Transcription of the episode “The Algebra Project: Math Literacy and Empowerment”

Jon M: 00:15 Hi. I’m Jon Moscow.

Amy H-L: 00:16 And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Welcome to Ethical Schools, where we discuss strategies for creating inclusive and equitable schools and youth programs that help students to develop commitment and capacity to build ethical institutions.

Jon M: 00:32 Our guest today is Kate Belin. Kate is in her 15th year of teaching math at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom School, a progressive public high school in the Bronx, and a teacher trainer for the Algebra Project. Kate has also served as adjunct professor at Bard and CUNY and is a United Federation of Teachers (UFT) chapter leader. Welcome Kate.

Kate B: 00:53 Thank you. It’s wonderful to be here.

Amy H-L: 00:54 Kate, we’re especially interested in your experience with the Algebra Project. Would you tell us a bit about the Algebra Project, its history and objectives?

Kate B: 01:04 So the Algebra Project is a national mathematics literacy effort. It uses mathematics literacy as an organizing tool to guarantee quality public school education for all children in the United States. The Algebra Project has developed curriculum materials, trained teachers and teacher trainers, and provided ongoing professional development support and community involvement activities to schools seeking to achieve a systematic change in mathematics education. So that’s kind of the description of it. So the Algebra Project has its roots in the civil rights movement. Math is seen as an available organizing tool the same way that voting was an available organizing tool in the 1960s. The founder and president of the Algebra Project is Bob Moses, the legendary civil rights activists and field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s when the issue of voting was joined with the issue of sharecropper illiteracy. So at that time, SNCC was interested in registering sharecroppers to vote and SNCC said that the country cannot have its cake and eat it too, basically, that you can’t deny people access to literacy through political arrangements and then turn around and say that you can’t have access to politics because you are illiterate. And so the Algebra Project was founded in 1982 when Bob Moses won the MacArthur Genius Award and it sees itself as a continuation of that struggle for civil rights, which has been ongoing. And so there were successes in the civil rights movements with voting rights issues and the Voting Rights Act. So they say they were able to get Jim Crow out of public accommodations, access to the vote, and of the national Democratic Party structure. Like, for example, when Fanny Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party went to the 1964 convention, which I believe we’ll maybe get into a little bit later. But what Bob Moses said when he was founding the Algebra Project was that we still had Jim Crow in education. And the idea is that the education you get is appropriate to the work that you have been pre-assigned to has to change. So the Algebra Project basically works the demand side of the problem. So if in the 60s you are working the right to vote, then the issue is how do you get the people who are most affected by the problem to demand the right to vote. And now the question is how do we get the young people in society, the young people that the Algebra Project would call its target population, that would be students performing in the bottom quartile nationally in mathematics. How do we get the students that everyone says don’t want it, the education that they need for the 21st century? And so we do this by first showing kids that they can access the world of mathematics. And then once they figure out that this is something that they can do, then they will have a chance to actually set expectations for themselves about what they want to do with it. And so, you know, one maybe way of conceptualizing it is that our role is to ensure that students are prepared to take college math for college credit. Not necessarily, we are saying that you must go to college to pursue whatever comes after high school, but if that is your choice, that your mathematics would not be an obstacle in pursuing your next step.

Jon M: 05:00 How did you decide to become a math teacher and specifically a leader in a role model in the Algebra Project?

Kate B: 05:04 So how did I decide to become a math teacher? I didn’t decide to become a math teacher until actually my very last year of college. I was a senior at Bard college as a math major. Even entering college I had not planned on majoring in math. It was something that I think I always took for granted that I loved, but I went to college with the idea of being a photography major and quickly gravitated to the math department. I think that’s where I first realized that I had taken for granted how much I loved it. But that’s where I realized that it actually was what I was passionate about as well. And so as I was studying math in college, I was basically doing it for its own sake, learning it, kind of becoming a mathematician myself, and then senior year starts coming around and I have to decide what’s next. Am I going to go to grad school for math? And Bard has a many arts majors, creative thinker is something that very much attracted me to the school. And it also has, you know, a math requirement for your bachelor’s degree. And there were still many students who needed to pass their math requirement. And so I was working in the tutoring center with seniors who still had yet to kind of pass that quantitative course that was needed. And that’s where I think I first started realizing that the thing that I loved, mathematics, which to me involves creativity, reasoning was not the thing that they hated. They hated the formulas, the memorization and it, there’s just a disconnect I think, between what we teach in school and call mathematics and what mathematics truly is. And that’s when I first started thinking that I wanted to be part of this solution and bringing all of the things that I think make math accessible to everybody, part of my own journey and my love of the subject. And so from there I went to the master of arts and teaching program at Bard college for graduate school as well and kind of put together my own understanding of the subject in with what it means to actually become a teacher as well.

