Inside Math Circle: Perspective from Instructor Sam Roven

This blog post is part of a series called "Inside Math Circle." It is modified from an essay by Sam Roven, who volunteered for SF Math Circle while taking a Mathematical Circle course at USF with Paul Zeitz. Sam has since been promoted from "Volunteer" to "Instructor" at SF Math Circle. You can find the main article for this blog series here

Working with San Francisco Math Circle (SFMC) has been an incredible experience for me in many ways, but most notably it has solidified my love of teaching more than I could have imagined.  In the past, all my teaching and tutoring experience has been with college and high school students and the opportunity to work with a younger groups of kids had never presented itself up to this point in my teaching career. In the Fall 2014, I was a volunteer at SFMC while taking a service learning course at the University of San Francisco on teaching mathematical circles. I spent my first three weeks at June Jordan School for Equity, and the last six weeks at Lowell. 

I started at June Jordan with instructor Nicole and it was cool to see her evolve as the semester progressed. The game of set is fun but set theory itself can come off very dry even to a college math student, which made Nicole’s task a difficult one to say the least. Nicole started topology in the third week, which had its struggles.  At one point in the 4th session, a student at Lowell, said to me, “this sh*t sucks, what’s the point of these knots? I wanna do some legit math”.  Now, at that moment I actually agreed with the ‘what’s the point?’ part but never verbally said anything about that. I responded by asking,  “What do you believe to be “legit math?”

Nonetheless, I learned that these kids need some reason or faint application of what they’re doing, especially if it’s not fun to them. If it is fun, then everything’s great but if they’re bored, it’s better that they’re bored with some purpose.

For sessions 3-6 we followed Nicole to Lowell.  It’s a large group of kids, some motivated and some not, this was the brunt of my “behavioral” learning experience.  I had the pleasure of working with the same group of 5 students each week, including the student who wanted “legit math.”  At first everyone was focused and treated me with respect but not in the second week, or the third.  The students were obsessed with making penises out of the play-doh, and used some inappropriate language.  I wasn’t sure as to the limits of what I could say to him so I played it on the safe side. The student took advantage of it.  In retrospect, I would’ve told the student that if he wanted to keep acting disrespectful I would prefer him to leave so the rest of us could benefit from the only hour we have each week. I didn’t say that and after dwelling on a good way to deal with students like this I had the realization that… I USED TO BE THAT KID.  Now, I wouldn’t ever say that stuff to any authority figure but I would sure say it everywhere else. It was liberating as an 8th grader to tap into those newly found freedoms mixed with the onset of boatloads of hormones.  So now, in retrospect, I completely get what it’s like to be in the student’s shoes, and funny enough, the universe has come full circle to bite me.  I assume the same will happen to this student when it is his turn but for now I’ll let him relish in it just like I did.

Moving onward to Zandra’s group at Lowell…. It was amazing.  Zandra is very talented.  I would’ve never guessed that the youngest group of kids would’ve been my favorite but sure enough they were.  I also learned a lot from Zandra’s teaching style.  She’s very engaged, very warm, and great at dealing with that group of kids.  Her lesson’s all involved great mathematical games with fun props.  Most were group oriented and most importantly, super hands on.  I realized that great lesson plans can build on the slightest bit of math as long as they are constructed in a ‘game-like’ manner.  Any 6th or 7th grader loves games, whether there’s math involved or not, so naturally implementing math to those age groups offers games as the connecting link.  Reflecting on all three groups of kids, I noted that each lesson plan needs to be constructed with the age group in mind, especially with age groups between 6th and 9th grade.  The choice of branch of math is also important.

Now, before I say this I need to explain that my criticisms are not meant to come off harsh and my passion for teaching may get in the way of that.  Also, there’s a huge learning curve with teaching that ONLY comes with experience so naturally instructors at the math circle have that learning curve just like anyone else, and when I am in their shoes the same will happen to me and I will be open to any and all criticisms.  After all the only way to improve is to acknowledge your mistakes. 

Now, to cure the student who suffers from mathematical boredom, the solution is not easy.  Let’s take a topic, say modular arithmetic, for example. It is a great subject but several applications of it can be bit dry (to a young kid at least); now if a student said “this is stupid what’s the point of this?”  I would say something like, well if you were at the gates of heaven and could only get in if you found the day of the week you were born on, you’d be hard pressed to get into heaven if you didn’t know your modular arithmetic.  The moral of this paragraph is that even if one chooses a great lesson plan, implementing it well is an even more difficult subject, but I am learning that drawing real world analogies to hard math concepts is a great learning tool, especially if you can find a way to make it fun and funny.  If you make a kid laugh with math, they’re more likely to pay attention, remember it, and recall it in the future when they need to.  Perhaps the analogy should not be the gates of heaven, but instead the key to a treasure chest containing 1 metric ton of ice cream.

We wonder why math is feared in America but not in other countries.  It ties into a much deeper, global problem of how can one inspire?  The bigger problem is that a precedent has already been set, the bar is set and is WAY TOO LOW, so it’s up to people like us to do it, but we can’t do it alone.  That is how I see the Math Circles in a nutshell. 

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 last semester.

Working with Math Circles, we travel around spreading the word of the good book, except here the good book is the book of math.  Unfortunately, math gets a somewhat of a bad rap in the sense of being so feared, but it just as easily could’ve been something else; regardless, it is up to us to give others the opportunities they deserve to explore something that they find as fascinating as we do.  If the famous mathematician Gauss never got introduced to the Duke of Braunschweig, he very well could’ve missed out on his opportunity as well!!  Lucky for us SF Math Circle instructors, we too have that opportunity to be the Duke.