And who dares to say that math isn't a lot of fun?

They're using a "mathemagician" to teach the third "R" here in Boston. Everard Barrett has youngsters working far beyond their traditional grade levels. For example, third-graders trained by mathemagician Barrett do long division. fifth- and sixth- graders have done algebra.

During an earlier experiment in the predominantly black school district of Roosevelt, Long Island, N.Y., where many of the youngsters are considered disadvantaged, a group of fifth- and sixth-graders took the State Board of Regents examination normally intended for ninth-graders. Out of a class of 51 "average" students, 34 passed with remarkable grades.

I watched this popular math teacher here in Boston. He help up both hands.Several fingers were turned down.

"How many fingers?" he asked.

"I've got it," one child said, waving his hand excitedly.

"Seven," several children called out in unison.

"I said it first," a pigtailed little girl said.

"How do you know so fast?" Mr. Barrett asked.

"Because three fingers are down," the children called out.

He held up eight fingers. "How many?"

"Eight," the class called out in one voice.

"How do you know that?"

"Because two are down," several high-pitched voices squealed.

Soon, the youngsters were calling out the answers the second he held up his hands.

According to Barrett, the dialogue is crucial to his system."You must stay with these youngsters, engage them, use as many different sets of fingers as possible to show them the same number. It's a game that tells them they know how to know."

Once he establishes a link between the complements in the number 10 (1 and 9, 2 and 8, 3 and 7, 4 and 6), Barrett tells the children he has something special for them to figure out.

"Who knows how much is 8 plus 7?" he asks.

Most first-graders draw a blank.

"Pretend you have an 8 in front of you and your 8 wants to become a 10 and then a teen. How much does it need it need to become a 10?" he asks.

"Two," the children shout.

"OK. Now, throw a 2 from the 7 to the 8. You now made the 8 into a 10. But ," he says looking directly at his young charges, "you no longer have a 7. You have a . . ."

"Five," the children yell.

"And the answers is . . ."

"Fifteen," young voices shout triumphantly.

"The children love this game," Mr. Barrett observes, "because they are always right. They learn to use their minds to think through the facts of arithmetic rather than memorize tables." Barrett believes this mental activity puts them on the right track toward mathematical understanding and the development of mathematical insight.

"The traditional requirements of memorizing tables is what gets the children off the track," he said. "Unfortunately, the vast majority never get back."

Barrett, originally from the island of Jamaica, is an associate professor of natural sciences at the State University of New York at Old Westbury. But it was a mathematics coordinator in the Brownsville, N.Y., school district that he was first impressed with the learning capabilities of the very young.

"The children are so impressionable," he said. "They are so eager to please, to win the approval of adults, and their minds are so receptive to new ideas, you can teach them anything."

Barrett scoffs at the idea that some children cannot learn math. For 10 years he worked with disadvantaged black youngsters in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn in what he describes as a "storefront activity." He does not differentiate between slow and fast learners. "They all learn very well," he said.

"These children learn a foreign language, English, by the age of 2. What do you mean they cannot learn?" he asks indignantly. "It's a matter of how the material is presented."

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