This was originally published by the Hudson Valley Sudbury School and was authored by staff member Shelley Friedman.

I’ve worked at Sudbury for five years now and this fifth year is my nerdy dream-come-true. As a Sudbury staff member, we follow the students’ lead and engage in the activities they choose to pursue. Sometimes our personal passions are shared by students and we can engage in those activities together, and other times we might be waiting around for a long, long while for something we love to catch on. Well, I love evaluating algebraic expressions, playing with geometric shapes, and puzzling out information about movement and time, and lucky for me this year I get to teach about these concepts every day of the week!

In this glorious, mixed-age environment, with students moving freely throughout the building, popping their heads into side rooms, engaging in constant conversation, and organizing around their interests, fads can spread rapidly here. Rainbow-colored hair, D&D, improv games, Ga Ga Ball, Geometry Dash, Heelys…the list goes on. I’d like to think of math as “the new Heelys”. Or maybe Heelys are the new math. Either way, the number of students engaged in some sort of formal mathematics study has doubled over the last few months, and I’m loving it.

This all began at the beginning of the school year when a 13-year-old came to me to ask for help preparing for college admission. She dreams of attending NYU for dance and performing arts, and learned from their website that competitive applicants have high SAT scores and must demonstrate proficiency with a range of math skills and concepts. And so the classes began. Our “Do Not Disturb – Math in Progress” sign got some attention, word travelled, and soon others were asking about what we were working on and if they could join in, too. A second class was added for a different group of friends that wanted to work collaboratively. A handful of other students met with me once or twice and then set out on their own or in pairs to pursue the subject independently. At this point in the year, I’ve had about twenty-five students ask for math support in one way or another, and I know that other staff (and students, too) have offered formal math resources to even more students.

The funny thing is though, although this is the first year that formal math study has taken off since I’ve been here, the students I’m working with already know a tremendous amount about the subject. Within a handful of weeks, the students have been at or above public school “grade level” in math, even though this is their first math class ever. So how do we explain that? I started asking around to find out how students learned what they know:

  • “School store – I go in and buy things every day.”
  • “I learned math in the school store when I was getting mentored to become a cashier.”
  • “An older student taught me. They wanted to try teaching math, so they sat me down and I learned how to multiply.”
  • “My mom wanted me to memorize the times tables so she put a big chart up in my room, but I thought, ‘Well that’s pointless. Why memorize it if it’s right there in front of me?’ But I learned what I need to know just by looking things up when I need it and that’s given me the skills I need for everyday stuff.”

But most Sudbury students can’t tell you how they learned math. In fact, many of them wouldn’t say they know any math at all until you press them:

  • “I dunno, I just learned it. It’s like walking. No one taught me exactly, I just tried at it and one day I was walking. One day I just knew how to work with numbers.”
  • “I don’t know any math… well yeah, I can do basic things like buy things in the school store.”
  • “I can’t do math really… oh, well yeah when I bake stuff in the kitchen.”
  • “I don’t really do any math…sure, that’s true. I do math with Magic [Magic the Gathering card game].”

The truth is, math is everywhere.

We consider it a fundamental skill for successful adulthood because we use it all the time, in all sorts of ways; for students living their big, full, diverse lives here at school, they encounter these real-world mathematical applications at every turn. Baking in the kitchen, making change in the School Store, counting in a board game, making calculations for a video game or card game, taking measurements for a sewing project, constructing a structure in the playground… the list goes on. Even pursuits that use no math skills directly seem to be helping students in their math studies. One student active in the Theater Co-op had half of her multiplication facts memorized overnight, after significant practice memorizing lines for school plays. Another student who spends a tremendous amount of time making three-dimensional art in the art room was especially quick at looking at two-dimensional representations of 3-D objects and calculating volume and surface area.

Sometimes parents worry about how their kid is going to learn math if they’re never forced to take a course. It seems to me that students will have a hard time avoiding learning math if they are also, as they are at Sudbury, given ample space and support to pursue their passions within a dynamic community of learners. Parents aren’t the only one with this concern though. While students experience the unique challenges and joys of self-directed learning, they are aware that just down the road and all across the nation, others their age are sitting in rows being drilled in arithmetic and algebra and geometry and a range of other subjects. And Sudbury students want to know how they measure up. For many of the students seeking my assistance in math this year, the first thing they’ll say is that they want to make sure they can hack it, and that they aren’t “falling behind” their public school peers.

“I practiced some algebra a little bit at the beginning of the year for a few weeks. I realized it wasn’t actually that hard, I got bored, and I stopped doing it.”

For some students, the reassurance that they can learn the material when they try is enough and after a few sessions they move on to something else. For other students, they find they genuinely enjoy mathematical problem-solving and concepts and continue their study week after week, moving far beyond the public school expectations for students their age. So maybe we’ll continue on to calculus, or maybe a new fad will sweep through and it’ll be on to the next thing. Meanwhile, I’ll savor the moment and who knows, maybe their next passion will be long-distance bicycle touring and I’ll find my bliss again.

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