October 29, 2010

American Math Challenge

You may have noticed that I was completely absent from the world wide web this week.  That's because Hannah Jane was a mathlete in the American Math Challenge!  She had a week during which she could train on the program she would be using and then 2 days of online competition starting at 6am and ending at 9pm.

During the training week we got an e-mail saying that because she had already mastered the age appropriate material, they were going to bump her up a grade for the competition.  She lamented that now she wouldn't win because she would have to do harder tasks that before.  But what I noticed wast that when asked to perform simple tasks like, for instance, 3+4, she would only have a 80-90 % accuracy rate.  But when they bumped her up to things like 4,398-2 765, she seemed to do better.  I'm not sure if it's because she didn't give tasks that she had already assessed herself to have mastered the same level of attention as those that required a multiple step approach, or if it's simple because competing against older kids scared her into a higher level of focus.

In competition there are two ways to earn points.  You can complete quizzes and tests at your leisure and get a pat amount of points for completion or you can find other kids online and compete head to head to see who can answer the most correct in a specified amount of time.  Hannah Jane normally does not like being timed, and caves in under the pressure, so naturally she tried to get all of her points by taking tests and completing quizzed.  But by day 2 of the competition, she had mastered every test available at her grade level and was only left with the option of head to head competition. 

At first she would flip out and say things like, "They put me against 3 boys!  Boys are always faster than girls!  There's no way I can win!" and then sit there and be unable to conjure the answer to 2+1.  But after an hour or so, she was yelling downstairs to me, "Mom!  I just beat a boy in Florida and one in New Jersey on a subtraction competition!  Can you believe me?"  So funny!  At one point I made her take a break to talk about the difference between doing well in a competition and becoming a maniacal ego-maniac.  I just couldn't stomach hearing her say things like, "When they lose, it's good for me!"  So we talked about being a gracious winner, even when you'll never meet your competitors face to face, and how it is possible to fare well in a competition without wishing ill on the person at the other end.  She got back to it and was a little more modest with her winnings!

At one point during the week, I mentioned to another home schooling mom how seriously Hannah Jane was taking this competition and the woman replied with, "That's the public school mentality showing."  She said it politely and I smiled and sheepishly agreed, but I replayed that phrase in my head over and over again pondering the meaning and the implications.

As home schoolers, we often talk about an environment free from things like competition and teaching our kids to value learning for learning's sake, so I completely understood what she was saying.  But then I thought about how much of the real world, post school age years, is based upon competition and how I want my children to have the best of everything.  I want them to have stress and competition free school, but I also want them to be capable of competing when they have to.  I suppose I looked at this as her once a year chance to experience competition, try it on, an be rewarded for doing her best whether she won or not.  That seems valuable on a once in a while basis.  Same goes for testing.  I love that my kids never take tests, but rather just express what they've learned during excited discussions.  But when they go to college, they're going to have to take tests and so that is a skill they absolutely need.  For that reason I don't whine about them having to take the state tests every few years because someday, when a professor hands them a bubble sheet, they won't look at them like they're from another planet!

It was intense watching my little girl get up in the dark of morning to log on and start calculating.  She filled page after page with math problems, she borrowed, carried, multiplied, estimated times, sorted, interpreted graphs, and all sorts of other things.  She had fun.  She pouted.  She found out that Quarters are an irritating coin when you have not yet learned your multiples of 25.  She learned that there's no law saying that  boys are faster than girls or better at math.

The most valuable thing I think she learned was making choices based on upon what results she wants.  During the 2 days of competition she had band, choir, and Poetry Club.  She had to choose whether to skip her favorite activities to compete, or just be happy with doing her best as she had time.  She also had to decide if she would hang out and play at her best friends house after one of those activities as she usually does, or rush home to get back to the challenge.  She planned to just to the activities and come straight home to compete, but as she sat behind the computer that morning, she said, "Mom.  I think I've changed my mind about playing with Kai today.  I want to do well at this, but I have already.  And I love spending time with Kai.  So I think I'll just be happy with what I've done and play with my friends.  Is that okay?  I'll get right back to it when we get home."  I was pleased as pie that my kid who had shown this previously unknown ability to be ruthless and a little obsessive in competition was also capable of seeing that winning isn't everything and that time with those you love still wins.

All that said, she didn't come close to winning at the national level, but she was the top scorer of all k-8 students locally.  We're still waiting to see what the state scores were and where she fell.  She did an amazing job.  With the gift card she won from her on-line school group, she plans to buy an MP3 player so she can listen to the original broadcast of War of the Worlds whenever she wants.  I have no idea why that's such a big deal to her, but it is and she won the money to do it, so we'll not stand in her way or ask for an explanation!

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