A math talk show to run home for Cable TV success: A recent hit among children in Baltimore County is a TV talk show that teaches math. Even its creators are surprised.

March 22, 1996|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

On Wednesday afternoons, the hottest thing on television isn't Power Rangers or "The Cosby Show." It's math.

Throughout Baltimore County children race home from school, pick up the phone and jam the lines to the cable TV talk show whose popularity has surprised even its founders.

On their screens are Ilene Uram and Bea Lozinsky, new stars of the cable channel, sitting at a bright pink desk. Between them is a monkey puppet named Adam Up, who introduces callers and wisecracks in a New York accent.

Children, TV and telephones go together, no surprise there. But on this show, the hosts are teachers, and the topics are multiplication tables and long division.

"Math Homework Helpers" which allows children to phone in with problems, solve math puzzles and win prizes is making math cool by mixing in a little celebrity and glitz.

"It's a show just for them, that shows them it's OK to ask for help and it gives them a chance to be a star," Mrs. Uram says.

Callers see their names and that of their school fly onto the screen in a colorful comic book-style explosion. A camera zooms in on notebook paper as the teachers work callers through their problems. And teachers provide tricks to help students remember concepts Dear Mom Send Big Donuts, for example, stands for Divide, Multiply, Subtract, Bring Down, the steps in long division.

So popular is the 30-minute show, which began in November on the county's education channel, Comcast 36, that pressure is on from the littlest customers to extend it to an hour or offer it more often. As a test, the show will run for an hour in May.

Phones start ringing at 3: 30 p.m., an hour before showtime. They ring Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays when the show isn't even on. Children even call the station's business line when they can't get through on the homework line.

"One girl called up after the show last week, a second or third grader, and said, 'You should have it on every night. Sometimes we don't have questions on Wednesdays,' " recalls Carolyn A. Cox, who helps young callers formulate their questions.

"They call after the show to complain," Mrs. Cox says. "They say, 'How come I couldn't get through?' "

Robert J. Harris, supervisor of the education channel, got the idea from a Prince George's County show which takes a more traditional pencil-and-paper approach and spiced it up with graphics, colors and gimmicks.

One attraction is the Super Think question, which if solved can win a youngster a prize. A recent example: "How many tacos can a 1,000-pound man eat on an empty stomach?" (Answer: One, after which his stomach isn't empty anymore.)

With the help of school officials, Mr. Harris found Mrs. Lozinsky, a 5th grade teacher of gifted and talented students at Summit Park Elementary School, an instructor known for her math acumen. For a partner, she suggested Mrs. Uram, also from Summit Park.

"A little bit of show biz, a little bit of motherdom and great math teachers," is how Mr. Harris describes his show.

The program's creators then distributed silver and black stickers with the show's phone number (494-1459) to elementary schools, urging students to attach them to their math books.

Unsure of whether the early shows would attract enough callers to fill 30 minutes, producers created a taped instructional segment that they could play during downtimes. They needed it once.

In the beginning, Mrs. Uram suggested using a puppet as a "security blanket."

"I was panic-stricken," she says. "Suppose a kid asks a question on live television and I don't know the answer. The puppet was going to answer the question."

By now, the teachers have smoothed their routine and calmed their nerves. "We both like kids, and we don't mind doing silly stuff if it's going to help them learn math," says Mrs. Lozinsky.

They wouldn't miss a show for anything; a few weeks ago Mrs. Uram showed up at the studio only hours after her house was seriously damaged by a kitchen fire.

On Wednesday, lines were characteristically jammed as the show got under way. "Now comes Lance from Church Lane Elementary," announced the monkey. "What's the problem, Lance?"

The teachers went through the problem, 5,000 times 14, and, as the figures were ready to be summed up, Mrs. Uram said: "Now what do we have to do? This is Adam's favorite part!"

"Adam up!"

With intense competition for air time, scores of children have developed call-in strategies.

In the Lichtfuss house, the program is a family affair. Shelley Lichtfuss and her teen-age children watch with 8-year-old Justin, who is determined to win a prize.

"Justin figured out you have to call before the show to get a line in," Mrs. Lichtfuss said. "After a while you get tired of pushing redial. We have a portable phone and pass it around."

Justin hasn't gotten through yet, but vows to keep trying. He likes learning math this way better than in class, he said, because "you don't have to raise your hand. You get to call in. It's exciting."

J. D. Culotta and his sister Jessica, fifth and fourth graders at Rodgers Forge Elementary, have a routine: J. D. puts the phone on speaker mode, and Jessica pushes the redial. When it's busy, J. D. turns the speaker phone off, and they watch the TV until it looks like the present caller is getting ready to hang up. Despite the scientific approach, the system hasn't worked so far.

The teachers must be flexible because they never know what's coming at them. Recently, they took a call and could only hear dogs barking. As everyone laughed, Adam Up told the caller to call back when he got his dogs under control.

Another time, a youngster was so excited to be on the air that he shouted: "Mommy Mommy, I'm on TV!" and ran from the phone.

The teachers, meanwhile have become local celebrities. Tiny children wave to them in restaurants and grocery stores.

Mrs. Uram says: "Some kids look at me and say, 'I know you, you're the math lady.' "

Pub Date: 3/22/96

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