Jon M: 07:30 And in terms of the Algebra Project, how did you decide to get involved with that?

Kate B: 07:33 So in graduate school I was taking, David Henderson’s Experiencing Geometry course, taught by one of his former students, Kelly Gaddis, and that course transformed for me what I see in geometry. It was the first time that I actually was just able to explore geometric ideas for their own sake rather than for a sake of like applying definitions, constructing two-column proofs, things like that. And also it was the portfolio of the class was built directly from our own ideas, the individual students, starting with our notions of what is a straight line, what is a flat plane, and building ideas of symmetry and how they connect across many ideas. And really, this was the first time I came to understand that math is not a linear set of step one, step two, step three, but rather everything itself interconnects and we can bring whatever experience we have at any given time into studying something new and that it all interconnects rather than builds, in a sense. So I knew I also would want to teach geometry like this wherever I ended up, so when I found Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School through my professors at grad school, I actually had no intention at that time. I was not living in New York City yet. The only school I applied to was Fannie Lou and I actually moved to the city to teach at that school. My professors told me, you should go check it out. I think you’d like the feeling of the school. And I did and I loved it. And they were extremely encouraging about the idea of building curriculum that makes sense. Teachers have, you know, freedom to construct things that they’re passionate about. And so it was in my third year of teaching there that Bob Moses of the Algebra Project had found David Henderson’s materials and gotten him involved in writing some of his materials for the high school level. And those materials needed a place to be piloted. So because I had the experience of being a student of his materials and through my connection with his former student, Kelly Gaddis, he was able to actually come to Fannie Lou Hamer for a number of years with materials that he was developing, test them out in the class, observe the classes, revise the process. And then we continued this for a number of years. And so my first five or so years with the Algebra Project, I was really involved in the building of the geometry and materials and from there, have worked with teachers across the country who are also trying to implement them and revise them.

Amy H-L: 10:32 Fanny Lou Hamer is an extraordinary school on many levels. Who was Fanny Lou Hamer and what was the vision behind the school?

Kate B: 10:41 Fannie Lou Hamer. She was one of 20 children born to sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta. In 1962, she joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and went to a meeting about voting. The next year she was actively working with SNCC and she was returning home from a training on a bus when the bus was pulled over and she and two others were taken to jail and beaten. After this incident, she suffered permanent damage to her kidneys and after her recovery, she began traveling the country and telling this story. So SNCC had formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to expand black voter registration with the platform that the Mississippi Democratic Party was unconstitutional because it did not allow black members to register to vote. And the goal was to unseat the Democratic Party and to seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party as the state’s official party. So at the Democratic national convention in 1964 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Mrs. Hamer gave testimony to the accounts of what happened to her and made the demand for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to be seated at that convention. So that effort failed. And it wasn’t until the following DNC, four years later, in Chicago, that the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was seated. And at that convention when it was, she was announced, there was thunderous standing ovation and she was the first black person to take her seat as the official delegate at a national party convention since the reconstruction period and she was the first ever woman from Mississippi to do so. But that testimony in 1964 was extremely important. While she was speaking, President Johnson interrupted the televised broadcast of her testimony intentionally. And Bob Moses is quoted, notably in the Freedom Summer documentary from five years ago, Stanley Nelson’s documentary, that Johnson wasn’t afraid of Martin Luther King’s testimony, that he was afraid of Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony. So he said in that Fannie Lou Hamer became the authentic voice of Mississippi and the struggle of black people in Mississippi. So the nation at the Democratic National Convention, her testimony really undermine the levies that Mississippi had built against the whole country. Once she broke through that, the gate was up. You needed someone who expressed Mississippi in their bones to be able to reach through and that was it, that she was able to speak from the place of the struggle that does something more than what others are speaking on behalf of the people.

