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Are You Mathphobic?

I don’t know about you, but I’m claustrophobic, aviatophobic and aquaphobic, which means I’m afraid of enclosed spaces, flying and drowning. That’s why you’ll never catch me flying to Miami so I can board a ship for an around-the-world cruise. But one fear I don’t have that many people do is arithmophobia, which is the fear of arithmetic. For the sake of simplicity, let’s call those people mathphobic.

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Many homeschooling parents are mathphobic. They’re cool with teaching their little ones their numbers, and even simple addition and subtraction. But go much past that and the possibilities scare them silly. Long division? Who remembers it and why should we, they ask. That’s why God led someone to invent the calculator! And don’t even bring up the A word (algebra). They can’t bear to go there. Like Scarlett O’Hara, they’ll think about that tomorrow.

Math curriculum publishers don’t do much to quell the mathphobic parent’s fears. Some math programs are pretty overwhelming in and of themselves, without even considering the subject matter. In order to make the program work, you need to watch instructional DVDs, buy additional manuals, or go to informative seminars. Not too intimidating! But like the subject itself, teaching math doesn’t have to be intimidating unless we make it so.

In Free at Last; The Sudbury Valley School, Daniel Greenberg relates the story of a dozen 9-to-12-year-olds at the school who decided they wanted to learn arithmetic. Since the school was set up to be a place where children learn on their own timetable, these children had never been taught arithmetic because they had not expressed any interest in learning about it up until then. So Greenberg found an 1898 math primer that included plenty of exercises for self-study, and set up arithmetic classes twice a week for as long as it took the children to learn basic math. Each class lasted 30 minutes, and then the children were sent off with exercises to do on their own time, which they would hand in at the next class.

Once the children had mastered addition, subtraction, multiplication (including memorization of the multiplication tables), division, fractions, decimals, percentages and square roots, Greenberg tallied up the total classroom hours. The total was 20 hours.

Somewhat shocked, Greenberg consulted a public school math specialist who told him that twenty hours was about right for interested students, because math really isn’t that difficult. He said teaching math took six years or more in the public schools because the students were unwilling and disinterested, and so it had to be fed to them in small doses over a long time.

I did not read Greenberg’s book until long after I had begun homeschooling my children, but I wish I’d read it sooner. I probably spent too many years teaching my kids math when it could have been done more efficiently. But do I know they spent far fewer hours learning math than kids in formal school, and they came through just fine. My eldest studied math up through algebra and geometry, while her younger brother completed Algebra 2 at home before taking calculus at our community college. 

People have asked me how I managed to teach my children high-school-level math when I don’t have a math background. I remind them that I started at the beginning with my kids and worked along with them from the early years through high school. I relearned math three times with my three older kids, and let me tell you, it all comes back to you. Math actually makes far more sense to me now than it did when I was the student. I especially appreciate how everything fits together; the kids have made fun of me for thinking geometry proofs are fun. But I’ve seen them get into proofs too, whether they’ll admit it or not.

When we first began homeschooling, we used a formal math curriculum designed for private schools. It was overflowing with busywork, and soon made my kids math-haters. But once I switched to Miquon Math (along with a box of beautifully colored wooden Cuisinaire rods), they discovered that math could be fun and interesting. After they completed the six Miquon books, I began using Saxon 54 with them, and we worked our way through the upper-level Saxon series (skipping books and lessons as necessary), which they finished in their mid-teens. I used a separate geometry course for them because most high schools where we lived at that time offered geometry as a separate course.

I think most parents are capable of teaching their children high-school-level math if they’ve relearned math as I have. But I’m not so sure all students need to learn as much math in high school as my son did. He was college-bound and thought he would be going into computer science, so he studied math much longer than his older sister did. She didn’t want to go to college, so she quit studying math after Geometry, except for a math refresher book that I had her use senior year. Now in her mid-twenties, she is very good in math and was in charge of the payroll and cash office at her last job.

If your children are college-bound, you’ll want to make sure math is a part of their studies well into high school, but even then, it depends on their major. As it turned out, my son ended up getting his degree in Theological Languages, so his time spent slogging through calculus was unnecessary. You can probably stop after algebra and geometry unless your child is gifted in the math and science arena and needs to be challenged. In that case, you can find instructors in advanced math topics at your local community college or in a good online school.

No matter what level of math you’re teaching, you’ll find lots of help online. One particular favorite of mine is a blog, “Let’s Play Math,” by homeschooling mom Denise, who has taught every level of math from Pre-K to college physics. She not only shares a wide variety of math resources, but also encourages questions from other homeschool parents. Bookmark this site:

 http://letsplaymath.wordpress.com

 Be sure to visit her extensive list of math resources while you’re there:

http://letsplaymath.wordpress.com/free-mostly-math-resources-on-the-internet

There’s plenty there to help you, and an online search of math helps will give you even more to work with. But while you’re pulling all these things together, remember that your child can pick up any mathphobia you might have; it is catchy, you know. Make sure you approach math with a positive attitude, and your child will be much more likely to enjoy learning math and to take off with it. Maybe someday you’ll find yourself in the position I was with my son, watching him tackle and succeed at something I never could: calculus! 

Copyright 2007 Barbara Frank/Cardamom Publishers

Barbara Frank is the mother of four homeschooled-from-birth children ages 14-24, a freelance writer/editor, and the author of “Life Prep for Homeschooled Teenagers, “The Imperfect Homeschooler’s Guide to Homeschooling,”and “Homeschooling Your Teenagers.” To visit her Web site, “The Imperfect Homeschooler,” go to www.cardamompublishers.com. 

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