Inside Math Circle: Perspectives from Volunteers

Many people ask me, “What is Math Circle like?” Whether the questions is from parents who want to understand what their children are experiencing, or whether it’s a friend of mine who wants to understand the work that I do, it can be hard to sum up the nuances and multifaceted nature of SF Math Circle. I can explain to anyone the goals of our program, and give examples of math content, but to explain what actually happens, what is the magical ingredient in the spice -  that is a near impossible task.

Enter some of our wonderful volunteers who want to share their experience with you! In Fall 2014, SF Math Circle had many volunteers from Dr. Paul Zeitz’ Service Learning Course on Teaching Mathematical Circles at the University of San Francisco. This impressive group brought a lot of enthusiasm to our program. In reading reflections on their experiences volunteering during last semester, we can gain insight from them.

This post is the beginning of a five part series on the experiences and perspectives of the USF students. In the next four weeks, I will post essays by four these students about their time at SF Math Circle.

Math Circles across the nation are still somewhat of an experimental model, although one gaining great popularity. Still, the role of the Math Circle instructor can be very different from normal expectations of teachers and classrooms. The role of a volunteer in a math circle classroom can be even less well defined. The students, and the new instructors and new volunteers have to adjust to this alternative way of engaging with mathematics.  Here, Milica talks about what it was like getting started:

“We are just beginning and we have been learning along with the kids, which is why this was a successful semester – everyone learned something including us, the USF students. We had an opportunity to see what is good and what is bad. We interacted with kids and we managed to get closer to them because they didn’t see us as teachers. Kids saw us as peers and were much more open to talk to us.”  

Adam and another USF volunteer working with middle school students at Lowell High School. 

Adam and another USF volunteer working with middle school students at Lowell High School. 

Another USF student, Adam, wrote about how at math circles, students “were given some of a concept and then thrown to the wolves.” He meant this in a good way as he later writes, “Our swords might be pencils, our dragons mere sheets of blank paper, but the fire is real; it burns bright inside me and inside all the kids I worked with in Math Circle.”  This level of open challenge can be met with mixed reaction from kids and adults alike. Those of us who love these challenging problems embrace Math Circle and keep coming back. Read Adam's full perspective here. 

Finally, another USF student, Sam, experienced a classic moment in teaching that tends to get educators hooked: the “Aha moment.” He writes,  “At the [end of the semester math festival], a 7th grader looked at me after he solved the long and difficult base ­[Fibonacci] problem, and I showed him the magic trick at the end and he stopped and just said “Whoa, that’s crazy”....At that moment, he got it. He got what I see everyday and I finally was able to bring him into my shoes. That was the best way I could’ve ended this semester.”  Read Sam's full perspective here

Co-Directors Addie and Paul, with USF volunteers Gabbie and Sam at the end of the semester festival, Fall 2014. 

Co-Directors Addie and Paul, with USF volunteers Gabbie and Sam at the end of the semester festival, Fall 2014. 


Fall 2014 was a great semester, and Spring 2015 is off to a great start! At SF Math Circle, we are always grateful for our volunteers and our community of support. To learn more about volunteering, check out our pages for general volunteers, or parent volunteers.