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The Delight and Power of Mathematics

By Noreen Jordan, Math Department Chair

Yahtzee, Monopoly, gin rummy, scat, hearts, dots and boxes, checkers, backgammon, Rubik’s cube, poker and Clue: These games remind me of childhood road trips, weekends and lazy summer nights of family rivalry. In those days, my singular focus may have been defeating my siblings, but I am grateful today because the underlying skills required to be a successful player—strategizing, visualizing, analyzing and making calculations—have stayed with me. As I grew older, my record started to improve incrementally, but little did I realize at the time that my reasoning skills and critical thinking skills were evolving too. I may have lost many more times than I won, but I learned from my experience that in order to get better at these games, I had to take chances, make a lot of mistakes, play a lot of games and surround myself with other skilled players. Sound familiar?

At Tower Hill, the goals of learning math are multidimensional and balanced. We don’t want students to simply learn facts; we want them to learn how to think. The Tower Hill curriculum expects students to develop the ability to communicate mathematically, to confidently solve problems and to apply mathematical reasoning for life in the 21st century. In the Tower Hill philosophy, the word “develop” recognizes that learning math takes time. Einstein knew this implicitly when he asserted, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

Our math faculty members understand the values of patience and rigor, engaging students in their own learning, empowered by the math inherent in their everyday lives. It is not the procedural fluency that keeps students engaged, but the understanding of the depth of the math concepts that inspires students and cultivates a joy of doing and appreciating mathematics. In the Tower Hill math classroom, each student moves through the curriculum at a pace that is suitably challenging, yet, just as importantly, developmentally appropriate. Rigor, challenge, persistence—it’s a good combination, and our students develop these values in their careers here at Tower Hill.
Our unique math program employs a Lower School Math Lab, which guides students to explore math concepts using manipulatives and provides activities that foster curiosity. All students in grades 5 through 7 build a solid foundation in which the curriculum spirals and reinforces the fundamentals necessary for success for algebra in 8th Grade. This winter our Middle School math scholars learned the Japanese logic puzzle KenKen and enjoyed it so much that they spent a subsequent period with the Lower School students teaching them how to do the puzzle at a level appropriate to their development. In the Upper School, teachers work closely with individual students during free periods and recitation, providing support and encouragement, as well as opportunities for deeper discussions and enrichment. Projects promote student creativity through the use of string art and graphing software programs like Desmos and tessellations, while more practical applications like financing a college education or simulating the spread of the Spanish Flu are incorporated into the curriculum in order to stimulate interest in the everyday usefulness of math.

The success of the math program is only possible because of the quality of the students in the building. Last week, the largely student-led Math League team, which consistently qualifies for the state competition, placed third in the state, a best finish for a Tower Hill team. Each of the past two years, two students have qualified for the AIME, placing in the top 5% in the nation in a highly competitive and complex test. ERB, ACT and SAT math averages are well above independent school norms. And even though we pride ourselves in not teaching to a test, results from last year’s AB and BC Calculus exams verified student mastery for those who elected to take the tests. (24 students averaged a 4.17 on the AB Calc exam, and 12 students averaged a 4.17 on the BC Calc exam.)  
On Saturday, May 4, several teachers will take a ride down to the Washington Convention Center in D.C. to attend the National Math Festival, a biennial event that showcases the beauty, fun and importance of mathematics in the world around us by bringing together some of today’s most fascinating mathematicians for presentations, performances and hands-on events for adults and kids of all ages. The event is free and open to the public, so if you happen to have an empty slot on your calendar that day, join us. If not, play lots of games, make lots of mistakes and encounter the delight and power of mathematics wherever you go.

Noreen Jordan
Math Department Chair

This article appeared in Tower Hill’s Weathervane e-newsletter on April 19, 2019.