From a recent e-mail:
“Hello! I am on the board of a homeschool co-op. We have had requests for a math club and wondered if you have any tips for starting one. We service children from K-10th and would need to try to meet the needs of as many ages as possible.”
There are several ways you might organize a homeschool math club, depending on the students you have and on your goals. I think you would have to split the students by age groups — it is very hard to keep that wide of a range of students interested. Then decide whether you want an activity-oriented club or a more academic focus.
When I started my first math club, I raided the math shelves in the children’s section at my library (510-519) for anything that interested me. I figured that if an activity didn’t interest me, I couldn’t make it fun for the kids. Over the years we have done a variety of games, puzzles, craft projects, and more — always looking for something that was NOT like whatever the kids would be doing in their textbooks at home.
Last year, a friend talked me into working with the MathCounts team, and I discovered the world of math competitions. What fun! For next year’s co-op math classes, I plan to alternate between games/activities and some academic challenges from the competition-prep books at Art of Problem Solving.
Let’s look at the possibilities by grade level:
Hands-on activities, finding and making patterns, measuring, comparing data. Family Math and its spin-offs would be a great place to start looking for ideas. You could also use some of the game ideas in my Number Bonds and Elementary Problem Solving blog posts. I would encourage parents to stay in with these younger students and help them through the activities, if possible.
Middle Elementary Through Middle School
We usually start with a warm-up type activity, a short game or puzzle like those in my Math War and Teaching Negative Numbers blog posts. Then we move on to our bigger project for the session. That may be something like the Function Machine. Students always enjoy strategy games. We have made up story problems for each other, done some hands-on algebra with the younger kids, cut up Mobius strips, made flexagons, built giant polyhedra out of drinking straws, played with logic puzzles, etc.
This is also a good age to start on math competitions, like the Mathematical Olympiads or MathCounts. These encourage students to think more creatively about math and build their problem-solving skills.
Junior High and Older
Some of the advanced variations of Math War would make a good warm-up, or for an older group of students I had a few years ago, I bought Theoni Pappas’s Mathematics Calendar and looked for problems on that. They liked the fact that no matter how difficult the problem looked, the answers would always be whole numbers, never greater than 31. For our main activities, we have done trigonometry and surveying, made flexagons, puzzled through Lewis Carroll soriteses, played with the Function Machine, etc. Some of these activities were the same as with the middle-school group, but with more mathematical vocabulary, more complicated functions, or perhaps with some proofs thrown in to spice things up.
Another approach to a math co-op would be to survey the history of math. I know that I personally have learned a lot through studying how mathematical ideas developed in history. I have not tried this approach with a co-op class yet, but I have been doing a little math history with my Alexandria Jones blog posts. There are several books that you might find helpful — try www.livingmath.net for tips and book lists. One advantage to the historical approach is that you might be able to combine a wider age-range of students in a single class. If you do try it, please write and let me know how it goes.
Finally, a caveat: Every once in awhile, one of my classes will run into an activity that flops — usually because I picked something that turns out to be too hard for the kids. They are patient with me, however, and overall they seem to enjoy the math clubs. At least, I have been told that some students actually begged their parents to let them come back!
For more ideas and a video example, check out Math Clubs, Math Circles, and the Richmond Math Salon.