Math for Moms and Dads
[21 Dec 2008]
By Suzanne Beilenson, Catherine Jeremko and Colleen Schultz. Kaplan, paperback, 200 pages.
As a math teacher I’ve had many parents come to me at parent-teacher nights and confide that they “just can’t help Johnny any more with his homework” because it is “so different now compared to when they were going to school”. They would also tell harrowing tales of tears and related dramas as they tried to help their child with math homework, only to have Johnny scream at them “We don’t do it like that at school. I’m never gonna get this stuff. I hate math!”.
Obviously, this child already suffers from math anxiety and it doesn’t take too many sessions like that for the parent to dread math homework on the kitchen table — and to develop their own healthy dose of math phobia. What is needed in many families is a resource to help reduce math anxiety — for the parents.
Kaplan recently sent me the delightful Math for Moms and Dads for review. The book promises to…
… help you become the confident coach and cheerleader your child needs to succeed on math homework, tests and quizzes.
The cover promises “a dictionary of terms and concepts… just for parents” and “help with homework” and importantly, it will help you to “combat math phobia”.
The authors aim to give you “everything you need to conquer your child’s math homework”:
- Definitions of basic mathematical terms and properties,
- Advice on how to decode complicated directions
- Sample problems you and you child can solve together.
So how does it measure up?
In the introduction, Beilenson encourages parents to be positive role models and to “try not to make your problem your child’s problem.” This is a key point. We cannot blame students if they have poor attitudes to math when their parents (and other adults) say things like, “Math? It’s useless. I never used any of that stuff all my life”, or “Go ask your father” (which shows an unwillingness to try).
The early chapters contain good suggestions about calculator use (use calculators only after mental arithmetic skills are strong); showing all work when doing a math problem; and establishing good study habits.
For many people, students and parents alike, math is like a foreign language. There is strange vocabulary (“parentheses”, “reciprocal” and “commutative”), unusual grammar (“What is 5 less than 6 times a number?”) and many strange symbols (π, Δ φ θ). To address this issue, the book provides an extensive alphabetical listing of the typical terms used in math textbooks, and which are probably “rusty” in the memories of many parents. For example:
- Obtuse angle
- Complementary angles
There’s also definitions of radicands, hypotenuses, congruence and measures of central tendency, and many other strange concepts, followed by some good suggestions on how to help your child (and you!) remember all these terms.
Chapter 3 contains basic math help, including order of operations (e.g. in the problem 3 + 2 × 5, you do the multiply first) exponents, number properties (associative, commutative, distributive), fractions, percents, integers, equations, graphing points & lines, and formulas.
In the “Direction Decoding” chapter we read some helpful advice on how to approach math word problems, making sure we know what the question is asking and being able to understand whether our answer makes sense. The following chapter explores a step-by-step strategy for solving such problems.
There is an extensive and helpful set of worked examples that cover Number Sense and Operations, Measurement, Geometry, Algebra, and Probability & Statistics.
Math teachers love to say things like “study hard for the test next week”, but many students don’t know how to study effectively for math. Chapter 6 gives some good pointers about how to make the most of math textbooks, how to take notes in math class, how to prepare for tests and what are the best strategies during the test.
Chapter 7 encourages parents to help their children to see where math is used in ‘real life’. This is important so that your child does not grow up believing that math is just some odd mental task that is thrust on the unwilling for no clear reason.
The final chapter covers the sometimes sensitive area of communicating with your child’s math teacher. For many parents, this is a difficult thing to do, because when they get to school they start to re-live their own (possibly) nightmarish days as a student, complete with their own poor math results. The book offers sensible advice on this situation, complete with “scripts” on what you can say and how. There is an undertone in this section where the authors suggest they have been the subject of unkind comments by parents. It is certainly true that the best chance for the child to be successful at math — and not become an emotional wreck in the process — is if the student, the parents and the teacher work together as a team. Good communication between parents and teachers is a pre-requisite for this outcome.
The Appendix contains:
- A simple learning styles inventory and some advice for parents depending on the results
- An overview of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards in each year of school, from grade 4 to grade 8.
There is a lot to like in this easy to read book. However, the following are minor issues that rankled:
- In the problem-solving chapters, the advice is clearly based on George Polya’s work in the early 20th century, but there is no evidence of proper credit being given to Polya.
- Chapter 5 has an unfortunate chapter title: Little Pieces Lead to Big Problems. The idea here is that difficult problems can be broken down into simpler ones. As Polya put it: “If you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can solve: find it.”. I feel the chapter title is unfortunate because it suggests our little problems become big problems.
- On the cover, below the main title of the book, Math for Moms and Dads, there is a curious sub-sub-head, “Ages 10 and up”. Hmm – does this mean that ages of the Moms and Dads are 10 and up? Or that the book is appropriate for children in that age group? My teenage daughter also found this to be a bit strange. Having read the book, I think it is true that those over 10 would find it useful, but considering who the book is really aimed at, it may have been better as: “For those with children aged 10 and up”.
- In the section on interpreting statistical graphs, a good point is made about how publishers can distort the graphs to give a desired impression. However, the 3rd of the graphs indicates a scale that includes a negative number of jobs, which is an unlikely graph, even allowing for the dubious honesty of many marketing firms.
- In some of the basic math help, some rules are presented but there are no reasons for why the rules work the way they do. For example, in the “Subtracting Integers” section, it states that students should change the minus to adding the opposite of the integer. I imagine that many adults will wonder why it works like that.
Overall, I think Math for Moms and Dads is a valuable tool for parents of children in grades 4 to 8, and beyond. The dictionary of terms and concepts is a great idea, as are the worked examples throughout the book. There is good advice on how to remember vocabulary and how to approach math problems, especially word problems with difficult grammar and vocabulary.
I recommended this title for any parent whose children are struggling with math, and where you feel a bit lost when trying to help them. It would be especially useful for those of you who are home-schooling your children.