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Navajo Math Circles

Yesterday, I saw the New York Premiere of Navajo Math Circles, a documentary on a Math Circle put in place to support and enrich the currently under-served community in the Navajo educational system.

At their core, Math Circles are math outreach and enrichment programs. I'm most familiar with the New York Math Circle. I'm friends with many of their teachers and organizers and my son took part in their summer program for a couple of years.

Over in the southwest, these Math Circles have been bringing together students, frequently across great distances each day to explore problem solving and creativity through mathematics.

As someone who's worked hard to bring educational opportunities to the have nots, I love the program. Some of the highlights include the kids working on open ended problems, focusing on process and techniques more than specific results, working both collaboratively but also developing self sufficiency, and more. I also love the fact that they've started teacher math circles to help to bring some of that math circle magic to the everyday classroom.

I enjoyed the film and recommend you check it out to see what's possible and I want to share my two big takeaways.

First, early on in the film, one of the people running the program talked about developing a math enrichment program through and with Navajo traditions and culture. This is HUGE and I feel it's something we're losing. America is so diverse from coast to coast and here in New York City you can see radically different ways of life living right across the street from each other. Everyone pays lip service to "making the work interesting and relevant to the student" but few people walk the walk. These folk do.

Second, I left the documentary with a sour taste in my mouth. Not because of the program but because the Navajo Math Circle project and projects like it are scraping together what little resources they can to try to do what the school systems should be doing to begin with.

As we move to scripted lessons, national standards, curricula dictated or at least influenced by large private concerns and standardized tests, our schools are moving further and further away from community and local culture.

In the documentary, one student pointed out that in math class, they have to use the textbook. They learn the process and then have to solve the problems. In Math Circle, there are no textbooks.

Afterwards, the students in from the Math Circle did some Q&A. I asked them to elaborate - what's the difference between there Math Circle experiences and their in school ones. I got:

Math Circle is fun!!!!

I think that says it all.

I know many great teachers who try to bring culture and community to their classes. One of my son's best teachers, Paula Rogovin did it all the time. Many of my friends and colleagues try to do so as well but the powers that be make it harder and harder.

Until we win back public education it's important to support programs like Math Circles (and, if I do say so myself, programs like our own CSTUY) and it's also critical that we work to try to bring community and culture to our regular classes.

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