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Sabbatical – Teaching Math? – Math Circles

August 15, 2014 pm31 6:48 pm

I took a sabbatical 2013-14, to study. But I did other stuff, too. Including learning more about teaching. It wasn’t required (Just the graduate math classes were required). I did it for me.

Even before Labor Day, even before the first day of staff meetings that I did not have to attend, I was using my sabbatical. It was early July when me and a friend hopped in his car, and after sampling our way through one brewery in New York (meh) and one brewery in Ohio (nice), and one brewery in Michigan (very nice), landed in South Bend, for a Math Circle Summer Institute.

Math Circles are… well it can be tricky to generalize. They are extra-curricular. They are sometimes led by non-teachers. Some are free, some cost money. Some are geared towards contest preparation. In this country, they are far more often geared towards curiosity and enrichment.

The summer institute drew teachers and non-teachers. The founders/leaders/patriarchs, Bob and Ellen Kaplan, couldn’t make it. A math circle/math community in South Bend organizes the event, and brings kids to play with the participants, and to participate in little circles. I knew in advance myself, my friend, Sue, and Owen. The rest were new to me.

Each day began with a math circle type problem for the adults. The instructor modeled posing the question, but not giving too much information, and letting the teachers and kids play with the problem, ask questions, explore. We worked individually, together, and as a whole room (there must have been 25? altogether. It’s a year ago, I’m a bit fuzzy).

In the afternoons we broke up by level (high school, middle school, upper elementary, lower elementary). There were kids at each level. And we ran daily “math circles” with each participant getting a turn to lead or co-lead.

How was it?

We were playing math all day. You can guess, but I’ll tell you. I had a ball.  One of the interesting bits was how few actual teachers there were. I mean, motivated parents who run or want to run circles and university types who want to run or facilitate circles, or people who might become teachers – they were there in larger numbers. That meant there was a sort of freshness and newness to some of the conversation. The mix meant there were people to engage in math with at all levels. But it also meant that there were people trying to rediscover or discover stuff that you figure out pretty quickly in the classroom. It was… interesting. And it was … different. And it was … engaging in a new sort of way. Plus, I made a math-y friend, which was nice for me.

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Return to NY – Any impact?

The way back involved more stopping. Bell’s again. One famous (bit disappointing), one fun stop in Michigan. And a tiny stop in Horseheads, NY.

And since? I’ve kept thinking about how the Math Circles organized time, and allowed kids to explore, and to bang their heads against hard problems, without rushing to the answer. I already do some of that, would like to incorporate more of the “feel” into some of what I do.

My friend kept thinking about how fun the circles were. He played with ways to set one up. And he ended up spending time at the NYC Math Circle, hanging around with instructors, volunteering for the summer.

How do you sign up? Should you?

So it’s fun. And you’ll learn stuff. And meet interesting people. And exchange ways of thinking. And get to try stuff out. But it costs money. I paid, but most people… I’d recommend it more for people who can get at least partial funding by their district.

But if you are going to go ahead, it’s a week in July, e-mail Bob Kaplan at and get more info directly from him.

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 19, 2014 pm31 1:18 pm 1:18 pm

    what a great group!
    thanks for posting… and thanks
    to the anonymous photographer
    (guy from first link?)!

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