In my last post, I mentioned how in Ian’s first year of homeschooling we chose not to follow a traditional math curriculum, and instead just noodled around finding fun math stuff to explore. Today I’ll talk about some of the books we discovered; in my next post, I’ll share some media resources.
We started with the Great Mathemagician, Arthur Benjamin, whom we had seen perform the previous summer. A professor at Harvey Mudd College, Benjamin also tours the nation giving delightful performances that showcase his incredible ability in mental math. He starts small, squaring two-digit numbers, and eventually works his way up to squaring a five digit number, all in his head. He also has a mental method of figuring what day of the week any calendar date falls on, whether it’s in the past or future. He has a great time telling folks in the audience what day of the week their birth date was. It’s super fun, and you should check out his show, which I’ve conveniently embedded below.
Ian of course thought this was Epic, so we picked up his book Secrets of Mental Math, and for the first six months of homeschool, slowly worked our way through it. We held math class at the scenic university student lounge, overlooking miles of gentle hills and a spectacular, windy river. He was nine years old then. We read the lessons together, and I gave him problems to solve in his head. He paced all over that lounge, muttering and holding out his fingers. But nobody was there to witness it – at 8 am, most university students were either in bed or in class. Oh, and by the way, I always brought some hot apple cider and some little delectable munchie, and we would take breaks at the lounge ping-pong table. Really, those math classes were such a blast.
Over the months, we worked pretty far into the book. We never could master the biggest problems – even though Benjamin shares his secrets, he’s still quite simply a mathematical genius, and it takes a bit of time and talent to achieve what he has – but Ian picked up some fantastic mental math skills that will help him throughout his life. And it was FUN!
A genre of books I love to dig through is math fiction. There really are more great titles out there than most people realize, and they provide a great way to introduce or reinforce mathematical concepts in a friendly, entertaining format. Ian enjoyed The Number Devil by Hans Magnus Enzensberger – it’s a nice mix of good story, and colorful, fun illustrations. He also liked the Do the Math Series by Wendy Lichtman.
And then there are the Murderous Maths books, which Ian simply loves. They’re affordable paperbacks produced in the UK, but you can get them from my friend Ray at his website (tell him Gwyn sent you!). The Murderous Maths books explore math concepts with a wonderful British sense of humor; they’re made by the same folks who put out the Horrible History series (another must-have). We picked up the box set a couple of years back, and Ian goes back to them again and again.
I’m terribly excited to order the forthcoming Manga Guide to Linear Algebra, to be released in March of this year. The Manga Guide series is great, and I’m glad they’re releasing new titles. The books are mainly told in the manga style, neatly combining story with educational concepts. There are also sections of non-illustrated text to further explain the more difficult topics.
But perhaps your little math student is, well, a bit more little. No worries! The fun non-boring math genre is dominated by cute picture books geared toward the K-6 crowd. Let’s continue with our Manga theme by checking out Simon Basher’s Math: A Book You Can Count On. It features a simple layout of math concepts that will appeal to fans of trading card games and comic books. And there’s a cool tear-out poster in the back. We own tons of the Basher books, and their included posters are scattered all over the classroom. Chemistry, biology, rocks and minerals, space… they’ve got it covered.
I’m going to be honest here: the best way to find fun math selections (especially for your younger student) is to go to your public library and ask for them. At the branch where I work, we tend to put the math fiction in with the math non-fiction, particularly when the fiction is written specifically to demonstrate a particular concept. Sit. Spread out. Peruse. And don’t forget to do catalog searches. Ask your friendly librarian for help. Personally, I love those kinds of requests and will load an innocent patron down with more books than they can carry. I’ll include a few quick titles and series here, but honestly, there are simply too many to list.
Tang has a fun picture book series that teaches simple concepts. Why Pi? is a fabulous title by DK Publishing. Go Figure: The Book of Numbers by Johnny Ball (also published by DK) is equally fun. Lots of kids (though not necessarily mine) also enjoy the Sir Cumference series by Cindy Neuschwander.
And then there are the picture books about specific awesome mathematicians! Must reads include What’s Your Angle, Pythagorus? by Julie Ellis (she apparently has a follow-up title released in 2010) and Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci by Joseph D’Agnese.
Now for the activity books and kits. Eva and I enjoyed the Hooked on Math kits that covered addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.They’re pretty expensive, so again, ask your library if they carry them, and if they don’t, make a formal request. That’s how we used them.
As a general library patron, I have access not only to my local branch, but to materials located in libraries throughout our system, including our local university. And if I can’t what I need there, for a small fee I can request from any library across the nation. As a home educator, I can also check out materials through the public school district’s media library. Using all of these resources, I can get my hands on all sorts of expensive kits and equipment. I like using hands-on materials, but my budget is small. And, who really needs to own a full set of base-10 blocks? I found kits available on almost every math topic. The kids love opening up the treasures and playing the games inside.
I will add two final resources (is your head swimming yet?). The Critical Thinking Company produces lots of great puzzles that challenge kids in reading, math, and logic comprehension. Often we’ll solve these over lunch, on a white board of course. And if you still need more, check out EAI Education. They have catalogs packed with more math toys than you could possibly ever use (and frankly I will say for both of these companies, request a catalog – they’re much easier on the eyes than their websites). Have fun!
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