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I accompanied a friend and his middle school mathletes today to a thousand-student middle school math competition at the Armory on 168th Street.

Turnout was huge. Over 1000 middle school kids, doing math for fun. That’s something. Plus coaches and spectators. There was a crowd.

The Armory looks better than I remember. I read this week that they will host the Millrose Games (after over a hundred years at Madison Square Garden).

The kids ran into the track, and did half a lap, by grade. Looked like it was fun for most, but awkward for a substantial minority.

The format of the exam was strange. Forty questions, worth 100, 200, 300, 400, or 500 points, according to degree of difficulty. Kid answers, shows judge, judge says yes or no, and the kid bring it to the scoring table, or tries again. The contest lasted 45 minutes.

There were a few problematic questions (I only saw one of the 6 exams). Units were required, but were unevenly used in the answer key. Many judges were outside volunteers (not math teachers). Good alternate answers were not to be accepted (and I heard of at least one $\frac{1}{1}$ being rejected, when the correct answer was 1). I allowed a struggling team to cash in on “no remainder” when the required answer was “0” – I’m sure this was rejected in other corners. Some judges took quite long to examine a page, while other teams were waiting. In at least one case the question was very hard and functionally multiple choice; kids guessed each answer until I nodded yes.

Blaring music was played throughout the contest. not quite MSG, but you get the idea. The theme from Rocky, Let’s Get it Started, We are the Champions, with no break. On a roll? That sort of upbeat might keep you there. But when a kid gets stuck, how do they concentrate? I was horrified.

The scoreboard flashed math facts (for the spectators?) Unfortunately, some were not entirely correct, most were genuinely trivial.

And in 45 minutes it was over. There was no further math discussion. No exhibitions. No chance for teams to debrief. No second round. No time for spectators to listen to children try to answer questions.

The kids got turkey sandwiches, listened to the Emcee and the principal of the host school (Urban Assembly Math and Science, once advertised as the “Fun Math School.” I was none too impressed with the idea or the principal, who seems something of a showman, but the teachers don’t complain, so let’s leave it at that…)  There were performances from UAMS students which were far more suited for a school-wide talent show than a crowd of 1500, awards, and out. And Walcott spoke.

Math CAN BE fun. That’s not my objection. But the kids sat, 5 to a table, but isolated. No interaction at most tables. It was 45 minutes of doing problems, surrounded, but alone. They were praised for being there, but their accomplishments were secret. Ceremony replaced thought.

I’ve been to competitions. True, they can be boring. But “lightening rounds” can draw an audience. During break time kids play with puzzles and each other, and review problems. At the Armory, there was no break time. The city needs a better middle school competition.

4 Comments leave one →
1. May 19, 2011 am31 8:50 am 8:50 am

That’s strange, because I assume you are talking about the tourney put on by my old middle school. http://pi5ny.com/ They used to do a better job when the tournament was smaller and had individual portions as well as group portions. I guess it doesn’t scale well. :(

2. Japheth Wood permalink
May 19, 2011 pm31 3:37 pm 3:37 pm

Sad to hear this, as I’ve been going to attend Pi5NY for a few years. There are other tournaments, though. Did you hear of MoMath’s middle school math tournament? I was there, and very impressed. They used problems from moems.org which are really well done.
Other contests that I know of are in-school, like mathcounts and NYCIML.

3. May 21, 2011 pm31 9:12 pm 9:12 pm

Could be Mimi. This was distressing. Were you hired the first year there?

Japheth, I am a high school teacher. I work occasionally with a middle school math team, and have been to three competitions in the last two years. My favorite by far was Math Counts at RPI, but I also enjoyed the little one at Lehman last year. This was my first disappointment.

4. Anonymous permalink
September 11, 2011 pm30 1:45 pm 1:45 pm

Hi, I found this post by accident, and I agree with you. I know quite a few teachers who work (or worked) at the Urban Assembly Math and Science. They all describe it as a pretty terrible place where neither students nor the staff wanted to be. One teacher told me that the principal bullies his teachers and even yells at them in front of their students! It doesn’t surprise that a tournament hosted by this school (or rather, this principal) would be a pile of self-serving public relations mathematical garbage. People in education tend to think that, because someone is doing something unique or different, it is a good thing. Seldom do we sit down and ask ourselves, “Is this really doing anything for the kids?” Great post, keep it up!