12 Math Tips For Teaching Non-Math Minded Kids

Saxon MathNumbers are not my thing. In fourth grade, I couldn’t understand why they were telling stories in math. In sixth-grade, the teacher called my mom in to tell her it was time I stopped counting on my fingers. In seventh grade, math meant counting the minutes till I could bolt out of that classroom and start talking again, preferably to the blue-eyed basketball hunk coming out of the classroom across the hall. And my senior year, business math blew my 4.0 in high school. Business math.

Just because your son swears he’s going to be a missionary, your daughter swears she’s going to be the first US female president, or your kid can draw like Michelangelo is no reason to skip math. If my dad had said, “Math isn’t your thing. Go fry an egg,” or my teacher would have said, “You’ll never get this stuff. Stick to hairspray,” I would have persevered with my plan to be a beautician instead of a pharmacist then medical doctor.

So how can a non-math minded student be helped to succeed in math? For three years of high school math, I had an amazing teacher by the name of Mrs. Jackson; she determined my career course by teaching this air-headed girl advanced math. I’d like to share some tips I use in my homeschool today that I learned from her. Most of them will work for parents wanting to help their traditionally schooled children as well. Please, look at their math papers.

1. We’ll start off easy. First, teach kids to use their paper properly. This is no time to be saving trees.

  • When kids transition to using lined paper, teach them to fold the paper in half lengthwise (skinny-wise). Have students work problems vertically down the left half first, using the red line as their margin. Then, they work down the right-half column, with the fold-crease functioning as the left hand margin. When that side is filled up, flip the paper over and carry on.
  • Teach students to take AS MANY LINES as they need to show all their work. NO SQUEEZING or smooshing stuff in. If one algebra problem takes 3/4 of one side of the paper, then that’s what it takes.
  • Leave at least one space between problems, including long division problems.

2. Math needs a plumb-line. Enforce meticulous lining up of addition problems, subtraction problems, and decimal points.

  • Places must be lined up exactly under each other. Ones’ places under ones’ places. Tens’ places under tens’ places. Hundreds’ places under hundreds’. Not a hair out of line.
  • Decimal points must be perfectly aligned one under the other. Not a hair out of line.

3. To erase means to erase. Please–show some good erasing effort, and for Pete’s sake, never do math in pen.

Stray marks can look like decimal points or negative signs and cause errors.

4. Misery loves company. Show them how it’s done.

Mrs. Jackson always taught the new lesson on the chalk board. When she worked a problem, she never skipped any steps. She never worked it half-way and said, “Oh, you get it from here.” Never. Ever. I believe this was important for two reasons, First, when kids learn new concepts, for some reason, they tend to lose focus of older, easier concepts that they should know. Secondly, sometimes kids make it through topics with knowledge gaps. Showing all steps of the problem, including the easy, mundane parts, helps reinforce any gaps that may persist (such as canceling, reducing, dividing fractions, and so on).

She also didn’t skimp on the number of problems she did with us on the chalk board. I’d say she did about 5-10 problems a day on the board with us, mostly the new topic but also a little bit of the old ones as well.

Can you hand kids the book and a CD-ROM and say, “Go.”? Yes, you can. But I have my doubts that non-math minds will flourish this way. If you can’t teach it, I suggest finding a lively friend, tutor, local high school or community college, or a live internet class (and verify the teacher is kind and available to offer help before signing them up) who can.

And lastly on this suggestion, I’ve taken to using our chalk wall to teach math. It has been very helpful.

5. Have them copy the original problem down nearly every time.

6. Don’t allow skipping any steps when solving a problem.

Kids buck at this one, especially when the answer is obvious or if they’re especially math-minded, but Mrs. Jackson was firm. No skipping steps. (As they advance in math, eventually yes, more steps are skipped.)

7. Teachers and parents, remember, we have done more math problems in our lives than we’ve eaten meals. Don’t be condescending. Don’t let your frustration show. Encourage. Encourage. Encourage.

Twelve times twelve is not at instant recall for kids. Long division sucks. Do not become angry when the kids can’t seem to get it. When they make the SAME mistake over and over again, like dropping a negative sign or adding fraction denominators. It is VERY easy to call it lazy, careless, stupid, etc. I wouldn’t do it. Okay. I’ve done it. But I always apologize, call hard to my inner child to help me remember what it was like, and then encourage. No child ever wants to fail. And all your belittling and criticism does is lead them to anger and/or feelings of failure. Is that really what you want?

8. Calculators don’t come until you hit real algebra I.

9. Check their work daily and give feedback.

10. Math must be done regularly.

11. Math takes from about one to two hours a day.

Don’t try to rush it. Yeah, that’s a long time, especially for a homeschooler who thinks school should be done by noon.

12. Push students to their edge, and change it up or slow down when you meet resistance (meaning they think it’s too hard or they start missing too many problems). How can you change it up or slow down? 

  • Spend two or three days on a problem set instead of one.
  • Skip mundane, easy-for-them problems.
  • If they keep missing the same kinds of problems, then find supplemental problems for them to work on instead of moving forward in the book.
  • Do math only 2-3 times per week for a while.
  • Take a week off or two.
  • Do lots of problems on the chalk board together. Maybe see if they can do the work on their paper faster than you can on the board. Or have them do the work on the board while you watch.
  • Somehow expose them to other kids doing the same kind of work. Often, homeschooled kids who take extra-curricular activities can hear their public school comrades complain about math, and somehow, this make the homeschooled kid feel better.
  • Give them a test.

Closing

You don’t have to view your kids’ education as your job. You don’t. Throw your hands up in the air and say, “Enough’s enough. It’s not my problem. Nobody needs algebra in the real world anyway.” But take it from someone whose non-college educated parents gave it all they had to make sure that their daughter was doing as well as she could in math. How parents handle their kids’ education leaves a lasting impression. How will your kids remember you on this matter? School is the BIGGEST part of their lives right now. Are you showing them you’re interested in it?

Non-math minded kids can succeed at advanced math. And I feel they contribute such a unique aspect to the science and medical fields. So get them going!

Terri

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