Reading: “Radical Equations” by Robert Moses, Part Two

I am two chapters into section two of Radical Equations, the latter part of the Bob Moses’ book about his Algebra Project. In the 1980s, Moses began teaching math to a small group of four accelerated students in his child’s middle-school class, and that project grew over the next decade into an organized, grant-funded, nationwide initiative to increase math proficiency among typically underperforming student populations.
Moses spends chapters four and five describing how the Algebra Project came together. While I am particularly interested in his descriptions of organizing and overcoming obstacles, like teacher reticence, staffing needs, funding and training methodology, his descriptions of mathematics are less interesting to me ( . . . but that’s just a personal thing – much like people that Moses writes about, I don’t really like math either. But since I’m reading a book about a math-based initiative, I’ll hush and be nice about it.)
What has most caught my eye in these two chapters are the discussions of resistance to change among some educators and the idea that an organizer can’t decide in advance what the outcomes will be. The latter is something like Keats’ idea of “negative capability;” we can have some great experiences if we rest comfortably in uncertainty for a while, to see where it takes us. And after all, it is the local group that has to decide on its own needs; it isn’t about the missionary zeal. The former circumstance – long-standing patterns of traditionalism and resistance to change – is something I regard as our biggest problem in education: facing changing times with unchanged systems. Moses describes his project’s process of slowly inching its way along, using proven results to justify expansion, evolving with its new locales, and eventually developing a working model for success.
I am also quite glad to know that this successful project is based on experiential learning, something I believe in strongly. Hands-on learning is one of the best ways to teach young people anything. The teaching method utilized by the Algebra Project always begins with a trip out of the classroom – sometimes on a subway, sometimes on a bus, sometimes walking – before they utilize algebra to turn the actual into the conceptual, something real into something abstract. That is kind of how I teach writing: you have to do something, then tell me about the experience in whatever form it must take.
So far, I have only had one problems with Radical Equations so far. The styling used to intersperse testimonials from people other than Bob Moses (who writes in the first person) is really awkward to read; italicized portions are plugged into the text as sidebar commentaries in a way that makes me do a double-take, asking myself, “Wait, who is this speaking? . . . Oh, okay, it’s that guy.” The styling of the text really takes away from the flow of the text.
We’ll see where he takes the discussion from here. Three chapters still to go.

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