Learning to Love Math

posted by Beret

I love math.

It’s possible I love it because I had a very handsome math teacher.

More likely, it’s because I had a very handsome, very effective math teacher at an impressionable age. Junior High was such a wasteland of raging hormones, brutal social cliques, and boring grammatical exercises;  Mr. W. was like a shining star in the midst of it all. Unfortunately for him, we loved him eighth-grade style; we were constantly doing ridiculous things to get his attention. One day we spoke without making a sound–just mouthed words–for the entire class period. Once we stacked the desks in a pile and sat on the floor in a circle, like kindergartners. But Mr. W. was well acquainted with thirteen-year-olds, and remained completely unfazed. Not only did he maintain his sense of humor, he doggedly plowed through the equations, vividly illustrating the meaning of X with his wacky stories and chalk drawings of widget factories. Thanks to Mr. W., algebra still makes happy sense to me and everyone else who drove him crazy.

Someone killed math for a lot of people, which is a crying shame. If your child hates math, though, it might not be their teacher’s fault. It might not even be because of you and your own math badditude. It might just be the way our culture seems to throw up their hands in the face of it. People make jokes about their inability to do math in a way that they would never, ever do about reading. They dismiss the ability to calculate by pointing to the computer and asking, “why bother?”   

Well, let’s see. You can know immediately if you are being ripped off at the grocery store. You can do your taxes. You can determine how much you will save if you refinance. You can figure out how long it will take your coffee to cool to the perfect drinking temperature, or what dimensions will maximize the area of your yard/patio/car/yurt. Hey, my calculus is a little rusty, but a few visits to Khan Academy, and I’ll be good to go.

While I agree with the philosophy that children need a very deep sense of ten before they can truly understand bigger numbers and the base-ten system as a whole, I am curious why we save certain concepts and numbers until they reach a particular age. That’s one reason Khan Academy is a beautiful thing. Nothing fancy, just simple chalkboard explanations and the opportunity to practice. Then, when you master a concept, you can progress at your own pace. It’s good for people aged nine to ninety-nine, and folks are definitely making use of the 3,000+ educational videos. Some districts are even piloting its use in the schools, but why wait? It’s free and out there for everyone. It starts with addition, and builds to…you name it: differential equations, linear algebra, alternate coordinate systems…and now includes organic chemistry, physics, economics, and finance!

If you are trying to limit screen time, or if your child is too young for Khan-style exercises, there are a lot of great books out there to introduce higher level math concepts to young children. Just because they can’t do long division, doesn’t mean they can’t or shouldn’t talk about division at all.

The Doorbell Rang

Ages four and up.

Case in point, The Doorbell Rang, by Pat Hutchins, addresses division very clearly and simply; all that is missing is the actual term “DIVISION.” Are we scared of that word? How empowering to let a five or six year old know that if they can follow the story, if they can fairly share cookies amongst their friends, then they have a handle on the concept of division already.


Similarly, Anno’s Mysterious Multiplying Jar, by Masaichiro and Misumasa Anno, is a picture book which introduces the concept of factorials and a notion of the size of very large numbers, both of which are usually saved for older math students, but is recommended for ages four and up. It also provides a conceptual bridge from concrete to the abstract.

Marilyn Burns is my math teaching goddess. She has written all kinds of great books, including The I Hate Mathematics! Book, Math for Smarty Pants, a fantastic series designed for teachers, but good for parents, too, called Math by all Means, as well as the Marilyn Burns Brainy Day books, a couple of which I describe below.


The King’s Commissioners investigates multiplication and division, but also introduces the idea that there may be more than one correct answer, and many ways to take apart a number that is not neatly divisible (without a remainder). Recommended for grades 2-4.

Greedy book

The Greedy Triangle is all about polygons, and introduces delicious words like quadrilateral, pentagon, and hexagon in a completely painless and well-illustrated way. Recommended for ages 4-9.

All of her Brainy Day Books have a couple of pages in the back to discuss the mathematics for parents and teachers, as well as ideas for extension activities. There are also millions of good math lessons surrounding all of the books I included in this post. Just Google one and see what I mean. Dive in!

And, hey! If you know of a great math book, website, activity, or any way at all to instill a healthy respect for math, by all means, let us know.


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