High stakes multiplication

This morning, 20 of Oakland’s best 8-year-old math students strutted into Lafayette Elementary School’s auditorium to adrenaline music and applause. It sort of felt like that moment before a big boxing match or basketball game, when the competitors enter the arena in their warmups.

Photos by Laura A. Oda/Oakland Tribune

The organizers of OUSD’s first math competition of its kind were careful to say, over and over, that everyone was a winner. All of the kids had already out-multiplied the other third-graders at their schools, so it wasn’t just a platitude. But you could see, in their eyes or in the cross of their fingers, how much they wanted to win it all.

The room fell still as the rules were explained: Erase your last answer. Start the problem. Markers down. Repeat.

There in their folding chairs, their feet barely touching the ground, they answered a quick succession of questions on small whiteboards, starting with multiplication tables. Children who missed an answer were gently taken away.

One boy, who didn’t answer within the allotted five seconds, stared at the moderator for a few moments after getting the dreaded tap on the shoulder. He walked slowly back to the audience, found his mother and buried his face in her arms. Another boy, stone-faced after losing late in the third round, continued to solve the three-digit multiplication tables from the back of the room, as if to show that he could have just as easily won.

“We’ve been going over this for the last couple of weeks,” said DeShaunte Gibson, mother of 8-year-old Lafayette student D’Shun White. “I was more nervous than he was.”

Gibson said the whole experience taught her something important: Her son was good — really good — at math. “I didn’t even know that he liked math this much,” she said. “I just took him as any other third grader. Once the teacher told me, I started paying more attention.”

I’m writing a story next week about the contest, and about the (Si Swun) math program behind it, so stay tuned.


First place: Chanburak Jordan Phal, Allendale

Second place: Skye Evans, Emerson

Third place: Jovany Lopez, New Highland

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Maria Ku

    I wonder how many schools/students participated in the competition? We sure never heard of this in our (public elementary) school. If it’s organized by OUSD, should we have at least heard of it?

  • Katy Murphy

    Oh, I should have explained: It was for the 20 schools currently using the Si Swun math program.

  • Maria Ku

    Is it a different program from a “district-wide mandated” Open Court? I thought it was impossible for an Oakland public school to not be doing Open Court. We’d all like to find a way to not do it if we knew how.

    On a side note, Katy, they just released the results of the nationwide AMC (American Mathematics Competition) test – could be worth publishing here. Montera students received 79 gold, silver & bronze certificates and the AMC 8 Certificate of Merit for their school based on the overall highest results. This one was based on the test administered to about 170,000 students in approximately 2,200 schools throughout the country.

  • Alicia Arnold

    Open Court is a literacy program, and yes, we are still obligated to use it. Si Swun is a math program, and Si Swun has sponsored this math competition. You can talk to your admin to see if they would like to implement the program. Given its track record for increasing math scores, they would probably be interested.