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After students spend time in SuperMath class . . .
Things just click

Cicero A. Estrella, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, April 26, 2002

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Mina Watanabe expects silence from her students.

Her patience and understanding are required to attain the goal. Watanabe must listen to the incessant clicking of beads. Certain to follow are the rapid scrapes of fingernails against slippery, Mylar desktops. And finally, through diligence, there is absence of noise.

The rustle of beads and flicks of fingernails are no nuisance. They are barely audible and, in fact, Watanabe encourages them. But eventually Watanabe would prefer dead air. It is a sure sign she is doing her job well.

Watanabe is founder, teacher and president of SuperMath, an advanced- mathematics class that finely hones calculation skills through nontraditional means that stress creative thinking as well as logic.

SuperMath begins with the abacus, the ancient calculating machine made of wooden beads and bars set in a frame. The class' methodology turns the easiest of calculations -- 4 + 3, for example -- into a complicated three-step process that takes some time to master.

Gradually, it all adds up, and up and up and up until students, children and adults alike, can dispense with the abacus and make instant calculations in their heads. Students who complete the basic program can multiply and divide three figures by one figure, and add and subtract a string of up to 10 double-digit numbers. At the highest levels of SuperMath, square roots, cubic roots and other complex calculations are not a problem.

"This hasn't changed for thousands of years. This has to be good. Good things don't change," said the gregarious Watanabe, who believes that the abacus was first used in Egypt about 1000 B.C.

So who needs a calculator?

Harry Tan of Redwood Shores, for one. Tan's 7-year-old daughter, Tiffany, has been taking the class for 10 months. He tests her skills in anzan, or mental calculation, by spitting out three- or four-digit numbers and simultaneously punching them up on a calculator. Second-grader Tiffany usually yells out the answer before dad can hit the "equals" button.

"In the future, whether it's high school or college, I want her to be comfortable with math," said Tan, who always keeps a calculator handy for his job as an international freight forwarder. "Math is always a headache with the majority of students. (This class) provides good training for her mentally."

SuperMath's goal may be improved proficiency in math, but the curriculum offers something extra. It is meant to produce a sharper mind by demanding as much from the creative right hemisphere of the brain as the logical left side.

The idea is not to memorize tables, as is the case with the traditional Western way -- or "non-abacus way" as Watanabe prefers -- math is taught. Rather, the idea is to let the abacus and the brain do the work without the help of a preconceived answer, until the brain can operate with only a "mental" abacus. Many of the students continue to flick their fingers against a table or the air as they manipulate imaginary abacuses. That, says Watanabe, is the right brain hard at work, using imagination as a tool.

"It's more about the thought process than anything else," Watanabe said. "It develops good fundamental skills. I can type 100 words a minute in Japanese. I quickly grasp computer programs, and I've never had to take classes." And she gives anzan and the abacus all the credit.

Watanabe, 55, grew up on the northwest coast of Japan's main island, a region that she boasts produces the country's best rice. She learned the soroban, or Japanese abacus, in her hometown of Niigata. By the age of 10 she was better at it than her three older brothers.

But the popularity of the abacus declined sharply shortly thereafter.

"Forty-five years ago, there were abacus schools all over Japan," she said. "They (the schools) were trying to produce human calculators. As soon as the (electronic) calculator was introduced, they figured there was no use in having human calculators any more."

But a human calculator was essentially what Watanabe had become, although she chose not to enter the mathematics field. She moved to the United States in 1972 to study linguistics, first at Covenant College in Tennessee and then at the University of Texas at Arlington.

At UT, she met Mike Watanabe. They married in 1975 and settled in Salinas after her husband found work as a PG&E engineer.

In 1979, Mina Watanabe was making Japanese flower arrangements for a Salinas flower shop. She was constantly in trouble with the boss for misplacing the chart that listed the sales tax for each purchase amount. Watanabe made all the calculations in her head and, having no use for the chart, she would absent-mindedly move it from its spot while hurriedly completing a transaction.

The sales tax was 8 percent at the time, and Watanabe was surprised it confounded her co-workers. And so Watanabe found her calling in life.

"It was so easy for me," Watanabe said. "I knew I had to help people acquire this skill."

Watanabe started with two students that first year. Her business did not really take off until she and her husband moved to Daly City in 1982 and her class was featured on a local Japanese television show. In 1986, the couple moved to Half Moon Bay where their Ocean Colony home doubled as Mina Watanabe's office for the next 13 years.

Watanabe now operates out of a Belmont office, sandwiched between a coin laundry and a clothing store. Watanabe and three other instructors teach SuperMath year-round at locations in Belmont, Burlingame, Half Moon Bay, Los Altos and San Francisco. Its 200 students range from preschoolers to a 68-year- old.

