Saturday, February 13, 2016

Working Ahead in Math for the nth time

In my last article, after lots of blah blah blah I divulged my secret plan to go ahead in math 3 years with the end goal that we cheat our way into a top selective enrollment high school in Chicago.  Day 1 of The Plan was today and I realized 2 things.  First, it is exactly a repeat of age 5 all over again, and secondly, there is no way any other parent is going to pull this off unless they read my blog diligently and also buy my goofy books.  That narrows down my competition to about 2 people so I'm just going to blog articles about my progress and mistakes like I've been doing for the last 5 years without fear of negatively impacting my son's chances.

Since this strategy is identical to what I would do if my child had to pass a 2nd or 3rd grade Iowa Test of Basic Skills  as part of the GAT selection process, those who have been asking about the ITBS might find this material informative.   In Chicago, the elementary school selection enrollment process has a GAT test but doesn't look at grades or standardized tests (except for schools called 'Academic Centers' which I'm not interested in).  The next school enrollment process for us uses standardized test scores, and therefore this is now part of the focus of my research and experimentation.

A parent of a 5 to 9 year old has a good shot of raising ITBS or other standardized test scores into the stratosphere, at least for a single year, using my strategy, because the math is simple and you can generally follow the curriculum because it is straightforward.  It's much harder after that.

Here's the plan:

  1. Follow best practices in reading.  This part of the approach is fundamental in making everything else work and anyone can do it even if they are illiterate or don't speak English.
  2. Get a vocabulary workbook (like Vocabulary Workshop) and do a few pages every Saturday. Go slow, have fun, and let it work its magic with little effort.
  3.  Go 2 years ahead in math.  Take math completely out of the equation.  Give your child a breather on the test so they can expend more mental effort on the reading comprehension questions.  Math will give them confidence.
  4. A few months before the test, practice some reading comprehension questions for 2 grades up just to give your child a sense of struggle.
That's it.  Quite doable.  I have written many articles related to all of these points especially my missteps and struggles.  In this article, I'm going to summarize my history of #3 so you can see where I failed and how to do it right.  At the end of this article, after most of my readership has dropped off because the phone beeped, I'll describe Saturday's first day of The Secret Plan.

February 2010 
My son took a GAT test.  We prepared for it using goofy material I created.   When he came out, I looked back over the last few months of preparation and decided that it was a disaster.  I don't think he was reading at the time.   I decided that we needed to raise the bar.  This decision was based on the same level of knowledge put into our test preparation, which was zero.   

March 2010
I bought the workbooks for Every Day math for 2nd grade, and we started on problem #1, page 1. No textbook, no lesson, just problems.  This part I did right.  I sat there frustrated that he wasn't getting it. This part I did wrong.  Lots of crying and arguing resulted.

June 2010
He completed the last problem in Student Journal #1.  I reminded him all of the times (daily) he said he couldn't do it and handed him the book.   I suggested he never tell me he can't do it again.  He got the point and is willing to do anything academically without verbally complaining.  I keep this book on the shelf to whip it out should he ever tell me he can't do something.  He never does.

August 2010
We got half way through every problem in Journal #2 and we stopped.  It seemed pointless to go on because he was doing most problems quickly and correctly and getting nothing out of it anymore.

September 2010
He enrolls in a GAT program and we find out most of the first graders can read at the 3rd grade level or higher.  A few months later, after the nightly homework nightmare was no longer a nightmare, we start working on vocabulary, reading, and more math, at least on Saturdays.  I continue to assign work on most days in the Summer and the only day that he officially gets off is Christmas.  This became a family joke.

The teacher handed him his math book and it was Every Day Math Student Journal #1, which he completed every single problem.  This was a life saver.

At time time, I start working with the 3 year old sibling, Child #2.   The math curriculum before 3rd grade is OK, but it's really good for Kindergartners.  For lots of reasons, I don't care how he does, just that he does something.  Some days he gets 100% incorrect.  Some days I don't check the work. Many days I don't ask for corrections.  At this time, I started this blog with the theme "How to reverse engineer the GAT test".

