Help with Math!
March 2, 2006 8:10 PM   Subscribe

Mefi mathematicians: How can I prepare to teach basic math? Much more inside!

The skinny: Wife teaches 5th grade. My boys are in 2nd grade. The wife and I both suck with Math, (We are both word people), the kids are both number people. I/we need to know the very best way to tackle and understand math/numbers for ourselves so that we can support our kid's learning. I'm hoping that the boys will have the skills needed to attend MIT. I am totally willing to read/explore and spend alot of time on this! Thanks!

Also, is math taught differently in the middle east? I have this crazy idea that since our numerals are "arabic" numerals that there is some kind of math connection to the middle east.

If nothing else please help me find some really good math theory that I can use with my burgeoning science kids.
posted by snsranch to Education (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Arabic numerals they are indeed, which mainly means they're not roman numerals like VII. The whole world runs on Arabic numerals AFAIK, because, well, positional notation is good compared to the alternatives. Try doing long multiplication with roman numbers one day and see how far you get.

As for getting curriculum, I'd go down to your school and ask for the next three years' math textbooks and start reading. Easiest way is to just find out what they're learning and get ahead on it.

Of course, teaching them straight out of the formal syllabus will be totally boring for you and the kids. See if you can get them into some Gifted & Talented (or whatever your local equivalent) extra-curricular programs; once again you'll need to go talk to the maths teacher and ask them what's available. Those after-hours courses and a camp were what saved me in school: they prevented me from being totally bored and just skipping out entirely even after moving ahead a grade. Maybe not much available for second-graders, but you never know.

If you're hell-bent on MIT, go talk to the MIT admissions people and ask them what extra-curricular activities they would recommend to interest and extend a suspected maths genius; they (and your local tech-oriented university) will get questions like this regularly and likely have some very good answers.
posted by polyglot at 8:21 PM on March 2, 2006

I think someone who specializes in math education could help you out better than a typical mathematician like me. I've never taught elementary school arithmetic, the easiest thing I've ever taught is college algebra.

I really don't know how mathematics is taught in the middle east. Our number system is adapted from the Arabic system, and it works the same way. (The method is sometimes called algorism). The actual symbols they use there are a bit different. Just look at the picture about halfway down in this Wikipedia entry.

Polygot has the right idea about local universities. Some of those have weekend/afternoon enrichment classes. I took one on dinosaurs when I was about 10, and had a lot of fun.
posted by CrunchyFrog at 8:36 PM on March 2, 2006

Puzzles aren't obviously mathematical, but they do prepare you for the kind of thinking used in higher level math and other sciences, especially those logic problems. I liked those a lot when I was a kid, and I ended up a numbers person.

There are sometimes extracurricular math activities (mathcounts, mathleague, etc) a few years down the road, if they're really gung-ho about math. I personally think that you don't need to teach them directly or even learn any math to help them in this direction, encouragement adds more than anything...but I admire your hands-on-ed-ness.

For waaay down the road, MIT (from what I've heard) really puts a premium on having upper-level (re: multiple calc courses) skills coming in. It's good that you're thinking abou this early on.
posted by lester the unlikely at 8:57 PM on March 2, 2006

My father is a math teacher and brought home math magazines for me to browse when I was young. These magazines had number puzzles in them to find answers to questions about famous people. I can't remember what the magazine was called, but I do remember that I found out that Mr T got his start in the Rocky movies through one of those magazines. I never thought that I was doing "math" in the magazines it was just kind of fun (like sudokus). I'm sure there are similar things still around.

I was also encouraged to watch programs like "square one" a math television program. This might have just been a Canadian show, but I loved it, especially episodes where these detectives found criminals by math clues that got left behind.

My sisters and I also had flashcards, a handheld computer thing called "speak and math" (There was a similar one called "speak and spell"). There was also some computer game with equations falling from the sky that you had to answer before they hit the ground which I loved.

I know none of the programs that I've mentioned are current, but I'm certain similar things exist. I would start by looking for teaching tools in stores geared towards teachers. I'm pretty sure that all this training (that at the time I just thought was fun and games) helped make math easier all through elementary and highschool. I could add, subtract, multiply and divide much faster then all the other students which gave me time to think about and process the mathematical concepts. On top of that, it helped me to continue to think math was fun all the way until well... now.

Just so you know, one of my sisters is now a math teacher, the other is finishing an undergraduate degree in computer science and I am working on a PhD in science.

On another note, from the math tutoring I've done with both elementary and highschool students I would definitely not tell your children that you don't like math or that you are not good at math. I think if you encourage them, try to learn with them, and turn math into a game that your children will learn to love it.

Now if I could just learn to write...
posted by kechi at 9:31 PM on March 2, 2006

I asked, too.
posted by glibhamdreck at 10:10 PM on March 2, 2006

Not to sound obvious or anything, but can't you just read the kids' textbooks? That would be the best way to go about it, since you would be learning the same terminology, methods, and techniques that the kids are expected to use and master. Nothing will make a kid more confused than a parent saying, "oh, you should really be doing it like this, that's how they always taught us, I don't know what this stuff they're trying to teach you is all about." Every math textbook I've ever seen (at the elementary level at least) is meant to be standalone, i.e. it should have enough explanatory information that after reading it cover to cover one should be able to do any problem set in the book without needing any outside information. I'm sure the school would be able to give you the list of textbooks used in each grade, so that you can get started early so as to keep ahead of the kids.
posted by Rhomboid at 12:17 AM on March 3, 2006

I'm working on a Ph.D. in physics, but I'm supported by a fellowship that involves working with high school students several days a week -- plus my dad is an elementary school principal who used to be a math teacher -- so even though I'm answering a little out of my field, I've been thinking about some of these questions recently.

