Living Math Begins

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by Julie Brennan, March 2006

This site would not exist if it were not for my son who loved reading, but had learned to hate math. Even as he was at a part time school for accelerated learning and could go at his own pace to suit an early reading and language ability, math became more and more an area of anxiety and dread. At the beginning of his 3rd grade year, we left the traditional school environment and decided to homeschool full time to find another way to learn, before the negative attitudes toward learning became permanent.

My son loved science and began very early to talk of a career in medicine. As a parent, his belief he had that he could not learn math alarmed me. I did know of many people that had math phobias as adults rooted in early elementary experiences. I myself was traditionally educated and had done well in school, albeit I was never inspired until college. I did well in math but did not like it. Wasn't that a fact of life for many people? Yet, in annual testing he scored in the top percentiles in problem solving skills, even as his computational ability was low. Traditional elementary ed does not reward problem solving skills if computational skills are "behind". My son could read a story problem and know *how* to solve it, but computational errors would always produce wrong answers for no credit. His attitude toward math was already showing in an avoidance of many kinds of study and low self esteem.

When we decided to homeschool, the first change we made was switch from the heavy writing emphasis of curriculums we'd used to date to a literature-based curriculum for history and science. The change in my son's attitude toward learning was immediate and lasting. It became very evident that my son is a strong print learner, and without the structure of school, he read voraciously, which was a good thing for me as I had 3 other children under 5 :o). I began educating myself on education (see Philosophy Influences). 

I also determined to change our math and based on recommendations and a demo we started using Math U See. This was a good change for us. For the first time I really began to understand the value of a good teacher in math, as I saw my son "getting" ideas from Steve Demme on the videos. I became much better at explaining math to my son as I saw the creativity with which math could be explored. However, while the change was good, math was still not a relaxed area. A friend of mine recommended finding books about the relevance of math, especially since my son was such a high level reader.

We started out with Life By the Numbers by Keith Devlin, and we read together some books on learning styles. One particular day stands out for me, one of these books told the story of Einstein, and how he was not computationally strong. Frankly, it had never occured to either of us that a mathematician / physicist would not be a numbers guy. These books were a good start. Then we found The Number Devil, The I Hate Mathematics Book, Math Curse, and The Man Who Counted. I was evolving to a more relaxed homeschooler, but I felt he needed to have *some* math going all the time. Our compromise was math reading breaks when we hit walls in curriculum concepts. I continued to search out books, because I was beginning to see that the math reading was yielding a lot of change in his attitude - his confidence and his comprehension levels were both going up quickly.

During the 3rd through 5th grades my son caught up to grade level although he was never fast at math facts. Early in this time, I listened to the advice of a friend and just let him use tables, and advance in concepts. I realized that as successful as I was in a math-related career, in my prior life I was a CPA in public practice, I was not the speediest with math facts under the best conditions, and under stress or pressure to perform I could forget. Computers did most of my computing while I did the problem solving. I started see a lot of my own strengths as well as weaknesses in my son, and relaxed, as I knew that the problem solving was the more valuable skill, computation would come with it eventually.

Most of the books I have listed for older readers my son read during this time. The Murderous Maths were especially beneficial. And then, in 6th grade, he asked me if he could study geometry. Hmm, why not? We need to learn it sometime. So I got Keys to Geometry for him. He LOVED it. That program starts with constructions, and my son loved drawing. He did geometry for about 5 months, and then a homeschool geometry class opened up that he asked me to join. It was high school level, he was 11, but I thought, he's asking me to go, let him try it. He did quite well even as the proofs stretched him a lot. That was quite a learning year with math.

After the geometry class was over, I asked him to take a look where he had last left off in curriculum to see if it was any easier. Again, what an incredible change - what was incomprensible a year ago was EASY for him now. We had begun to get the hang of this "percolating" thing - the soaking of the ground, letting ideas sit, revisiting them, but when they were ready to grow, they grew!

My son is now 13, and I started this website a little over a year ago. Especially for children that are reading or print oriented learners, finding another way to learn math to facilitate this type of learner has been difficult to find.

Living math may not consist of literature for all learners. My emphasis on literature has been motivated by my son's strong print orientation, and the many years I have been on homeschool lists hearing of problems with low motivated print learners. The website came about through my desire to accumulate all the resources I've found in one place. But living math is what is living, breathing and relevant to the child. So math in literature form may have varying levels of benefit for different children.

Julie Brennan, Dec 2005