Faculty helping launch ‘Math Circle’ professional development community

A team of Western Carolina University faculty members and Western North Carolina mathematics teachers are establishing the Smoky Mountain Math Teachers’ Circle, a professional development community to help teachers bring new excitement and interest in mathematics to their students.

The American Institute of Mathematics announced the formation of the new circle, which is part of AIM’s network of Math Teachers’ Circles. The circles regularly bring together mathematicians and mathematics teachers to work collaboratively on problems specially selected to intrigue participants and enhance their problem-solving skills and mathematical content knowledge. The gatherings aim to help teachers find more ways to incorporate problem solving, a key part of student learning and engagement in mathematics, into their classrooms through enriching their own experience of mathematics.

The new Smoky Mountain Math Teachers’ Circle will be open to teachers from Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties. Several pilot sessions will be hosted at WCU during the 2014-15 academic year in advance of a summer immersion retreat next year.

“Our locally organized retreat in summer 2015 will serve as the formal kickoff for the Smoky Mountain Math Teacher’s Circle by inviting participation of middle-grades mathematics teachers from the seven westernmost counties in North Carolina,” said Nathan Borchelt, WCU associate professor of mathematics in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science.

Borchelt and Sloan Despeaux, also an associate professor of mathematics, worked together to craft a proposal to develop a math circle in Western North Carolina after Despeaux saw information about the program on an email listserv.

“This seemed like a really concrete way to help our children, our teachers and our schools,” said Despeaux.

She also was drawn to the grassroots nature of the program. “Instead of trying to effect change from the top, we are working from the ground up to further ignite teachers’ passion for mathematics,” she said.

The proposal was one of six selected in a competitive application process to fully fund a team of five people to participate in a weeklong “How to Run a Math Teachers’ Circle” national workshop held in Washington, D.C., in July. Middle-school teachers Michelle Massingale from Fairview School, Brook Stillman from Mountain Discovery Charter School and Renee Stillwell from Cullowhee Valley School joined Despeaux and Borchelt at the workshop held at the headquarters of the Mathematical Association of America. There, they experienced Math Teachers’ Circle sessions and worked on the logistics of establishing a circle.

The teachers said the experience re-energized them and gave them more perspective on their students’ experiences in the classroom.

“The fun, creative new approaches to problem-solving at Math Teachers’ Circle rekindled my love of learning,” said Stillwell. “Participating as a learner provided an eye-opening perspective on how my students experience math inquiry. I am excited to be a part of our local Smoky Mountain Math Teachers’ Circle and look forward to applying many new ideas and strategies in my classroom.”

Massingale concurred.

“Even though Math Teachers’ Circle is not centered on teaching math, it really opened my eyes about what my students experience in my classroom when problem-solving,” she said. “I want to use this to improve my students’ experiences with math.”

Stillman said the workshop also left her eager to see the Smoky Mountain Math Teachers’ Circle get underway.

“I was surprised by how fun and yet useful it was to have people who enjoy math get together to explore ideas and concepts,” she said.

Borchelt said developing the Smoky Mountain Math Teachers’ Circle also addresses a need discussed at a math and math literacy-focused conference held last fall at the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching in connection with the WNC P-16 Education Consortium, a group of pre-kindergarten through higher education educators. The consortium was formed after WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher pledged to convene a group of regional leaders to address education needs, toward the goal of improving the knowledge and skills of the WNC workforce.

“There was a strong desire from teachers at all levels to collaborate more with higher education faculty,” said Borchelt. “That is one reason I was excited about this opportunity. It is one step toward increasing engagement between WCU and middle-school teachers in our region.”

Organizers may explore developing additional circles for elementary and high school teachers in the future and expanding to more counties.

The AIM Math Teachers’ Circle Network began in 2006 when 25 middle school mathematics teachers and five professional mathematicians from the San Francisco Bay Area came together for an intense week of work. The success led to the establishment of circles across the country. The program is sponsored by the American Mathematical Society, the Mathematical Society of America, the Educational Advancement Foundation, Math for America, the National Science Foundation and the National Security Agency. For more information about the Math Teachers’ Circle program, visit www.mathteacherscircle.org or contact AIM at 650-845-2071.

For more information about the Smoky Mountain Math Teacher’s Circle, contact Borchelt at naborchelt@wcu.edu; Despeaux at despeaux@wcu.edu; Massingale at mmassingale@jcpsmail.org; Stillwell at rstillwell@jcpsmail.org; or Stillman at brookmdcs@hotmail.com.