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Minnesota Students Practice Mental Math at Mach Speed - 2002-10-24

Think you're good with numbers? Try this little math problem: Take the number four, square it, add four, cut it in half, cut it in half again, square that number, add one, cut it in half, subtract one, cut that in half, square it, add four, cut it in half, add one, divide it by three.

Did you get that? If you did, congratulations. You might be able to keep up with the fifth graders in Brainerd, Minnesota. Most adults can only hang on for dear life.

But with daily practice and a little enthusiasm, Dan Bzdok's class of 10-year-olds learns to track him every step of the way. What's more, these kids in central Minnesota can't understand how legions of students, before and after, could ever claim to hate math class.

The answer to the problem, by the way, is seven.

It's 10 o'clock in the morning, and the fifth graders are silent. That seems like a small miracle in itself to anyone familiar with 10-year-olds. They are waiting for their teacher, Dan Bzdok, Mr. B, perched on a stool at the front of the room. No pencils, no paper, no calculators. There's no time for that.

Bzdok: 22 minus 2 divided by 2 plus 2 divided by 2 square that number minus 1. Answer?

Kids: 35

Bzdok: 44 minus 4 divided by 4 plus 4 divided by 2 plus 2 find the square root plus 1 square it. Answer?

Kids: 16

The mental math drills are a daily ritual, for 10 minutes every day at the beginning of math period. The school year is still young - these kids have been at it for less than two months. But they're good enough already to make you wonder who's slipping them the answers.

Parents are amazed. Fellow teachers are amazed. Dan Bzdok has been doing this five years. And he's still amazed.

"In my opinion, young kids are sponges. Their minds are sponges," he says. "They do stuff that I can't do. By the time the year is over, the stuff that I give them mentally I couldn't do if someone were to do it back to me."

Every week a little faster, a little harder. By the end of the year, kids will be correcting him. There are no gimmicks. Just practice.

"They want it, they actually ask for it," he says. "Even at noontime they want me to do some problems before they go to lunch. That's the beauty of it. It's not so much that we're getting better at math. They want math. And I think that's the key to it all. They like it. So they enjoy doing it, they ask for it. Yesterday I skipped it, because we had to get a test taken care of or something. They were kind of upset with me that we didn't take our 10 minutes to do it."

The kids say it's better than reading and social studies. That raises the obvious question. Is it better...than recess?

"I like them both," says one student. "Yea, me too," says another.

These fifth graders prepare for their mental math drills like they're heading into a track meet. They say they need a good night's sleep and a good breakfast beforehand. Taylor Satre says friends can tell she's ready when she starts jumping up and down in her seat.

"My mom makes me practice 20 minutes before I go to bed so I can get it," she says. "I call my cousin on the phone, he's like a math freak. He gives me problems that are way faster, so I can do it better in class."

For Dan Bzdok, the drills are not about teaching kids a new parlor trick. He's managed to convince everyone in the room that math can be fun. Michael Monda looks at things the way Mr. B would want him to: as a competition against himself.

Still, every now and then, a legend is born.

"There was a kid named Rob Vieth, and he was the fastest kid in the class last year and Mr. B did a turbo-time that was like five minutes long and the answer was 36 and right when he said 'answer', Rob's hand just shot right up," he says. "It was cool."

For a fifth grade teacher, that just may be the ultimate compliment. Math is cool.