In mid-August of 1970, opportunity thumped upon my door. Project SEED (Special Elementary Education for the Disadvantaged) was completing negotiations to ex-pand to Seattle, but lacked a director. I had the background and abilities for the job: Would I take it on?
At that point a full-time job was definitely not part of my agenda, which was dominated by an unfinished Ph.D. thesis. On the other hand, the project sounded valuable, and the prospect of Seattle's losing it for lack of a director was highly distressing. I had youth, energy and, in retrospect, a fair amount of chutzpah. After brief but serious consideration and consultation with my husband, I accepted.
Upwards of a quarter century later, I am overwhelmed by the impact of that choice.
Project SEED was the brainchild of Bill Johntz, a high school teacher in Berkeley. In the 1960s, Johntz developed a theory that inner city elementary school kids, suitably taught, could learn and be excited by algebra, thereby profiting in the short run by a noteworthy success experience and in the long run by bypassing the sheer terror of learning algebra in high school. He developed a technique which he dubbed Group Discovery and tried it in a local school during his lunch hours. His theory was completely validated: The kids soaked up the algebra and begged for more. Their self-image improved dramatically, and consequently so did their academic achievement in all their subjects.
The next question was whether the technique was transmittable or whether it depended on Johntz's sparkling personality and innate showmanship. He pulled in a couple of mathematical friends, set them up and turned them loose. The effect continued. With that, he was ready for further expansion. He enlisted the aid of some outstanding mathematicians, notably Leon Henkin and Bob Davis, who successfully applied for state funding for Berkeley graduate students to receive a stipend for teaching algebra in elementary schools using Johntz's methods. This was the birth of Project SEED. Johntz then expanded the program to several other cities around the country and began the work of establishing a project in Seattle.
Accepting SEED's offer was like stepping into a tornado. Within 48 hours I was in Harlem, taking part in the final three days of a summer training program. I watched my first SEED classes, taught one session (rather badly) and was bombarded with information. Then I returned to Seattle. Within four weeks the arrangements were completed, the school system had accepted Project SEED with me as its director, and we plunged in.
We? That was the key element. An absolute necessity for discovery teaching is a deep knowledge of mathematics. A fifth grader at full tilt in a discovery class can ask questions with an amazing amount of mathematical content, and the teacher must be able to deal with them confidently and with pleasure. No one without a bachelor's degree either in mathematics or a heavily mathematical field such as physics or astronomy was even considered for the position of SEED specialist. One obvious source was the University of Washington mathematics department, both faculty members, including my husband, and graduate students. These formed our core. Around this core clustered a wonderful collection of others ranging from faculty wives to engineers released by Boeing's economic crunch.
In all, the Seattle project lasted three years: two at maximum strength with up to 40 classes at a time, and one at desperate half-strength as the rules for allocating federal soft money began to change. By the fourth year to continue operating we would have had to run a pullout program, working separately and exclusively with the "disadvantaged" students. It was philosophically and tactically the exact opposite of what we did. For better or worse, we opted not to compromise, and SEED in Seattle closed down.
That ended chapter one of the story. Seattle's Project SEED was gone, and we never managed to get it back into the schools. But as chapter one finished, chapter two began. Among the University of Washington SEEDspecialists was Professor Steve Monk. Monk decided that the essential elements of Project SEED could be adapted to the university's remedial mathematics courses. He arranged funding for two of the graduate students who had been with Project SEED to develop a SEED-style course for students admitted to the university without the normal prerequisites in mathematics. The course proved highly successful. As it expanded, the demand for teachers exceeded the supply of graduate students. Where could extra teachers be found? SEED specialists, of course. Around a dozen erstwhile SEED members eventually took part in the remedial program. For each of us what we learned from Project SEED remained the core of our professional identity.
The remedial program is still going on. Everyone now teaching in it is taught group discovery by methods I adapted from those of Project SEED. Over the years hundreds of graduate students have learned what it is to listen to students, and to shape responses to what they hear rather than to what they expect. They have had the experience of giving to the students an appreciable amount of responsibility for their own learning and watching them respond with increasing confidence and autonomy. They have had the heady experience of dealing with a class that has really engaged with a mathematical topic.
And the students in the remedial program? They could not graduate without passing our courses. Cumulatively they number in the thousands by now. One of my former students turned up as the owner of a small business I happened into, having successfully graduated with a major in business administration. Another accosted me in a mall one day because she had been wanting for years to thank me for a career as a physical therapist, using a degree she could not have completed without the mathematics we taught her.
For the original inner city elementary students and their teachers and parents it is difficult to measure the impact of Project SEED. It is hard to imagine, though, that the students in the class which had had the lowest standardized test scores in the state and whose test results went up an average of 20 percentile points in every subject felt no lasting effect. The same goes for the ones who came gleefully into class reporting that they were successfully tutoring their high school siblings. And so on with hundreds of other anecdotes. Over the years I have heard repeatedly of teachers permanently influenced by having had a SEED specialist in their classroom. I have also run into parents, teachers and administrators whose faces light up at the mention of the project. A few years ago a drug store clerk recognized me as her fifth grade algebra teacher. Since she was now a young adult, I was disappointed that she was not in college. "But," she added, "I might do it some day. Right now's not the time for me, but I know I could do it. Algebra and stuff was a breeze for me in high school."
The impact of that 1970 "yes" spread to a whole community of mathematicians centered around the University of Washington, and from there it expanded outwards to wherever two decades' worth of graduate students have traveled. It also reached many, many hundreds of undergraduates and thousands of elementary school students and their families and teachers.
Where did the "yes" leave me? Certainly not on a standard career path. I finished the doctorate and published the thesis, but meanwhile teaching fascinated me, and being a mother fascinated me, and there wasn't enough fascination left to do decent research with. So I stayed in the mathematics department, but as a specialist in teaching. This means I have spent my life as an anomaly. Thanks to being in a highly collegial department, I am strongly supported in carrying out a huge number of teaching/ learning activities, from being one of the co-Principal Investigators on a big NSF project working with K-12 teachers in six local school districts to translating and co-authoring articles on mathematics education research by a pre-eminent French mathematics educator. But I am not a professor. I am a senior lecturer, and no, I have never totally silenced the voice within that tells me that in my field Real People are professors.
Putting all that together leads to one clear question: If, now knowing its consequences, I could go back to that mid-August afternoon in 1970, would I make the same choice? The answer is an emphatic and unambiguous "yes!"
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