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Monday, January 9, 2012

1st, 2nd, 6th Grade Math in Our Homeschool: How We Got HERE

This week’s homeschool topic for the Virtual Curriculum Fair is---

Discovering Patterns: Mathematics, Logic, and some Science. This theme can include anything to do with mathematics, mathematical thinking, numbers, arithmetic, symbolic logic, critical thinking, and math-y sciences (physics, chemistry, etc.).

Make sure you check the end of this post to see all the wonderful articles that have been contributed to this topic! (Update: We are up to 21 24 posts total for this week!)

And since I don’t believe in absolute rules when it comes to education…you just might see some posts on sciences that are not so “mathy,” too. I’ve always some some trouble dividing things up into strict categories and generally only do it to fulfill our state requirements anyway. ;0)

This week, I’ll be giving you a glimpse of what we are using for mathematics in our homeschool.
Three of our kiddos are doing math this year: David (age 11), Mary (age 8), and Peter (age 6). The interesting (crazy?) thing is that each of them is using an entirely different math program! We didn’t end up here intentionally, in fact I tried really hard to use the same math program with each child, but these are 3 very different children. I’m going to start with a little history of…

How We Got to Where We are Now (or, previous Math FAILURES!)

David is in 6th grade going strictly by age, but his skills in various subjects cover a wide range of abilities. He’s definitely an individual, not fitting into the accepted “norms,” and, frankly, this has a lot to do with why we homeschool.

David attended kindergarten and first grade at a small Catholic school. He excelled in the language arts, in fact they simply couldn’t (wouldn’t?) accommodate his advanced reading and spelling. But he was bored by their colorful workbooks and what’s more, he really wasn’t getting it.

When we brought him home, we tried workbook approach for math first, because I didn’t really know yet how much it wasn’t sinking in. You see, he could do the workbook pages fine, but he didn’t really understand what he was doing. Plus, having survived and graduated from public school myself, I really didn’t know what other approach to take. Sometimes you have to learn from your mistakes.
So, in spite of spending plenty of time on addition, subtraction, telling time, “counting” money, etc., by the end of 3th grade he didn’t really know these things. He knew the mechanics. Sort of. But math facts just fell right out his head (I wouldn’t learn until further on that he has a slight learning glitch that makes transferring those facts into long-term memory more difficult). Timed quizzes were pure torture. We needed a change.

So we tried…

Math on the Level

Math on the Level is a complete math program that can be used with multiple kiddos from kindy on up to pre-algebra. To say that it was about as far as you can get from workbooks is putting it mildly. I’m not going to go into a complete description of the program today (or I’d be writing yet another book), just a brief overview of what it’s about (you can check their website for more info) and why we ended up putting it aside.

What I really love about MotL:
  • Mastery based, with built in review
  • Completely keyed to your child’s level of knowledge and maturity
    • Concepts are built on top of each other, you’ll never be teaching a topic that they haven’t gotten the proper background
    • You never have to teach topics until your child is developmentally ready for them
  • It’s possible to teach multiple-levels at the same time
  • Heavy emphasis on using real-life math and learning “adventures”
  • Sounds expensive (costs about $300 for the set, ouch), but that covers you for grades kindergarten through about 7th or 8th
  • Provides all the background material you need to actively teach the material to your kiddos
  • There’s a free forum for getting ideas and advice on using the program
Hmmm, I really do love this program and sometimes thinking about getting it back out (I do use it for reference). I’m so changeable. ;0)

Why we had to put MotL aside:

While the hands-on, teacher-intensive aspect of the program was a big selling point for me, I felt like I was constantly preparing to teach math. Plus, I had a little baby to take care of and, at that time, Peter was only 4 and not at all interested. Each day would have a teaching element, but also a review element (called “5-a-days”) where the children would practice concepts already taught. This review element was crucial for David, by the way, and the fact that it only consisted of 5 problems or questions made it as painless as possible. But, to work optimally, you have to update your reviews daily (you shuffle concepts to be reviewed daily, 2 or three times a week, weekly, etc.) to reflect materials that have been mastered and materials that need more review. This didn’t take a huge amount of time, but it was time spent each and every evening before the next school day, and that time adds up.

Plus, the program is not strictly scripted, you can’t just pick it up and teach, you need to read ahead, prepare what topics you will teach, find manipulatives and life experiences to reinforce the teaching, etc., etc. The tremendous flexibility, much as it was exactly what I thought I wanted, became a burden to me.

