Taming the Math Monster

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Math is a common source of anxiety for many homeschooling parents. In fact, one of my only reservations about homeschooling my first child was, “But I’ll have to teach math!”

Thankfully, my desire to homeschool was stronger than my fear. I vowed to refresh and strengthen my math skills so that I could become a competent teacher.

In our first school year, I purchased an “advanced and rigorous” math curriculum that was heavy on instructor input and student practice. I believed I could spare my child the years of frustration and math anxiety I had experienced if I just pushed hard enough in her early years.

Boy, was I wrong.

It turns out that insisting your five-year-old listen to long math lectures and complete seemingly endless worksheets is not the way to foster a love of math, or even a tolerance for it. By the middle of first grade, my daughter was dreading math lessons and proclaiming “I hate math!”

I wasn’t enjoying math much myself, either. The long, drawn out lessons were draining and stressful for the entire family. I remember my toddler sitting on my lap as I prodded my oldest to “just listen” to me explain the 43rd example of number bonds for that day. My toddler probably wondered why everyone got so sad and grumpy when we pulled out those yellow and orange books.

After a particularly tearful lesson–perhaps tears are God’s way of saying STOP in our homeschools–I realized something had to change. Math was making both of us miserable, and I feared that my daughter was destined to hate math for the rest of her life if something didn’t give.

After a few weeks of hand wringing, soul searching, and investigating several new homeschool math programs, I had come to a few conclusions:

  1. My daughter hated being “taught” math. Children who are bright and creative (sometimes labeled “right brained”) often resist a lot of lecturing and overt teaching, and our old math program required both.
  2. Our very “teachy” math program also ate up too much of our day, leaving less time for my daughter’s true interests like art, history, and exploring nature. Oh, and playing in the mud with her sister!
  3.  Forcing my poor kid to work through a program she hated was damaging her spirit and wasn’t yielding much true learning.

Mostly, I had to let go of the public school model of teaching math. My own public school experiences had emphasized lecturing, rote memorization, a great deal of repetition, and speed and breadth over understanding and depth. As a kid, I’d often felt lost in math class, so that style of teaching had definitely not worked for me. Without even realizing it at first, I had been following this model in our homeschool.

With these ideas in mind, I purchased a new, more user friendly math curriculum and set out to make math a better experience for our family. I brainstormed ways to be more creative about math sessions, and I adopted the Charlotte Mason method of short, timed lessons. I also got some great ideas on the blog Kate’s Homeschool Math Help.

Here’s how we currently approach math in our home:

  • We use a more independent, self-teaching math book. The Math Mammoth program employs the brilliant strategy of placing explanations and examples right above the workbook exercises so that a child can try to teach themselves a concept before asking for help. I definitely go over new concepts with my daughter, but the lack of emphasis on teacher lecturing works really well for my daughter’s “just let me try it myself” style of learning.
  • We set a timer for math time, and when the timer beeps my daughter is done for the day. The next day, we pick right back up where we stopped.
  • I don’t assign every single problem in every lesson. If it’s a pretty easy topic for my daughter, she may only do half to three quarters of the problems. If the topic is challenging, she might need to do all of them plus a supplemental worksheet or two. Use the book; don’t let it use you!
  • We focus on covering and mastering topics in math rather than on finishing an entire book in a given school year.
  • I don’t worry so much about math anymore. Even with short lessons and a slower pace, if we’re moving forward, we’re doing okay.

Math time is much more peaceful in our home these days, and I’m pleased to see how certain topics are really clicking with my daughter. Math might never be a favorite subject in our homeschool, but it doesn’t have to be a monster. Even with something concrete like math, creative, fluid thinking about how we approach a subject is always helpful in homeschooling.

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