The other difference with Child #2 is by this time I had finally figured out what skills were behind the GAT test, so I switched from teach math (or anything) to teaching how to read the question, how to decompose a problem, check the answer, look for hints or clues, etc, and just let him figure out the math concepts on his own, or not, because I no longer cared about math concepts.  We had a GAT test to prepare for.  

September 2011 - June 2015
Child #1's math grades are like a yo yo.   It's pretty clear at this point that while he can do math, he hates it.  Child #2 on the other hand, is ready to do calculus.   We had the same different approaches to reading (yes, the approaches were different for reading as they were different than math), with the same different results.  Child #1 was a reluctant reader, and Child #2 reads every book 3 times in the same day because he enjoys books so much.

At this point I had a pretty clear idea what I have done as a parent.   I have created one child who is prepared to solve unsolvable math problems at Stanford as a math professor and researcher, and I created one child who will cheat his way into Stanford, drop out, and then solve the world's unsolvable problems as long as they don't involve math.  I will never undo this, but at least I can fix it a bit.

Summer 2015
I spent the entire summer playing catch up with Child #1.  We used the SAT test prep book and I approached the math program like I did for Child #2.  I just focused on problem solving and let it be known in no uncertain terms that I didn't care what the actual answer was or whether or not it was correct. Sometimes I checked the material secretly to determine if I was nuts or not.  I also used both kids as guinea pigs for Test Prep Math Level 3.  Not only were the questions nonsensical, but most of my answers were as well.  They spent a lot of time correcting me.  Many of the answers in the published version are nonsensical, as are the questions.  Now you know why.

September 2015
Child #1 has solid teachers.  The reading teacher is extraordinary.   Not that the math teacher isn't great, but I already know how to teach math.  Whatever the reading teacher does we do, and subsequent research confirmed why we should do it.   (See recent articles, or you can just buy the Read Aloud Handbook.)

October 2015
Standardize test scores have recovered.

February 2015
Grades have recovered, except for a single math grade indicating that my job is not finished.

Today, Day 1 of Secret Plan
We opened "Thinking With Mathematical Models, Linear and Inverse Variations", page 15.  We skipped the material and went right for the exercises.   I showed him the formula for a line (y = ax + b), and it's inverse (x = (y - b)/a).   Seemed appropriate from the title.  Should be easy.  After 10 minutes he looked at me with teary eyes.  It's Kindergarten all over again.

The first problem is a chart of numbers.   I thought he should just turn it into an equation, solve it an move on.  He really struggled, so I had to pull out the 2nd most powerful of all math tools which I was saving for later, and we turned the problem into an easier one.  Here are the x,y coordinates.  I'm sorry to make you read this, but there is a really big point here for children and parents of any age.
The coordinates in our simplified problem are (1,60), (2,30), (3,20), (4,15), (5,12).  In case you didn't notice, this is not a line like y = ax + b.  There's no algebraic expressions in the whole book, just thinking about lists of numbers.  Now we are both baffled.

Two baffled people in math is the single most powerful of all math tools.  The opposite is one person feeling like a dummy, which is not good.  But two baffled people makes for a highly motivating challenge.   I told my child that the only time anyone is allowed to swear is when a person is in a combat zone being shot at.  I had to tell him this because war documentaries is part of my own personal At Home curriculum, and swearing is a common theme in interviews of veterans.  Well, I almost let one slip.  He was teary at this point and I'm almost swearing.  I have decided that tough math problems almost, but not quite, qualify for combat swearing.

So we went to powerful math tool #3 and tried to put into common sense type words what the heck is happening.   The official name of the tool is "Read the Question Over and Over Again and Try To Make Sense of It".  He came up with this:  Whatever you multiply the x value by (i.e, going from 1 to 4), then you divide the y value by that.  We used up an hour and he had to go to the Symphony because my wife is the World's Most Awesome parent.   I looked at the actual questions for this problem and I think he can answer them when he gets back.  I'm not going to check the answers.

