Head Cases

By Leah Kerkman — October 01, 2002 2 min read

Last December, Daniel Bzdok (pronounced BIZ-dok) was supervising his 5th grade class at Riverside Elementary in Brainerd, Minnesota, before the school’s annual holiday program. The students were allowed to bring games to play while waiting for the show to begin. Instead they begged their teacher to drill them on—get this—math.

“Kids ask for it,” Bzdok says. “It’s fun for them.”

Perhaps that’s because the 38-year-old teacher makes it fun. Every day, he sets aside 10 minutes or so for something he calls “mental math.” It’s an oral quiz with a twist: Students are not allowed to use calculators or even scratch paper to figure out the answers to a series of problems that Bzdok rattles off at an auctioneer’s pace. It’s like running through flashcards, he says—just without the cards.

Doesn’t sound too difficult? The following is a problem Bzdok says his students can handle by the end of the year: “Take five, square it, double that, find one-tenth of that number, minus one, square that number, minus one, double that, find one-fourth of that number, and what do you get?” (The answer is 15/2, or 7.5.)

Bzdok created the quiz five years ago, when Riverside adopted a new math curriculum that covers a wide range of topics, including geometry and data collection. Though Bzdok says he loves the lessons, back then he was concerned that the program did not spend enough time covering basic skills. And he had another motivation: A local school board candidate had just criticized Brainerd schools for being too dependent on calculators. This comment annoyed Bzdok, who took it as a personal challenge, according to Riverside principal Cathy Engler. After all, Bzdok says, “I’m not really a calculator person. . . . I like to use it as a tool, not a crutch.”

Engler says “mental math” has done the trick. “A lot of people in the community have seen [the game]. There’s no way you can be in one of our 5th grade classrooms and say they can’t compute in their heads. And they can do it at rapid speeds.” The principal laughs, adding, “That’s when they leave me in the dust.”

Bzdok says “mental math” teaches students more than how to calculate the right tip on a restaurant check. “The confidence that they have taken from this is incredible,” he observes. Ellie Whiteman, 11, who studied with Bzdok last year, agrees. After surviving the daily quizzes, she says, “It was like, ‘Wow. I can really do this.’ You felt good about yourself.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2002 edition of Teacher as Head Cases