Kenny fifth-graders meet commissioner on Pi Day

Minnesota Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker
Minnesota Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker works with students during a visit to a fifth-grade class at Kenny Community School on March 14. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

Minnesota Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker recently traded “pi fives” with students in Janee Rivard-Johnson’s fifth-grade class at Kenny Community School.

Ricker and the students held up three fingers and mimicked a high-fiving motion to one another. The greeting capped a lesson in which students learned about the relationship between the diameter and circumference of a circle.

It came on March 14, the date known as “Pi Day” because the numbers 3, 1 and 4 are the first three significant figures of the mathematical constant pi.

“We use pi,” Rivard-Johnson told the students, “to find other things out about the circle.”

Ricker, a former teacher and executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, told the classroom how she noticed them ask each other questions about the patterns and relationships they saw. She noted how some students sought out different units of measurement as they counted how many times diameter-sized pieces of string fit around the perimeters of different-sized circles.

“One group didn’t just look for the relationship of the diameter to the outside of the circle,” she said. “They looked for if there was a relationship with that little bit of extra [string] to the length of the diameter.”

Minnesota Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker

Ricker’s visit to Kenny came as part of what Gov. Tim Walz declared as Minnesota Math Week. Ricker said the goal of Math Week was in part to start a conversation among adults about how math is something “we experience all the time.”

“Math is all around us,” she said, noting that she’s seeing many creative approaches to the subject from teachers around the state.

Ricker was making her second visit to a Minneapolis public school as education commissioner, after helping serve breakfast at Northeast Middle School the previous week. She said she appreciates how the district is intentionally building its nutrition options, much like teachers are intentionally building perseverance into math lessons.

She also appreciates the district’s focus on the teaching and learning environment.

“The more you invest in that teaching and learning environment, the more you are going to see the dividends of that investment,” she said.