Here's where we are.  We spent an hour doing the first problem in a 137 page math book.  There are 7 more books that we have to get through in the next 18 months.  Neither of us knows what the heck we are doing.   While his class is a year ahead in math, this material is 3 years ahead.

From doing this many times with my own children and the children of other unfortunate parents, here is what I expect to magically happen:
  • He will gradually get the hang of it and his pace will accelerate.
  • We will finish about 75% of the course and find out that the 7th grade class only does 4 of the books.
  • He will stop getting teary at some point and learn a ton.
  • We will find an algebraic expression for that darn problem using tools that we are going to have to invent because I've never seen them in a math book.  Because of this, he will somehow like math, or not.
The big question that I have to figure out is this:  Will he get to 7th grade and blow away all of his classes because he loves to learn and has fun doing it, or will he get a B in math because he's seen it all before and hates it?  

To put this question differently:  People do things that they enjoy doing and which require little effort.  My challenge is to reduce the effort with cognitive tools and to make it fun by not making it painful.  That really doesn't even make sense, but that's where I am.  I'll have articles just on this paragraph because it's really the key to the whole endeavor.

I've got 18 months to solve the parent math problem.  If your child is 5 or 7, you've got exactly the same problem (or will by 4th grade) but it is a 6 month problem and not an 18 month problem.  I'm already wearing 5 ribbons on my chest for those earlier battles.


  1. Just wanted to comment on vocabulary workbook - I had a chance to review wordly wise vs vocabulary workshop. WW was VERY boring book and my kids just switched from VW to WW because we're running out of VW books and we're GOING BACK!!

    1. The exact same thing happened to us. In our case, the school uses WW, so we're just taking a break until VW is at the right level again. This is exactly why I always recommend VW.

    2. I should also point out that our 2nd grader uses the 4th grade WW book at school, and the 5th grader uses the 7th grade WW book. So we're stuck with it. I've decided to talk to my kids like they are in grade school to maintain a high level of vocab.

  2. I have grade 1 and grade 2 and we're taking a break from VW until VW is at the right level again. Besides reading books, what else we should try to boost vocabulary. Maybe reading comprehension books that we haven't touched since last summer.

    1. Get a copy of the read aloud handbook. The first half, about 110 pages or so, describes the impact of reading on education. Once you've read this, it won't be "besides reading books" anymore. I think reading comprehension is an important tool, but I only use workbooks sparingly, maybe a few times in the summer. You could try a reading comprehension math book for 2nd grade. I'm about 2 weeks from finishing it.

  3. Thank you. Very helpful. Do you have suggestions for reading comprehension math books?

    1. The only one I know of is for 3rd graders and I wrote it. I'm in the final stages of editing for the 2nd grade version. I'll keep you posted. You must be insane to use it.

    2. In that case, I can't wait to see Grade 2 book. Would be great if it's published before summer so people can use during summer.

  4. We use audio books for K and Grade 1 sometimes. I wonder if it's an effective way to encourage their reading and build vocabulary and if we should switch back to traditional READ-TO. Any ideas?

    1. Audio books are great for the car. The problem with audio books is that the pace is set and there's no interaction. It's like teaching to a whole classroom and not to a single child. It's not bad, but you could do better. At this age, we did a read to program of the full list of caldecot winners and other picture books. It was amazing even for the adults. This won't work with an audio book.

  5. I bought the second grade math book written by you a few days back...waiting very eagerly for it. Was wondering about the delivery time...does it take a week?

    1. That would be Level 3. I just sent Level 2 to the publisher today. I'm a micro publisher. I think they publish 1 at a time. I'm guessing a week.

  6. The read aloud book you're recommending is the single most important book that every parent needs to read. Period.