Algebra Project Brings Textbook Math Lessons to Life

Article written for Forest Manor Middle School to highlight The Algebra Project.

By Julie Severson

The length of Miss Marshall’s classroom at Forest Manor Middle School is equal to 52.5 pencils, according to sixth grader Derek Dennis. Ashley Thomas, on the other hand, thought it more logical to measure the same distance by using the length of her body—the measurement came to “five Ashleys.”

What are these students gaining by using these seemingly unscientific units of measure? A better chance to succeed in life, according to Terry Ogle, principal of Forest Manor Middle School.

On the lookout for a way to improve his students’ chances in school academics and future career opportunities, Ogle discovered and introduced The Algebra Project to his teachers and students this year. Founded by former Civil Rights Leader Robert Moses, The Algebra Project’s goal is to help middle schoolers build skills, confidence and deeper understanding of algebra, trigonometry and calculus.

What intrigued Ogle was The Algebra Project’s emphasis on using the students’ own experience and culture to develop math concepts.

“This helps students understand math rather than memorize it,” Ogle said. “We can teach them how to push the right buttons, but we’re trying to build a foundation so our kids grow up to be contributors rather than just consumers,” he said.

Marge Embry, Forest Manor’s lead teacher for The Algebra Project agrees. “This curriculum personalizes their mathematics and gives them motivation to understand,” she said.

The Algebra Project supplements the regular classroom textbook by involving students in hands-on experiences. Each lesson begins with a physical event. The students then draw, discuss and write about their experience using concrete symbols to represent abstract math concepts.

One lesson takes the students on a tour of local historical sites. They draw and write about each site using symbols that are familiar to them. Although they’re probably not fully aware of it at the time, the students use all sorts of angles, linear perspectives, integers and circumferences to draw their pictures, according to Ogle.

“It’s phenomenal when we translate what they produce in their own language to mathematical principles,” Ogle said.

Another lesson requires that each team of students decide on a unit of measure, such as a Jacqueline hug, a William arm, Tammy’s shoe, and then measure objects in the classroom. The team explains and defends their rationale for choosing their unit. An enthusiastic discussion naturally follows as the students debate the accuracy of their units and other controversial issues, such as which side of the chalkboard is the width and which is the length.

“The kids have a ball with it,” said Kelli Marshall, sixth grade math teacher. According to Marshall, her students who have been involved with The Algebra Project are much less intimidated by math than those who have not.

“These lessons allow students to determine math in their own language first and then convert to concepts used in the textbook,” Marshall said. “The students who started the lesson on metrics without going through this process seem more confused.”

According to Principal Ogle, The Algebra Project is making a “significant” impact on students’ test performance in math and language arts. He has seen a five to ten percent increase in test scores since it was implemented.

Young Derek Dennis agrees that math is a lot more fun now and that his grades are getting better, but he’s got bigger things on his mind: “I have to know math so when I become a doctor, I know how much liquid medicine to give to my patients,” he said.