Teaching Opinion

Student-Powered Events Empower More Than Classroom Learning

By Starr Sackstein — June 12, 2018 7 min read
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Guest post by Sam Williams

It’s 5:50, ten minutes to showtime at the sixth annual Curtis High Math Night, and I feel strangely calm.

Years past, this was the point of the night you’d find me already drenched in sweat, crawling on my knees taping extension cords to the floor or something of that nature.

This being the year of student empowerment -- a topic I’ll return to later -- I’ve delegated most of the management to my sophomore Geometry students. Each is getting extra credit plus a tee shirt for the effort, but the overall level of competence suggests something deeper at stake.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Williams, we got this,” says A, a student leading the art project as soon as I encroach on her turf.

Each teacher has a self-assigned role at Math Night. I’m the weird math/art hybrid performance guy. I try to keep what I’m doing under wraps until the last minute, partly because I want to surprise, partly because I want it to surprise me.

Last year, it was a 30 foot scaled replica of the Verrazano Bridge built out of bamboo stakes and string. This year it’s a physical representation of the Curtis H.S. student social network. Inspired by recent reading on networks and graph theory, it’s an attempt to veer away from angles and rigid motions and sneak a little network theory into the local math diet.

“We’ll use yellow for the sophomores. purple for the freshmen,” A. says, handing piles of cardstock to the girl running the paper cutter. I watch the teammate slice the first set of cardstock into index card -- each participant will get one to hang in our mobile -- and, convinced that no fingers are endangered, step back to monitor the rest of my groups.

I posted about Math Night in this space a year ago. At the time, I wanted to broadcast its growing popularity as a family engagement tool both at Curtis and other schools around the country. Writing with an extra year’s perspective, I think it’s important to give a little more background about my school and the way Math Night helps us stay innovative.

Founded in 1904 and located in Staten Island, aka the “Forgotten Borough” of NYC, Curtis is a living institutional embodiment of the Peter Drucker maxim, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” New ideas will always find a niche here, but with 25t0 students, eight small learning communities and three bell schedules, they have to fight for space and mindshare just like everything else in the building.

That Math Night has earned a regular spot on the Curtis spring calendar, speaks volumes about the untapped energy reserves hiding just below the surface of everyday mathematics instruction here at Curtis. Less than 20 minutes into the event, Students are rushing about, smiles on their faces, voices rising to a level such that, to get one a volunteer’s attention, I have to lean in close and talk directly into their ear.

It isn’t the direct opposite of mathematics class, but let’s be honest. In the late spring, with most classes in the review phase and every human in the building counting the days left on the academic calendar, only a fight or well-choreographed “promposal” could deliver the same excitement payload under normal workday conditions.

That said, it’s easy to take it all in and wonder: Could it be possible to make the Math Night instructional model -- teacher-guided, student-driven, ruthlessly voluntary -- the everyday norm in mimetics education?

A tap on the shoulder draws me momentarily out of the fantasy.

It’s L., a second-period student. Her activity has contestants drop a series of nine 3D-printed shapes through 2D holes. It seems easy until you get to the sixth or seventh or eighth shape. At that point, it becomes a lesson in how many cross-sections a solid can have. Tricky.

“We’re out of math bucks,” L. says.

Math bucks are the reward we hand out for participation, and Students go nuts trying to win them, and the teachers who run the prize table, Rachel and Cen, have come up with clever ways to win them right back. In 2017, the instituted a Wheel of Fortune-style spinner which, at five math bucks a spin, determines each contestant’s prize. Where students once hoarded math bucks, saving up for the night’s top trophy, a Math Night t-shirt, they now play more games in less time.

Free to roam the room, I can now quickly replenish my workers’ coffers with a quick dip into the aluminum tray till.

“Here ya go,” I tell L., returning with a fresh wad of bills.

The round trip is a reminder that in the course of doing an event repeatedly, you learn how to hack human behavior. I’m still in the early stages of that, I think when it comes to making Math Night a year-round phenomenon.

