Do The Math

By Elizabeth Kirkland — March 01, 2002 10 min read
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Can playing games teach kids about numbers? Leaders of the Young People’s Project bet it can.

On a rain-drenched December evening in Jackson, Mississippi, a multicultural crowd files into the Crown Room of the Clarion Hotel for a formal dinner honoring math educators. The room is dressed up in typical ballroom style: A podium is set for speeches, and round tables decorated with white tablecloths and candles await a sumptuous meal. But something decidedly unconventional has taken over the parquet dance floor: Carnival-esque booths snake around its perimeter.

The setup is unusual, but the guests are into it. Teachers, state government workers, lawyers, activists, parents, and students all line up eagerly to try their luck at various games. At one stall, participants are using probability to calculate their chances of rolling a specific combination on three color-coded dice. It looks like a craps game—except for the people scribbling X’s and Y’s on scraps of paper before they place their make- believe bets with a “banker.”

At a math games night in Somerville, Massachusetts, 7th graders study averaging with a favorite YPP prop: A hula hoop.

At another booth, Sammie Myers, a lighthearted and outgoing 21-year-old, is manning a hula hoop activity. “This is an averaging game,” he says, grabbing one of the plastic circles lying haphazardly on the floor in front of him. He explains that, during three rounds, three groups of people will compete to see how fast they can step through the hoops. In each succeeding round, the allotted time will increase, and participants will note how the number of people who run through the hoops varies. With a graphing calculator, they’ll then plot their data and perform a linear regression to determine a line of best fit, which illustrates trends in the data. Armed with this information, they’ll try to predict what will happen in future rounds.

Laughter and squeals of surprise punctuate the goings-on. The scene’s a far cry from the tedious math classes many of the guests endured in high school, so it’s not surprising that they don’t notice they’re actually practicing math skills.

Tonight’s activities were arranged by the Young People’s Project, a Jackson- based group of teens and 20-somethings who teach mathematics through games, and they illustrate the theory that drives the organization: When people aren’t intimidated by the subject, they’ll learn and use math. It’s an idea that works particularly well with young kids and adolescents, says Myers, who helped found the organization. “If young people are having fun, that’s what they want to keep doing. We use the games as a tool to get their attention.”

The group may be devoted to making math fun, but YPP’s origins lie in a serious truth: Rigorous math courses in school lead to economic success later on. According to one U.S. Department of Education study, Mathematics Equals Opportunity, only 36 percent of students who don’t take algebra I and geometry go to college. Yet, the report finds, fewer than half of all low-income students take these courses.

YPP’s origins lie in a serious truth: Rigorous math courses in school lead to economic success later on.

For Bob Moses, a math educator and a civil rights activist who works in Jackson and Cambridge, Massachusetts, these numbers have dramatic implications. “We’re growing serfs in our cities,” he notes, adding that without higher-level math to open the door to college, kids are condemned to dead-end jobs. And he argues: “If they don’t have an income to support family in some legitimate enterprise and they hit the streets, then pretty much they’re into the criminal justice system sooner or later. So this is a huge problem.”

In the early 1980s, Moses started the Algebra Project, an organization that teaches algebra to low-income and minority middle schoolers using creative techniques and real-world examples. Since then, he and his team of adult tutors have taught thousands of kids in 28 cities, the majority of whom perform above average on standardized tests and go on to study upper-level math.

Rita Wilkerson (right) was shocked when daughter Gina wanted to quit cheerleading to study math.
—Greg Jenson

Moses’ four children—Maisha, 31; Omowale (Omo), 29; Tabasuri (Taba), 27; and Malaika, 25—grew up alongside the Algebra Project, and all have assisted with the program in various capacities. But by the mid-’90s, his two sons—Omo, a math major, and Taba, who was still in high school—were itching to add a student-driven element to their father’s work.

“I could feel that there was a need for young people to do something [for themselves],” Omo explains. “The Algebra Project intervenes in the classroom with teachers and administrators. We were trying to figure out some things we could do to impact our peers.” Several 8th graders from Brinkley Middle School in Jackson who were studying with the Algebra Project at the time, including Sammie Myers, suggested creating a group in which students could help each other understand and practice math skills.

The Moses brothers tested out the idea by having the 8th graders join them in supervising math games for other kids their age at a nearby Algebra Project site in 1996. “It was intensive work,” Omo says, but the kids who were being tutored admired the team leaders and enthusiastically participated in the program. The group decided to become a collective, in which members plan activities together as equals, and to remain affiliated with the Algebra Project. As the original batch of 8th graders moved up through school, they stuck with the effort and recruited their peers to help spread the math message.

Today, YPP’s volunteers, mostly high school but some college students, work out of two offices, one in Jackson with about 100 members and one in Cambridge with 50 members. The groups meet weekly outside of school hours to create games, first deciding what skill they want to teach, then brainstorming activities around the concept. Bob Moses often helps refine game ideas, and members test them out. When an activity is ready, it’s used at one of the group’s sessions— held, on average, once a week—for 6th to 8th grade kids at schools, Boys and Girls Clubs, and other locations. During school breaks, YPP workers often travel across Mississippi and other states to create a buzz about math, and some of them teach at the summer day camp for 3rd through 8th graders that the group runs in Jackson.

