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Math Q & A for Math Phobics

Math Q & A for Math Phobics

By Marnie Ridgway
Homefires' Virtual Homeschool Conference

Marnie Ridgway has worked as a high energy astrophysicist at NASA and a hardware designer in Silicon Valley.

She is married and has 2 daughters with learning differences. She began homeschooling when she couldn't find anyone else who would put in the effort to educate her children. She has been the director of an ISP, and tutors and designs curricula for other homeschoolers, specializing in middle and highschool classes for students with learning differences.

Marnie says she has the exact same qualifications that all of you have and that is: she loves her kids and is willing to do everything necessary to help them learn what they need to know.

You can visit her website at Bear Hollow School.

This Q & A was compiled and edited from the November, 2000 logs of our free homeschool discussion list:
Homefires Journal Homeschool Support & Resources.

Q: Ideas for Learning Math Facts? Thanks so much for helping us with our mathphobic children! I'm writing because I have an eight year old (almost nine) boy who cannot seem to learn his math facts. He is quite possibly mildly ADD (not hyperactive).

He insists on counting on his fingers and seems to be literally incapable of memorizing his addition/subtraction or his multiplication facts. I myself, have always struggled in the same way. I was counting on my fingers in College Algebra! He is quick to pick up on mathematical concepts but struggles very much with facts.

Have any advice or tips?

A: Try Math Twister! Gee, I still count on my fingers. Isn't that OK? If he picks up on the concepts, he is doing "math" whether the facts are there or not. Make the facts fun and they will come. Back to Math Twister! — you lay out a 3X3 grid on the floor (with masking tape) or the driveway (with chalk). Put the digits 1 through 9 in the grid. His right foot is the ones number. His left foot is the tens number. His right hand is the hundreds number. His left hand is the thousands number.

If the number has a zero, put that appendage up in the air. So 10 is the left foot on the 1 and the right foot up in the air. (This makes 1000 really hard to do!) Now call out some numbers for him to make like 12 and 37 and 154 and 2,976. Now do some simple addition and subtraction problems.

Now let him call out some numbers for you to make; tell him right up front 1000 is off limits. Now move on to multiplication and division. You'll be Twisting out higher math in no time.

After you detangle, let me know how it works.

Q: Ideas for teaching Math to those with low self-esteem? My husband and I have 3 girls between us. My daughter is 3.5 and working on a K program we pieced together, my husband's 16 year old is doing an independent study program that is internet-based, and his 14 year old just moved in and this is where the question comes.

The 14 year old has traditionally done poorly in school - I believe because of low self-esteem and not fitting into the public school mold of learning. We have pieced together a curriculum that is heavily based on literature and reading (a weakness for her) as well as grammar, vocabulary, and spelling. (I understand most 9th graders are done with vocabulary and spelling, but again this is a weak area for her.)

We tested her using some placement exams I found for different math programs, and she placed just below the cut off for Algebra. (Math is a strong point that the teachers missed.) Our problem is that she is missing some understanding of the basic math principles. Should we continue her on a pre-algebra path or back track?

I'm new to homeschooling (this is our first year) and I am not sure which direction to go in a lot of areas. Until we purchase her books, we have her working on a unit study that we centered around internet research activities and astronomy, as this has become an interest for her. She has really excelled in this. She is remembering the satellites, the core temperatures, the patterns and make up of all the planets, galaxies, stars that she can find!

Should we try to go in this direction as well? How can I integrate math and history into units like this? (If you can't tell...I'm a bit lost!) Any advice or direction is greatly appreciated.

A: Help her discover the teacher within. A 14-year-old with self-esteem problems who has traditionally done poorly in school and is just beginning to integrate into a new family in addition to homeschooling does not need a formalized math curriculum. She needs to do what she likes; she needs to rediscover the self-teacher within her; and she needs to find out for sure that she can learn what she needs to know. Give her lots of love and lots of time.

With that said, that Hertzsprung-Russell has tons of math associated with it. If she's interested in core temperatures, move on to plasma physics.

Isaac Asimov wrote lots of books that you should be able to find in your library to popularize science for lay people. The books have just enough math to make you feel like you know something, and Asimov's writing style is easily accessible. She will love this stuff.

George Gamov also wrote some books for the lay reader (that is the non graduate-level physicist) that she might like -- the Mr. Thompkins series, Mr. Thompkins in Wonderland, Mr. Thompkins in Flatland, and so on. Gamov was trying to explain general relativity, but she will be excited that she understands a bunch of that stuff.

Have her play math games with your other homeschoolers. Set is good for spatial relations. Traverse is fun for the non-chess types. She might be better at these games than her siblings and that might help the self-esteem. In fact, she might be able to teach you a thing or two.