About six weeks into the school year, I attempted a “mini-math night” for my own students. It didn’t work. Students showed up, but the overall structure I relied upon in spring was missing. Borrowing a successful math night activity from a few years ago, I handed out bamboo skewers and rubber bands and challenged students to build a structure tall enough to reach the ceiling. After a 20-30 minute flurry of activity, the phones came out, and I had to lower the challenge target to the student’s own height just to declare a winner.

A few weeks later, I had students push the desks to the wall, and we used tape and sticks to model a series of geometric transformations on the classroom floor. This time it worked beautifully. Students bought into my suggestion to see themselves as NYPD detectives cracking a murder mystery. It got to the point that I even had to intervene when one boy upbraided a classmate for walking through his “crime scene.”

Underlying such experimentation is a realization: Students, not adults, are the ones dictating the pace of change in U.S. education. It seems weird to write that but, in a year that has seen student walkouts and other forms activism steer the national conversation on school shootings and gun control, it reminds me that even Curtis, with its century-old culture, isn’t immune to outside forces.

I’m a big fan of Socratic Seminars both as a means of stimulating classroom discussion and of venting pent-up student emotion. I’m even OK when the venting becomes a critique of my own willingness to experiment with the classroom dynamic.

“I get what you’re trying to do here, Mr. W., but I don’t like it,” says C., during one seminar. “I’d rather we just took notes and you called us to the board to work on problems.”

Then again, it is that same student, C. who, in the week after the Parkland FL shootings, leads the seminar into strange, new territory. I give the students a chance to vent and once the conversation shifts from concerns about school safety and gun violence to gun rights, I suggest using a little Geometric thinking to parse out the gun rights debate. C., a whiz in U.S. History, takes the ball and runs with it.

“I think people who support gun rights see the Second Amendment as a given or postulate,” she says “People who support gun control see it as more like a theorem, something you have to prove.”

It is, in retrospect, the most interesting “sideways” lesson in a year that has seen plenty. While I can’t credit it directly to Math Night, I can see the correlation. Yes, some students want math class just to be math class: dry, predictable, safe. At the same time, it is that same safe predictability that sets up the tension that makes ideas and energy want to break free.

Interestingly, it that very same student, C., who arrives 45 minutes into Math Night.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” she says. “What do I need to do?”

Her activity, which involves using pipe cleaners and wire diagrams to construct 3D shapes, is already set up thanks to a fellow volunteer. I dump a wad of math bucks into her hand and a basic instruction: Make ‘em earn it. Within 10 minutes, her activity is losing money as quickly as the others.

And that’s pretty much how it goes for the remainder Math Night: My volunteers lose money. I go get it back at the prize and snack tables. I’m still feeling strangely calm, but it’s more an eye-of-the-storm kind of calm than a calm-before-the-storm calm.

When I finally get to revisit my art project, I find it looks nothing like what I expected but beautiful nonetheless. In my mind’s eye, I pictured a dense spider web of interlinked cards. Instead, students have created a series of multicolored, icicle-like structures. As I inspect it closely, I can see why: Once putting their name on the card, most students went looking for the first icicle with a friend’s name on the bottom and simply added their card to the chain, leaving it to an adult to spot the obvious crosslinks.

“Looks pretty good, Mr. Williams, don’t you think?” says B., a first-period student.

“Yes, it does,” I have to admit, pocketing the rubber bands I was about to use to add a few crosslinks. “Great work!”

With a quick selfie, B. documents her place in the chain and moves off to socialize. I decide to follow suit. Enjoy your new managerial role, I tell myself. Don’t make it any more work than it has to be.

*Photo courtesy of Sam Williams Sam Williams teaches mathematics (Algebra I) and Theory of Knowledge at Curtis High School. He has written two books, "Arguing A.I.: The Battle for 21st Century Science" (Random House) and "Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Free Software Crusade" (O'Reilly). In addition to working for the New York City School system he holds a master teacher fellowship with Math for America. Follow Sam Williams on Twitter @arjuna1969

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.