Uplifting Students By Uplifting Mathematics: An Emotional Day At Osborne Juvenile Center

Sunil Singh
8 min readAug 3, 2023

On August 1, I visited Osborne Juvenile Center, which is located in San Jose, California. I was invited by Bernadette Salgarino, who is a mathematics coordinator for Santa Clara County. She is also President-Elect for California Math Council.

In early 2023, she invited me to give a keynote at Silicon Valley Education Foundation’s Annual Math Summit on August 2. I enquired about doing “something” in the area while being out there. Without too much hesitation, she asked if I would be interested in visiting a Juvenile Center.

With even less hesitation, I gave an enthusiastic “yes!”.

I had never been to a Juvenile Center before, although I probably had taught students who, unfortunately, eventually ended up there.

While the staff were obviously aware of my visit, the students were not. In fact, the place where they were brought to throughout the day — in small groups of 3 to 6(for security reasons) — the library, was a sacred 20 to 30 minutes/week of their time. The library is a sanctuary for them, physically with the warm and inviting space, and intellectually, for the opportunity to borrow books/magazines.

Every single student that came in spent that precious time looking for reading material.

So, this “stranger from Canada” was going to cut into this sacred time slot with…mathematics? A subject, which only two of about 27 students(mostly high school age) professed interest. The rest were very clear in their dislike, some even refusing to make eye contact with me.

The other adults in the room throughout the day were teachers, guards, and Bernadette Salgarino. She bore witness to the transformations that happened in ALL the students — in under 15 minutes — with mathematics.

These kids, mostly latino boys(except the last group were girls), immediately — and rightfully so — gave me a cold, distrusting stare. Many were tattooed heavily on the arms. Some with gang affiliated ink.

The first group came in around 9:30. I noticed that two of the boys made a beeline for the chairs in the picture above — and almost immediately started clutching the cute cushions. Chris Pennington, the librarian, told me she brought them in because she knows how much these kids miss “touch” from another humans

It was warming — yet eventually sad — to see these tough looking boys be immediately comforted in these soft rocking chairs and cushions.

Love. Affection. Attention. The absence of all this was palpable by the collective body language and general missing of light in their eyes.

I sat at the right, dark blue seat. The students in the light blue ones.

Now. Let me make this clear right now. The star of the show was mathematics — initially. In the end, it were the students.

Other than trying to develop trust in a ridiculous amount of time, my role was minimal. That’s what good mathematics does — it doesn’t need the intrusion of adult-facing pedagogy.

Just as aside, all this debate about direct instruction vs. child-centred discovery is completely missing the point. Both can be great and both can suck — depending on, wait for it, the actual FUCKIN’ CONTENT!

Yeah. I swore. In fact, the kids and I swore the whole fuckin’ day. The most common one was “What The Fuck!” It was uttered in happy disbelief due to the content, the quality of mathematics.

I wasn’t showing them financial math, factoring, or fractions.

I went to the most reliable, historical well of awe, wonder, and curiosity — mystery of numbers, getting tangential to number theory.

I kept my introduction to a minimum, just telling them I was from Canada and that it was specific goal to be here today. I didn’t mention writing books and giving presentations — because they wouldn’t and shouldn’t care!

The first activity I did was the Birthday Game. One the screen were the cards above. Students also had photocopies to look at. I told them to find their birth date in as many cards as possible, making sure to scan all the cards carefully not to miss one. Once all the kids were confident they had located their birthday, I went around to each student asking for the information.

I had also asked what everyone’s name was/what would they like to be called.

The first student, with some reserved cool, said “Cards 4, 2, and 1”. Immediately I said “22”, and “next”…

You should seen the look of him and the others. The first volley of “WTF’s” came rolling out — with changes in facial expression that included smiles.

After successfully getting every single one of the birthdays correct — and quickly — I suggested that if I was to not tell you how I was doing this, that it would bother you for a long time. Many, almost reluctantly, agreed. Even though these kids had a thousand more pressing things going on in their lives, simple mathematics had managed to be shuffled to the top of the deck in terms of a positive relationship.

