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Interns energize and attend to project mission

In the three stories that follow, summer 2013 interns reflect on their experiences, and pave the way for more to engage in summer 2014 and beyond.  

Todd Christensen
Algebra Project national office

I will keep this note short and sweet.  I wanted to express my deep gratitude for allowing me to be a part of your organization this summer. I first became acquainted with the Algebra Project through readings at SUNY-Geneseo (with Civil Rights History Professor Emilye Crosby), and became fascinated with both the basic premises of the organization and its pedagogy and methods of organizing.

I wanted to see, first hand, the spadework necessary in sustaining a long-term, successful, non-profit organization like the Algebra Project.  In Bill Crombie’s words, I wanted to see “how the sausage is made.”

You made this desire a reality, and for that I am very grateful.  You fully absorbed me into the workspace and allowed me to be a productive member of the team.  So much so, that I don’t want this parting to be my last association with the Algebra Project.

I wish to continue to help in any capacity that I can. Thank you again for allowing me to become a member of your organization, and more importantly, thank you for the remarkable work you have been doing for the last 30 years.  My brief glance at the backend of the organization has only deepened this appreciation.  Thank you very much for this opportunity.

Todd Christensen is a junior at SUNY-Geneseo.

Neil Cholli
Miami Algebra Project

Through its grassroots efforts, the Algebra Project seeks to work with one school system at a time to empower inner-city, rural, minority and poor students to continue pursuing education—especially in math and the sciences—and, thereby, become truly equal and meaningful American citizens in today’s information- and technological-oriented economy.

The Algebra Project Summer Program in Miami, FL, spanned about six weeks (I began my work at the high school at the beginning of the third week) and it was structured in a unique way. There were two sessions: a morning session and an afternoon session. The morning session, which ran from 9am to 10:30am, was dedicated to prepare about five Math Literacy Workers (MLWs) for the day’s work ahead. These MLWs were chosen from the class and were assigned to serve as peer mentors for the other students. Then came the afternoon session—the main class, with both the MLWs and other students, from 11am to 1:30pm.

Bob Moses led the class as the main teacher, and I helped as a teaching assistant. Each weekday, I would teach, review, explain, clarify, and, at the right moments, motivate the students to try harder. After class, I would talk briefly with Bob about the students’ performance in class and the plan for the next day’s class, and sometimes help prepare some charts. I was given additional duties, including creating online practice test simulations for the students, typing a summary of the main concepts of the Summer Program, and calling families to recruit younger students for the Algebra Project.

I began to really notice how each individual student had a distinct personality and, thus, unique needs. One MLW, for example, could easily understand concepts and answer questions; however, he seemed to focus more on socializing with his classmates than on the class work. On the other hand, another MLW, who was partially hearing-impaired, was very independent from her other classmates. Although she could not grasp some concepts very easily, she would continue to faithfully finish assignments with me through every breakfast break. It was hard to believe that all of these students, with such different learning styles and needs, would have all been taught the same exact way in a traditional classroom setting.

Often, I would hear Bob say, “Math is another language. And just like a language, the students need to practice using it in order to truly own it.” From these words, I understood the power of practice and time. I couldn’t force them to always remain focused. I couldn’t expect these teens to change their behavior or perspective over a span of just a few days when they had been sculpted as they are now over so many years. I could only provide guidance of how to progress. In order to truly empower these students, students must gain a sense of responsibility for themselves and take initiative by themselves. As Dr. Joannie Wynne, a graduate professor of Urban Education at Florida International University who worked closely with the Algebra Project, told me, “These kids have been kicked to the curb all of their lives. So many teachers and adults in their lives have given up on them. And now they are looking at you and testing you to see if you are going to give up on them as well. But once you show that you’re still there, every day, willing to help them, then they start to believe that you are really there for them and to help them succeed. And then they will change and succeed.”

Neil Cholli is a sophomore at Pennsylvania University.

Rachel E. Wittenberg
Algebra Project national office

I expressed interest in becoming involved with the Algebra Project after reading Radical Equations-Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project (Moses & Cobb, Beacon Press 2001), which opened my eyes to the inequities of the public school education system and made me want to play some role in creating positive change.

After beginning to work in the office, I was consistently amazed and moved by the ways in which the Algebra Project’s values and organizing methods are infused into the work it does every day. The conference, “Math Cohort High Schools: Harnessing the Language and Culture of Students,” co-hosted by the Algebra Project, the Young People’s Project, and Educational Testing Service in July was one of my first experiences, and offered a powerful introduction to the ways in which the Project functions and the vast network of people with whom they collaborate.

On the way to the ETS conference center from the airport, I shared a car with Marcus Hung, a teacher from San Francisco who had switched schools because he felt so strongly about having the administrative support necessary to use Algebra Project pedagogy and materials in his classroom. I was really impressed by Marcus; he is an excellent example of the Algebra Project’s greatest strength: its vast network of extraordinarily dedicated teachers, administrators, mathematicians, and community organizers. Similarly, seeing so many of the members of the Algebra Project network from around the country convened in the same room and grappling with the same challenges, problems, and setbacks was compelling.

When I think about what it has meant to intern for the Algebra Project this summer, something Marcus said to me comes to mind. He said that the question of “What is the Algebra Project?” is a very difficult question to answer, but is so important to thinking about the values and the work the Project does and, from a teacher’s perspective, how you want to work with the kids in your classroom. Thanks to the mentorship of Ben Moynihan and all of the folks at the Algebra Project, I think that I have at least a little bit better of a sense of “what” the Algebra Project really is.

I enjoyed being a part of the day-to-day operations of the Algebra Project national office this summer, including working on the content and design for the new website, fielding calls and emails from people interested in learning more about the Project or requesting Bob as an event speaker, updating the mailing list, organizing the storage room, and helping to draft and edit reports and proposals.

I am grateful not only for the opportunity the project gave me this summer, but also for the work Bob Moses has done since the Mississippi voter registration drives of the sixties and since the Algebra Project’s inception in the eighties. I consider myself very fortunate to have worked in the company of remarkable and dedicated people who have had a real impact on improving the public school system and promoting racial and socioeconomic equality. Thank you again for a very worthwhile and inspiring summer. I am really looking forward to keeping in touch.

Rachel Wittenberg is a freshman at the University of Chicago.

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