A few weeks ago, Anna June's teacher sent home 2 pages stapled together. At the top was written "Please practice for the Math Derby. Anna June." AJ was not that enthusiastic, but I was. Although she had been thinking about the talent show, I had heard of the Math Derby last year and I was interested because I thought AJ would be good at it - it's like a spelling bee, but with math questions. It also took me back to some of the most fun I had in school with the academic competitions that I was in and practiced for: spelling bee, geography bowl, math team, and best of all, academic bowl. I hoped AJ would fall in love with the idea that someone would be asking her questions to which there were right and wrong answers, and she could win just by knowing things she was probably already supposed to know.
On the first sheet was about ten math vocabulary questions. On the second sheet was a table of essentially the same questions over and over, with sums adding up to ten. Evidently, this is all the children are expected to know by rote in kindergarten, at least for Math Derby. I thought, "We can handle this."
Then we started to practice. I sat down with AJ at the table and after a few questions, she declared it was boring and she didn't want to do it anymore. Later that weekend, on the way to Rusty's, I sat in the back seat next to her so she could hear me, and we did about ten problems and she again declared it boring and she was done. I did not know what I was going to do, until the answer occurred to me like the answer to "1+1": outsource.
You may recall that my brother Drew is laid up with a broken leg. He has moved back in with my parents and can't do too much other than sitting or lying down. He's also a math genius. He has a degree in accounting, but he has a head full of numbers. He can remember what he paid for a piece of furniture years ago, or batting averages for obscure baseball players. He's also one of the most competitive guys I know, and he happens to love AJ. All of this added up in my head and I sent him a text message and asked him to be AJ's coach.
Luckily for everyone, he agreed. I dropped her off on a weeknight after school, and they practiced the problems. Then, I took her back on Sunday afternoon for an extended session. Both times, my dad was on hand to help, too. Dad took calculus as an elective in college, perhaps more than once. He gave AJ her first word problem: "If I'm traveling 60 miles per hour and I go for 2 hours, how far have I gone?" With Drew's help, AJ arrived at the answer by adding 60 + 60 = 120. Then, he gave her another one: "If I am traveling 60 miles per hour and I drive only half an hour, how far have I gone?" It did not take AJ long to come up with 30, half of 60.
While I was enjoying my break from AJ, I knew she was in better hands than mine. Not that I couldn't teach her 4+6, it's just that she wouldn't enjoy it as much. I'm also the one who has to teach her to put her clothes in the hamper and to brush all of her teeth. We're not used to doing so much intense academic work together.
I was also glad, then, that it just so happened that AJ would be spending Tuesday night, the night before the Math Derby, with my parents. For Valentine's Day, Ben had given me tickets to see the Indigo Girls. We'd be out late. And, it just so happened that I had a breakfast meeting at work at 7:00 AM (honestly, the one night we go out!) and Dad would have to drop AJ off at school that day. So I wouldn't even see her until Math Derby time. Maybe this allowed her to get in "the zone."
When I got to the school and signed in with the other parents, I decided to go on up to the library as I had been instructed instead of stopping by AJ's classroom to say hello. I am glad I went this route - the children were distracted enough.
I have to give credit to the Math Derby team at Avondale. This competition was designed very well. I am sure they've had many years to perfect their setup, but it was one of the things that I have seen at the school that was laid out in an ideal way. Each grade has its own Derby, with its own time slot, so all the parents don't have to be there at once, which was great. The big kid winners get to go on to the city-wide competition.
First of all, the school was able to watch the Math Derby on their closed circuit TV channel. That's right - their school has it's own TV studio - the big kids do the news every morning. The competition was held in the library (where the studio is a little room adjoining it), and the teacher in charge of the TV studio pulled the camera to its doorway to film the competitors.
Just like in a spelling bee, the students stood in a line, and walked up to the microphone when it was their turn. There were five students chosen from each of the five kindergarten classes - that meant 25 of the 100 kindergarten kids were competing. She was already a winner just for being there.
The judges sat with their backs to the cameras and facing the student. The parents sat behind the student competitors. This way, parents couldn't give the answers, or even make their kids more nervous by looking anxious. The other kids who were eliminated sat on another group of chairs at a 90 degree angle to the parents. Here's a picture of the kids sitting there before the competition.
