A Parent’s Story

A Parent’s Story
Written by Kris Knight, mother of three

Making Math Real has literally changed my life and forever altered my feelings towards mathematics. It began quietly four years ago when I first met David Berg and learned of Making Math Real. Then I was a 38 year old mother of three young boys, who was schooling my oldest from home and finding a different set of problems than I’d anticipated. Kevin had been struggling with something–grades were fine, tests were exemplary, but he was withdrawing from everything around him; so my husband and I decided to enroll him in a non-classroom charter school, making me his primary 4th grade teacher. The year began with me learning right alongside Kevin. Among other things, I discovered he HATED math and felt he was stupid—two strong opinions he’d formed on his own, over time, that were deeply entrenched in his thinking.

We knew he was not stupid. There had been many indicators of significant intelligence, but I was amazed at Kevin’s continued inability to hold on to math facts of any kind; and when he was particularly upset, to truly not know the value of one plus one! Desperately we searched and found a memory system called “Remember the Times Tables,” that was picture and story based. It seemed to be working but the teachers at our school had never heard of it and thought I should discuss Kevin’s situation with David Berg, a consultant the school had hired that year to teach five seminars to parents on making math real for their kids.

I went to my first class on renaming just to meet this man and ask him my question. What I learned in the first hour hooked me completely. David talked about “his students” and “right hemisphere dominant learners” and Kevin’s name could have been inserted in every example. At the first break David graciously discussed with me Kevin’s situation. He did know of the “Remember…” system and said if it was working well for Kevin then he was certainly very right hemisphere dominant. Then he quickly showed me the “Nine Lines” system he’d devised for learning multiplication facts and how the same system was useful through division and fractions.

It made clear, immediate sense to me (much easier than remembering that two was a tuba and three was a tree and when the tree played the tuba it sounded (six) sick!) I took what David showed me and immediately began to teach Kevin, not only the nine lines but also the different information I’d learned about renaming (the old “borrowing”). This meant that we set aside much of the rapid-paced fourth grade curriculum and went “back” to second and third grade basics. I was nervous about this—panicked at times—but Kevin immediately began to have success with the multiplication facts. I was “front and center” for the other five three-hour Making Math Real seminars that year. And gradually, very gradually at first, Kevin and I learned.

Kevin learned access to the multiplication facts; he learned long division, correct renaming procedures and access to subtraction facts through “bump and point.” We began working on fractions, “real deals” and “spies in disguise.” I learned that David’s words, the language he called “prompts” was crucial to the success of what I was doing. I was swimming in an ocean of new information, trying all these new approaches, like marching playmobile men across my kitchen counter to the loot box and demonstrating the number one rule of division that they must each get the same amount. Occasionally I tried, or needed to try, a few suggestions or ideas and words of my own. Kevin would get immediately discouraged and ask me, “are those David Berg words, Mom, or are they yours?”

I realized then, though I had done well enough in math to graduate in the top ten of my high school and to get a BA in English with honors, I had learned all that math rote. I did not know WHY anything was done in math, I only knew how to do it and that when I did I got the right answer. That was all that mattered, or so I’d thought until now.

I began taking Making Math Real courses through UC Extension that next summer. In August 2001 I learned place value for the first time and marveled that it gets larger from right to left while the number line goes in the opposite direction. I knew that I was changing in this process, but I had a 3 year old at home, a 7 year old beginning first grade and a soon-to-be 5th grader who would challenge my teaching at every turn when school began. I had little time for contemplation.

The next year passed smoothly enough. Kevin began to re-enter his life. Baseball was successful. He was playing piano and spending time with friends again. He loved reading and worked on his math, willingly enough. I had enough Making Math Real notes and information to teach long division through level 8, to master fractions and work on decimals, to teach conversions and to keep chipping away at that somewhat foggy notion of place value. At the start of 6th grade, however, we stumbled on to integers and stopped dead in our tracks.

I’d had a whole year of marked success so I plowed forward on this concept for a few days on my own. Kevin was devastated and the old demoralized look came back to his face. I asked college math majors and our charter school teachers what they would do. No one could help. All suggestions came down to number line arrow drawing and rote “just doing this.” I called David in desperation and within 10 minutes had my language prompts, knew my battle and teamwork picture and understood my balloon, birds and sandbag model. I was good to go. Kevin immediately saw the pictures too and we began the concrete-to-abstract practice that we’d grown so accustomed to.

