Cobbling Together Math

I thought I’d write a little bit about Mushroom’s math approach this year since we’ve moved away from using any one program. BalletBoy is using Math in Focus 5 with a little bit of extra word problems from Ed Zaccaro’s Upper Elementary Challenge Math and Fan Math’s Process Skills in Problem Solving thrown in. However, I have to admit that I’m having massively more fun teaching Mushroom.

I think math is the one place where a lot of people are afraid to move away from using a central text. Even some families that otherwise unschool have a single math text that they work their way through. I totally get that. There are many great math programs out there and while most of us do have elementary math pretty well mastered enough to teach any topic cold, remembering exactly what all those topics are in a logical order and making up practice problems is a huge amount of work compared to subjects that are more content based, like history, or more spiral, like writing. Forging your own way with math definitely isn’t for everyone.

However, since we finished Miquon Math nearly two years ago now, Mushroom hasn’t really found a new “math home.” He’s always been my more fussy math student. He needs a challenge, but he isn’t a math whiz exactly either. He likes math to be thought provoking and finds algorithms too easy, but he has also struggled to memorize his math facts and master word problems. He’s a tricky student to be sure. My goal for this year was to have him ready for pre-algebra at the end of the year. With that in mind, I knew he needed to practice more with fractions and decimals, learn about ratios and proportion, cover elementary statistics concepts like mean, median, mode and range, learn about percentages, introduce integers, and continue to work on fluency with math facts, geometry concepts, and converting units of measurement. However, no one program seemed to meet his needs, so I’ve put a bunch of stuff in a blender for him.

I know that a lot of people feel nervous about throwing math together and I admit that I was in that category just a couple of years ago. There are a lot of cries that things will fall through the cracks, which is, admittedly, a bigger problem in math than other subjects. However, this kid, with his need to alternate between easier and harder resources, just seemed to cry out for it and I’ve gotten much more comfortable with it as we’ve done it more and more. I still wouldn’t want to be in the position of making math up from scratch entirely. But I’m a lot less worried about “missing something” than I used to be. Overall, I think math can be done this way, the way many of us throw together science or history or writing pulling from lots of different idea books and resources.

Here’s what’s on Mushroom’s plate in alternating servings:

Beast Academy
We continue to adore this program. If you don’t know it, it’s a program intended to be challenging to encourage “mathy” kids made by the same people as the Art of Problem Solving textbooks. The textbook is a graphic novel featuring an assortment of “little monsters” who attend Beast Academy. It tells ongoing stories of their friendships and classes. The story isn’t much, but the characters are actually very strong, which is pretty amazing for a math textbook. And the math it covers is incredibly deep. In the practice book, there are simple problems that lead into tricky ones and there are lots of clever puzzles. I fervently wish that we could have used it from the start to the finish, but the program is so new that the books simply haven’t kept pace for us. Still, there are things to learn in there for him. Mushroom just wrapped up using parts of 4B and 4C is due out in a few weeks. We may go back and use a few pages of the division section in 4B. It’s a good illustration of how the Beast books are now both remedial and challenging for him and therefore why we continue to use them but why they can’t be his only program. On the one hand, the explanation of long division is something he’s way beyond. On the other hand, there are divisibility tricks he could use more practice with and some good practice problems, such as with division and variables.

NCERT/CBSE class 6 Mathematics book MathematicsNCERT Mathematics
Haven’t heard of this program? It’s the national textbooks of India, which you can find free online. They have many different texts online, including social studies and English, but it’s probably the math program, which goes from first through twelfth grades that would be of potentially the most interest to American homeschoolers. Indian grade levels do correspond roughly to American ones, so that’s simple enough. There are some differences in terminology, but so far the ones we’ve encountered have been pretty minor, such as “Highest Common Factor” instead of “Greatest Common Factor.” The one big thing to note is that the Indian math system places commas in different places, but it’s not too confusing. It only took Mushroom one double take to get it (if you’re interested in Indian math notation – because who wouldn’t be! – this is a great quick explanation). Of course, there are also cultural differences such as Indian names and food mentioned in word problems. Just the other day, Mushroom had a problem that was about how many runs per over Arup had. It wasn’t until he had solved the problem that it suddenly dawned on me that it was talking about cricket. In any case, we’ve mostly found this small cultural encounter more charming than confusing so don’t let it deter you.

We never used the elementary program, called Math-magic, though it looked really cute. I started trying out the sixth grade text with Mushroom this year. I love the presentation. The text is written to the student in a narrative that isn’t too talkative but also isn’t so technical that it’s not engaging. There are “Try this” examples of easier problems explained in sidebars as you read about the concepts. Then there is a short set of exercises to practice the concepts. The problems are very well constructed such to help students understand the concepts. The whole presentation is really based on a less is more approach, with an in depth text and a minimal number of practice problems. Overall I’ve been extremely pleased and we’ll probably pull some more chapters. If anyone is looking to use these as a supplement, the upper level books all end with a short set of brain teaser math problems that could be a good resource.