Jon M: 13:43 I just wanted to interject that I got to be at the Democratic convention in ’64 on the boardwalk. We had a 24 hour continuous vigil and picket line. I was a teenager, I was with Long Island CORE–Congress of Racial Equality–and it’s really interesting in terms, I mean it was just an incredible experience knowing what was going on inside the hall with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. And I think actually in terms of teaching the history of the civil rights movement, that the 1964 convention doesn’t get enough attention at all. I think most people probably don’t know about it. In addition to the documentary you mentioned, another book that people might find really interesting is James Forman’s “The Making of Black Revolutionaries,” which really pivots on the ’64 convention because it was really the point that just made totally clear the hollowness of the white establishment Democratic Party. The idea they were willing to seat this all-white racist Mississippi contingent that had absolutely no intention whatsoever of voting for Johnson as opposed to Goldwater and denied a multiracial integrated grassroots force from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. So yeah, I just wanted to add that, but thanks and please go on.

Kate B: 15:14 Thank you for saying that, and I would also like to add that a year ago, we had the opportunity to go to that convention hall and go to that boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey as well because the Atlantic City Women’s March honored Fannie Lou Hamer as the theme of their Women’s March. And so we took a bus of students to that and marched on the boardwalk, and the event culminated in the actual convention center and it was in kind of a newer part of the convention center that we were able to kind of sneak off a little bit and go to the actual hall where she gave that testimony with some of the students. And it was a, it was a pretty amazing moment for all of us who were there.

Jon M: 16:02 So what was, one of the, part of Amy’s question was, that follows is what was the vision behind the school and how does it connect to Fannie Lou Hamer?

Kate B: 16:12 Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School was founded in 1994 and was part of the small schools movement in New York City. And so you already had a wonderful episode that had Deborah Meier speaking about the small schools movement and school as community and that, I mean, she is alive and well in the walls of Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School. So in 1994 the Monroe Comprehensive School District in the South Bronx, it was being closed and it was being broken up into five new schools. So one of those schools became Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School, founded by Nancy Mann, who was a founding teacher of the school and eventually principal from 2002 to 2014, along with other educators who came from the school of thought and Deborah Meier at Central Park East Secondary School. And the idea is that we need to create schools that serve the community and are built from the community rather than inserted into a place and so were built with the idea that one size does not fit all, less is more, we value depth over breadth. We basically tried to create a school that allows the largest number of adults to work with the smallest number of students over the longest period of time. And so what that looks like is two-year looping cycles where we stay with our students either in a ninth-10th grade loop or an 11th-12th grade loop, which is where I work. That we have a long academic blocks that meet every other day for two hours rather than every day for a short period of time, that we have academic advisors who know each of their students well. And so when families come in for conferences that you conference with the advisor around all of the student’s performance and all of their classes rather than stopping by and seeing the math teacher and seeing how they’re doing there in isolation and the history teacher and seeing how they’re doing there in isolation, but that rather we’re trying to educate the whole child and look for ways to meet the needs of each of our students. If I may, maybe I’ll add in here, our basketball coach, Mark Skelton wrote a book that was about the 2016-2017 season and it’s called “Pounding the Rock.” It came out earlier this year. And this book tells the story of that particular season of basketball, but it also interweaves into it of just a beautiful history of the school as well and so I’d love to share what he says about the school. I think in this context. “Anchored in the poorest urban congressional district in the United States and one of the most segregated sections in New York City, Fannie Lou has been the touchstone for small school success in the City for more than 20 years. Fanny Lou may not be the holy grail of high schools, but it’s damn close. Emma Lazarus would have written a poem about this school. Imagine a school where everyone is welcome. Too old? Come on in. Didn’t get the right score on the state exam? No problem. You were absent a lot of days and missed school? You had to take care of your mother?You had to translate for her, too? You have a kid? How old are you? It doesn’t matter. Come on in, be in Benito’s. You haven’t passed the Regents exam? Don’t worry. We got you. Your high school closed? How many? 20 students? Sure. Come on in.

Jon M: 20:10 So it seems as though, just listening to you, that the Algebra Project would’ve been, evidently was, a perfect fit for the school. How did you actually go about integrating it into the school and modifying the curriculum? And from what something you said before, it sounds as though it’s not only algebra, but you mentioned geometry as well. So could you talk a little bit about what the Algebra Project looks like within the context of the high school?