Bazaar is a great game for algebra skills that is available through Discovery Toys. But don't push the formal school-looking stuff; it sounds like that isn't what she needs right now. Let her run with the science applications and she will find out what math she needs to know.

Q: Suggestions for teaching High School Astronomy? Is there a program, web site, workbook, etc that you would recommend for highschool astronomy?

A: Software, books, & field trips. There is a software package called "Red Shift." It can be purchased (around $75) through Educational Resources. It has a companion book, and I believe there is a video of some episodes of Nova or some program on the Discovery channel to go with it. Anyway, it is a pretty comprehensive high-school level course. It will take you through things step by step.

So will Isaac Asimov. Your library will have his science fiction and his children's books. You want his essays on astronomy and physics; they will be in the non-fiction section of the adult library. They are also out in paperback if you want to buy them.

He taught biochemistry at Boston University for years, and his books are very entertaining -- the whole family will enjoy reading them. Have your daughter read them out loud to you and explain them to you -- or work out questions you have together. Nothing helps us learn like having to teach someone else.

How far are you from NASA Lewis? It's near Cincinnati I think. How about a family field trip? Make sure she organizes those photos and pictures according to some scheme; that organization will be creating her own Hertzsprung-Russell diagram if you haven't already gotten to that part. Then she will be really eager to learn what Hertzsprung and Russell did and how that diagram is used.

Their Self-Esteem and Your Lesson Plans

By the way, if she throws it all over tomorrow, don't be surprised. I have discovered that, in their quest for self-esteem after public school, my kids have shown interests that I have invested in big time to develop a curriculum only to have them wake the next day with "that subject is so yesterday's news." I privately mourn the loss of my brilliant plans and move on with them.

A few weeks ago I overheard them tell someone that they knew I loved them because I thought their ideas were good. And their ideas must really be good because I always managed to find the course that was developed around their ideas.

(Little do they realize the amount of work!) Don't be surprised if your love gets tested by checking to see if you are as attached to the effort you put in to developing the program as you are to her. Good luck to you!

Q: What to do with a creative kid who hates math? My 13 year old daughter is allergic to math!! She has great difficulty doing even VERY simple (1 and 2 digit numbers!) addition and subtraction in her head, gets confused doing long division, and just doesn't seem to understand what math is about. Because I never had trouble in this area I am having a very hard time even understanding what the problem is. She is average intelligence, creative, loves to write stories and draw, but I'm afraid she won't even be able to balance her checkbook. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

A: Discover math through literature, cooking, & art. If she is creative and loves to write stories and draw, she will do just great in life even if she never balances her checkbook. I don't balance mine and I'm reasonably functional as adults go.

Cuisenaire used to have some books that taught math through fairy tales. I think the early elementary title was "Afterwards." Students (or at that level, the teacher) read the stories and then the students did math activities. Older kids need to see the application of the facts before they can be convinced that there is any value in having those facts on the tips of their tongues.

What drawing does your daughter do? Is she interested in abstract shapes, perspectives, shading? That's geometry. What stories does she like? Did you read Harry Potter? Would she like to make mazes? Does she like historical stories? The Oregon Trail software has kids plan a trip west. I'm not suggesting that you get the software but have you tried giving her some parameters (like a certain amount of money and a certain timeframe) and having her plan a trip or a wardrobe or a party?

Cooking involves a lot of math skills, and catering involves a lot of arithmetic. Have you suggested that she take the grocery budget and feed the family for a week?

Does she have a checkbook? There are packages on the market (check with your bank; they may have one) where you are the banker and your child has to "balance her budget" through you by writing checks for what she spends. You can give interest and make loans -- in fact, you can do some pretty high level economics.

Have you talked about the elections and the electoral college? This month's Discover magazine has an article on voting strategies and how "one man, one vote" may not give us what we think we want.

In short, make it practical.

When it is, the facts will come. There has been some traffic here on the Chisanbop method of counting on your fingers; that's great. There are books that do calculator math, and let's face it, all adults use calculators. Skip the facts and teach her how to use the technology. But whatever you do, make it interesting to her. I don't know of a single 13-year-old who can be forced to learn anything she doesn't like.

Q: Suggestions for developing Mental Math skills? I worry that my daughter can't even subtract 9 from 11 in her head without thinking REALLY hard. Would doing a 2-minute mental math drill help, or do you think her brain just doesn't work that way?

