Math, Gently

After three years of school, my eight-year-old believed he hated math. I didn’t send him to school thinking that, so yes, I consider this a failure on School’s part. I myself am quite comfortable with math; I got all the way up to Calculus, which was required for my BS in Natural Resource Science. I can remember doing my Calc homework as a break. I liked how orderly math was, the problem-solving required, the way the Right and Wrong are clearly defined. My point is that my children aren’t picking up on math anxiety from me.

My oldest, who was homeschooled through first grade using Singapore Math, began second grade in his alternative public school well ahead of grade level and continues to be a top student in math. His early-years math experience (and curriculum) was much different from his brother’s. My younger son had three years of Everyday Math, which, in my opinion, is a terrible curriculum. He never stayed with anything long enough to learn it. The curriculum jumps around, supposedly so lagging students get lots of repetition (but not all at the same time) and advanced students don’t get bored. For three years his only homework was math sheets and reading at home, and even though the math sheet usually took only ten minutes, we had to add in the twenty minutes of fighting about it. And it seemed he wasn’t learning anything. When he finished second grade, he was still shaky on, for example, time and money. All that fighting, and it was all a waste of time.

When I decided to homeschool him, I decided to start with Life of Fred, gently. We began over the summer with the first book, Apples. We began with me reading the chapter aloud and going over the questions with him while he wrote the answers. We did it all together for the first two books, a chapter per day. Some days he fought it, but it got better. By the time we hit fall, we continued with one chapter per day, but I began having him read the chapter on his own, do the questions, and then we’d go over the answers together. Again, he fought this sometimes, but it gradually got better. Now he reads the chapter, does the questions, checks his answers, and moves the paperclip to the next chapter, all on his own. If he doesn’t understand a question or needs help, he tells me. Sometimes he still whines about it. But he does it. He’ll be starting the fifth book soon.

I’ve toyed with the idea of introducing something more rigorous at the half-year point, but I want to tread lightly. I don’t want him hating math. I hope he comes to see it as I do, a useful tool to get to where you need to be. I use math all the time–in recipes, in knitting, in sewing–and I try to talk about it when I do. One day not too long ago we were talking about I don’t even know what when I mentioned an Ancient Greek had used only math to figure out the circumference of the earth, and he came super close to the actual measurement. How? my kids wanted to know.

So I looked up the details. My eight-year-old and I looked at our globe pillow and at the map. He said he pictured the equator as a rope around the earth. Perfect, I said, and we moved to our circle rug. Pretend the edge of the rug is the rope. Pretend we’ve cut the earth in half. He picked two points on the edge of the circle, we tried to find the middle of the rug, we measured the angle, we did the math. Mostly I did the math–it’s not easy math. But he was so excited by it.

This is not like school math! He exclaimed. This is math that really does something!

We borrowed The Librarian Who Measured the Earth from the library and read it aloud. I bought him his own protractor and showed him how to use it. I printed out a page of angles (from this awesome site) for him to practice measuring. Next up is drawing circles with the compass so he knows exactly where the center is, and trying to find the circumference using Eratosthenes’ method, a bit more precisely than we did with the circle rug. I predict we will be outside measuring the angles of shadows before too long.

I can just imagine if I’d decided it was time for him to measure a sheet’s worth of angles just because. Fight, fight, fight. (What’s the point? What do I need this for?) But because he is excited about the way this Ancient Greek used angles to satisfy his own desire to know how big around the earth is, he wants to know how to measure angles. And in this way, I remind myself (deep breath), he will come to learn what he needs to know.

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4 Responses to Math, Gently

  1. Lori says:

    “This is not like school math! He exclaimed. This is math that really does something!” — love!

    i had an interesting conversation with a friend who hated math in school but learned to love it when he became a machinist. he said he didn’t understand why school doesn’t let kids learn math in the context of what you can *do* with it.

  2. Michelle says:

    It’s amazing what you can learn in context and in following interests, even with math. Today, the 4yr old was telling us how one person in our family of four threw up so far, and the 9 yr old told us the percentage. And mama got to smile.

    Wee’ve been doing a mix of things, so we’re just starting dogs now, but ‘ll definitely be doing like you are and doing less supplementation as we go.

  3. Amy, I’m always so impressed with how in tune you are with your children’s needs and interests. We should all aspire to raise our children to love learning more than accumulate knowledge. Great post!

    • amy says:

      Rachelle, thank you for your very kind comment. Trust me, some days I do far better than others. Some days I’m just all WILL YOU PLEASE DO YOUR MATH CHAPTER! :)

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