Saturday, January 10, 2015

Fighting Back in Math

Each winter around this time I'm unpleasantly surprised by my son's sinking grades in one or 2 subjects.   It's usually a combination of exhaustion and being a boy.  This year he tanked in math.

Normally I wouldn't mind him taking a break in math, since we're really going to turn in on in middle school, but I didn't expect it.  First, we've been doing 6th grade algebra with a fairly challenging Kumon workbook that has questions that would stump an 8th grader, and it's going well.  Secondly, he did poorly because he is not reading the questions and as far as I can tell, he is making up the answers.  Not good.  I wrote a few months ago that I'm disgusted with the boring calculation that passes off as math in America (like teaching language without reading any books), and my son read my post.  Oops!

All of my recent articles about test training apply directly to math.  I'm very excited about this material even though, frankly, my articles are pretty anticlimactic and dry.  You'd think the secret to acing the COGAT would be more thrilling than "read the question" but it's not.

To avert the current 4th grade math disaster and counter my wife's determination to ban all computers for life, I created a reward system that is equivalent to Clash of Clans and other popular online games.  I listed the 12 levels of Math Achievement (starting with Read the Question) and set up a point system wherein my son will get 20 minutes of weekend computer time for doing a page of math (minimum 5 pages by the weekend) and bonus points for demonstrating problem solving skills.  He gets 5 bonus points for doing a page in 25 minutes using an effective approach and other bonus points I make up on weeks when we have a clan war and I need him online to support my army.

Here's the interesting thing.  I bought the 5th grade Every Day math workbook used at school and we started one chapter ahead.

The problem with 4th grade in GAT programs in Chicago is that the teachers don't assign homework.  This is a transition year wherein the children learn to take ownership and learn to work efficiently during the day. Sounds like a great idea, but it doesn't work for all kids.  It especially doesn't work for little boys with extra gifts in the social department, if you know what I mean.

Every Day math works great if you do all of it every day.   When my son is assigned just the minimum, he does just the minimum and that's worth about a C.

We started with this problem.

I think he's seen this type of problem before, but he was stumped and very frustrated.   I'm taking problem solving steps one at a time, and spent the whole night focused on Read the Question.  It took quite a while, but I had him describe to me every thing he saw.   It was hard for him.  Here's what we ended up with, after lots of encouragement, cajoling, demanding, correcting:
  • There are 3 numbers.
  • There is a number line with equidistant tick marks, meaning each blank is an equal increment
  • There is a hard side of the problem with 32 and 60, and an easy side of the problem with 60 and 74.
  • The blank on the right is in exactly between 60 and 74.
  • The blank on the right is in the middle.
I was tempted to go on to additional problem solving techniques or algebra, but reading the question was a lot of progress.  The challenge in this particular case is that he reads a question for 10 seconds and spends 15 minutes getting it wrong.  He should spend 4 minutes on the question - which seems silly to a 9 year old - and 1 minute answering it.  

Reading the question fully is equivalent to an artist who sees things that the rest of us don't, only it's math.

This is my replacement for the content of Homework Trap at the 4th through 6th grade level.  Teach the skills that are missing.  Really bright kids who aren't challenged in school lose their skills over time because they are not exercised on easy work.  Gifted kids have to relearn the skill set every few years.  We will repeat this process again in 8th grade. 

The immediate payoff from working together in math is renewed interest in math and school, a better attitude, and confidence restored.  

Here is my list posted on the refrigerator that we will be spending the next 12 weeks on:
  1. Read the question 
  2. Understand the question
  3. Think about and organize the question
  4. Write the equation to be solved
  5. Transform the equation into an easier one
  6. Split the problem into two easier ones to solve
  7. Do the easier part first
  8. Use a relationship, identity or trick to solve the problem
  9. Use an example to solve the problem
  10. Write the answer neatly 
  11. Check the answer
  12. State something interesting about the solution
Take any one of these items in the list, give me a sample problem, and I could talk for 5 hours.   I'm spending an entire week teaching a fairly smart kid what Read the Question means.   Think about the artist who sees things that others don't.  That's what I'm going for.

5 pages per day, must be done by the weekend in order to even use the word "computer" in a sentence, let alone see one.   We'll focus on each level each week (roughly) and when he masters the skill per my standards, he gets an extra hour on the internet.  There will probably be catch up on Friday night or Saturday morning.


  1. Update. We're nearing the end of chapter 6. The class is nearing the end of chapter 5. I found out today that the teacher is skipping chapter 6 and going right to chaptuer 7. Foiled!

  2. Ok I'm dying without any new posts! I look at the extra Chapter 6 work as great preparation for Chapter 7, now he won't be lost with anything ;) Just do Chapter 7 faster than the class, maybe one extra page each day or add a set for Saturday.


  3. Hi Norwood,

    Lately I am going through all the workbooks that are available out there to compare and pick some out for my kids and then find how excellent your recommendations are. I have a 5 year old and a 6 year old and am using Building Thinking Skills slowly (a page or two) as you recommend. Do you recommend another book I can alternate with this book so I can give my kids some choices? Thanks in advance.

  4. This depends on where your child is and what area you feel like focusing on. Brainquest workbooks are the ideal companion to Building Thinking Skills. I liked them, and many of my friends from random schools like them. I started with the vocabulary workshop book at this age, and it's been paying dividends ever since. We only did 2 pages each weekend. We started math after we were finished with Building Thinking skills.

    1. Thank you for the recommendation. Now I can tell you why you've recommended vocabulary workshop and it is a great program and it's going so well for now. We did unit #1 and I think with an online component it's fun and my child wants to try more than one unit and keep going (I have to see how long it will last though). If red book is finished surprisingly early, should we move on to the next one (purple) or try another book (maybe wordly wise or something else). Any vocabulary book that we can alternate with vocabulary workshop?

    2. I think Wordly Wise is less engaging than Vocabulary Workshop. Instead of alternating material, we just take a break from vocab and do something else. There is no need to hurry through this. A few pages each weekend until the unit is finished. Just keep progressing until your child gets to a unit that uses unfamiliar vocabulary that is NOT on the list of words to learn. My child always wanted to work ahead but I didn't let him.

  5. Another update on my article. It turns out that the teacher covered chapter 6 fairly quickly and threw together a test from questions in the workbook - questions that my son already did. I'm waiting to find out if he aced the test because he already did the questions on it, or he failed the test out of boredom of seeing the same questions twice. On to chapter 7!