- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 2, 2009

A small, black-felt mat holding 12 white beans rests at 7-year-old Jennifer Zuber’s fingertips.

No, Jennifer’s not enrolled in arts and crafts or cooking camp.

She’s at a camp in Vienna, Va., called MathTree, and the beans are helping to teach her place value, addition and subtraction in the Bean Counting 101 class.

“Take four beans and create any shape you want,” says Reevi Eitan, who is teaching Jennifer — along with a dozen other 6- and 7-year-olds — during the two-week Bean Counting class.

Jennifer organizes her beans in a cluster and smiles at her own unique creation. Other kids form diagonal and straight lines with their beans. Someone tries to make a star.

“Now let’s practice writing the number four,” Mr. Eitan says, pointing to a chart that allows the children to draw the beans as well as write the number four using both the numeral and the word.

All this for one number?

“The idea is to use analysis and words that connect with kids,” says Lynn Salvo, the founder and president of the MathTree camps (www.math tree.com), which cater to children ages 6 and older. Ms. Salvo, who holds a doctorate in mathematics education leadership, started the camps in 1999 and now offers them across the Washington metropolitan area and is ready to expand as far as Florida.

“This way we show the number four physically, pictorially and symbolically. It’s multimodal,” she says.

To which you might respond, “Whatever works,” because year after year, in study after study American kids trail in math compared to their counterparts in places like Japan.

Why?

Ms. Salvo says the disparity has to do with large class sizes in public schools (the ratio at her camps is roughly 6 to 1), math not being taught by math specialists in elementary school, a formula-based math-instruction method that doesn’t allow for innovation and discovery among children, and a lack of depth in favor of breadth of knowledge.

Her camp is the antidote to all that, she says.

“We go really deep and we conceptualize,” Ms. Salvo says, which helps explain the attention the number four received. “Because if you go deep and you understand something, you don’t have to memorize it.”

Math should not be about memorizing formulas, she says. Memorization is a turnoff for many children and once children fall off the math wagon it’s hard to get them back on, she says.

So, if they can instead discover aspects of math the same way they might discover treasure on a treasure map, they might just learn to love the often-dreaded subject.

“I’m a big believer in learning things by discovery — to the point where you almost feel like you invented it,” she says.

In the meantime, back in Bean Counting 101, the campers have moved on to an exercise that involves identifying numbers that are less than, equal to and more than 1. Some kids use their beans to exemplify; others do the math in their head.

“Two minus one equals one,” says Jennifer, whose answer is followed by various other solutions — such as “100 minus 99 equals 1” and “0 plus 1 equals 1” — from other 6- and 7-year-olds.

“So you see that there are many ways to get to the number 1,” Mr. Eitan says.

Aside from drawing and using numerals and words to express numbers, MathTree also incorporates puzzles, games and even collages.

“Before we throw symbols at them, we want them to really conceptualize it,” says Elizabeth Levien, a MathTree instructor. During the school year, she teaches chemistry at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring.

“If it’s too abstract you lose people,” adds Ms. Levien after teaching a division-centric class called “Divide and Conquer” to six girls.

Another bonus for the campers — which might help explain the many happy faces during the math classes — is there is no pressure, no grades and no homework. There is also a great effort on the first day of camp to make sure the kids are in a class that fits their abilities.

If not, teachers might end up with scenarios that are played out in some local school systems.

“In Montgomery County, they’re teaching long division with remainders to 6-year-olds,” Mrs. Salvo says, raising her eyebrows.

It’s not surprising some of those 6-year-olds will be turned off by math, she says.

And being comfortable with math can go a long way, Ms. Levien says.

“I actually think that’s the number one benefit of MathTree. The confidence they gain,” she says.

Jane Bergaust, mother of camper Catherine Bergaust, 13, takes it a step further. Catherine is taking Money 101, which allows campers to identify life goals and how to achieve them.

“Lynn just has this vision that sets her apart from the Fairfax County School System — a school system that’s supposed to be one of the best in the country,” Ms. Bergaust says. “I mean Catherine is not just learning math, [Money 101] is setting her on the right track in life.”