We don't need no calculators

HB Independent

A group of fourth- and fifth-graders at Circle View Elementary School have been studying hard for an upcoming math competition. But unlike most children their age, these students have excelled past practicing basic math.

The 10 students in the Gifted and Talented Education program have been tackling algebra and geometry since February in hopes of once again taking home the Olympic-sized medals.

"We've won every year," said Jessica Haag, a fourth-grade GATE teacher. "Our students already learn at a higher level, but these kids go even beyond that."

The two math teams, split by grade level, meet twice a week in a hexagon-shaped room with Werner Nolff, a volunteer who has been coaching Circle View's math teams for 10 years.

Upon entering the room, each student grabs a white board and marker, and gives his or her undivided attention to Nolff for an hour.

Instead of teaching from a textbook and having students solve problems with a calculator, Nolff trains them to use mental math.

With the exception of more complicated equations and word problems, the students found no need for the white board when calculating long multiplication problems such as 875 x 16 or .375 x 74.

Nolff, a 76-year-old retired engineer who went to school in Germany, practiced mental math at an early age and said that in addition to exercising the brain, being able to calculate numbers mentally is also convenient when technology is not present.

Silence in the room is rare as Nolff and his students are constantly in discussion.

Whether it is learning new techniques and formulas or fixing mistakes, Nolff allows his students to engage with each other freely as long as the topic is relevant.

"I don't have rules," he said. "The only thing I ask of them is to respect each other and to respect me."

Math team members were selected based on performance and class test scores. Although Nolff and the four GATE teachers selected the individuals without prejudice, most of the fifth-graders chosen to be part of the team this year were also a part of the math team last year.

Nolff believes that his students' success is a mix of having an innate ability to work with numbers as well as the desire to learn.

"You can't teach someone math if they don't have the abilities," he said. "And these kids, they're like a sponge and they can't get enough."

Four primary members on each team will be participating in Math Field Day, while the fifth member serves as an alternate, on May 25 at El Modena High School in Orange.

Students will compete in five categories at the all-day event, which will require them to be tested in both oral and written formats, followed by the award ceremony.

Fourth-grader Savannah Eljaouhari did not expect to be chosen for the math team and did not consider herself to be good at math.

"I'm scared," she said about competing in Math Field Day for the first time. "But I'm trying to do my best and I'm excited."

Nolff is confident that his students' hard work will be recognized and awarded.

"These kids are really the best out of the best math students here," he said. "I know they'll be coming back with the medals because I know what they are capable of accomplishing."

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