Ellis third graders love a challenge—especially when it comes to math, and even more so when they get to work as a team. Whether they’re brainstorming the best designs for their division quilts or writing original word problems and seeing if their classmates can complete them, a special kind of joy can be found in the moments when the students are stretching their problem-solving skills together. But as much as these young scholars enjoy collaboration, they’re now excitedly preparing to participate in a nationwide math contest, a special challenge that they will take on as individuals.
The Noetic Learning Math Contest
is a semiannual competition designed to promote problem-solving skills and pique math interest. Along with other elementary and middle school students from across the country, Ellis’ third graders will attempt to solve 20 math problems independently within 45 minutes. Participants are eligible to receive various awards and certificates based on their performance, but the real prize is the students proving to themselves just how much their math knowledge has grown and how far they’ve come in their learning.
The contest provides a stand-out opportunity for the Lower School students to take what they’ve learned and worked on as a team and apply it to an individual pursuit, letting their personal skills and talents shine. Perhaps the most notable aspect of Ellis’ participation in the competition, however, is that it was driven by the students themselves.
“This grade 3 class in particular is really passionate about math,” says Grade 3 Teacher Jen Lakin. “One week, I told the students that we’d be trying something new, and that for the last 15–20 minutes of each day they’d be given a collection of math problems to work on independently to see what they know. The students seemed to really enjoy this, to the point that after the first day they asked me, ‘can we do that again?’”
After students expressed interest in putting their respective problem-solving skills to the test, Ms. Lakin decided to look for more opportunities for the students to do just that. She came across the Noetic Learning contest online and, after explaining the contest and how it worked to the students, had the girls vote on whether their class would participate.
“They responded with overwhelming support and a real ‘let us at it!’ attitude,” Ms. Lakin recalls. “We’ve been doing practice problems as a class to prepare for the contest in the same collaborative way they do their other classwork.”
Collaboration plays a key role in how Ellis’ third graders typically experience math. They learn about multi-digit addition and subtraction, division, fractions, and even the basics of geometry in a cooperative nature, working together in small groups to solve equations and experiment with different ways to approach each problem. Though the math contest stands apart from the third graders’ day-to-day math learning routine, that’s exactly what makes it so exciting for the students, who have shown great enthusiasm for seeing what they know how to do on their own. As they prepare for the contest in class, the students are encouraged to view the contest questions as puzzles—to try out a couple ways of doing each problem, to look for patterns, to read (and reread) thoroughly to be sure of what is being asked. They are also reminded of the mindfulness techniques they know that can help them navigate feelings of mild stress or frustration that may pop up when encountering more challenging questions solo. Not only is this setting the groundwork for successful future test-taking in the Middle and Upper School, but it builds students’ confidence in their ability to work independently and inspires a sense of joy in seeing just how much they can accomplish.
“This contest is a chance for the students to showcase what they've learned and what they can do,” says Ms. Lakin. “In music, students give recitals. In sports, there are games and matches. In writing, a final draft is chosen that represents the best of a student’s work. There are fewer opportunities like this in math, which makes the contest stand out. The students will take the 20 problems, see what they each can do with them, and approach the experience with curiosity and excitement—will they catch all the parts of each question, will they not fall for the tricky word problems? It’s motivating for the girls to show themselves, and others, what they know and that they can overcome challenges when they arise.”
When asked about the upcoming contest, the third graders were eager to share their excitement.
“I’m really excited because I really like doing math and I like trying to figure out different ways to do math problems, even if it’s something I haven’t done before,” says Vivienne S.
“We like to challenge ourselves because every day we learn new things, and as we get more and more in our brain, that makes us want to do even more,” explains Ruth G.
“We’re looking forward to the math contest because it’ll be fun to see how fast we can do math,” says Ryan M. “After the contest we’ll feel proud because we did something that a lot of other students are doing and we’ll have had the chance to show off our talents.”
Upon hearing Ryan’s response, a group of her classmates cheer, “go Ellis girls!”—which is exactly what the Ellis community will be cheering as they root for grade 3’s contest success. As thrilled as the students are to be challenging themselves, it’s even more thrilling to see their curiosity, confidence, and love of learning in action. Go Ellis girls, indeed!