Kate B: 20:40 Yeah, that’s a really great question because Fannie Lou really is the perfect site for the Algebra Project to be because I think that schools will struggle if they are thinking that the Algebra Project is simply a set of curricular materials to be adopted rather than a mindset or just a way of approaching mathematics education but within, you know, a community and with specific and certain things in mind as you do that. So Fannie Lou Hamer had already been founded with the ideas of project-based assessment and the idea of creating activities that allow students at any and all stages of thinking to enter into the project in the same way, you know, low floor, high ceiling tasks and assessments and that we already have been thinking about what authentic assessment around them looks like. So with that in mind, we were able to take the modules that the Algebra Project has developed such as the trip line where, for people who aren’t familiar with Bob Moses’ book, Radical Equations, where he talks about starting from a shared human experience of, in that example, traveling through the T system of Boston and documenting your trip as you go and that this human experience is the thing that begins the mathematical process that works well at Fannie Lou because we can take the activities that are created and get the ideas for activities, projects, what to do, but it already fits within the system of creating projects and making it our own. Like I would say that we did not adopt the Algebra Project and take everything from them, but rather integrated it with what the school had already been trying to do from its founding mission and vision.

Amy H-L: 22:46 Kate, how does math, especially math based on student’s lived experiences, prepare students to build more ethical institutions and communities?

Kate B: 22:58 That’s what I, that’s a really interesting question because it’s making me have to think about what is happening in the mathematics classroom that directly prepares students for civic engagement and it’s, it’s difficult because I so much think about the ethics of preparing all students for mathematics itself, but then like how does having it then ensure and predict and say what it’s going to do?

Jon M: 23:34 So talk about that. Start with the ethics of preparing those students for math because in a way it seems though just listening as though it all fits together because if we’re saying that going back to what Bob Moses was saying was that you can’t use the political system to keep people illiterate and then deny them participation on the grounds that they’re illiterate. It sounds as though that if math is an essential piece of citizenship, that it’s essential for a reason, that there must be ways in which people have to be able to understand math to participate in the civic society and therefore that it’s fundamentally ethical to prepare our people to do that. Does that make sense?

Kate B: 24:32 It does. I do have kind of two examples of situations with two individual student examples, one that is a current student and one that is a graduate in college.

Jon M: 24:47 Sure. Tell us.

Kate B: 24:48 To be quite honest, students do express concerns about the topics that we are studying or the pace that we’re going because it very much looks different from what they think math is. But that’s kind of the whole point is that the thing that they think math is isn’t really what math is and we’re trying to change that. But they also want to know and believe that the education that they are receiving is worthwhile. And if the experience that they’ve had up to high school had been very different, they might and should question why this looks so different and what it’s going to do for them. So there are two students I’m thinking of right now and one of these examples happened yesterday in 11th grade and the other one is about a student who’s in college right now. So the student yesterday, this is her first year at Fanny Lou and she’s a junior and she had spent ninth and 10th grade at a more traditional school. And so she’s in the adjustment period to what we do at Fanny Lou. And so I remember from some of our beginning activities where she would write, you know, feedback about class. She would give positive feedback like, I like this class or I like that we’re more bonding with each other in the class and it’s fun. But she kept asking, when was the math going to start, when was the pace going to pick up, when are we really going to start, you know, learning math. And so yesterday, students were working on some concepts about area and we’ve been involved in it for a couple of weeks at this point. And basically they’re kind of conceptualizing area trying to rearrange area into new shapes. And the idea is to prove properties or formulas that you otherwise memorize, such as the formula for the area of a certain shape or an algebraic equation like a x b + c = ab + ac, like the distributed property, but they’re trying to, to basically prove the ideas. And so she’s been doing this for a little while and she had a parallelogram in front of her and she kind of slid a piece of the parallelogram over and saw a rectangle and said, wait a minute. Like I get it. That proves the formula you’re trying to get us to see why it’s true, not just that it’s true. And then she said, do you know how much easier this would make the Regents exam if this is what they were doing all along. Yeah. Yeah. It took that much time though, but it’s not that often that a student will have had that much like traditional math experience as she has had in high school. But that also, you would say that the thing that takes longer actually would’ve helped with the thing that’s supposed to just be kind of testing-what-you-know test. And then the other example comes from a student who graduated last year and is now taking college math at Lehman College. Actually she and another Fanny Lou graduate are in the same course together. And what’s nice is that they kind of, I see that they travel sometimes together and support each other in the class. And I was thinking about your episode with Dr. Feyn, who’s coincidentally I believe at Lehman college. Yeah. And I appreciated so much of what she said about teacher education and preparation, but when she was speaking about the idea of a cluster hiring, and the idea of if you hire teachers from the same program, they might be able to support each other in like the shared vision that they experience in their teacher education program, whatever that may be. But they support each other. I was thinking about kind of clusters. It’s not the same, but like cluster colleging. Anyway, that’s not exactly the point of this story. But so in the college class, I believe this student was working on something to do with linear functions and the professor was perhaps about to create like a linear equation given two points or something like that and said to the class matter of factly, Oh, there’s only one line that connects these two given points and then drew it. And so my graduate from Fannie Lou said, she said, well, that’s not true. There’d be another one if you were on the sphere. And I think it caught the professor off guard because you mean there’s another that connects these two points? And so she and other Fannie Lou student pulled up their actual papers about it, showed them, and was like, so like if it’s on a plane, there’s only one path that connects two points, but if it’s on the sphere, you could go the other way around. And the professor was like, but it’s not straight. And they’re like, no, no, it is, it’s intrinsically straight. And like if you imagine that you’re the bug on the surface bug long straight, it’s just straight on a sphere. And I think that’s a pretty powerful story for a number of reasons. But the one that means the most is thinking about what it takes for a freshman in a college math class to have something that is just being stated as mathematical facts – there only exists, one line between two points or whatever the case may be – and to be able to jump into the conversation and to see yourself as part of the mathematical conversation and offer a really big, but what if, especially if it wasn’t exactly what was being invited in the room at that moment, because that’s radical.

