 years the Algebra Project has opened doors and vistas for hundreds of thousands of middle and high school students North, South, East, and West.

Read entire article at EdSurge

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