The Impact of a SEED Project

Virginia M. Warfield

People become mathematicians because they love mathematics. It follows that the field is full of people who would like to benefit mathematics--to introduce others to its beauty, and especially to counteract some of the dire influences that we all see at work on it. But the need is so vast that it is easy to feel powerless, and to feel that whatever one can accomplish will have too small an impact to be of value. This paper is written in the hope of supplying some antidote for that feeling. The Seattle branch of Project SEED, which I will be describing, lasted, from a technical point of view, a bare three years, and then disappeared without a trace. That is, there is no written trace anywhere in the official system. Unofficially, on the other hand, the influence is beyond reckoning. This is its story.

In mid-August of 1970, opportunity thumped upon my door. Project SEED, I was told, had the possibility of expanding to Seattle, but was stymied for lack of a director. I had been recommended to them as having the background and abilities for the job: would I take it on? At the time I knew only enough about Project SEED to have intrigued me into accepting the invitation to meet and discuss it, and a full-time job was definitely not part of my agenda (which was dominated by a Ph.D. thesis to complete.) On the other hand, the project sounded valuable and exciting, and the prospect of having Seattle lose it for lack of a director was highly distressing. I had youth, energy and, in retrospect, a fair amount of chutzpah. After a brief but serious consultation with my husband, I accepted.

Upwards of a quarter century later, I am overwhelmed by the impact of that decision. Taking as a hypothesis that without it the project would indeed have been unable to come to Seattle, I am going to sketch here the consequences of that "yes". That is, I will sketch the developments of which I am conscious, and of whose connection with Project SEED I am aware. I am reasonably convinced that they are the tip of an iceberg.

To begin with, what is Project SEED? It was the brain-child of one Bill Johntz, a high school teacher in Berkeley. In the 1960's, he 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 barrier that sheer terror produces to the learning of algebra in high school. He developed a technique which he dubbed Group Discovery, took his lunch hours to try it out in a local elementary school, and found his theory completely validated--the kids soaked up the algebra and begged for more, and their self-image shot up perceptibly, as did their general academic focus. 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--and the effect continued. With that he was ready for further expansion, so he enlisted the aid of some outstanding mathematicians--notably Leon Henkin and Bob Davis. Their joint energy and effort produced a project through which graduate students at the University of California at Berkeley could be supported while doing Johntz-style teaching, and Project S.E.E.D. was born. Officially the acronym stood for Special Elementary Education for the Disadvantaged, though on occasion (talking with parents, for instance) some of us fudged it to Special Elementary Education through Discovery. With the Berkeley project established, Johntz turned his energies to expansion and (always and forever) funding. He established projects in Ann Arbor, Michigan; New Brunswick, New Jersey; Columbus, Ohio and other places, some with state funding, some on federal soft money. And at this stage, Seattle and I entered the picture.

The immediate impact on me of accepting SEED's offer was as close to that of stepping into a tornado as I ever hope to experience. Within forty-eight hours I was in Harlem, taking part in the final three (3) days of a summer training program. I watched my first actual SEED classes, taught one session (rather badly) and was bombarded with information, of which I probably retained about 20%. 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 really 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 person teaching must be able to deal with them confidently and with pleasure. No one without a bachelors degree either in mathematics or a heavily mathematical field like physics or astronomy could even be considered for the job. This is where my connections came into play. My husband, and consequently most of my friends, were in the mathematics department of the University of Washington (two of them had, in fact, been responsible for Johntz's finding out about me.) Most of the people who taught SEED classes taught just one--a four day a week commitment, but nonetheless one which could be combined with a university teaching schedule. As the project built up, the personnel branched out, but always at the core we had a number of strong, supportive faculty members and interested, involved graduate students from the math department. Other people provided all manner of valuable strengths, but I think that core was the single most essential ingredient in what we grew into.

In all, the Seattle project lasted two and a half years--two at maximum strength (up to forty classes at a time) and one at desperate half-strength. Then the rules changed for allocating the federal soft money on which we had run. To continue operating we would have had to agree to run a pull-out program (i.e., a program working separately and exclusively with the "disadvantaged" students), which was philosophically and tactically the exact opposite of what we did. For better or for worse, we opted not to compromise, and SEED in Seattle went down--but with all flags flying.