Jon M: 30:56 Absolutely. And it’s the connection between the geometry [inaudible] the life that Fannie Lou Hamer high school takes and having the tools, the math tools to be able to, to do it. They have both the knowledge and the impetus. I was, few years ago I was at a, I think it’s Free Minds Free People conference, where some of the Baltimore Algebra Project students were presenting. And it was very exciting because they were talking both about how they used what they’d learned in the Algebra Project to confront, I think at that point, the mayor of Baltimore about the Baltimore budget for the schools. And then someone else at the same conference talked about how they used math to look at stops that the Illinois state police were making and then what happened. The stops themselves were kind of randomly distributed between cars driven by African Americans and whites and Latinos because the way they were projecting it, the police couldn’t really tell who was in the car. But then once, you know, once they did know who was in the car, what actually happened as a follow up and I was, I mean I know that people…There was this Education Week article just recently about math and civics where I think a school in Indiana was talking about it in middle school, that they were using math to help their students look at some of the polling data, election polling data, and sort of if you were a Democratic or Republican candidate, who would you want to focus your, you know, recruiting efforts on to try to, you know, make the difference in when, if the election was really going to be very close or how to, in another example they gave, was looking at their town implementing solar panels and comparing the economics of the solar panels with more traditional electricity sources. Is that some of the kinds of stuff that you’re able to do at Fanny Lou Hamer and what would some examples of that be?

Kate B: 33:03 Yes, absolutely. So one area that I’ve been involved in is the mathematics of gerrymandering. So after the 2016 election, a group out of Tufts University, led by Moon Duchin, who was a professor there, started the metric geometry and gerrymandering group and they created a free summer conference for the summer of 2017 at Tufts University free and open to the public for the first three days and then option for a mathematics track or an educator track for the last two days of the week. And I went to that conference with a few other teachers from Math for America, which is an organization that I’m involved here in New York city and it’s… Math for America, provides extensive and outstanding professional development here in New York city. Often it is, we invite mathematicians or educators in for professional development workshops, but the majority of it is led and created by the teachers involved in the organization themselves. So after that 2017 conference at Tufts, I wanted to use some of the educator materials to teach gerrymandering in my geometry course and have been working with those materials for the past few years alongside working at Math for America to bring educators in to continue the mathematics of gerrymandering workshops and to take on some of the facilitation ourselves and work with other teachers about ways to actually implement them in classes. And that’s been, that’s been really exciting.

Jon M: 34:50 That sounds really exciting.

Kate B: 34:52 Yeah. Mostly because I’m teaching it in the wrong place as well because it turns out it’s not a geometric problem at all. And the shape of the district is not at all. So I’ve got to figure out if not really in the geometry course I need probably like where should it be in statistics or… Really interesting. And you know, that is something also that I’ve heard from students in college as well as the, oh, we’re talking about gerrymandering and like they have some mathematical backgrounds. Very cool.

Amy H-L: 35:23 Yeah. Well, thank you so much Kaitlin. Thank you listeners for joining us. We’d like to hear how you’ve incorporated ideas that you’ve heard on our podcast or read on the Ethical Schools blog, or if there are any topics you’d like to hear more about, please email us at, that’s We also offer professional development for schools and afterschool programs in the New York City area. Contact us for details. You can check out prior episodes and articles on our site. We’ve recently begun posting transcripts of our episodes as well. We’re on Facebook and Twitter @ethicalschools and Instagram. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Till next week.

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