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Math and Fiction? Math and Social Change?by Wendy Lichtman
But I knew I'd studied math all those years, so I don't know why I was so shocked when I found myself driving through the fog on the Bay Bridge one summer evening to go to a lecture in San Francisco by Dr. Robert Moses, the founder of The Algebra Project.
Bob Moses has a lot of impressive credentials including earning a PhD. in mathematics from Harvard, leading voter registration drives in Mississippi in the 1960s, winning a MacArthur "genius" grant, and being listed in U.S. News & World Report as one of America's Best Leaders of 2006 but the only thing I knew that night was that Dr. Moses had written Radical Equations, a book about math and social change that had blown my mind.
I am a writer (which is one of the reasons my friends had no inkling of my math background; also, I don't figure out the tip at a restaurant any more quickly than the English majors), so I always have a few stories on the back burner that I'm meaning to write. One of them had haunted me for years: when I was a teenager, an acquaintance of my mother's had committed suicide. When I learned that my mother suspected that the victim's husband was involved, I was shocked that she didn't go to the police. The mystery for me was not only if, in fact, the guy had killed his wife, but more importantly, why my mom whom I always saw as doing the right thing wasn't insisting upon an investigation.
The chance that I would end up telling that story through algebraic metaphors was about as likely as the chance that I'd be sitting in a room full of math activists. But there I was.
And I was fascinated as Dr. Moses explained how The Algebra Project, modeled after the Civil Rights Movement, was working to create a culture of change. Because today's tech-dependent society requires math literacy for so many jobs, it's time for all students to demand access to the advanced math classes: this, too, is what equal education means.
One idea, especially, got to me. Dr. Moses argued that algebra was developmentally appropriate for all eighth graders, not just the strongest students, because when the concept of the unknown for example, the letter x enters the picture, it changes everything; it changes the way you can process information, mathematically and metaphorically.
There's my story, I thought. That's exactly how I'd felt in eighth grade as if the unknown x had been placed in my life and it had changed everything. I began to understand then that in math and in life some questions had more than one correct answer, and other questions, like why my mother had decided not to report a possible murder, couldn't be answered at all.
When I started writing Do the Math: Secrets, Lies and Algebra, I did the usual research I bought a couple of algebra books; I spoke to a counselor who leads groups for teenage girls; I interviewed a coroner about how suicides are investigated. I also called a friend who was the principal of a middle school and asked her if I could observe and tutor the eighth-grade algebra class. And after a few months of working there, things began to shift for me I cared not only about making my fiction ring true, but also about how important it was for these kids to be literate in math. I watched a brilliant teacher engage and challenge her students; I watched her try a million different approaches. To understand the shape of parabolas, she had them throw a football, to compute the slope of a straight line, she had them burn candles and graph the weight loss as the candles melted away, and to get her students to care that the equation for that line was y=mx+b, she taught them how to figure out which phone plan was the biggest rip-off.
Still, a lot of these students struggled with algebra. Many of them felt alienated and embarrassed by the fact that they'd never adequately learned mental math skills they couldn't, for example, easily figure out that if 3x=12, then x=4, because they couldn't divide 12 by 3 without thinking about it. These are kids who absolutely believe they can't learn math. That's a dangerous belief system. Because one of the things Bob Moses speaks about is algebra being the "gatekeeper" subject without it, middle school students can't advance in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, and without those courses, they won't be able to meet the requirements for college. And how does that relate to the civil rights movement of the '60s? Here's a good ratio for you:
Thirteen-year-old kids are too old and too cool to say that they feel hopeless about their skills they just say that they hate the subject. The more I hung out with these students, the more I understood that my job in writing this book was to try to get under their "I hate math" radar. I know, of course, that not many teens want to read a book about the quadratic equation, but plenty of them do want to read about betrayal. (And yes, we're getting back to that original suicide/murder question; honestly, the book is a novel.)
So here's an excerpt from that "Quadratic Equations" chapter. The protagonist, Tess, has promised her mother that she won't tell anyone about the possible murder, but Tess breaks that promise and tells her closest friends the secret. This scene takes place in algebra class, right after Tess has realized that one of her friends she doesn't know who has told her secret around school.
The only reason I hate quadratic equations is that there are a lot of ways to solve them. Sometimes the directions will say, "Solve by factoring" or "Solve by completing the square," so fine. But if it just says, "Solve: y=x-2x-3," then you can sit there a long time wondering, Okay, great, but what exactly am I supposed to do? Where am I supposed to start?
And here's what I'd like to know: how can we best convince kids of both genders and all races that they just might be talented at math? How can we help them see that the study of algebra develops conceptual thinking, keeps them from being ripped off by the phone companies, and gets them into college?
God, I'd love a formula for that.
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Wendy Lichtman writes personal essays for the Washington Post, New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Good Housekeeping, among other national publications. She holds a degree in mathematics and has tutored public school students in algebra for the past several years. She lives in Berkeley, California.