That, then, ended chapter one of the story. Project SEED itself was gone, and we never managed to get it back into the schools. What was its direct impact? There is no measure overall, but it is hard to imagine that the students in the class which had had the lowest standardized test scores in the state and whose test results went up two full stanines 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 repeatedly run into reports of teachers commenting that their teaching had been permanently influenced by having had a SEED specialist in their classroom (teachers were required to stay present while the SEED classes took place.) I have also run into parents and teachers and administrators whose faces have lit up at the mention of the project--a positive image of the mathematical community at work is a powerful one to have in the school community.

A few years ago a drug store clerk spotted me as having been her algebra teacher when she was in the fifth grade. Since she was now a young adult, I asked if she were in college, and was disappointed to find that she was not. "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." No, we didn't fail her.

Meanwhile, as chapter one ended, chapter two began. It also needs an introduction. I mentioned above that my total training was a frenzied three day stint in Harlem. I had with me in the project one young man who had been through a full summer's training, but no one else with any experience whatever. Project SEED provided us with a format: anyone coming in must observe a certain number of classes, teach a few days in an established classroom and then teach a couple of weeks in a non-established classroom before being accepted into the project. I think it was also from them that I picked up the technique of taking notes with a log of the class on the left half of the page, my comments on the right half, and a carbon behind so that I could go back and reconstruct the class retroactively. All helpful, but not nearly enough. What saved me was the strength of the community of SEED specialists, and the strength of the bond that we formed. We had weekly meetings at which we discussed the ups and downs and joys and frustrations we were all going through, and at which we gave a shape to the entire program. People swiftly realized that they profited from observing each other, and decided on a requirement that everyone observe two other classes per week. For a few weeks many were perceptibly nervous at the idea of having someone other than me drop in on their class. Then, as they discovered how much they could learn, and how much fun an after-class discussion could be, the mood swung, and by the end the cry was "Hey! No one has observed me for two whole weeks. Somebody, COME!" As it became clear that Project SEED was going to fold, a major factor in the pain we all felt was desolation at the disbanding of this community.

As it turned out, however, the disbanding never really took effect, because a large part of the community re-formed before the bonds had done any significant dissolving. This came about as follows:
Among the University of Washington faculty members to take part in SEED was Professor Steve Monk. In addition to working with SEED, Monk had been working on campus with the remedial program being run to accommodate students admitted to the university with a deficiency, under the special admissions policy of the Office of Minority Affairs. Several tactics had been tried, with uniformly distressing results. Monk decided that the essential elements of Project SEED--group discovery based on a very careful structuring of the mathematical material--could be adapted to the university's courses. He returned to campus and managed to arrange funding for two of the graduate students who had also been with Project SEED, Square Partee and Eric Halsey, to develop such a course. When it became clear that the courses would indeed function, he began expanding the number of classes so taught by getting more and more teaching assistants into it. Working with Bob Warfield, who was then graduate advisor, he organized the students, then also helped the Office of Minority Affairs to set up a Study Skills Center, later renamed the Instructional Center, at which the remedial students could get help on a drop-in basis at any time. Along with the obvious benefits to the students, this had the effect of reducing demands on the graduate students' office hours--an essential feature, since teaching such a course is a lot more work than running a problem session for a calculus course.

But where could people be found to man the Study Skills Center who would know how to deal with students who were learning by group discovery? SEED specialists, of course. Ferdinand Dario was the first, and others followed. And where could extra teachers be found when it turned out there were more sections than the graduate student pool could supply? Same answer. In fact, I was the first such. For one quarter I just taught. Then my SEED instincts began twitching, because Halsey and Partee, after doing a superb job of adapting the classroom material, seemed to me to be floundering when it came to teaching their fellow graduate students to use it. There was no possibility of transferring SEED's techniques directly, since it would have involved adding the requirement of an extra hour for observation to already overloaded schedules. On the other hand, just telling someone how to do group discovery simply doesn't work. So we set up a system whereby the three of us observed all the sections being taught and took SEED-style notes, then discussed the class and the notes with the instructor after class. With ten to twelve sections each quarter, setting up the observation schedules could be a tad frenetic, but we managed it in general, and provided three points of view for the instructors as we went through. Eventually Halsey and Partee moved on, and two other former SEED people came in to help me with training and administration. Others joined Dario at the Instructional Center. In all, I'd say around a dozen erstwhile SEED members took part in the remedial program from the mid-seventies to the late eighties. I think I can safely say that for each of us working in the program what we learned from Project SEED remained the core of our professional identity. For the other faculty members and graduate students who took part in SEED itself that would be too broad a claim, but the impact was certainly present. As my husband put it in a Haverford Alumni Note "I don't know if my teaching improved, but it certainly became less standard!"

