We just lost two great teachers.
Mike Rose died on August 15th. Bob Moses left us three weeks ago.
When I was 34 and decided I wanted to teach I was introduced to a world of brilliant thinkers who were entirely new to me. Few were more brilliant than Mike Rose. Mike Rose touched me in a way few others did. His class roots. His understanding of students whose courageous struggle to learn got them labeled in the worst way. His respect for work and labor as an intellectual enterprise. His book, Lives on the Boundary, still has an honored spot in my collection.
Bob Moses was an early member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and a courageous organizer for self-determination and civil rights in the South in the sixties. He later was a teacher and organizer of the Algebra Project which was based on the radical idea that access to the basic disciplines of knowledge should not be just for the privileged few.
As recently as May, Mike Rose was publishing his blog. https://mikerosebooks.blogspot.com
In a recent blog post Mike Rose describes visiting a community meeting in Mississippi where he observes Bob Moses as he does some math instruction.
An Evening With Bob Moses in the Mississippi Delta.
During my travels around the United States visiting good public school classrooms—which I would document in Possible Lives—I was fortunate to spend time in Mississippi observing Civil Rights leader Bob Moses demonstrating and helping local teachers implement his innovative mathematics curriculum, The Algebra Project, a supplement to the traditional mathematics course of study in middle school.
Moses envisions The Algebra Project as both a curriculum and a social movement. It attempts to prepare children, all children, at the sixth-grade level for algebra, the gateway to participation in high school mathematics and science, which, in turn, is necessary for college-level work. Moses draws parallels between mathematical literacy and the earlier political literacy fostered by the Civil Rights movement: both are necessary for a fuller, more equitable participation in society. And as with the Civil Rights movement, the curriculum assumes that all people are capable of participation, and, in this case, capable of grasping the conceptual basics of algebra—equivalence, displacement, and so on. The curriculum is built around a sequence of accessible activities: taking bus rides, measuring, rating, comparing objects and events, and playing a range of games. After engaging in one of these activities, children draw or somehow model it, talk and write about it, attempt to translate it into a more formal mathematical language, and develop, through consensus, symbols to represent it. The process aims at making children more adept at and more comfortable with symbolic operations and procedural routines—essential of they are to succeed at algebra when it shows up in the curriculum in grade eight or nine.
Bob Moses was an early field secretary for The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and organizer of Freedom Summer, a voter-registration project in Mississippi that was met with violent white backlash. Approximately thirty years later, he would be launching the “Southern Initiative” of The Algebra Project, taking him back to Mississippi, an effort that, I’m sure, was laden with memory and symbolism for him.
I’ve been thinking about my time in Mississippi for a number of reasons. It’s been roughly another thirty years since I had the privilege of watching Bob Moses present The Algebra Project to gatherings of Mississippi parents and work with teachers and students to make the Project come alive. I love the idea of seeing the school curriculum as a site for social change, not only by correcting and adding to its content but also by affirming that intellectual mastery of its knowledge and skill can itself be a source of liberation, particularly when the people involved have been denied the opportunity for that mastery in the past. I am also taken by the kind of thing you’ll read about shortly: involving the community surrounding the school in a social activity with intellectual content—and envisioning all this as a political act.
And, of course, it’s impossible to read anything involving Bob Moses and not think about voter registration. The 2020 election displayed the results of tireless, on-the-ground, get-out-the-vote efforts on the part of countless local community organizers—the current generation of activists exhibiting the same determination that drove those involved in Freedom Summer. And we are now watching yet another backlash as Republican-controlled states are enacting wide-ranging voter suppression laws, relying on legislative chicanery rather than billy clubs and guns to control who can cast a ballot.
As I reread the passage below in our time—which I have lightly edited—I’m struck by both the beauty and the latent power of the gathering.