Plus, David still was not getting his basic math facts and I did find MotL lacking on suggestions in that area. They basically do timed drills. Just like what we did before (we used Calculadders). And he simply doesn’t learn that way (more on this in a bit and how David is finally mastering his multiplication facts).

The other side is that as much as I love the idea of a hands-on, non-traditional curriculum, 8-year-old Mary is my workbook gal. She doesn’t think it’s real math unless it’s in a workbook. Really. And finding worksheets to supplement exactly what I was teaching, while easy enough, still was a time drain (not to mention a printer ink drain).

That said, I still believe in the program, I’m just not sure I’m the one to carry if off. Especially now that that baby is 2-year-old little Miss-Chief (if you know what I mean).

We’ve also tried…

Math Mammoth
Oh, David hated that. Mary did, too. I like the way Maria makes you think in her curriculum, but the children found the pages to be too full. Not enough white space and the answer blanks were too small for their handwriting. I would have them do half-pages, but they still found it daunting.

So last year I did a ton of research. I really loved the idea of a mastery-based, hands-on curriculum, but I needed something that would tell me what to do each day. I needed to have all the manipulatives on hand. And it would be great if all the kids could use the same program. My husband and I talked it over and plunged into buying…

RightStart Math (Peter’s Math)
018I wish that I could say that this was the last stop in our elementary math journey. But RightStart was a dud for both Mary and David, and you can click over to this post to read why (no reason to repeat what I’ve already written ;0). We are using it with Peter this year and it seems to be a pretty good fit for him, because…
  • He likes using the abacus.
  • He’s a hands-on kinda kid.
  • This is the first real math program he’s done, so he’s not having to repeat stuff he knows.
  • It’s easy for me to set the pace to his speed.
  • He needs the one-on-one time to get it.
  • In addition to basic addition, months, days, time, and more are also taught.
Here’s what a typical lesson looks like:

Here’s Peter’s staircase on the abacus:
RightStart places a big emphasis on recognizing patterns. The “staircase” is a visual reminder of all the numbers that add up to 10. The abacus is not used for counting, in fact children are trained to slide beads over by complete numbers, not singly. For example, if I ask Peter to add 2 and 5, he would slide over 2 beads together, and then 5 beads (or vice versa, he knows about the commutative property, though he doesn’t know what it’s called). The bead colors (you’ll notice that for the first rows, the first five beads are blue and the second five are yellow and then it reverses for the next five rows) are designed to get them to see at a glance patterns, like that 7 is 2 more than 5.

In addition to the abacus, we also use other manipulatives including bead cards, abacus tiles (each tile represents a complete abacus, so 100 beads---this is to help demonstrate how to partition hundreds, just as you partition tens), game cards, a clock, a balance, and more.

Written work is minimal. While each level has a workbook, in the lower levels you rarely get it out and usually we just do those problems on a whiteboard. While Peter does not object to writing, it is developmentally challenging for him, so less is more.


How do you like his “ten monster?”

RightStart is, for the most part, non-consumable, you can use it over and over again. You will need to buy a new workbook for each child (unless you choose to just write the workbook problems on a whiteboard).

What I don’t like about RightStart: It’s still not really a pick up and teach curriculum. While it’s all scripted out and includes manipulatives, many of the bits and pieces need to be copied and cut out or otherwise prepared, or involve grabbing some toys or blocks from the toy bin. It’s a little messy to keep all organized. I do need to look over each lesson the night before to make sure I have all the bits and pieces and I’m a little lazy about that. And Peter needs the manipulatives. Abstractions are too abstract for him at this point.

It has been working well for Peter, with some minor tweaking. Most of the lessons (there are about 120 in the book) are meant to be completed in a day (there’s a warm-up, a review and then the new teaching), and some are intended to take 2-3 days. I’ve actually slowed down the pace much more than that with Peter. He is a young 1st grader (he turned 6 at the end of September), and somewhat delayed developmentally (maybe by a few months) due to his unique physical condition. He’s very capable of learning the material (book A would have bored him), but needs shorter sessions. Personally, with any child this age, I might divide each lesson up into 2 shorter sessions and do one in the morning and one in the afternoon, but one short session each day is best for him.

So, we are progressing through the book, but much more slowly. I would expect to finish it in about a year and half or so at our current rate.

JUMP At Home (Mary’s Math)

This program is new to the American market, it was developed in Canada. JUMP stands for Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigy. It’s a great fit for Mary. She is using Grade 2 this year, which has a little overlap, but she wasn’t quite ready for Grade 3. She is going through it at a faster pace.
JUMP looks like a black and white workbook, but it’s really more than that.