A: Mental Math is Important — But Not As Important as Relevancy. Scholastic publishes some "mental math" workbooks and I think Cuisenaire has some, too. I got one of my kids to see the point in rapid math recall by the following: Hannah, quick, I need help! What is 7 from 13? Quick, my hands are full! Er......Ah........ Quick, it's already boiling. How many Tbsp. of butter? Quick! Well, er.....ah...... Oh, well, that's OK. I got it.

That isn't the best example, but I did a bunch of them and finally got her to see the point in quick recall of math facts. We did some mental math practice for those and she worked out this elaborate scheme in her head whereby she "finds" answers on her "calculator."

She'd have to explain that to you because I can't begin to figure out what she is doing. But it works for her. The point is that she only developed her scheme after deciding on her own that it was important.

The most important concept, I think, to pick up from algebra is the substitution of equivalencies. The Bazaar Game works the best for that. It's kind of old though and I haven't seen one around for a long time so I made my own version.

Anyway, in the game, you are trying to buy cards with colored pebbles. You can roll a die for the pebbles but it takes a long time to get enough. Instead, you trade pebbles based on an equivalency card. The box it came in was about 5"X8" and 2-3" thick; it's brightly colored and shows a Middle Eastern bazaar on the front.

One 13-year-old boy plays the Bazaar game and says he just loves it because it doesn't involve any math (little does he know) but his algebra grades have jumped from Ds to Bs.

One of the top sales people for IBM has such incredible people skills that she can meet all the needs of her customers but she can't do the math on the paperwork. IBM likes her well enough to hire a paperwork person just for her. I asked the saleswoman once if she wasn't worried that IBM would give her job to the paperwork person. She said it had come up but the customers don't like the paperwork person because she doesn't have the people skills.

Your daughter will find her own way with or without math skills. And when they are important to her, she will develop them. Make them important to her by showing her how you use them. If you haven't used any algebra since highschool, how can you expect her to believe she needs to know it?

Q: What to do when one child hates math, and their sibling is a math whiz? I have a 8 year old son and a six year old son. My eight year old is gifted in many areas (reads Dad's old college texts for fun), but struggles in math. He also can't seem to come up with the answer to 7 + 8 without drawing circles and counting! He understands the concepts quite well, but can't compute. We can do flash cards and get a hundred percent, but the same addends in a regrouping (57+78) problem will throw him and he will randomly guess answers. This frustrates him greatly!

We use Math U See, which is a very concrete math program using manipulatives similar to Cuisinaire rods. To make matters worse his little brother is a math whiz and is ahead of him, another great frustration for him. He says he "HATES MATH". I have book-marked the finger math site, any other suggestions?

A: Try cooperative games. My kids do that competing thing too -- "I won't try it because she is already good at it."

There is nothing wrong with the visual approach to doing math facts. In fact, a lot of the information we pull from our heads is often in a visual form; we count on our fingers in our minds, we just don't let anyone see our fingers wiggle.

Go for the games approach to getting those facts. There's a game that has a 10X10 grid. The numbers 1 through 10 are across the top and bottom and down the sides. The numbers in the grids are the products. Roll 2 dice or spin a spinner to get 2 numbers. Multiply the 2 numbers and put your playing piece on the product. The idea is to get 4 of your playing pieces in a row. You can adapt this to addition facts. There are other similar grid games -- they probably play them at your Half Moon Bay games night.

We also play a math game with a deck of cards. Shuffle the deck and deal out 8 (or 10 or 6) cards to each player. Then roll a die or spin a spinner or have some random way to select a target number. Now use your cards and any math operations you know to get as close as you can to the target number. If you only know addition and subtraction, that's all you use. If you can multiply, use it, and so on. The person who gets closest to the target number gets to keep the cards he used. All other cards get returned to the deck. The person with the most cards at the end of the game wins. Set a time limit if you want to speed things up.

Teach your math phobe the concept of squares and square roots if you want him to have one up on his sibling; as well as he gets concepts, he should be able to understand the idea even if he doesn't know the facts. But work in cooperative groups if you want to do something about that sibling thing.

Q: What Do You Do with Cuisenaire Rods? Does anyone have tips or activities or know of good resources for using Cuisenaire rods? I bought a used set recently, and am not quite sure what to do with them. My son is 6.

A: Cuisenaire Rods are used in conjunction with Miquon Math workbooks — and are good tools for math games. The workbooks have outlines of the rods on their pages -- and you lay the rods down to match the outlines -- building the math concepts that are being taught. Miquon Math workbooks are inexpensive and can be purchased from: Activity Resources.

You can also use the Cuisenaire rods like money and play store with them. Put prices on your little toys and let your son "buy" them with the rods making change in rods and so on. We did that with base 10 blocks and with Unifix cubes in addition to regular money.

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