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Math for the Reluctant Learner

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By Beth Waltman

It can be challenging to make math appealing to all learners. There are some children who have mental blocks about their own ability to do math, or who may just not care for math. They might find it boring and say it doesn't relate to real life. The homeschool parent’s job is to stimulate curiosity, showing that math has answers for pertinent questions.

One strategy is to use contextualization, connecting lessons to the ordinary lives of children. As each skill or concept is learned, the parent can conduct more of a dialogue than a lecture with his or her child, asking how he or she might use the new material to figure out a real life problem. As children learn to talk about math, especially if they have been trained not to speak unless they have a “right” answer, they will become more engaged with mathematics.

Another is to design challenging activities. Problems can be designed to challenge children’s thinking, to get them to continue to puzzle over them, and really gain a grasp of the material. One possible problem for a 6th grader might be to propose that the family purchase a pet. Ask the child to choose a pet to research. Give them a week to research how much it will cost, how much feed will cost, what kind of enclosure is needed, and what can be learned from this pet. Ask them what else they might need to know mathematically about a pet. Answers should include:

How much will a cage cost?
Will it need special lights? If so, how much will they be?
Is the animal itself expensive?
How much will food cost per month? Per year?
How much will bedding or substrate cost?
How much room will the cage take up?
As the animal grows, will it need a bigger space?
If all children in your family share the total cost of the animal, how much should each child pay?
Who will clean up after it? How often will it need to be cleaned?

To answer all these questions, children might need to design budgets and calendars. A comparison chart could be designed to compare the purchasing, care, and feeding cost of a variety of animals.
A project like this one will usually engage even children who don’t enjoy math. This shows the practical connection of math to accomplishing plans. Also, children should use writing to explain their thinking about the cost of things. This exercise also addresses issues such as responsibility and the practical aspects of pet ownership.

Another example of this kind of activity is planning an imaginary party. In doing so, children will follow six steps to answer a variety of questions that require math processes. For instance, one step can propose, “You plan to make punch for 20 people. How many gallons of liquid will you need if everyone drinks two cups each?” “You have to drive 45 miles to go to the party. If the party is at 6 o’clock, and you are allowed to travel 60 miles per hour, what time should you leave? What if it rains? What if it snows and you can only go 30 miles per hour?” Then, the parent can say, “I forgot to tell you—the party will be in a country that uses all metric measurements. Convert all your measurements.” The more visual the projects are, the better. For questions about distance you can use a wall map or atlas. If you are discussing gallons and cups, give your children a one-cup measuring cup, a gallon pitcher of water, and a 5-gallon bucket for pouring.

You can also use visual organizers to stimulate curiosity in math. These also aid in comparing and contrasting. You can show students how to design charts and graphs, which are especially dramatic using a computer graphing software. They can chart, for instance, the depth of a local lake and how the rainfall is varying the level. They can make a bar graph or pie graph showing where they spend their money, perhaps planning a budget of their babysitting cash. Graphs make quantities and comparisons come alive. Kids could also make pie graphs showing where the family spends money, such as groceries, housing, clothing, entertainment, insurance, or medical expenses.

Copyright ©  2004  Eclectic Homeschool Association

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