What I love:
  • It makes Mary think, something she doesn’t really like to do.
  • The emphasis is on understanding the why behind the procedure, not on memorizing a procedure.
  • She can work on it independently, one-on-one teaching is brief.
  • It’s cheap, each book is less the $20 (it is consumable).
  • Not too much on a page. The pages are clear and simple.
  • It’s more than a workbook, the front section contains a whole bunch of suggestions for games and other activities for reinforcing concepts.
Mary thinks it’s okay. She doesn’t care for the use of visuals like number lines and dots (she’s a left-brainer, abstract kinda girl). But she’s learning the material. Here’s a look at a couple of pages on adding with regrouping:

Mary also seems to be allergic to Calculadders for math facts, so for extra practice on the math facts, we supplement with Add-It, a game from the Math-It program.
The idea is to place the cards on the correct sum as quickly as possible (you can try to place them all while holding your breath for fun ;0).


David was also able to use Add-It to shore up his addition facts.

Key to Fractions (David’s Math)

We started this school year with David using Life of Fred Fractions. Much as we like the novelty of Fred, we found it to be a poor fit for David. He is concept strong, but procedurally weak, and Fred did not give him enough practice using what he’d learned. When he doesn’t use it daily, he forgets it, to the point where he needs to totally relearn it. There simply isn’t enough material in Fred to cement things for him without heavy supplementation, which we were actually doing, but in the end I found it simply wasn’t enough. It was like doing Math on the Level, making up 5-a-days without actually using Math on the Level. If I didn’t rotate the procedural things right, he would forget how to do something he had demonstrated complete mastery of just a week before.

Learning glitches stink!

But, I came to a conclusion: Life of Fred did not have enough building up of smaller concepts. And it didn’t take advantage of his strong visual memory. So we switched to Key to Fractions by Key Curriculum Press in December. I’m still reserving my opinion, but so far so good.
Fractions is just one of several topics available in the series and is covered in 4 thin books (topics vary in size, so each topic has a different number of books), plus an answer key.

What I like:
  • The topic is broken down into little chunks.
  • The books encourage David to think and truly understand why he’s doing what he’s doing.
  • Even though they are black and white, they are actually pretty visual and allow the child plenty of opportunities to color the concepts to help them stick.
  • They are cheap. I paid about $15 for the 4 workbooks and answer key from Rainbow Resource. (This is consumable)
These are from the first book. I had him start about midway into the book, which will overlap some with what he already knows, but the review won’t hurt him.


I love these strings of equal fractions. One of the procedures David really had trouble with in Fred was adding together fractions with different denominators. He could never remember how to find a common denominator. This is going to really make it click for him, I think.

In addition to Key to Fractions, David continues to work with his custom multiplication flash cards.
Using some tips from Dianne Craft, David’s cards are written in colors and each has the complete fact. He has a semi-photographic memory and the cards capitalize on that gift by helping him lock strong pictures of the facts in his head. I use 4”x6” cards. You could use 5”x8” if you want. Or colored cards. Or add vivid pictures to the facts. We tried it this way first and it seemed to be sticking so we have stuck with it.


Looking up while viewing the card helps, believe it or not.


He had a little bit of fact loss over the break, but not too much.

In the new year, David also started using Time-Travel Math: An Advanced Geometry Adventure for Grades 4-5 (I ignore grade labels, this is appropriate for his current skill level). It’s too soon to tell if this is going to work well (David’s already complaining about it, but that’s not an accurate sign ;0). This is a thinky book, it encourages him to think things out and to represent his understanding through simple diagrams and then convert them into abstract equations. Pretty sophisticated, really. And the worksheets for doing the exploratory activities are reproducible, so I’ll be able to use this with Mary when she’s older.

OK, I could talk more about the little informal things we do in math, but I’m going to stop there because I promised myself I would write less than last time. And I have. Just barely. ;0)

I invite you to bookmark this page and visit the other bloggers participating this week in the Virtual Curriculum Fair. I will link their posts here as I receive them:

Math Lapbooks---Virtual Curriculum Fair Week 2 Angie Wright @ Petra School

Virtual Curriculum Fair Week Two: Discover Patterns, Mathematics, Logic and Some Science by Leah @ The Courtney Six Homeschool

