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A letter from Ann Lyon, Algebra Project Teacher

A letter from Ann Lyon, Algebra Project Teacher at Thurgood Marshall Academic High School, in San Francisco, CA, to teachers attending the 2009 Algebra Project summer professional development institute:

July 2009

Dear Algebra Project Teacher,

I have been asked to write you a letter about my experience working with the Algebra Project curriculum for the first time. Let me tell you a little bit about how we got involved with the Algebra Project, what my first year was like and where we hope it’s going.

Our school serves those students who are typically underserved, and we have struggled to find both curricular materials and strategies to make math, particularly Algebra, accessible to those students.  Many of our graduates manage to get themselves to City College or one of the California State University campuses, only to have to take remedial classes for which they have to pay but for which they don’t receive credit.

Marcus Hung heard about the Algebra Project last year and got in touch with Marian Currell, now an administrator in our district, who had used the curriculum as a middle school math teacher.  Through Marian, and with the support of the San Francisco Unified School District, we were able to be designated as a field test site as part of the Algebra Project’s National Science Foundation, Instructional Materials Development award #0628132.  We spent three weeks in the summer of 2008 in Jackson, MS, learning about the curriculum.

We both taught ninth grade sections using the curriculum during the 2008-2009 year: Marcus had two (double-period) sections and I had one.  The students in our Algebra Project classes are almost entirely bottom quartile. The average California Standards Test math performance score for my group of 22 students, on a scale of 1 to 5, is 1.7.

Our experience working with the curriculum last year was a bigger challenge than we anticipated, I think.  The math is great, and the curriculum absolutely does not fall within the “mile wide and inch deep” stereotype of mathematics in this country. All of the math is developed through common experiences, which I think was very positive for my students.  Also, the curriculum doesn’t make any assumptions with respect to skills that students should have mastered previously (but didn’t).  I think that helped prevent students from shutting down in the face of difficult work.

Students who are engaged in the Algebra Project curriculum have the opportunity to develop profound understanding.   With this group, however, engagement isn’t always easy.  The modules are written by mathematicians, not classroom teachers, and the amount of preparation required to make the material accessible to our students was far greater than we expected. We spent a lot of time developing homework, additional practice and assessments and learned a lot about formatting mathematical notation. I found that my students worked best when I organized the material into small sections and circulated to work with them one on one or in small groups. By the end of the second semester, I was giving them a worksheet every day with the day’s activities broken down for them and spending little or no time on direct instruction or large group activities. I also learned that they all had good days and bad days, and I had to figure out when to put pressure on them to work and when to back off. I think that in some ways, I learned a lot more than my students did this year.

So is the Algebra Project working?  We don’t know yet. Certainly it is too soon to say it’s not working.  Anecdotally, I can say that attendance in my Algebra Project class was much better than in my more traditional Algebra class, and homework production was better too.  I have noticed some of my students developing some critical thinking skills that I don’t think would have emerged with a more traditional curriculum. They also had enough confidence in their understanding of some of the topics we studied to challenge sample questions when we reviewed for the standardized tests.

One thing I realized as the year went on is that this kind of change will take a long time to implement and an even longer time to assess. More than simply changing the curricular materials by switching textbooks, we are changing the culture of mathematics at our school, at least for a small group of students. Some of my students are finding that through the Algebra Project, they are able to access math with greater understanding than they had before. For some of them, the year was really about creating a community in which they felt safe to work. While they may not have learned as much math as I had hoped, I did see a positive change in their attitude toward work by the end of the year, so I feel like we were successful at least in achieving that.

Last year was a difficult, challenging, frustrating experience. There were days when I was ready to quit, but on the days when my students were successful I took far more joy in their success than in my more traditional classes. Overall, I think the struggle was worth all of our efforts, and I am looking forward to tackling Geometry with the same group of students this year (2009-2010).

Please feel free to contact me if I can help in any way as you work through the first year of the curriculum.

Ann Lyon
Thurgood Marshall Academic High School
lyona [ at ]

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