Adding Fun to the Math Equation

Dear Flint Hill Families,

Our first week after Winter Break was an active one, marking our students’ return to classes, a time to reflect on our history during Founder’s Day and our first Lower School Math Night, led by TK-12 Math Department Chair Joe Vignolini and Lower School teachers. Students and parents had a chance to spend an hour working on various math activities and games.

The study of math is dominating conversations at schools across the country. We heard it last year in our own parent surveys and have heard it at various coffees over the years. We know that math is a critical part of the educational program, and yet it is also something that many of us may have struggled with at various times in our lives.

I will be the first to admit my own difficulty with math. But I do remember taking great pride my senior year in Upper School, when the Chairman of the Math Department was my math teacher and I got an 86 at the end of the year! You would have thought I had won a major award. But on the evening of graduation, as teachers and graduates were saying their goodbyes, the Chairman of the Math Department shook my hand and said in his raspy voice, “Thomas, I wish you all the best. Don’t take math in college.”

My experience with math didn’t end with that conversation. Of course, my college had a math requirement and I had to take calculus…several times. I married a woman who became a math teacher and the revered coach of a school’s Mathcounts team, and I have a son who is an engineer. They used to take great delight in discussing math problems at the dinner table. They would joke that I would “glaze over” in the middle of a meal because I didn’t understand what they were talking about, let alone how to solve the problems.

My point in all of this is that math is something that some people grow to fear, and yet we understand its importance and want our children to have a solid grasp of the topic. We learned by memorizing multiplication tables and doing endless problems again and again, until we could “do it right.” Many of us didn’t learn why things happened in math, but could arrive at the correct answers.

In today’s theories of learning, we hear more about the need to ask deep questions, discuss strategies, probe the thinking process and most importantly, have fun with math. As demonstrated in this article, math is an art. There is a particular quotation in the article that I found fascinating. It talks about the demands today and the need to teach better: “Many a graduate student has come to grief when they discover, after a decade of being told they were ‘good at math,’ that in fact they have no real mathematical talent and are just very good at following directions. Math is not about following directions, it’s about making new directions.”

On Friday night, I took great delight in watching the students arrive at the gym for Math Night. They came charging down the sidewalk as I stood at the door to welcome everyone. “Get this,” I thought. “Students who are racing in to do math problems!” It was a fun and exciting night, but only the beginning. Lower School students will progress to Middle School, where they will learn the concepts of algebra and geometry, then to the Upper School, where a host of different challenges will lead to calculus, AP math courses and post-AP courses. And for the future engineers, economists and mathematicians among our students, math is of significant importance.

Closely linked with math and top of mind for many families is computer programming. Recently, our Curriculum Committee, led by Assistant Head of School for Academics Bill Ennist, approved 26 new courses for next year, including: Coding with Python, Robotics, Cryptography, Logic and Mathematical Modeling.

All of this is exciting—we are taking our children to new and even stronger levels of engagement in an area that requires significant attention. We are committed to making math personal and meaningful and to being deliberate and intentional in our approach, so that math can be enjoyed in a way that alleviates fears and gets our students excited about its application in our everyday lives.

I hope you have a great week and that you will consider joining us for Family Engineering Night on January 23. These experiences are critical for us and provide another way to share our curriculum with all of our families.

Best wishes to you!


John M. Thomas