Our Choices For Math by Melissa @ Grace Christian Homeschool

A Magnificent Math Manipulative by Letha Paulk @ justpitchingmytent

Our Math Choices - Virtual Curriculum Fair by Tristan @ Our Busy Homeschool

Math Literature?!?! by Christine @ Crunchy Country Catholic

Learning Math at My House by Jessica @ Modest Mama

Math Using Hamburger Paper by Debbie @ Debbie's Digest

Math Facts or Fun? Why Not Both! by Beth @ Ozark Ramblings

Heart of Dakota- The Fine Details- Part 2 Science by Lynn @ Ladybug Chronicles

Learning Math Block by Block by Laura O in AK @ Day by Day in Our World

Plugging Along with Math by Cindy Horton @ Fenced in Family

What's Working and What's Not: Math Edition by Leann @ Montessori Tidbits

Math Anyone? by Cindy @ For One Another

Ahh, Math. by Nicole @ Schooling in the Sun

Flying Without a Parachute: Math with no Curriculum by Pam @ Everyday Snapshots

Math in Our Homeschool by Christine T @ Our Homeschool Reviews

Math, Math, and More Math by Dawn Chandler @ tractors & tire swings

Thinking Mathematically- How I Choose Math Curriculum by Kristen @ Sunrise to Sunset

Discovering Patterns: Math, Logic, and Some Science by Christa Darr @ Fairfield Corner Academy

The Science of Math by Brenda Emmett @ Garden of Learning

"Mom, did we do math today?" by Chrissy at Learning is an Adventure

Math, Math, and More Math by Joelle @ Homeschooling for His Glory


  1. We are enjoying Jump 5 this year. What I like - is that each area to introduce, it starts at the basic - you have no understanding - level and then brings you very quickly to a fifth grade level. It is comforting to me! It is surprising how many small areas were missed with understanding. Today was subtracting with borrowing, which he had down, and we skimmed through a few pages. But even Jon said - that their technique would be cool if you didn't know. Love it!

  2. I'm liking Jump alot. I was tempted to order 5 or 6 for David. Still might. I like that (at least in the 2nd grade book) there isn't any jumping around from topic to topic. They do number sense and shoot for gaining some mastery within number sense, then they move onto measurement. It's not addition one day, then measuring another, then clocks, and so on. It's easy to get confused with some math curricula where you constantly have to "switch gears," kwim?

  3. I'm partial to Math On The Level - but I'm not actually TEACHING Daughter anything right now. She's 2.

    It was really nice reading what you had to say about it - indeed it must be very intensive.

    And good to hear that your daughter really likes workbooks. So many people push the "relevance" in math instead of looking at what the kiddos want. Some kids want worksheets!

    This post along with the links you're including from others is an awesome collection of math curriculum reviews. I'm going to post this on my site in the resources!

    Thanks so much!
    Bon the Math Mom

  4. Thank you, Bon! That's what the Virtual Curriculum Fair is all about, sharing experiences and ideas.

  5. What a journey! You are right we have lots on common. I will keep an eye on keys to for my oldest as we move up in the grades.

  6. Yup. That's my MOTL issue. I really wish they had a Five A Day App for the iPad. Just add any new concepts your to the review list and the app provides the problems, checks the answers, and moves the concepts to the proper review rotation. How cool would that be? But I do really need to pull out the manuals and have a look again.

  7. Joelle,
    I noticed that a couple of other bloggers talked about Key To in their posts, too. We are liking it so far, but just started with it, so I'll probably post an updated at some point.

  8. Pam,
    A 5-A-Day App, would be great, wouldn't it? Except I'd need one for Android. ;0) There just has to be a "better" way to keep it all organized. And I was only creating 5-a-Days for one of my kids, doing it for 3 would be even harder.

  9. Great post! I have a friend that loves Life of Fred, but I have not looked into yet. I like the way Time-Travel Math sounds. I think that one of the hardest things for me to grasp is the abstract parts of math. I will have to add that to my list of math programs to check out next year.

    Thank you for hosting the Curriculum Fair. :)

  10. Thanks, Joi! I'll have to write something when we get further into the Time-Travel Math. All sorts of interesting things in there. Like Tesselations. The body proportions Da Vinci discovered.

  11. Susan, I REALLY enjoyed reading this! As you know from my post, math is something we have struggled with continually. I'm currently happy with how Math on the Level is working for the boys. I spend about 1 1/2 hours every weekend updating their review charts and creating the 5-a-Day pages for the upcoming week. I don't do a daily update like you mentioned here. Even so, I really really liked reading about the other items, especially Right Start and Life of Fred. I've thought about buying Life of Fred for upper level math, but I sure would like to see copies of it before I buy.

  12. So happy to hear that you enjoyed it, Cindy. It always concerns me when a post approaches 3000 words. Gulp! 3000 words! Who has time to read that!?