Jazz hands: Connecting with kids with math and care

The day starts with breakfast, though that’s not what gets the kids going. Enthusiastic hugs, high fives and groan-worthy riddles set the tone as staff celebrate the students and one another during morning assembly.

No one needs to tell them when it’s time to sit and listen. They just do. That’s because they know math isn’t the focus of Math Corps, a 25-year-old, tuition-free, six-week summer mentoring and enrichment program for Detroit students.

Professor Steve Kahn, director for Wayne State University’s Center for Excellence and Equity in Mathematics, started WSU Math Corps with Leonard Boehm, who also teaches discovery classes in advanced math to fifth- through eighth-grade Detroit students.

“This is a program that tries to make a difference for kids in Detroit,” Kahn says.

The difference is that the core curriculum involves teaching kids that they matter.

“It’s largely a social justice program. We started with the notion that it’s about loving and believing in kids. The kids learn they will get a different vision, one where kindness rules and where you love and support one another. Then we want them to be healthy, and then we want them to have fun,” Kahn says.

“A central part of the Math Corps is humor. There are kids who come to us who need to smile right now, today. And then,” Kahn adds, “since we’re mathematicians, we also teach them math.”

With a credo of kindness, courage and integrity, Math Corps serves 400 students — 120 seventh- through ninth-graders and 80 high schoolers (10th through 12th graders) at all math levels. Proof that the program works is in comparing the pre- and post-exams: students average 30 percent in their pre-tests; after the six-week summer program, they average 90 percent.

In 2016, the National Science Foundation awarded Math Corps nearly $3 million to replicate its summer program nationwide.

“Soon, Math Corps will serve all kids in need,” Kahn says.

Albert Einstein had it right

At a recent Math Corps morning assembly, Kahn reads a letter from a visitor praising the program. “They came to see you. You are the show,” he says.

Silently, the kids raise their hands and wiggle their fingers.

Jazz hands.

He continues: “We just got (New York Life Foundation’s Excellence in Summer Learning Award) one of the biggest awards in the country because of you, and six of the foremost educators in the country interviewed me about you!”

Again, jazz hands.

In a sort of roll call, Kahn calls out each team. Sometimes the team members respond in unison, sometimes one student gets up and tells a joke. Instead of laughing out loud, many of the kids mime belly laughter and put their hands above their head, indicating the joke is funny.

Then, Professor Boehm stands up. The kids turn to the back of the room to look at him, clearly intrigued by what he might say. He tells them Albert Einstein was one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, he tells them about the speed of light, and he asks them to read a quote aloud.

“You never fail until you stop trying,” the kids chant.

In celebration mode, Kahn calls each team by number and either a college-aged team leader or a student announces the team’s success in finishing homework or conquering an assignment.

One student struggles to read his list.

There is no snickering or sign of impatience among the 11 to 18 year olds. Instead, like referees placing both of their hands in front and moving them in a circle to signal a basketball player is traveling, they all rotate their arms in a circle. This isn’t criticism. It’s the students’ way of saying “keep going, we’re with you, you can do this.”

Finally, the child finishes.

Jazz hands.

This story was originally published by Crain Content Studio for Wayne State University.