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Math marathon is an exercise in fun


As Amber Freeman bit the head off a gummy troll, she explained that what looked like a candy festival at her table was really math.

The youngsters were graphing the color distribution of the candies before devouring them. Each child was coloring his or her own graph, which in turn would feed into a larger graph for everyone at the table and eventually a wall-mounted graph for the third grade.

Nearby, other groups of third graders were rounding the bases on a baseball diamond or planning a tailgate party.

All this activity on Friday was part of the Riviera Beach Elementary School's math marathon, devoted to less traditional ways of teaching math.

The aim was to simulate tests administered by the Maryland School Performance and Assessment Program, which measures how well students can apply what they've learned to real-life problems. Each grade had a theme -- the third-graders' theme was baseball, the fifth-graders' was metric Olympics and the first-graders' theme was the concept of 100.

"We want to get kids to see that math is involved in everything, in every aspect of their everyday life, when they have fun at the baseball game, too," said principal Betty Freeland.

"They are batting with their minds today," said teacher Peggy Flohr, lining up teams for multiplication baseball.

Children stepped up to the plate and were "pitched" a multiplication problem assigned a difficulty level of single, double, triple or home run. Children cheered on their teammates, tallied runs and were glued to the video screen as multiplication problems popped into view.

"It was not just plain old fun. You were learning," said pupil Shannon Lee, whose Eagles team bested the Orioles.

But even when pupils missed three questions, things weren't so bad.

"I saw [that] after they got up and struck out because they didn't know the answer, they were willing to go right over to the flash cards and practice. I've never seen them do that before. They helped each other," Ms. Flohr said.

At the tailgate party, pupils had to figure out how much food to order for an imaginary group of people. The lightest eater among the imaginary guests could down five burgers and three ears of corn.

Meanwhile, the fifth-graders were going for the gold -- strictly in metric measurements -- cheered on by flag-waving, chanting teammates. Olympic events included the cotton-ball shotput to measure distance, the sponge squeeze to measure volume and the Bigfoot contest to show area.

In each event, children first estimated their performance, then measured, then subtracted to get the difference.

Gold, silver and bronze "medals" went to teams who had the lowest scores, those whose estimates were most accurate.

"It's a hands-on way to get a handle on their estimating, their predicting," said fifth-grade teacher Carol McLay.

Some were getting quite good at their estimates. Chris Cook guessed his straw in the paper straw javelin throw went 320 centimeters. He was right.

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