A Parent’s Story, continued . . .
By Kris, mother of 3
Three years ago I wrote a letter explaining how Making Math Real had changed my oldest son’s life dramatically and consequently the rest of our lives as well. Now, three years later, MMR continues to dramatically impact our lives, so I thought I should write an update.
I still use Making Math Real every single day. I’m either talking with my own children about their homework, working with the students I tutor, conversing with a growing number of parents who are concerned about their own children’s educations, or increasing my own knowledge of math and planning ways to make my understanding more concrete. Making Math Real is a part of all of that. When I first met David Berg and learned of Making Math Real, 7 years ago, math was a serious problem I had with my oldest son, then in fourth grade. When I wrote about MMR, 3 years ago, math was a success we were having that seemed to be opening doors to new and interesting opportunities. Today math is “easy” for all three of my boys, though the oldest still doesn’t like it; and math is a passion of mine, and a small business, that takes up hours of each day as I learn, create, support others and continue to explore.
Here is what has been happening:
Kevin is nearly 16. He still schools primarily from home through a charter school for personalized learning. But this year he chose to take Honors English at his local high school as well. He still uses MMR strategies and visual imagery to help him work with math concepts that are deeply rooted in his problem solving. When I ask him “What is 7 times 8,” I can see in his eye movement that he pulls up the 7’s house in his mind and looks left to the 8th bedroom, then I get the teenage-tone in his answer, “56, Mom, okay?” But these days our mental work with the 9 lines is more likely to encompass “700 times 8,000” or “5,600 divided by 70” as we incorporate “making zeros” or “killing” them with our multiplication review. He still uses the imagery of “cleaning the house” for solving problems with variables, but those problems are much more intricate (houses much dirtier) than ever before! And his strong grasp of positive and negative exponents and scientific notation has helped him in Science as well as in math.
Kevin is a sophomore and studying, among other subjects, Algebra II, Chemistry and Honors English. These are not classes I would have predicted him in even three year’s ago. But MMR helped Kevin not only with his math, but also with his executive processing. While practicing to solve ever more complex math problems in sequential order, he also learned to organize his reasoning and, eventually, his paragraphs and essays (though not his backpack or his bedroom!)
Kevin remains a random processor, a visual, big-picture learner. He still says he “hates” math, but he loves computer programming, video game design, and all things “techie.” He reads Popular Science, Popular Mechanics and Invention Magazine cover to cover. He is thriving in classes and with concepts that would have been beyond his reach without the math. His occupational goal of game designer has fewer hurdles with math firmly grasped, and MMR was the way “in” to all those concepts that he would not have learned in a timely manner, without academic wounding, any other way.
So MMR continues to help Kevin thrive in all areas of learning—those he endures and those he is most interested in. But the story goes on.
Kev’s brother, Matt, now 13 and in 7th grade, never needed help with his math. When he was 7 and listening to my and Kevin’s “drill and kill” sessions with multiplication fact flash cards, Matthew learned them all. He did not know what they meant, but he could repeat them back with rapid accuracy. At first this was just annoying. Kevin was discouraged; he could not get them, while Matthew was proud, parroting facts he didn’t need nor fully understand. As time went on, though, I found it more worrisome. Why was it easy for Matthew and impossible for Kevin? I needed help for Kevin—help for me! But in the middle of all that worry was the shining hope that since multiplication flash cards were easy for Matthew at age 7, then math would be easy too—one less parental worry. Not until years later did I begin to suspect that “great memory” without solid, concrete teaching could become an academic hurdle almost as paralyzing as Kevin’s struggles.
Matthew memorized math facts easily; he recognized the patterns, so he did not need to know the strategies or understand what the math was really doing. With perfect child wisdom, he reasoned, “I only need to know the information until the end of the unit, anyway, ‘cuz then I’ll get a whole bunch of new facts and patterns and will have to start over and memorize them.” For him math was fun, a challenge; he was fast and often “first,” and he received good grades without much effort. Whereas Kevin could not hold facts in his short-term memory so he had to learn the material and work on strategies to understand what the math was doing. It took time and was hard work. But Kevin was learning, using key words and phrases to keep the material accessible to him; while Matthew was cramming, stuffing knowledge into his short-term memory then dumping it for the next chapter’s work.
Three years ago Matthew was finishing up 4th grade and was learning the four operations with fractions, in quick succession, and for the first time was feeling the effects of needing to think about what the numbers were doing, what they meant. It was not fast and easy work; he was frustrated and confused. That’s when he became willing to look at the 9-lines system and discovered it was “really cool” for fractions. He saw how Making Math Real’s 7 levels of comparing fractions, switch and fancy switch stories, and concrete imagery for “spies” and “real deals” was very helpful. He reorganized his knowledge of multiplication facts to include the 9 lines and began to appreciate the subtle, but crucial, difference between learning something to incorporate it for repeat and daily use, and memorizing something for a quick grade.
Now Matt is finishing up Pre-Algebra in his first year of junior high. I purposely kept him out of Honors Math so he would move at a slower pace through the concepts that are so foundational to the rest of what he will be learning in the future. Speed and repetitious volume do not necessarily instruct; and young minds are not intrigued and compelled through frustration and fatigue.
I had been learning a few things too.
Matt has incorporated the MMR strategies and concrete-to-abstract instruction into his learning style with stellar results. His test scores reflect his absolute understanding of the material. His learning style DOES include mastery and it shows. But most important is his comprehension of what it feels like to learn compared to what it feels like to memorize. He is an active learner in all subjects, but he learned how to learn with Making Math Real.
And what of youngest son, Brian? He was 6, three years ago, and just learning to add and subtract in his first grade classroom. Now he is 9 and working on fractions in 4th grade in a 4/5 combination class. Brian has a blank 9 lines taped to the ceiling of his bedroom just over his pillow. At night we sometimes lie there and play multiplication and division games. He has benefited by my knowing the math books so well the third time through. As the concepts go speeding by, I have a better sense of where to linger and make an extra point or two and where to shrug and let it go. His learning style is unique as he is himself. I watch to see what will be his interests and his challenges. He is not super interested in math, nor is he stuck on it. Making Math Real has kept him current in class; it has given me peace of mind that we are “okay” for now. Brian has enough concrete understanding, and he is connecting the material.
There are days when I look myself in the mirror and say, “You are WAY to intense about all this.” But my family has had 7 years of peaceful evenings without homework frustration and fights. My boys have the self-confidence to succeed in public school and to thrive in alternative environments as well! I have a job I love! I am helping others to help themselves and their families. I have 25 students currently and 25 others who have “graduated” or moved on after meeting their goals. I have seen the change when a young person begins to trust her thinking, begins to ask questions, leans forward with furrowed brow and tries to grasp the meaning of the material. It is breathtaking to watch a young person learn, gobble up ideas and stretch his mind; and it is heartbreaking when a child slumps back, shrugs, looks away and mumbles “I don’t know” in a hurt, defensive tone. I am passionate for good math instruction because I know it leads to so much more.
Making Math Real teaches the language of math creatively but always with a keen eye on true math concepts. There are no “tricks” for learning, but there are imaginative ways to hold on to math concepts that have little initial meaning to young minds. And in finding how to learn the language of math, students acquire a much greater gift. They learn how to think, how to reason, how to incrementally work a problem—whether it is a number problem or an English essay or trouble with a friend. The best reason to be good in math is that it’s the straightest road to practicing logic, sequential processing and detail analysis, all traits that help a student in every other school subject and in life.