That spring I took Making Math Real’s first Part III course, Pre-Algebra and Algebra. By now I had determined I would follow David Berg around for the next ten years and get Kevin through school; I had not considered that I might begin to teach math myself. But an oldest son of some long-time friend’s was in jeopardy of failing 7th grade; his junior high had no room for him in the summer school they were requiring that he take. They were desperate. I knew he shared many of Kevin’s “right hemisphere” traits, so I asked if they would let me try to help him with his math. It was this subject, with its daily homework, that had dragged down his grades across the board.

After 3 hours a week all summer, this young man was top in his (repeated) Pre-Algebra class and is currently doing well in 8th grade. I had helped a second boy with all the Making Math Real concepts, language and concrete-to-abstract instruction.

Word got out, as word is apt to do, and other friends began to call. They had heard me talk over the years about what I was learning; and I knew of their children’s situations all too well. So I agreed to try and help a few. My aunt, re-entering college in her 50’s, couldn’t get anywhere in the math class she was attempting. Integers were incomprehensible to her and no one could help. By mid-September, 2003, I had five students, 3rd grade through college.

So this Spring I took Making Math Real Part II, again. I wanted to brush up on my fraction language and take another look at the still-pesky problem of place value. Then a very special friend with a special problem wanted me to help a 2nd grader who, though exemplary in every other aspect of learning, could not grasp number concepts. I knew I did not know enough and enrolled in the Making Math Real Part I course taught by Michael Curry.

And it is in coming to the beginning of Making Math Real, after years of being in the middle, that I am aware of the complete change in my life. Math isn’t just a subject that must be “stayed on top of” because a student needs to be on a “good track” in junior high or high school. It’s not college SAT’s that should have us wringing our hands over the notion of math competency.

Good math development is as crucial to learning as reading. Everyone should have access to the math coding as everyone does to the reading. If all students could experience the wonder of numbers, the solid assurance of working with rules and codes that don’t change, and the self esteem that comes with knowing the right answer to a multi-stepped problem, then our abilities to learn, in general, would skyrocket.

It’s the change in the brain. It’s access to that other part that we all don’t use as often. Kevin is a better student because he has had access to a part of his brain that would have languished until he was much older, languished while he determined he was not smart enough and while he was distracted by apathy. But our second and third sons have no problem with math facts. Their symbol imagery is exceptional. Yet I firmly believe they need the pictures of math just a much as Kevin. They will bypass the why, the beauty and “fun” of numbers, if they stand on their self-proclaimed notions of superiority, beating their peers in mad-minutes and whipping through homework pages by getting the pattern of the numbers without ever considering the reason why they make those patterns.

Making Math Real is not just for those who are struggling with math, or it shouldn’t be. Those who are exceptional in math need the same (or perhaps more) of an understanding of the development of math in order to help them really learn. And I believe the “really learn” part encompasses much more than mathematics. Whether it is giving access to number concepts to those “global, big picture, don’t-bother-me-with-the-detail” learners, or whether it is giving a larger, broader understanding to those who are oh-so quick with the details that they miss the meaning, it is important. I believe it is vital.

Math may just be a part of life that one must hurdle to get on with whatever true talent lies within; then it should enhance learning and not put a choke-hold on all a person’s extra time. It should build up self-esteem so one can put his best face forward toward the challenge of his dreams. Or math may be someone’s true talent and should have every opportunity to put down deep roots and thrive in a rich conceptual environment. Learning how to “do” math without learning why and without seeing and feeling the experience gives math only a fraction of its potential appeal. The friends of my now-4th-grade son who loved math in 3rd grade are now throwing their books against the wall. They feel betrayed by a subject that once gave them firm footing in the slippery slope of education among one’s peers. And, in a sense, they’re right. They don’t know as much as they think they do, or should. Whereas good, conceptual understanding would have these same (very) young men and women excited about math and primed for strong learning overall.

Good math development is vital. I have found a gold mine in Making Math Real, both in giving my own children fabulous development in learning and in a business that I can grow as I desire, where I can help others as a “math learning specialist.”