When People aren’t intimidated by the subject, YPP believes, they’ll learn and use math.

Omo Moses says operating a startup nonprofit, which supports itself through grant writing and other fund raising, is more difficult than he first anticipated. “There’s been a learning curve in terms of learning how to run an organization,” he admits. Yet he’s pleased with the way YPP has developed over the past five years. As members have helped kids with its programs—thousands of youngsters to date—they’ve also reinforced their own math skills. What’s more, it’s shown them that “they can really design and help implement things in their communities.”

All along, the organization has made a special effort to document its work, so the YPP model can be replicated in the future in other communities. And though it’s too soon to measure the long-term impact of YPP, Algebra Project research shows that more students are on the college-prep track at high schools with YPP members than at schools without.

Bob Moses couldn’t be prouder. His children’s organization has grown from a tendril of the Algebra Project into “a solid root,” as he describes it. “That’s probably one of the main blessings of our lives,” he says.

Gina Wilkerson considers YPP a major blessing in her life. No one would call her a math nerd—in green cargo pants, a stiff black cotton shirt with a tie around the waist, and black chunky-soled shoes, she looks every bit a cool teenager. But tonight, helping YPP provide the educational entertainment at the Clarion Hotel dinner, the Lanier High School junior sounds like a young Emmy Noether—the early 20th-century mathematician known as “the mother of algebra”—as she explains inductive reasoning at one of the game booths. “Before [I joined YPP] I didn’t like math,” she confesses during a break. “I hated it. It was just the way our teachers taught math—it wasn’t interesting. They taught it straight out of the book without using different things to explain it. But when I went to YPP, they had developed games, and it became easier. I applied what they showed me to my work, and it made it fun instead of being boring. Now I love math.”

YPP’s Omo Moses believes math skills add up to success in life.
—Greg Jenson

Before any of this could happen, though, Gina had to convince her mom that YPP was for real, even though it was run by teens. Rita Wilkerson, a tiny dynamo of a woman standing nearby, remembers how she was highly skeptical when, two years ago, her daughter approached her about quitting cheerleading to study math of all things.

“I had to get in there and see how these young people do their math,” Wilkerson recalls. So she went to a few YPP meetings. She liked how the group leaders showed their peers different strategies for approaching math problems. And she was excited to see that YPP gave the kids some access to Bob Moses. “When Bob comes in, everyone gets quiet; everyone gets in their seat,” she observes. “They’re very attentive toward him, and they absorb everything that comes from this man.”

YPP piques kids’ interest in mastering the challenging subject, Wilkerson says, because “they’re excited that they can take the math and do it. The confidence level and self-esteem are there. I wouldn’t want [Gina] to be any place else.” Wilkerson’s so keen on the group that she’s become known as “the YPP mom,” regularly shuttling group members to events in her car.

Changing perceptions about the kinds of kids who do well in math—and in school, in general—is a crucial focus of YPP, notes Maisha Moses, who helps oversee the group’s projects. “We don’t try to find the best math students but just the people who are interested in doing the work,” she says of choosing the YPP workshop leaders. “They come from the same communities as the other kids and deal with the same issues.” Because of that, she explains, learning math becomes OK.

Changing perceptions about the kinds of kids who do well in math is a crucial focus of YPP, says project organizer Maisha Moses.

Equally valuable, Maisha argues, is the group’s familylike embrace, which encourages the kids to stick with the subject. “It’s not often you can work with students like this over a number of years,” she says. “I’ve gotten a sense that, for a number of them, this is a stabilizing part of their life. There’s nothing else really like it around.” YPP members often help each other with their school lessons, Gina Wilkerson reports. They quiz each other and use the games to clarify algebra principles.

The group has certainly affected Gina’s high school experience. She’s taking trigonometry, computation in business, and chemistry this year, and she wants to major in psychology at college, with an eye to becoming a guidance counselor in the future. “I want to be someone [students] can look up to, like Maisha,” she says.

Maisha Moses: “It’s not often that you can work with students like this.”
— Sevans

And YPP’s transformed Sammie Myers’ life, to hear him tell it. Myers was 15 when he helped start the organization. Although he was struggling with math at the time, he was looking for something to do after school. YPP offered a positive option. Had he not signed on with the project, Myers says, he probably would have gotten caught up in the rough street culture. “That’s not to say that the Young People’s Project saved me,” he observes, “but I made a decision to help with the process. It gave me another choice. I chose YPP and not the streets.” Now he’s studying business and accounting at Hinds Community College in Raymond, Mississippi, and plans to attend a four-year college. Myers is particularly proud of the fact that he’s visited 30 different states to teach workshops with YPP, something he says he would not have been able to do otherwise.

“Some people call me an activist,” Myers says. “I don’t want that title just yet. I don’t think I’ve done enough.” And, he adds, he’s uncomfortable with titles in general. He thinks for a minute, then reconsiders. Just call him a “math literacy worker,” he says. n


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