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A Summer of Math and Myths

Get an inside look at Commonwealth's new summer academic enrichment program for middle school students...

You wake up and combine cereal and milk in a bowl before you dive into combinatorial equations at 8:30 a.m. 

Later, before contemplating lunch options, you are contemplating immortality in the House of Darkness while reading Popol Vuh, a mythological text from the Mayan peoples. 

You might be envisioning the middle of a school year, cramming as much knowledge in your head as possible before exams. 

But it's still summer—and you're learning it all for fun. 

This was no ordinary summer for students taking part in Commonwealth's brand-new Summer Enrichment program. The classes are Mr. Letarte's "Adventures in Mathematical Problem Solving" and Mr. Conolly's "World Epic," and it's a preview of the academic pursuits that await in the halls of 151 Commonwealth Avenue. 

In "World Epic," students cover a vast range of ancient history as they study mythological texts from around the world. They follow Gilgamesh as he journeys to the edge of the world to solve the riddle of mortality; or the divine twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, on their descent to Xibalba, the Mayan underworld; or Conaire Mór, high king of Ireland, fleeing the doom triggered by his breaking of geasa, or taboos, imposed on him as a Celtic warrior. 

The journey continues in "Adventures in Mathematical Problem Solving," where Mr. Letarte  leads students through a series of intriguing problems chosen from algebra, geometry, combinatorics, probability theory, and combinations of these. Students work on the problems independently and then gather together to not only find the answer but unravel the historical and philosophical context, and the beauty, behind the math.

These virtual Summer Enrichment classes for middle school students arose from an interest in offering a summertime program amid a pandemic that has closed down a lot of camps and other academic opportunities. Director of Admissions and Financial Aid Carrie Healy jumped at the chance to work with teachers in order to provide such an experience.

"The idea was it would allow us to connect some of our incoming students with one another and expose some rising eighth graders to Commonwealth-style classes," Healy said. 

Both courses offer a rigorous workload with their own complexities—be it combinatorial equations or the Mayan underworld—that may be unknown to incoming or middle school students. But this is precisely what the program aims for as an early introduction to the level of learning at the school: to make the unfamiliar familiar. 

This idea of familiarity is the overarching theme that emerges in both classes, despite their polar natures. Students benefit from discussing with people from different schools and different communities, each with their own learning backgrounds and perspectives. 

In "Adventures in Math," a focus on collaboration has allowed students like Olivia Wang to discover new ways to solve problems and understand how different methods can result in the same answer.

"Because there are students with a wide variety of backgrounds in terms of how much math they've studied before, there's more focus on why something works, which has been really helpful," Olivia said. 

For Parmis Mokhtari-Dizaji, who is taking "World Epic" because she likes to try something new over the summer, the often challenging and dense texts gradually became more accessible as she reads the text closely with her classmates. As themes like companionship emerge from the text, she can connect them to more well-known contemporary works. 

"My favorite part of the class is the meaningful conversations we have been having about each piece of literature. Every day, I am looking forward to the next class to share my thoughts and annotations with the rest of the students," she said. 

In total, twenty students have joined Commonwealth for the four weeks of the Summer Enrichment program. The group includes nine incoming students, one current student, and ten rising eight graders; three students are even shouldering both courses. 

Classes meet three times a week in Virtual Commonwealth, the school's online learning platform. As Commonwealth plans for a hybrid model (a combination of in-person and virtual classes) for its fall 2020 reopening, these courses are a chance to get orientated with the virtual side of the school. Yet, as was true during the spring semester, the virtual classes still reflect the best elements of the traditional in-person Commonwealth experience.

"One of the things that draws me to Commonwealth is the vibrant academic environment and that both students and teachers are excited to go more in-depth," Parmis said. "'World Epic' has given me a glimpse into what the classes will be like in the fall and is preparing me to do close reading and annotation."

While the program arose from a pandemic, Commonwealth hopes to offer Summer Enrichment courses next summer as well. By that time, hopefully, the adventures in math and myths will be in person, but still just as lively.