Planting SEEDs of hope

An innovative math program recalculates which students will succeed and which will fail at DISD

Moreover, backers say, it's not just black children who benefit from SEED methods. Students pegged as "slow" by teachers are often quick to grasp the conceptual reasoning behind complicated math problems, even if they are rusty on the mechanics of seemingly less difficult math topics such as multiplication and division.

And the program helps students with a limited grasp of English since math ability, and not English fluency, is crucial. "A Hispanic kid [with a limited grasp of English] may not know the language," Glee says, "but if you put up the numbers and the concepts, they get it right." He says he's seen children stimulated by SEED's high-energy approach go from shy and quiet to boisterous, with larger English vocabularies to boot.

Cinthia Yanez, 9, signals her answer to Baker.
Cinthia Yanez, 9, signals her answer to Baker.
Third-grade instructor Jeff Sughrue didn't think his class could learn algebra, but he was pleasantly surprised to find out otherwise.
Third-grade instructor Jeff Sughrue didn't think his class could learn algebra, but he was pleasantly surprised to find out otherwise.

Here's how SEED works: The lessons don't take the place of regular math lessons, but complement them, weaving advanced concepts such as exponents and summations into basic math topics that students have already studied, such as fractions and division. SEED instructors don't lecture, but use a teaching style known as the Socratic method of instruction, in which they teach the material by asking question after question, thus facilitating discussion.

The instructors, say program leaders, phrase their queries with precision to nudge students in the right direction. For the most part, however, they let students figure it out for themselves one step at a time, using choral responses and hand signals to keep the whole class involved while measuring individual students' level of understanding.

The hand signals also serve as a classroom-management tool, instructors say, by giving students an outlet to respond frequently and eagerly and helping build the confidence of quiet students. "It's meant to be nonthreatening and fun," Baker says.

A key feature of the project is its use of trained mathematicians, says Hamid Ebrahimi, Project SEED's national director and chief executive officer. "Regular elementary teachers, due to no fault of their own, are not exposed to higher math," Ebrahimi says. Rather, he says, they are trained as generalists and may take only one or two math courses in college.

After some initial suspicion, he adds, most teachers welcome the SEED instructors and learn new techniques and material through watching them teach. Cooperation between the two teachers is crucial, as children are quick to pick up on any negative static. "We're not there to take their place and lift ourselves up above [regular teachers]," Glee says. "We're there to roll up our sleeves and help children."

Ultimately, Project SEED isn't about higher math or algorithms, backers say, but building and reinforcing students' confidence at a crucial age.

"Mathematics is a tool we use to get students to think," Glee says. "Unfortunately, math is a subject where kids say math is hard and have a tendency to shy away. But it's a lot easier to teach math to 10-, 11-, and 12-year-olds than to 15-year-olds because a lot of the older students have already developed an opinion about themselves."

While the term "critical thinking" has fallen out of favor in educational circles in recent years, Project SEED constitutes a rare and unabashed bastion of old-style "progressive" philosophy in education, which prizes deep thought over the "rote learning" and memorization of facts in preparation for standardized tests.

While much progressive ideology in education, championed by educator and philosopher John Dewey in the early 1900s, has been rightly or wrongly dismissed as fluff, SEED rises above the fuss by virtue of its sheer differentness. The program regularly receives accolades from the U.S. Education Department, while Republicans in Congress often call on Ebrahimi to testify on programs that help low-income children.

"Much of teaching is toward the answer, not the process," says Glee, voicing a belief that many policymakers today consider heresy when applied to regular academics. "But the journey is more important than the destination."

Like other teachers, many SEED instructors worry that children will encounter unneeded roadblocks on that journey. On the trip from Barbara Jordan Elementary School to downtown Dallas after Chet Baker teaches algebra to Jeff Sughrue's class, a discussion with William Glee about Project SEED turns to topics of religion and politics.

Next to the driver's seat in his white minivan, Glee keeps a box full of cassettes embossed with titles such as "The Liberated Christian: Freedom Through Your Identity in Christ." They are impassioned sermons by Anthony Evans, pastor of the nondenominational Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, which he listens to while driving to work. They get him in the right frame of mind.

Glee, who is deeply religious, says he needs the exhortation to mentally prepare every day for the job he believes God has chosen for him: supervising SEED's operations and teaching advanced math to elementary school students in some of Dallas' poorest neighborhoods. He sees himself as a missionary, even if he's not preaching the Gospel.

"There are forces out there that are trying to keep our kids from being successful," Glee says. "I'm there to shine a light so these kids can follow me."

Glee also says he's proud to serve as a role model for boys, especially black boys, since few men teach in elementary schools and many urban children live in single-parent homes. "We're also a role model when they see how diverse our staff is and how well we interact with each other," says Glee, who is black.

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