Navajo Culture Celebrated by WOUB-HD’s Broadcast of ‘Navajo Math Circles’

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Despite the twisty, unpleasant feeling that the word “math” may summon inside you, it’s important to understand that math isn’t simply pages of multiplication tables or lines upon lines of pre-calculus.

Math circles, initially developed by educational systems in European countries, are based on this understanding of mathematics – one that typically only those with higher education degrees within mathematics are routinely exposed to. Math circles are informal programs for children K-12, geared around teaching through discovery and problem solving rather than working on repetitive math exercises. To do this, the programs bring in itinerant mathematicians from institutions all over the country, as well as provide interweaving context for math within the children’s individual cultures.

November 2 at 10 p.m., WOUB-HD will air Navajo Math Circles, a documentary by leading mathematics documentarian, George Csicsery. The film features Ohio University College of Arts and Science’s mathematician Bob Klein, Ph.D., and was originally aired last year. The film is being re-broadcast across the nation by several PBS affiliates in celebration of November as National Native American Heritage Month.

In 2012 Klein first learned of the application of math circles within the Navajo Nation at Diné College in Tsaile, AZ, not far from Klein’s hometown of Albuquerque, NM.

“Once I learned about the project, I jumped on the opportunity to get involved,” said Klein, who specializes in mathematics education. “Math Circles are all about considering how you can generate an interest in mathematics in an area that will eventually become a self-sustaining group of people who want to focus on solving beautiful, joyful, amazing math problems.”

Klein emphasized that the problems that these young people are dealing with in the context of math circles have more to do with learning how to problem solve in general, rather than find “one correct answer.”

“You go into (these problems) knowing that you will have to try several different strategies, and that you will fall on your face a couple of times throughout the process. It’s a joyful, freeing process and we believe that it’s the best training ground for the problem solving that takes place in every discipline,” said Klein.

The work doesn’t end with calculations on white boards, or even with open discussion about some of the most befuddling math problems of the 21st century.

“The work that we do in math circles is largely identity work; changing how you think about mathematics and how you think of yourself relative to mathematics as a user and doer and enjoyer of mathematics,” said Klein. “If you come from any other group that has been traditionally marginalized when it comes to STEM subjects, whether due to historical trauma, such as the Navajo; or due to gender inequities, such as with women – whatever that is, if it’s going to be a roadblock for you in how you think of yourself as a doer of mathematics, it’s a part of the identity work that we do in math circles. In the case of the Navajo nation, we made a conscious effort to make connections with the community to be able to provide cultural enrichment alongside the mathematics. Mathematics must be valued in parallel with the culture.”

“The work that we do in math circles is largely identity work; changing how you think about mathematics and how you think of yourself relative to mathematics as a user and doer and enjoyer of mathematics.” – Bob Klein, Ph.D. of Ohio University

Csicsery, who spoke to WOUB Public Media via telephone from California the week before his film’s scheduled re-airing on WOUB-HD, said that the Navajo identity was a huge part of the development of the film itself.

“My goals for the film shifted during the production of the film,” he said. “At first I wanted to document the interactions between the Navajo children and their parents and the mathematicians who were a part of the program. Very quickly I learned that the situation offered some other very interesting opportunities. The Navajo culture itself was a part of the content of the story – this program isn’t just about teaching mathematics, it is about how the culture of mathematics itself could sort of graph itself onto the Navajo culture and become relevant to the everyday experiences of Navajo children.”