Monday, June 8, 2015

Math Talk: Life of Fred and Hoping My Kids Don't Hate Math


I devoted time last summer considering math. First Son had just finished 4th grade, during which he completed Saxon 5/4 math. Though successful with the math itself (with some leeway for recalculations in his long division), he hated math. Lamentations surrounded our daily math work. No one liked being around him when it was time for math, but I was even more concerned that he would give up on ever enjoying math before he had a chance to learn much of anything interesting.

I've never felt like I could see the beauty in mathematics, but I believe it is there. I want my children to see it and though I'm not sure how to reveal it to them, I do know that dreading math every day would hide that beauty, possibly forever.

So I considered. A friend struggling with the same sorts of issues decided to invest in the elementary series of Life of Fred. These books are the most likely ones to be recommended when homeschooling moms ask about kids who hate math. They tell a story centered around a child math professor at an imaginary Kansas university (Yay Kansas!) who encounters problems in real life that can be solved with math. Because they are presented in a series rather than by grade level, students can work through them at their own pace without focusing on whether they are ahead or behind. In the elementary series, every short chapter (meant to be read independently by the student) ends with a Your Turn to Play section in which there are a few practice problems.

The intermediate series (starting with Fractions), also has problems at the end of every chapter. In addition, there are "Bridges" which are mastery quizzes every three to five chapters. Those have ten questions each and it is recommended students answer at least nine problems correct. If not, four additional Bridges are provided.

The Life of Fred story hints at exciting higher level math all through the books. The reasons for math appear in the text (like a story problem, but more interesting) and then are addressed with math, compared to most traditional math books in which the concept is introduced and then made more complicated with story problems. Instead of being useful, math is just hard.

I bought a few of the books. First Son started the school year (fifth grade) working through Fractions. His attitude flipped completely. Math quickly became his favorite subject. He often read the elementary series during his free time.

He managed the first few Bridges, but soon started having problems. He was struggling with the long division problems, making small mistakes. His weak multiplication skills were showing. We took a few weeks off, focusing on mastering the multiplication and division facts (using xtramath.org, Multipication Wrap-ups, and Speed on the iPad) then returned to Life of Fred.

I think some children would work well through the problem sets and  comparing their answers with the correct ones. First Son, however, too quickly gave up on trying and would just look at the answer. It would become apparent to me when he couldn't pass the Bridges. To compensate, I would grade his Bridge, then recommend any areas with which he struggled on Khan Academy. I have my reservations about Khan Academy, but the problem sets are designed to reward mastery. Usually, you continue to work through a skill using hints and videos until you can answer five questions in a row correctly. Eventually, I asked First Son to do one chapter of Life of Fred each day in addition to two problem sets on Khan Academy. (He also continued with Xtramath each day until he had mastered division.) The combination of the lively story in Life of Fred and the focused practice on Khan Academy seemed to work well for us. By the end of the year, he had worked his way through about half of the second intermediate book, Decimals and Percents.

The elementary series starts with Apples and progresses through books starting with subsequent letters of the alphabet. All elementary students should start with Apples and can work more quickly through the first few books if appropriate. If the student finishes all ten books before being ready for Fractions (around 5th grade, after all the multiplication and division facts have been mastered), there are three more books you can use (Kidneys, Liver, and Mineshaft). After those, if the student is still not ready for Fractions, the publishers recommends you start back with Apples as there are many higher level skills that can be developed by a second reading.

Last year, First Daughter (in second grade) started with Apples and worked independently through the elementary series. She finished the first seven books, working about four days a week. At first, she was upset to move away from Saxon math (mostly because she was proud of being a grade "ahead" in her math), but after a few weeks, she admitted the new books were much more enjoyable. Every few days I would watch as she answered the problems to see whether she understood the concepts. By the end of the year, she had finished Goldfish. First Daughter continues to work on Xtramath.org and at Khan Academy as well.

I read a chapter or two aloud a week to Second Daughter who was six but only in kindergarten. She enjoyed the story but didn't not understand all the concepts completely. The author recommends not starting before first grade and I would concur. We slowly worked through Apples and the second book, Butterflies, before the end of the school year. Next year, when she is in first grade, we're going to start the year with something else and add in Life of Fred when she is ready to read and work independently through the third book. Given Second's Daughter's progression through the books, there will be plenty of time to read them even if we wait until second grade.

Overall, I'm pleased with how Life of Fred has changed the math attitude in our house. My children can learn math for the rest of their lives, as long as they don't learn to hate it first. An added benefit is the significant decrease in the amount of time I spent presenting Saxon K-3. I wish I had started using it earlier.

One of the reasons I hesitated was a perception that they were expensive. Ten books! $16 each! I did a calculation. For the first child, paying regular price, the Life of Fred books (ten elementary books and three additional books) cost $208. Saxon K-3 is $418 (that's not counting fourth grade, which is probably included in the Life of Fred books). Plus, each additional child is another $121 in consumables. Life of Fred isn't the cheapest math program out there, but it's a lot less expensive than Saxon. From what I can tell, the books should sell very well after you are done with them, too. They've held up to multiple readings already at our house.

All of the links above are affiliate links to Amazon, but that might not be the best place to buy Life of Fred, if you're interested. Check out the Life of Fred website (not an affiliate link; this is an "official" seller website and is not maintained by the publisher) for more information. You can also find Life of Fred at CBD (not an affiliate link) and at Adoremus Books (not an affiliate link). I bought a couple used off Cathswap, most of them at CBD (where free shipping coupon codes are plentiful) and the additional elementary books at Adoremus during their Easter sale.

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