The remedial program is still going on. Over the years it has shrunk, starting with a radical drop when Reagan decimated the financial aid system, but it is still very much in place. Though I am the last member of the original SEED contingent, I am still teaching, as are others who have learned the technique during the past two decades, using materials that are unambiguously descended from the original Halsey-Partee product. [Partee, Halsey, Mancer and Warfield , "Discovery Method Algebra" Ginn Press, 1993, and Warfield, "Instructor's Manual for Discovery Method Algebra", Ginn Press, 1993] I am also still using SEED-type observation notes to teach graduate students how to teach by group discovery. Over the years that makes hundreds of graduate students who have gone out into the world having had that experience. A certain number have stayed around here (the Seattle area is hard to leave!) Recently I began to realize that an impressive percentage of the math faculty at local community colleges who have gone there from the University of Washington are ones who have taught for me. The fact was brought home to me when a community college department chair came to a U.W. faculty meeting to discuss a new internship program. He explained that "At this point, the only way we know that someone can teach our kind of students is if they have been through Virginia Warfield's program." Of the rest, it is possible that only a few have gone on to do actual discovery teaching. Even if that is the case, they have had a chance to learn what it is really to listen to students, and to shape their responses to what they hear rather than to what they figure the students ought to need to know. They have all had the experience of giving to the students an appreciable amount of responsibility for their own learning, and watching them respond to that responsibility. And they have all had the heady experience of dealing with a class that has really engaged with a mathematical topic and is flying high with it. I recently ran into one of our earliest graduate students, now long since an established university faculty member. "You know", she said meditatively, "I can still see the influence of that class on my teaching."

And the students in the remedial program? Cumulatively they number in the thousands by now. They have gone all sorts of ways. In the early days, the admissions span was very wide indeed, and we had people with a fascinating variety of backgrounds (I will never forget the expression on the face of the TA who discovered that giving one of his students an A on a quiz had qualified the student for a week-end pass from his Resident Release program.) Correspondingly, there were many who found that for academic or other reasons the university was not in fact where they needed to be. Even at that period, though, a fair number graduated. One of my former students turned up as the owner of a small business I happened into, having completed 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 gotten without the mathematics we taught her. In the current, tamer, state of the world quite a lot graduate, often with majors requiring at least a quarter of math beyond our remedial classes, and many go on for graduate work. Total mathematical desperation is a rarer state now, but the need to develop mathematical autonomy is universal, as is the need to see mathematics as a coherent, sense-making whole. These, as they always have been, are strengths of SEED style learning.

So the impact of that 1970 "yes", which started with a batch of bright-eyed inner city school kids and expanded to their teachers and parents, grew to a whole community of mathematicians centered around the University of Washington, and expanded from them to wherever two decades' worth of graduate students have spread to, and to many , many hundreds of undergraduates, most of them belonging to minority groups.

And even that is not all. On me the experience of teaching in an elementary classroom and working with K-12 teachers left a permanent mark. When opportunity permitted, I began working with the University of Washington's courses for future elementary teachers, then developing workshops for in-service teachers. More recently a team of us including yet another professor from the original SEED community, Ramesh Gangolli, decided to work on a larger scale, and successfully applied for an NSF Local Systemic Change grant to work with all of the middle and high school teachers from six local school districts. I'm back in the schools, at least a bit of the time, and it feels very good indeed.

Last fall I attended a conference for principal investigators and evaluators of all of the Local Systemic Change grants. In the course of it I fell into conversation with another principal investigator, and she asked how I had gotten into all this. "Well", I said, "It all started with something called Project SEED." "!!!", she replied. She went on to explain that her own career had the same beginning point. By the time we finished comparing notes, the list of similarities was almost unnerving. And I began to see that what I had been regarding as a forest of influences growing from our Seattle SEED project was really just a grove. The whole of the forest is beyond my imagining.

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