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Math Circle Network Case Study: Growing Intentionally and Creating Equitable Access to Math Circles




Background

Math Circle Network is a hub that supports math circles, which are groups of math teachers or students that gather to engage in mathematical problem solving in a collaborative setting. In addition to doing mathematics together, teacher math circles also often include time to talk about their experiences in the classroom, sometimes over a meal. “It’s a chance for teachers to connect and practice their craft,” said Brianna Donaldson, director of Math Circle Network. There are nearly 300 math circles around the country. Math circles focus on what they call “joyful mathematics” – activities where people can investigate, discover, ask questions, and have fun engaging with one another on math. The Math Circle Network supports these groups by helping new ones get started, fostering connections between circles, maintaining a database of math activities for circles to use, and providing toolkits, small grants, and other resources for math circle organizers. 


The number of math circles around the country had grown tremendously, and Math Circle Network knew it could provide better support to math circles. Also, when it started, the organization hadn’t focused on who was served by the programs, leading most circles to be established in well-resourced areas. The organization joined the community of practice with two desires: to support more intentional growth, and to create more equitable access to math circles, focused first on teacher circles. 


Understanding the Network

Needs Assessment

The Math Circle Network first needed a better understanding of its network. In August 2022, it conducted a needs assessment. Staff distributed a survey among organizers and participants of math teacher circles asking a range of questions to understand, what do you feel is missing from math teacher circles? What needs are unmet? The responses highlighted how much teachers value community and connection with one another. Circle leaders said the network could help address their challenges by helping them find funding, supporting their recruitment of members and facilitators, and creating a platform for leaders to share best practices and curriculum. As a result, Math Circle Network is developing a suite of programs to engage circle leaders in groups that will collectively address some of these challenges with an equity lens, while also receiving small grants for their circle programming thanks to community of practice funds. The design of these programs has been heavily influenced by discussions in the community of practice about designing and scaling for equity and attending to reciprocal engagement as a key component of network health.


Landscape Analysis & Inspiring Examples from the Network

In the spring of 2023, the Math Circle Network did an in-depth network landscape analysis. Staff wanted to understand things like how often each math circle meets, where they meet, how many people show up, how they handle finances, whether they charge membership fees, whether they have partnerships with local schools or other organizations, whether they take a more competitive or collaborative approach to their sessions, whether/how they work to increase equitable access to their circle, and more. Conducting this analysis required the Math Circle Network staff to comb through their own records, search public websites and information, call math circle organizers, and conduct a few follow-up interviews with particularly impressive math circles. 


The landscape analysis lifted up several bright spots across the network. A Math Teacher Circle for Social Justice in Connecticut funds summer work for teachers to come up with social justice math lessons for middle or high school classrooms, test the lessons together, present them to colleagues, and publish an open-source online book for other teachers to utilize the lessons. A regional set of math teacher circles in North Carolina created a financially sustainable community through outreach to statewide philanthropies. A math circle in Hawaii partners with a university to develop resources and activities that integrate native Hawaiian culture and the natural environment in Hawaii. Other math circles provide examples for creating strong social networks, professional development for teachers, and partnerships with public school districts for student circles. “We want to elevate what we’ve learned about bright spots and practices,” Brianna said.


It also highlighted opportunities for growth. For example, regional networks of math circles are a major opportunity for growth that could be especially valuable for increasing equity-focused practices quickly across a region. Connections between student and teacher circles are another potential growth area. For instance, Math Circles of Chicago offers a paid training program in partnership with Chicago Public Schools for teachers who want to run their own after-school student math circles. Their model could be studied and replicated at other teacher circle sites. In addition, the landscape analysis revealed that the largest single category of math circles consists of free programs offered by colleges and universities. However, very few of these programs explicitly attend to equity and diversity. If more college- and university-based programs adopted equity-focused practices, that could increase access to math circles nationally. 


Next Steps

As the Math Circle Network navigated major relocation and staffing changes in the summer and fall of 2023, the organization began identifying and experimenting with new strategies to work toward its goal. These include a variety of long-term plans, like strengthening network health, as well as three priority next steps for the near term: 

  1. Launch a cohort that will provide a combination of seed funding, workshops, and peer support (expected to launch in the spring of 2024). The goal will be to support regional and local circles to incorporate equity-focused practices into their work, ranging from enhancing their recruitment practices to increase access, to trying out approaches for using math to understand inequities, like “math for social justice” activities that use math to analyze and challenge power, privilege, and oppression.  

  2. Restart a biannual news magazine. The goal will be to support intentional growth by increasing the network’s access to resources and helping circles learn from each other’s approaches, especially with regard to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. 

  3. Strengthen communication across the network. Math Circle Network is considering various ways to do this, including regular network check-in meetings and providing grants for in-person regional meetings. Amelia Pape, the organization’s community of practice coach, suggested these methods could provide more informal ways for network members to connect with one another, which is exactly what members have been asking for. “We’re getting a clear message that collaborating with other people in the network is something people are hungry for,” Brianna said. “We’re looking for ways to provide that collaboration as well as funding to help support it.”


Paths Forward: Key Considerations and Advice

What the Math Circle Network has learned over the past couple of years can support other network hubs.

  • Center your network’s needs. It takes time to listen and understand your network’s needs and opportunities, and it takes humility to prioritize programs and offerings that address what you heard. But it’s necessary to ensure the network is growing in a way that strengthens its impact. And asking once isn’t enough; it’s critical to keep asking what network members need. “The needs of teachers are evolving,” said Claudia Rodriguez-Solorio, Community Outreach & Program Evaluation Specialist. 

  • Build relationships outside your network. Connections to other networks like yours can offer insight into helpful practices and experiments. Connections to others in your field can deepen your understanding of “our place in the system,” as Brianna said. Connections to organizations interested in your work can lead to partnerships or funding opportunities. The community of practice created some of these opportunities. For example, Math Circle Network presented at NCSM’s annual conference this year and invited other community of practice members to participate in a workshop, helping broaden the network’s reach, recruit new members, and expose the organization to new ideas. 

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