They didn't really send home the rules, though. I had no idea if AJ would be fast enough. But Dad had invented a game over the weekend where he would ask SIRI on his iPhone, a math question, and see if AJ could respond before "she" did. (Dad: Siri, what's 1+7? AJ: 8 Siri: Let me check on that. The answer is 8.) So we had the time thing covered.
I was sitting on the front row of the parents. Because I hadn't seen AJ all night, I ran over and gave her a hug while she was picking up her name tag from the table. She didn't look nervous. I tried not to look nervous for her.
The competition finally began, after the office made the announcement that it was time for all the classes to tune in to watch.
In the first round, many students were eliminated quickly. You could tell the children that had really practiced and the ones that hadn't. I have to admit that these kids, only 5 and 6 years old, were pretty adorable. Some of the kids counted on their fingers, which was allowed. It was brave of them to stand up and answer the questions, even if they were way wrong (like the little girl from AJ's class who answered that 1+2 was 12). Each time AJ got to the microphone, I was holding my breath until she said the answer. She thought to consider each answer, but she never hesitated or said it in an uncertain way. This girl knew her stuff.
They did mostly problems, but then threw in a round of vocabulary. Other kids were asked rectangle, triangle, and circle, but AJ happened to get the question that asked "What is a six-sided polygon with equal sides and 6 corners." She confidently answered, "hexagon." I was so proud. When it got down to 5 kids, they shortened the length of time allowed down to 6 seconds. This made it more challenging and, pretty quickly, we were down to 2 contestants.
AJ and the other little boy, Drayden, were informed again about the rules when it is down to two kids: They keep going until one misses a question. The other child has to answer the missed question as well as a second question of their own. If they can't answer both of the questions, the competition continues.
Two words: nail biter! AJ and Drayden went head-to-head for several rounds, and then, our celebrity judge, Alabama's Teacher of the Year, Dr. Allison Grizzle, who seemed to have done these many times before, said that they needed to move on to the more challenging questions: sums up to 20. My heart beat faster - I had no idea if AJ had practiced sums past 10, so I was a little worried. I'm pretty sure this is how it played out: Drayden got the first "hard" question right. Then AJ got hers right. Then Drayden missed a question, which AJ got. Then, AJ took too long, so it was Drayden's turn again. Then he missed his question, and AJ came in with the save. Then, finally, she answered her second question, and it was over. It seems the answer to all the "hard" questions was 11. I wish I had recorded it, but I didn't even think about it.
Kids 5th place and up all got ribbons.
"Fifty," AJ said, without hesitation. Granddaddy had taught her this while playing Monopoly.
The librarian was so impressed - she told all the other teachers around. Evidently, they could have asked AJ "harder" questions and she still would have won.
Her teacher ran upstairs to hug her. AJ got half a dozen "Gotcha" tickets, which is the school's currency to buy things in a prize store at the end of the year. She got the coveted "real" blue ribbon. She got lots of hugs and pats on the back from other students, parents, and teachers. She was the star, and she accepted this graciously. She shook hands with the other top winners.
When it got quieter, we called Uncle Drew first. Then her dad. AJ was so proud when she told them, "I won the Math Derby!" Then, she wanted to go back to her classroom.
Downstairs, she was further treated as a celebrity. Her class had watched and they were so proud that someone right from their very own classroom took first place. I hope they all learned a little math on the way.
As I went back to work, I called Drew again to recount the whole thing. He told me that AJ knew her sums up to 12, for sure, front and back. They had worked with dice. In teaching, I believe that's called a "math manipulative" something you can see and touch to learn math concepts. Whatever he did, it worked. and you can bet I'm signing him up for next year.
Then I called Ben, and my dad and my mom. I got back to UAB's campus and I told everyone that AJ had won. My bosses, people I saw in the elevator, the girl at the coffee shop (PS: Drew, Kate at Lucy's Coffee says hi and congratulations on helping AJ win!) I posted her photo and the news that she won on Facebook and it got more than 80 "likes".
It was a great day.
We let AJ pick where she wanted to go to dinner to celebrate - she picked IHOP. Our waitress saw AJ's big blue ribbon and also wanted to honor her with a "prize" of her own - a free tube of strawberry yogurt. We got home and AJ had to call Granny, too, to tell her the good news.
We made sure to let AJ know that we were so proud of how hard she worked, and not just that big blue ribbon. We would have still been proud if she had been knocked out in the first round, but it does make it more fun to win.