Math Literacy, Civil Rights, and Lemonade

by Jonathan Osler, August 2021

Bob Moses, speaking to volunteers helping to register Black voters in 1963. Credit: Steve Schapiro.

When I was in fifth grade, Bob Moses taught me how to make lemonade. Decades later, I’m passing on lessons I learned from him to my own undergraduate students as they prepare for teaching careers in STEM education.

In the early 1960’s, Bob left his job teaching high school math in New York City to help organize Black voters in Mississippi. In the face of racist and violent repression from white supremacists and the local politicians and police forces who emboldened them, Bob and his fellow organizers established voter registration schools. Undeterred by threats, beatings, and countless murders of civil rights activists, Bob’s efforts helped thousands of Black people register to vote.

Throughout his time in the south, Bob observed how Black communities were being locked out of economic opportunities in part because they were being denied quality educational experiences. He came to believe that math literacy in particular was a crucial tool for Black people to achieve economic justice.

In todays world, economic access and full citizenship depend crucially on math and science literacy.

— Bob Moses, Radical Equations

In the late 1980’s, Bob launched the Algebra Project at the Martin Luther King Jr. school in Cambridge, MA where I was a student, and where his children attended. Through the Algebra Project, middle schoolers like myself were introduced to Algebra through experiential learning. I remember riding the redline train with my 5th grade class, later mapping our inbound and outbound travels to deepen our understanding of number lines. And I remember making lemonade. Lots of lemonade.

If my friend made lemonade with two cups of water and ½ cup of lemon juice, and I had X cups of water, how would I represent the amount of lemon juice needed in terms of X to get the same lemonade? If W represented one cup of water, L represented a ½ cup of lemon juice, and S represented ¼ cup of sugar, then how did 2W + 2L + S compare to 3W + 6L + ½S? We mixed ingredients, wrote equations, and developed a deep understanding about abstract math concepts.

Mosaic Mural of Bob Moses in Cambridge, MA. Photo: Deborah Lee.

Bob Moses was a visionary who wove together a passion for racial justice with a transformative pedagogical approach to math education. In 2001, the year I started teaching math at a public high school in Brooklyn, NY, Bob told the story of the Algebra Project in his book Radical Equations. His vision deeply shaped my own approach to teaching as I came to understand that learning wasn’t only about the acquisition of content but a pathway towards freedom.

Bob inspired me to develop math curriculum that was relevant to my students’ struggles, dreams, and cultures, and that would help them confront the injustices their community was facing: gentrification, environmental racism, underfunded schools, and police violence. Those projects gave way to a website and a national conference where I had the honor of introducing him as our very first keynote speaker.

I now teach UC Berkeley undergrads who are considering careers in STEM education. One of my favorite lessons is the day I bring in water, lemon juice, and sugar, and tell my students: “Develop a recipe for the most delicious lemonade.” They design and carry out an experiment, testing recipe combinations and determining how to evaluate and track their results. They learn about controlling for variables, and write equations to describe ratios and relationships between ingredients. They pose thoughtful questions, and engage in rich mathematical discourse. And they laugh a lot because the assignment is fun (and a bit messy!).

My students are already strong mathematicians. So what I’m really doing is simulating the type of classroom environment that the Algebra Project once created for me and my peers. I am preparing them to cultivate conditions in their future classrooms that are joyful, equitable, engaging, and rigorous.

Among the many hats I wear, which include father, fundraiser, strategist, and writer, my math educator hat is among those with the deepest roots. Bob Moses’s death has hit me hard, and the world lost a brilliant freedom fighter and visionary educator. But I draw strength in this moment knowing that I’ll have the privilege to work with a diverse group of students (and taste their delicious lemonade recipes) when we return to campus a few weeks from now. And in doing so, I’ll continue striving to honor Bob’s legacy.

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Jonathan Osler

Jonathan Osler

Jonathan Osler writes about educational equity and racial justice. He’s a longtime educator, organizational leader, and fundraising / communications strategist.