Anna M. Drzewiecki
On a Friday morning before February break, a group of sixth grade students gathered around math teacher Hermenegildo Paulo, better known as Mr. Paulo, with anticipation. Water simmered in an electric kettle, and an open bag of cassava flour weighed down a stack of papers that outlined the day’s activity: making fufu – or funge, as the popular, dough-like food is called in Portuguese – and calculating a budget for preparing enough fufu to feed the whole school.
The kettle clicked, ready. Students peered over one another’s shoulders, their attention on the mixing bowl, watching as the first student in line started to stir the flour into the heated water.
“The goal here is to keep thinking, how much flour are we going to be using? One half? One third? How much fufu will that make?” said Paulo. He explained that the class is working on fractions, and that the budget calculations would take into account the cost of ingredients and the volume needed to feed different configurations of students, such as the class or the entire school.
The students parted for Paulo to step in and finish the mixing process, the pot of fufu secured between his feet. They cheered as, using the force of his whole arms, he gave the cassava flour and water the final movement needed to combine the mixture into a single, doughy mass.
“He’s the best. He’s like a professional,” said one student.
Fufu Friday – as students began calling the day – started small. Paulo, originally from Angola, had noticed that all the math problems in the textbooks were unfamiliar to the approximately one-third of his many students who are from African cultures, and he started creating his own examples. Eventually, his students created a petition, asking to make the fufu they had started talking about in class.
“Today is a very good day for this,” said Paulo. “We’re celebrating Black History Month, and it’s the last day before break.”
The fufu meal is not just a celebration. Paulo sees it as an opportunity for learning – for students and for other educators at King Middle School.
“During lessons, I started coming up with examples using fufu or other recipes most of our African kids know,” he said. “They started to relate a little bit more.” For many of his students, fufu is familiar, a staple of their families’ cooking. For others, it was new. When students suggested putting their math problems into practice, Paulo accepted.
“It’s a fun day, but it’s also math-y,” he said.
It’s a fun day, but it’s also math-y.
And it was. As groups of students rotated in and out of his classroom, each with 20 minutes to spend on fufu preparation, some gathered around the whiteboard to work through fufu-related math equations, while others gravitated towards the more hands-on dough making.
Finally, a sudden rush, and the room emptied out at last. In the moment of downtime, Paulo surveyed the room, taking stock of what had happened, who had participated in what, which tools needed to be cleaned. Rather than exhausted by all the movement, he was energized and, ultimately, still focused on the math.
“It’s a language,” he said. “By the time you learn that language, nothing else is hard.”
Paulo taught math in Angola for just shy of 12 years, starting with elementary-age students and then high schoolers. “Teaching in English is still pretty new to me.” He pointed out that this helps him relate to the linguistic and cultural challenges some of his students face.
He started at King Middle School in 2018 as an educational technician, also called an ed tech. After a stint with younger students at Reiche Elementary, Paulo returned to KMS as a math teacher. He has a crew – or homeroom – as well as a full load of classes of about 19 students at a time. “But with the energy they have, sometimes it feels like 45!” he said, smiling.
Paulo had prepared chicken, beans, and a tomato sauce at home the night before Fufu Friday, with a plan to feed about 50-60 people at a lunchtime feast. When Principal Caitlin LeClair and a few other teachers and staff entered Paulo’s classroom, the students eagerly shared their morning experience and photographed their reactions as they tried the fufu and other dishes.
One student offered friendly instruction to another from across the room. “You’re supposed to eat it with your hands!”
“Can we do this again?” was a constant refrain.
“Examples like this have really made a difference,” said Paulo, noting that Fufu Friday was an opportunity to connect abstract ideas to the real world, and for students to connect with one another. And it was about incorporating more appropriate, real world scenarios into math teaching. He hopes that textbook publishers will adapt, too.