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Students prep to divide and conquer

When Jessie Graddy started teaching at South Terrace Elementary School three years ago, she wondered why the school wasn't participating in higher-level activities, such as spelling and geography bees and Math Masters competitions.

Instead of shrugging, she acted, creating all three extra outlets.

"I'm just trying to elevate our school a little bit," said Graddy, a fifth-grade teacher.

On April 21, the school's fifth-grade Math Masters team will participate at a competition in Duluth, one of 17 competitions for fifth-graders throughout the state, which also features competitions for fourth- and sixth-graders.

It's the second year of Math Masters programming for the school, and just under 50 percent of students in fourth and fifth grades participate weekly during half-hour, in-school practice sessions.

"Activities such as Math Masters ... allow for students to shine in all areas of talents and abilities," Graddy said. "These activities allow for growth at higher levels and provide a fun way to learn."

Earlier this month, the newspaper sat in on one of the half-hour practices. Before starting a series of timed exercises featuring dozens of math questions, including story problems and complex arithmetic, Graddy reminded students to drop their pencils as soon as their time was up, or else incur a disqualification.

The room, filled with roughly 20 fourth- and fifth-graders, grew quiet, even when the tables of four were working on team problems.

Why so quiet?

"We were whispering so other teams don't hear what our answers are," said Mackenzie Mullenix, one of three students tasked with speaking to the newspaper.

"I like math because it's in everything," said Kash Mork, who likes to play chess, video games and make projects such as the Leprechaun traps Ms. Graddy assigned her class, using simple machines, for St. Patrick's Day.

Mork, Mullenix and Ben Abbott have all participated in sports before. They find similarities in the competitions between math and sports. But as mathletes, it can be a bit more complex.

"It's almost harder than sports," Abbott said. "With math, people do it in their head. I'm my own thinker."

During practice, Graddy shared insights with the students as she went over the answers. In Math Masters, the students are challenged with problems that go beyond what they're taught at their grade level.

"It's a fraction question," she said to the students, "where you have to come up with equivalent fractions."

The questions were surprisingly daunting and required multiple steps to solve. One question noted the world record for pushups in a day (46,001) and asked students to find the average per minute rounded to the nearest number (answer: 32).

"I like math because it makes me think, and when I get a confusing problem right it makes me feel good about myself," Mullenix said.

That's the kind of response that makes a teacher proud.

"I have always valued the programs in school that could lift a student's interest in education," Graddy said. "Learning new things daily is something that teachers do and want to pass on this love of learning to their students."

For Abbott, the challenge is the thing. He likes breezing through the simple arithmetic to get to the hard stuff, on which he can spend time and have fun problem-solving.

"I'm pretty good at math and other things, too," Abbott said. "The weight is always on my shoulders if I'm on a team. They're usually relying on me."

As far as the upcoming competition goes, all three of the teammates admitted to some nerves. It'll be their first. They'll need to solve 55 minutes worth of individual exercises before moving to the team competition.

"When it comes to teams, I feel a lot of pressure on myself," Mullenix said.

The sense they gave was that the teammates would have each other's backs. Just like any other form of competition.

"I'm pretty confident in my teammates, because sometimes they're smarter than me and sometimes I have to help them a little bit," Abbott said. "When I finally help them, they sometimes get it before I do. That's why I rely on them."

For Graddy, the day's practice allowed her to give some good competition tips, including skipping a problem if they're stuck on it, and rereading story problems to avoid being tricked.

"I am extremely proud of the students that work outside of school on their math problems or study a list of spelling bee words on their own," she said, "because it is important to show that these activities are important, too."

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