First, I completely agree with kechl; don't tell your kids that you don't like math or weren't successful in math, it will only set them up to expect to fail themselves. Second, don't push too hard. You boys are almost ten years years away from even thinking about MIT, it's too early to be talking about what kind of college your kids will attend. If they have an interest in math or science, nurture it, get them into summer programs or after school programs that will feed their interest and help them grow, but don't demand that they do extra work just because you think they're talented. I've worked with more than a few high schoolers who had completely burned out -- who had come to absolutely hate math or science -- because their parents had been pushing them too hard. Don't say, "You're going to go to MIT someday;" encourage them to explore anything they're interested in, say, "You'll be able to do anything you want someday."

You might want to start by looking at some of the resources here. Many of these are out of date and will be all but impossible to find, but others are good books that you won't have trouble tracking down with good discussions about how parents can get involved in math.

Another really good site is Drexel's mathforum, which has boatloads of really great resources. Definitely give it a look.

I want to steer you away from textbooks. Kids get plenty of that at school, and, if your kids are as good at math as you say, they don't need extra tutoring in things they already are good at. That's the quickest way to get them to find math tedious and boring. What they need is someone to challenge them with new things, fun things, that help build the skills they'll need for more advanced math classes, things like logic puzzles and spatial perception problems and pattern recognition games. These things will just seen fun to them now, but they'll unknowingly be building skills that will make math much easier when they reach higher levels.

posted by dseaton at 5:06 AM on March 3, 2006

Should have previewed more carefully. My link to mathforum didn't work, it is here.
posted by dseaton at 6:23 AM on March 3, 2006

Grooming your kids to go to a particular school, or even just letting them know you have plans in mind for their lives is unlikely to result in a healthy relationship between you. I'm not sure if you just used MIT as an example of a diffcult to enter school or whether you are specifically concerned with MIT.
posted by phrontist at 6:28 AM on March 3, 2006

Honest Question: surely your wife can teach basic math? Or does she teach only a specific subject, like English or French, or are they already too far beyond fifth grade level?

Also, wouldn't she have access to material and programs for helping gifted kids through her job? If not, perhaps you could use this as motivation to campaign for getting something in place to help all the gifted kids that presumably exist within her school/district or whatever who don't have parents like you.
posted by jacalata at 7:01 AM on March 3, 2006

Run, don't walk, to your nearest library and check out Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos.

Innumeracy is the mathematical equivalent of illiteracy. Paulos makes math seem relevant, which is (I'm guessing) something you've probably never needed to see before now. After you've read that book, pick up some of his other books. They are all quite good and do not require you to be especially good at math.

By reading these books (again, they are for general audiences, not mathematicians...) you'll better be able to connect math skills to the real world to help nurture your kids' burgeoning interests.
posted by achmorrison at 7:17 AM on March 3, 2006

It's been said before, and I'm not sure of your actual intentions, but DON'T START PRESSURING YOUR KIDS ABOUT COLLEGE NOW!
If you just want them to learn to like math, try looking up and teaching them binary arithmetic. It's relatively simple and helps you understand how our numbers work.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 2:26 PM on March 3, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks to all. To ease concerns about the college thing, it's more of an abstract goal. "Hey, wouldn't you guys like to go to a school where they build robots and stuff?" The kids, "Yea!!!!!"

Thanks again for the ideas and assurances. I'm not feeling as intimidated now! Whew!
posted by snsranch at 5:19 PM on March 3, 2006

Innumeracy is excellent, but not directly applicable for second graders. It's better as background material for you and your wife to help get some appreciation for why math is an important subject. You already appreciate its potential benefit for your children, but Paulos can help provide context for you, yourself. I would think that you would have to construct your own simplified examples if you wanted to use the case studies in the book.

Alternately, I'd highly recommend the books "I Hate Mathematics" and "Math for Smarty Pants" out of the Brown Paper Bag Books series. I pull parts of those books out to use in my high school math courses when I can afford the time to show my students how cool/neat/ non-traditional math can be, but they're targeted towards exactly what I think you're looking for.
posted by mhespenheide at 11:04 PM on March 3, 2006


(1) Find out what textbooks your kids use. Then go to the publisher's web site. A web location may be listed in the book itself. At the web site you should find general and often chapter-specific help for parents. Also, google: mathematics tips for parents.

(2) Use half a vacation day to visit a class. Schools may have a parent day for that purpose. Principals, student teachers, and other observers visit every month. But be sure to ask the teacher so that you get a reasonably representative day and not a test day. Consider visiting a section or two like your kid's instead of embarassing your child. You may be surprised by the collaborative work, calculators, tiles--and distractions--in today's classroom. In any case try to communicate with teachers and other educators at the school.

(3) hosts busy forums where mostly teachers post questions and suggestions for one another. You could repost there this general question and specific issues.

(4) Many texts and teachers try more than formerly to build a deeper understanding than just memorizing symbols. Instead of just burning "4 times 5 = 20" into the brain, they have the kids lay out of a 4 by 5 grid of tiles and count 'em as four 5's or five 4's. Kids may see that multiplication is repeated addition--and thus have backup ways to check multiplication. Texts overflow with connections and applications to real life. However, with all these good connections sometimes kids don't drill 4x5=20. So be alert as a parent both for lack of "connections" and lack of memorization.

(5) If you do your kids' school work, what they will learn is to depend on others instead of themselves. Your role is more to encourage organization, curiosity, and other good study habits. Answer questions with questions like "where is that word in your book?" Outside study time, apply the subject to immediate reality: "How many eggs do you think our family eats in a week?" "What vacation can we afford?" "Could we fit a million dollar bills in a briefcase?"
posted by gregoreo at 8:20 AM on March 4, 2006

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