So yes, I went through how I was doing it. But, I wanted them to slowly find out first. I asked them to glance at the a specific corner of each card. In every group, there was at least one student who spotted the “doubling numbers” of 1, 2, 4, 8, and 16.

All I was doing was adding these corner numbers of the cards they alerted to me that their birthday was on. For example, 22, the only way to make that number in binary — I referred to each of these numbers as “switches” to turn on or off. The only way to build 22 is with 16 + 0 + 4 + 2 + 0(the 8 and 1 are not needed and are given a “zero”).

Once the kids gave an affirming smile of “getting it”, we practiced a couple of times. Unfortunately, we could not take pictures of the kids, but you should have seen the smiles/laughter on their faces. Mathematics, for at least a little bit, became part of their identity.

It was one of the best teaching moments in my life.

Ironically, the next activity was also related to base 2. It’s called the 50 game, and was in my book Math Recess.

We start with the number 50(It can any number, but I find this one to be a good one). Two people take turns subtracting a number, until we get down to the number “1”. Whose ever turn it is at that point is the loser — you don’t want to be on 1 when it is your turn!

The key rule is that you can never take more than half of whatever is remaining. So, if you went first, you could not subtract more than 25. If the number got to 27, you couldn’t subtract more than 13, etc.

I have never lost this game on a first attempt — ever. That’s because I know the strategy of the game — the key recursive sequence.

In one of the afternoon groups, that very thing happened!

Now, I could have won right away, but I wanted the kids to identify the key numbers in that recursive sequence, so I purposely played in a lazy fashion — especially since nobody has ever beaten my on the first go. One of the students went first. When it was 25, he subtracted 10, to put me on 15.

Damn. That’s one of the “danger numbers”.

I told him and the rest that they were in a winning position. I was potentially sunk. I subtracted 2. If he didn’t subtract this number, I would win the game. After some careful consideration — and looking at his friends — he took away 6, to put me on 7.

I was officially toast. He had figured out the game.

The game is over at 1, but it is technically over if you are at 3, 7, 15, 31, 63, 127, etc. because you cannot subtract enough to be able to get off them. So, in reality, if I really wanted to win, I would have subtracted 4 when that student put me on 35.

All the kids jumped up when I lost. Bernadette was kind enough to reward this unit with pizza.

The mood elevation that occurred — the positive SEL that we all witnessed — was all due to the historic enchantment that mathematics has brought to people regardless of their circumstances. It’s been there on death beds, concentration camps, suicidal ideation, and incarceration.

In my keynote the following day, I shared a slide from a UK professor, whose daughter solved a perimeter problem I posted(it got 500K views).

Bad mood lifted completely. Luckily, she lives freely in a caring, affluent home.

But, mathematics reaches everyone. If fact, those who are in some of the darkest crevices life can offer, is where mathematics shines it brightest light.

Math education, which often gets in its own way with a myriad of initiatives and pedagogical fashions, needs to understand that there are zero excuses for ANY child doing high quality mathematics.

Zero.

The day before my visit, The Human Restoration Project published my blog “Why I Need To Leave Math Education”.

Content is almost dead. Pedagogy has been declared(once again) the new elixir. Equity failed to expand to the history of mathematics.

Give me disillusioned and distrusting kids in a juvenile center everyday — and let me introduce the transformative power of mathematics. That seems to be my happy place.

Thank you Bernadette, Eugene, Tiffany, and Chris for helping making this such a memorable day of connection and mathematical joy.

L

At the end of the day, I noticed some LEGO structures along the one of the shelves. And sure enough, as though there was some whimsical and ironic intervention, there was an “Up” display, replete with balloons. My breakout session at the Math Summit was:

Thank you Bernadette, Eugene, Tiffany, and Chris for helping making this such a memorable day of connection and mathematical joy. I will never forget…

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