Math Circles and Safety

The Bard Math Circle is growing rapidly this year. Perhaps this started because the wonderful Kingston Library director, Margie Menard, sent out a press release that was picked up by the local media, or that we’ve worked hard to develop a consistent and predictable schedule. But the fact is that the Bard Math Circle has found its niche: libraries.

This has me thinking of ways to ensure that our activities are safe spaces.

Safe to Take Risks
One important aspect of this is that participants should feel safe to take mathematical risks. Considering all the adults I meet whom have experienced some sort of mathematical trauma when they were young, this is crucial. Participants need to feel safe to explore mathematical ideas.

Here’s a quote from a Kingston grandmother who brought her granddaughter to yesterday’s math circle. After hearing this, I know that we’re doing a great job:

Since she’s been coming here, her math has improved. She thinks about things now. This is the most worthwhile thing she’s been involved in.

Right on! We’re definitely going to come back to this topic in the future.

Physical Safety
Another important aspect of safety for our Math Circles is physical safety. I traveled to Houston last month to attend the Circle on the Road Spring 2011 conference. Besides some incredible mathematics, the most interesting presentation, by far, was Brandy Wiegers‘ talk, Always Be Prepared. Brandy has been involved in Girl Scouting for over 20 years, and as a result, she is the mathematician I’d most want to be with in an emergency.

Here’s Brandy’s abstract:

Math Circles should be fun and engaging. To keep it this way it is important to be prepared with a box of tricks and some quick plans to ensure safety. In this session we’ll discuss what we keep in our Math Circle Box of Supplies, important legal aspects of working with minors including adult to student ratios and the buddy system. We’ll conclude the session discussing participant waivers and plans for emergencies. With a little bit of work we can all be more prepared to ensure that we never need to use our emergency plan. This way we can get back to math and everyone can have fun!

Brandy’s talk was really a Math Circle milestone. Talking about safety means that Math Circles are established, and that it’s now time to plan for safety. What procedures and guidelines does your Math Circle have in place to ensure the physical safety of your students? I think this is the beginning of a Math Circle discussion at the national level.

Well, Brandy did give us a lot of useful information. Perhaps the best thing she did was point us to the Girl Scouts, who’ve put a whole lot of thought into how to keep girls safe.

The decades-old Girl Scout safety bible is a publication known as Safety-wise. I just found out that this publication has been replaced with the new publications:

  • Volunteer Essentials
  • Safety Activity Checkpoints
  • Risk Management

Here are links to some specific online Girl Scout safety pages:

These safety guidelines are focused on keeping girls safe, but one thing I know for sure – if it’s good enough to keep the girl scouts safe, then it will keep all of our math circle students safe!

Now, let’s get back to math and have fun!