Watanabe, 5 feet of nonstop energy, puts in plenty of aerobic work while teaching at her long, hallwaylike office/classroom. She scoots from the head of the class to the back of the room, where she fishes out pieces of paper from file cabinets or makes photocopies to hand out to the class. She busily moves from one long desk to another to give students one-on-one attention.

She leads the class in sing-alongs, improvising a multiplication song to the tune of "ABC."

Standing in one spot does not slow her down as she punctuates sentences with hand and arm gestures, which in turn sets her bobbed haircut swishing.

There is little doubt Watanabe enjoys what she does, and her enthusiasm spreads to those she teaches.

Gideon Shaanan of Redwood Shores notices it in his 7-year-old daughter, Maya, a member of a Monday afternoon class in Belmont.

"Initially, she was taking Friday classes," Shaanan said. "After a week of school and activities, you would think the last thing she would want to go to is a math class. I would pick her up, and she would do her exercises in the car. It's intellectually rewarding for her. That, to me, is the greatest discovery."

Mika Iwamura braves the afternoon highway traffic from her home in Tracy so her son, Keisuke, 8, and daughter, Youki, 6, can continue their SuperMath training in Belmont.

Keisuke began taking classes when he was 5 when the family was living in San Mateo. He says he was just a "normal" math student when he started, but is now one of the best in the subject in his third-grade class at Wanda Hirsch Elementary.

"You learn different stuff that's a lot harder than regular school," Keisuke said. "It makes my schoolwork easier."

Watanabe admits second-graders and up into SuperMath, but does allow younger children if they show an aptitude toward the subject. Watanabe says initially, she was nothing out of the ordinary as an abacus student. She is now a master of soroban/anzan, certified by the World Federation of Soroban Education as a six dan in a ranking system akin to the black belts used in martial arts. (Fewer than 10 people hold a four dan or higher in the United States.)

Her experience bolsters Watanabe's belief that anyone can learn SuperMath, be they mathematically inclined or challenged. Watanabe is always eager to lend words of support and reassurance.

At a recent class, Watanabe was giving final instructions to an 8-year-old student who had recently began mental calculation before an exercise. Her final words to him: "Don't forget you're really good at anzan."

SuperMath breaks many of the sacred rules taught in typical math classes. One of the biggest no-nos, counting with one's fingers, is not only allowed, it's expected.

"It's so cute when they start," Watanabe said. "They're ashamed to show their classmates, so they put their hands underneath the table so no one can see them count."

Watanabe developed a series of 14 workbooks for the class. Each student starts with Book 14 and works up to 1. Before moving on to the next book, a passing grade of 70 percent must be achieved in a timed test. By Book 8, students are ready to begin training in anzan.

Completion of the books can take up to four years.

"It gets more complicated the further you get into it," said Montara's Kitty Rea, who has been teaching a Half Moon Bay class since November. "It becomes more of a puzzle, a challenge, a code that kids like to decipher. In my mind, it's a crossword puzzle with numbers."

Watanabe likens the training to piano lessons: "This takes time. You don't expect to be able to play Beethoven in a few months. Good things in life can't be acquired in a short period of time."

Watanabe's "youngest student," 68-year-old Katoko Sax of Palo Alto, appreciates the attention to detail the class demands. She watches her four grandchildren, ages 2 through 7, and is disturbed by the short attention span they display.

Part of her motivation in taking the class is to pass along the knowledge to her grandchildren and to teach them the virtue of patience.

"Everything has to have an instant solution (with them)," Sax said. "They're deprived of the merit of sticking to one thing for a long time and achieving something. There has to be consistency, and that's the attitude I want to instill in them."

Like many adults, Sax has had some difficulty grasping some of SuperMath's concepts. The most difficult hurdle is putting aside years and years of memorizing addition, subtraction, multiplication and division tables.

In approaching the abacus, the student must forget even the simplest of equations. Once that is established, SuperMath makes perfect sense.

Watanabe is taking steps to bring SuperMath to Japan. She has shot an instructional video that she plans to circulate there. After conquering that "small" country, she will be ready to take on the rest of this big one.

It is Watanabe's way of giving back.

"Nowadays, you always hear about people talking about self-esteem," Watanabe said. "It's vital that a child acquire this. I thought about myself, and I always had it, and I got it from abacus education. It really helped me."

Watanabe's tone suddenly turned serious when she discussed how far she can spread her SuperMath gospel. She says she knows her limitations.

When asked what those limitations were, she gives dramatic pause before saying, "All over this country." Another pause is followed by a half-maniacal, half-self-deprecating laughter.

Bursts of laughter, clicking beads, tapping fingers. Silence will come in due time.

E-mail Cicero A. Estrella at cestrella@sfchronicle.com.

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