by Savannah Robinson
On a Monday afternoon, a group of second graders gathers at a friend’s house in Berkeley. As each girl arrives, she takes her shoes off, throws down her backpack, and sprints off to join her giggling friends.The girls’ teacher slash playmate, Henri Ducharme — a tall, soft-spoken man with mostly gray hair — sits quietly on the rug. Soon all the girls are sitting in a circle.
Then, each girl reaches into a nearby box and pulls out an abacus — you know, those ancient calculating tools with beads.
“I have a weird question now,” Ducharme tells the girls. He instructs them to form the number 28 on the abacus, and then gives them this problem: How much would you have to add there to get to 99?
The girls whisper amongst themselves, pushing the red wooden beads back and forth on the line. “I’m starting to hear 71,” Ducharme says. “Oh! Or I’m starting to hear 72.” He looks at one of the girls, Tanvi Kumar, whose smile mimics that of the grinning kangaroo on her faded pink t-shirt.
“I just added up some random stuff in my head and I got to 99,” she says, with a sheepish smile.
Everyone laughs. It’s just a typical day in the SuperGirl Math playgroup.
The group is an after-school group that meets every other week, and costs parents around $30 per session. While it’s common for high school students to get math tutors, some parents who can afford it are starting to pay for their girls to get extra attention in math at much younger ages. Though girls do better in school than boys, they are still underrepresented in STEM industries like tech. That’s why a group of Berkeley parents who wanted to reverse that trend for their daughters signed them up for this SuperGirl Math playgroup. And they have a strategy that they hope will make it into the classroom – making math fun.
“Doing math for me is like playing around on the play structure at school,” Ducharme says. In addition to SuperGirls, he teaches math to kids in private lessons and after-school classes. He says he feels schools don’t teach math creatively, sticking to rules and algorithms rather than treating it like a game, which is his approach. No hard tests, no flashcards, not even desks. Ducharme’s teaching style doesn’t lend itself to a classroom environment.
Back at the playgroup, Ducharme turns to address the girls.“Can anyone else tell me how you think playing on a play structure is like doing math?” Ducharme looks around the circle.
7-year-old Gemma Ross, a SuperGirl with white blond hair and in an all blue outfit, immediately speaks up.
“Sometimes when you step on the play structure, you really want to have fun and be creative and play with friends,” Gemma says. “With math, you can feel the same way if you really want to get into math and get it done and feel proud about it.”
And play can be work too. Sometimes Ducharme deliberately phrases a question in a backwards manner, making it virtually impossible to answer. Seeing the girls tackle difficult problems doesn’t worry the parents of these girls, who treat the group like any other fun, after-school activity.
“Ours is a family of artists and writers and historians and we kind of naturally take the kids to activities that are arts,culture, and literacy oriented… art classes, theater, things like that,” says Apollonia Morrill, the parent who hosts the group’s math playdates. “I wanted to make sure that my daughter knew that math is important to our family too.”
Visiting the SuperGirl Math playgroup, I got to thinking about my own, very different experience with math. Unlike these girls, I never really figured out how to love math. When I think math, I think of typing endless number sequences into a calculator. And I wonder if my perspective would be different if I’d learned to see math as something exciting. Maybe it would have opened up different opportunities for me.
At this moment, though, 8-year-old SuperGirl Rhetta Lavinder-Hill is too young to be thinking about math’s impact on her future career options. Right now she says she thinks of math like her stretchy bracelet.
“When you have a hard math problem, you have to really think hard, and that’s when the bracelet is stretched out,” Rhetta explains, pulling apart her pink and purple bracelet until the string is taut. “And when you get the idea you’re like ‘Oh I got it!’, and you jump sometimes.”
She lets go of one end of the bracelet and the beads snap against each other. “And that’s when the bracelet goes back together.”
Comparing a bracelet to math sounds totally weird, but right in line with how Ducharme wants these 2nd grade “SuperGirls” to approach problems. As creatively as possible.