Spotlight on Curriculum: Bringing Math to Life

Sam Laury
Math at every level can be a challenge. Students are motivated to learn difficult concepts best when they are excited and curious, so our math department makes math experiential in every classroom, bringing concepts off the page of the textbook and into real life.
In Early Childhood math is active. Teachers incorporate math into lessons during dedicated periods and as part of other activities. Children play games and use manipulatives to encounter math in multiple ways, helping them to connect and understand concepts like patterning, numeracy, classification, and sorting, preparing them for deeper mathematical study ahead.
Lower School students focus on the four basic operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division), in addition to math topics such as measurement, simple geometry, time, probability and data analysis.  Algebraic thinking is embedded throughout, especially when the students work on word problems.  The goal is to make every student numerically fluent and feel at ease with the basic operations.
Lower School students experience math outside of the classroom in a variety of inventive ways. The First Grade Graph Breakfast brings parents to school for a walking tour of graphs created by first graders out of various materials representing information that is important to them.  Students create bar, pie and line graphs that depict answers to questions: Do you prefer Cockatoo or Kookaburra birds? What do you like to do at free time (playing, games, art, or Legos)? What’s your favorite breakfast food? And, of course, what kind of graph is your favorite graph?
Family Math Night is an innovative event that integrates math into community life. Students in grades JK – 4 along with their parents gather at school to play math games and challenges. Teachers volunteer time to run the activities, but the emphasis is on parents and children working together through twelve different challenges. During last year’s event MoMath (the National Museum of Mathematics), provided exhibits to further deepen the students’ experience.
The annual Pi Day celebration in the spring is a Lower School math highlight. Each year on March, 14 (3/14), students in grades 3 and 4 celebrate Pi Day by reciting the numbers after the decimal place in Pi during lunch. Students have astounded their classmates by recounting numbers into the hundreds. Last year’s winner recited 351 digits!
Middle School mathematics study becomes somewhat more formal as students begin to develop a sound understanding of the structure of mathematics, improve their problem-solving techniques, and to reason deductively and inductively. Throughout their Middle School years, students learn mathematical language, become introduced to algebraic concepts and skills, and explore probability theory and logic. For many students, this advanced study allows them to test out of Algebra 1 in ninth grade and go straight to Geometry.
As in the Lower School, Middle School students have opportunities, some more formal than others, to engage with math outside of the classroom. For the serious math student, the Paul Erdős International Math Challenge, formerly known as Abacus, provides an opportunity to challenge participants, to engage them with rigorous problems and to see how they fare in competition against other students around the globe.
Every month, the Challenge posts eight problems online for each of three age groups. Students are asked to solve the problems and to present the reasoning in their solutions. Regular feedback from the Challenge instructors helps students identify errors or better articulate their reasoning. The program, which was created by GCS science teacher Tivi Diveki, is based on a printed journal for gifted students, originating in Hungary over 100 years ago. Hundreds of students from countries around the world participate.
For students less focused on math, other activities throughout the year capture their attention while driving home math concepts. A popular annual activity is the poker table at the May Fair. Dean of Math Sam Laury, who has taught math at GCS for more than 20 years, runs the ongoing game and weaves math concepts and strategies throughout the conversation as students engage in the game.
The curriculum sequence at the High School level is both broad and comprehensive. Courses are offered from Geometry and Algebra II through Calculus and Statistics. Intensive courses for each topic are offered as well as an on-level option, and the most advanced seniors can study second-year college-level material in Multivariable Calculus. Teachers employ a variety of methods from traditional direct instruction to hands-on projects and experiments.
Students in MiChelle Carpenter's Intensive Geometry class explore creating 3-D space through using one and two-point perspective drawing of a section of the campus. In Peggy Chan's " Barbie Bungie" experiment, students model and predict elastic motion by sending dolls on a three story drop through the stairwell atrium and recording their results (if the trial is successful, the dolls rebound intact). In Rolando Ros' Multivariable Calculus class, students use rendering software and the 3-D printer to make models of solids of rotation (the shapes created when functions are rotated around an axis).
One of the most valuable aspects of the math department at the high school level is the unparalleled access students have to one-to-one instruction. Teachers are regularly available and, in the Math & Science Center, consultants are available to help students prepare for upcoming quizzes and tests. Most of these highly qualified consultants are students at nearby Cooper Union, and also offer informal leadership and mentoring for students interested in pursuing a career in engineering, mathematics, or the sciences.