There were well over a hundred people in the gymnasium of West Tallahatchie High School located in Webb, Mississippi: teachers, middle and high school students, little kids, many parents, some civic leaders, including two newly elected county supervisors. It was about six in the evening. Outside, the sun had dipped below the horizon and was suffusing a pink-salmon light over sheds and bare trees and small houses off the road. We sat close to one another at round and rectangular tables clustered along one long wall. In front of us were two small chalkboards on rollers and an easel with a large pad. Webb is in a very poor community, Cass Pennington, the district superintendent, told me. One of the poorest in the South. I would hear from others that it was also one of the most economically and politically entrenched. It was not too long ago that the white county leadership kept discouraging desperately needed small industry because it might threaten the supply of cheap agricultural labor. The two supervisors—who were now being introduced—were the first Black supervisors to be elected in the history of the predominantly African American county. The school was virtually all African American. Many of the parents in this room went to schools that were segregated by law; now school was segregated by demographic fact…
One of the local teachers, Shirley Conner, walked out to the center of the gym. “I imagine a lot of you already know Mr. Bob Moses,” Shirley said, extending her left hand behind her. Bob walked to the side of the easel… “Hi, everybody,” he said softly. “How are you?” People murmured in response and acknowledgement. “I want to start us off tonight with an activity.” He gestured to the floor of the gym, where he had laid out with masking tape one of the games of The Algebra Project. “But first, a question.” He walked closer to the tables, looking around, a slow gaze. “What is a prime number?” A boy to the far right raised his hand. Bob asked his name: Martin. “OK, Martin, what is a prime number?” “A prime number,” Martin replied, a little nervous but intent and well-spoken, “is a number that can only be multiplied by one and itself.” Bob thanked him. “Does anyone else have anything to add to what Martin just said?” Tyranda, on the other side of the room, raised her hand. “A prime number,” she offered, “is a number that can only be divided by one and itself.” Bob unfolded his arms, cradling his chin in his right hand: “Why don’t you both come up on here.” They did, the audience watched, shifting, scraping a few chairs to improve their line of sight.
“Pick a prime number, Tyranda,” Bob instructed, and Tyranda wrote 11 on the pad. “Now show me how what you said holds true. But first, repeat what you said, nice and loud.” Tyranda did, then, marker in hand, wrote . “There’s no number that’ll go into 11,” she summarized, putting down the marker. Bob turned to Martin. “Martin?” “Yes sir.” “Demonstrate for me what you said.” Martin took the marker from Tyranda and talked as he wrote. “You can get 11 if you times it by 1, but there are no other numbers you can multiply to get it.” Bob turned to Tyranda. “What do you think of what Martin just said?” Bob’s voice, the whole time, remained at the same pitch and volume, steady, curious. It’s hard not to lead, not to give away a bias when you question, but Bob came awfully close to sounding neutral. “He’s talking about multiplying,” Tyranda observed, “but I’m saying you get prime numbers by dividing.” Though there were glitches in both Martin’s and Tyranda’s use of multiplication and division, they clearly knew how prime numbers worked. Bob saw that, didn’t want to shut things down, wanted to keep inviting talk.
He turned to the audience, asking for questions and comments. One parent raised her hand. “Are all odd numbers prime numbers?” “Well,” Bob replied, “let’s see.” He asked her to pick an odd number. She picked 9. Bob wrote it on the board and asked her to guide him through a factor tree. As she watched the tree develop she said, “No, no it ain’t a prime number.” A woman sitting at our table thanked Bob and the lady, for, she said, she had always confused prime numbers and odd numbers, too. For some in this audience, math might have been a favorite subject, a pleasure to dust off and revisit, and for others, I suspect, math conjured little that is pleasant. But here they all were: The community was talking about mathematics.
A man from the side of the room stood halfway up and called the group’s attention back to Martin and Tyranda. “Isn’t the important operation there?” he said, pointing to the work the children had done, “Isn’t it division more than multiplication?” Bob turned to Martin. “Martin, did you hear what he said? He didn’t like your multiplication idea too much. Can you say why?” Martin stated the man’s position but noted that multiplication might still work. Then a parent from the table next to ours, a pencil over his ear, suggested that Martin and company break another number into its prime factors. “It’s been a long time,” he noted apologetically as he sat down, and a lot of people laughed and assented.
A woman sitting by the easel spoke up. “What’s the difference?” she asked. “You still get the same numbers. See what I’m sayin’? You still get two 3s and a 2.” A man sitting by her turned and said, “But what I see is that 18 have other factors other than 3 and 2.” “OK,” the first woman replied, “but you still come out with the same prime numbers…”
There was further discussion; then Bob had each table choose three numbers and calculate factor trees. Then he turned and gestured to the floor. “I put a pathway on the floor up here, and we’re going to figure out what it’s got to do with prime numbers.” He would soon have some students come up and demonstrate.
It was about eight when we broke up. The participants remained in clusters, talking: parents, teachers, students, the county supervisors…Bob, head down, listening, was conferring with Shirley Conner. I stood in the doorway, looking out into sweeping darkness, light from a farmhouse or two twinkling in the distance. People were shaking out coats, buttoning up, saying goodbye. “This was wonderful,” a woman said, coming up alongside me. “The parents learned something, too. Math is a scary thing, you know. But…” And here she turned, her eye catching something, suddenly quizzical. I followed her line of sight to a poster with a funny little cartoon cat peering out of a paper bag. “But now,” she said laughing, “the, the cat’s out of the bag! It’s something we all can do.”