Key to Math
This set of workbooks is, in a way, the opposite of the sort of math I usually gravitate toward. These do introduce concepts, but they’re really about mastering algorithms more than understanding and thinking deeply. However, sometimes that’s a useful thing to practice division with fractions or decimals. These are an easy resource and have been useful for me to pull from when we need something simple for practice. They’re flimsy, thin individual topic books with a nice, simple design.

Middle School Math with Pizzazz
This is an older series of workbooks which you can easily find online. They’re not a full program, but rather practice pages for specific skills. The answers always give clues to a joke. The jokes are all groaners, but in a sort of good way for kids who appreciate puns. I’ve been pulling some practice for fractions and ratios for Mushroom from these. They’re a really useful free resource.

Review Math
I wanted to do something else focused on practicing and getting algorithms down. I specifically wanted something that was mixed review and not many problems that it wouldn’t be a very quick thing for just a couple of times a week, so this is what I found. There’s so many resources out there for review math so I don’t necessarily think this one is the best, but this one suited us. We’ve been using the sixth and seventh grade review pages mostly.

Upper Elementary Challenge Math
This Ed Zaccaro book is all word problems intended for this age group. Problems are in four levels, from warmup to genius. Each topic has them grouped twice, once by the type of problem and once by the level. It’s a nice flexibility, and like all the Zaccaro books, it’s a challenging, solid set of problems.

Fun Stuff
Both Mushroom and BalletBoy have been doing math projects for school (more about those in a future post). Our biggest math projects have been the playgrounds we designed and the giant object they made, both of which explored ratios and measurement, however we’ve also done tessellation projects and a few others. And as always, we continue to read living math books. We’re slowly working our way through the Murderous Maths series. Savage Shapes was by far the favorite here and we’re planning to tackle Do You Feel Lucky? in the nearish future in conjunction with studying a little bit of probability. I’ve mostly been scheduling these topics for Mushroom and letting BalletBoy tag along.

6 thoughts on “Cobbling Together Math

  1. Great resources!
    A surprising number of people are scared of maths. I think that helping children have fun with maths may help avoid this.
    We use a variety of maths resources too, but my favourite bit is the hands on projects that show the boys how much fun maths can be.

  2. Thanks for this post, some really interesting programs here. I had a look at the Beast Academy website and their placement tests. They look quite complex for a 3rd grader. I have a 5th grader who I think might be challenged even by 3a. Some of the sample problems in 4b I didn’t cover until high school! Have you found them to be more advanced? By comparison, I had a look at the daily math practice link you posted and he could easily do the 5th grade problems there. I was a bit put off by the number of errors they mention. Has this been a problem?
    I’ve never used a math curriculum, always cobbled math lessons together myself using a variety of different resources. I think I’m a bit lost at sea with math because I keep buying more stuff that we don’t end up using. I’m so desperate to make it more interesting because I found it so boring at school so keep flitting from one thing to another in search of the “perfect” program/lessons and in the process spending way too much money, not to mention piling up stuff we’re not using! So I really shouldn’t be looking at yet another math resource BUT I think he would really like this. I’m curious, can you write some more about how you use lots of different resources, that is, do you just alternate one resource after another, or have a plan for doing certain things on certain days? How much time do your children spend on math each day/week? And how do you keep track of what they have learnt or need more review on etc?
    Thank you!

    1. Yes, the goal of Beast Academy is to be challenging. Some of the work is really difficult, especially in the chapters on squares and shapes in level 3. Other things are really on grade level. It’s an interesting mix. You’re right that the review math is super easy – I think the goal is for it to be easy. I have him doing the seventh grade ones and it’s still pretty simple. But that’s really part of our approach and what works for this kid – alternating between easy and hard. I haven’t seen any errors in Beast (I know there’s an errata list, but really, it’s minor stuff). The publisher is really high quality, serious math folks. The errors I saw were in Pizzazz Math, but they’re also pretty minor overall.

      My kids each do math for nearly an hour a day. Plus we do math projects and math read alouds, but not every day, more like once or twice a week. I feel pretty confident just “doing the next thing.” When it turns out they’re struggling with something and we need to back up, I do that. I tend to alternate resources for Mushroom from day to day, though we’ll often get on a train of doing a little of something every day until a topic is finished. For example, the NCERT chapter we just finished was something we did every other day until we had discussed it and he’d done all the problems. But now we’ll probably take a break and not do anything from NCERT for at least a couple of weeks. I pulled out some of the Key to Math stuff he didn’t finish with practicing division and other concepts with decimals again and we had not looked at that in about a month.

      I wish I could say that I had a grand plan or a clear method, but mostly I’m just winging it. I did make a list of the concepts we should work on, but other than that, I’m mostly just assuming that time on math is time well spent as long as I see him happy with it and challenged at least half the time. I mostly just trust that it’s all going to work out.

      I have another post that’s half finished about resources for math projects that’s probably of interest to folks as well. 🙂

      1. Yes I can relate to winging it and not having a grand plan – well, one that doesn’t change constantly! From time to time I worry about this ad hoc method but my ds loves math, so I just take that as we must be doing something right! Thank you for responding to my questions so quickly – I am a new reader and am enjoying your blog. Best, Cathy

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