Family Math is a local organization working to change the perception of math in learning. The camps and programs that Family Math organize empower children to pursue mathematical learning and exploration every day and use the common vocabulary of math to share ideas, collaborate, and change the world.
A Q&A with April Leithner, Program Director. We photographed a Family Math class of local homeschoolers through the Northern Light Learning Center.
What is Family Math?
Family Math is striving to change the way that children see mathematics. When we ask the question “what comes to your mind when you think of the word math,” the kind of answers we get are addition, numbers, tests, and a lot of “I don’t know” and “I don’t like math”. We’re changing those answers to problem-solving, exploration, reasoning, and creativity in music, science, art, nature, computers, sports, puzzles, games. We’re changing the way students see math from boring textbook problems to creative problem-solving in the things we love doing every single day.
Who is it good for?
Right now Family Math focuses primarily on elementary school children. We have summer camps which is our biggest program. We have something called Math Days or Nights, which are one-time events where kids come in and play board games or build marshmallow structures or they make origami and snowflakes out of paper and think about the math in these little fun activities. These math days are for children and their parents to come together and learn together.
What kind of change is the organization trying to make?
I would say the biggest change that we’re trying to make is about how we teach and engage in math education. What is education in mathematics? What is learning in mathematics? We’re trying to change the way children take the learning into their own hands. If they go to a park and they see a leaf, they take that leaf in their hands and learn about the leaf. They see the fractals, they think about how nature grows and what the math is behind it… the why behind everything.
We’re trying to change the way children are encouraged to grow their own minds and their own intellect. Learning isn’t done at the end of the school day, learning happens every minute of the day in everything that we do. We’re not coming and saying ‘we’re reforming education’, which I know a lot of people are trying to do, but we are empowering children to be learning on their own in their own way every day.
What brought the program here?
Family Math started many years ago when professor Dani Novak saw that a lot of people have this fear of math, this math aversion. He sees a lot of the beauty in math and he wanted to create programs to share that. So, when Family Math started it was about making math more approachable. Now Family Math is growing beyond just sharing the beauty in math, but sharing the desire to embrace mathematics in everything that we do every single day.
What impact does this have on our community?
I’ve heard an expression that it takes a community to raise a child. Our lives are more enriched when we connect with other people and when we connect with our community. Family math is about creating this family of the community… we connect with organizations such as Ithaca Generator, Math in Movement, Destination Imagination… there are all of these organizations that help children with different learning styles learn everything, and Family Math is about connecting to parents and organizations and schools and how we all come together to offer endless opportunities for our kids.
How has the community supported Family Math?
So far the support has been wonderful. The schools have all been fantastic in meeting with me and supporting our summer camps. The principals love the ideas that we’re bringing into the schools. The parents have been so enthusiastic about what we’ve been doing!
What struggles have you encountered?
Most certainly the biggest struggle that we have right now is getting the resources that we need. Being a startup organization, our funding is extremely limited. We’re all volunteer based right now, including myself. Finding the support and finding people who are passionate about helping us out and being able to keep them given our startup stage has been a tremendous challenge for us.
What should we be celebrating?
We should be celebrating our own intellect. Our own super brain power. That when we have the children at our summer camps, the projects that they create–the roller coasters, the marshmallows towers, the music they compose–it all comes from their own intuition.
There’s a fantastic math teacher named Dan Meyer who did a TED talk a couple years ago where he said that math is the vocabulary of our own intuition. When we build something and it just makes sense and it just comes from us, math gives us the way to explain it to people, to share those ideas and collaborate with other people. To create something grand for the world. That’s what we should be celebrating, how we use our intuition and our intellect and this vocabulary of mathematics to connect with other people, to keep building and growing and changing the world.
How can we participate?
One way, on a small scale, is making donations. Not just financial donations but material donations… for example, we would love to have building blocks. Strategic board games, puzzles, little tetris pieces, art supplies, sprographs, origami paper, crayons, pencils, scissors. All of these things can be used in the exploration of mathematics, and it’s so small as a donation but it’s so huge for our children. We’d also love to have volunteers for Math Days and people who can come in to our summer camps who have something to share. It’s the community that is raising these children and developing that intellect so anybody who is interested in sharing their talent and sharing their reasoning can get integrated into this mathematical conversation!5
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