Archive for September, 2012


Life of Fred

life of fred

 

I’m starting a new category called “Favorite Things,” and as I promised a post some time back about the Life of Fred math books, I’ll start there.

I kept hearing mention of this strangely titled set of math books by Dr. Stanley Schmidt on the fantastic, wisdom-filled Well-Trained Mind forum.  One poster there said she couldn’t image her child putting Life of Fred on an MIT college application, but I actually think if anyone at MIT ever heard of Life of Fred, he’d love it and laugh outloud with the rest of us.

Back to Fred.  I kept hearing mention of Fred, but I found it hard to take a math book called Life of Fred very seriously.  Yet we gave it a try, and it is an all-time favorite for two of my boys, and my next oldest daughter can’t wait until she is old enough for Fred too.  Why are my children so excited about a bunch of math books, you may ask?  It’s funnyReally, really funny in a Far-side meets Monte Python sort of way.  I will say that the humor is sometimes dark in a way that wouldn’t appeal to some, but it never seems to be impure or violent.  A lot of it makes you say “poor Fred” as you laugh at his capers.

Poor little Fred is  a brilliant 5-year-old mathematician who teaches at a university, and along with the ongoing story of his life are problems where Fred (and the math student) solve problems that come up in his life using mathematics.  And this isn’t just 30-problems-of-the-same-type kind of math.  There are fewer problems than other math books we used, but each one is different and impossible to solve without understanding the concepts that were being taught in that chapter while continuing to use concepts from prior chapters.

The author, Dr. Stanley Schmidt, is a retired math professor who “invented” Fred while teaching university math.  I believe the calculus book was the first one he wrote.  What amazes me is that he is actually available to answer questions by email.  My oldest son has taken him up on this offer several times and has always received a prompt and courteous reply.  I would have to say that these books are single-handedly (if books had hands) responsible for the fact that this son wants to pursue a career in math.

The books now include a full series from kindergarten or first grade through calculus and beyond to statistics and linear algebra.  His website can be found at http://www.stanleyschmidt.com/FredGauss/index2.html.

At least one person in our family has used each of the following books:  Apples, Butterfies, Fractions, Decimals and Percentages, Prealgebra 1 with Biology, Prealgebra 2 with Economics, Beginning Algebra, Advanced Algebra, and Geometry.  Trigonometry is on order right now.

I have two downsides that I want to mention.  First of all, although my little guys liked Apples and Butterflies, I personally could not see using the elementary series alone without a more typical arithmetic curriculum.  They made a fun supplement, and I get why he created them, but we decided not to continue through the elementary series for the time being.

Before writing those, he said that a child was ready to start the Fractions book as soon as he had mastered adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing, and he makes it very clear that he thinks math should be studied with joy and not dread.  I don’t think that he really saw arithmetic books as necessary means to those ends, and I suspect that he wrote the elementary books to save a generation or two of children from dreading math through the use of long, rote arithmetic lessons.  I agree, and I think that for my children, the thought of 50 problems in Saxon would be dreadful indeed (not for some, I realize).  Still, I think there is a happy medium to be had there.  If I had to pick only Saxon or Life of Fred, though, for grammar-aged students, I would probably go for Fred.  Nonetheless, I would tend to recommend either Horizons or, better still, Math Mammoth for elementary arithmetic because they offer enough practice and very clear, step-by-step teaching.  As I mentioned above, we stopped using the elementary books after the first tw0 just because time was short.  We liked them, but I didn’t think they could stand alone.

The other downside is this:  Fred would not be a good fit for a young person who thinks very literally because sometimes Dr. Schmidt makes small leaps from point to point without really making the way clear.  This works well and may even be a good challenge for a some, but for a student who really needs math to be laid out in a very clear, stepwise fashion, this may not be the series to choose.  If you aren’t sure, you might try getting the book for your child’s level during the summer or as a supplement and see if it works for him or her.  My 2nd oldest son did the prealgebra books as his bedtime reading by his own choice, so if you think there’s no way you could get your child to do yet another mathematical task, you might be surprised!

Oh–one other great feature–the books are actually priced reasonably.  As I write this, they range between $16 for the elementary books and $39 for Calculus and Statistics.

If you are searching for a way to help develop students who are both highly capable in math and actually love it, Fred just might be the ticket.

In my last post, I mentioned that my mom recently sent me an article from The Wall Street Journal reviewing a book called Our Year of Learning Dangerously.  What I didn’t mention was what my mom wrote at the bottom corner of the article–“You should write a book.”  I don’t know if I really could or not, but it sure was nice of my mom to suggest. 

You see, when we started this homeschooling adventure 12 years ago (or 17 years ago given that we planned to do it from the time our eldest daughter was a baby), our parents thought we were nuts.  They never said it outloud to us, and for that I am grateful, but nonetheless it’s true.  Now, I don’t know if we have the full support of 100% of our respective families, but I can say this at least.  After keeping up with the news and keeping up with her grandkids, my mom is now our biggest supporter.

So if your parents or other relatives think you’re nuts for homeschooling your kids, that’s okay.  They probably already think you’re nuts for trying to live your faith or trying to eat nourishing foods or wanting a farm or whatever else may be true about you.  Give them a few years to get used to the idea without making a big deal out of it.  And give them a chance to watch your kids grow up without using the word “like” 3 times in every sentence or idolizing Hannah Montana (or is that out of date already?).  Give them a chance to see children who have interests related to who God made them to be, not just the latest craze of their peers.  Give them a chance to get to know your children who, more than likely, actually enjoy reading good books.  Give them a chance to to know your children who actually want to do what is virtuous because it is pleasing to God.

They’ll come around.

Lately, I have been following a few blogs that bring up homeschooling from a “been there, done that” perspective.  These are great Catholic Moms who tried homeschooling for a while and decided it wasn’t for them, and that’s fine.  My mother also sent me an article from the Wall Street Journal about a book called The Year of Learning Dangerously written by a mom who homeschooled her daughter for a year, that it was a good year, and that she’d never do it again.

That brings me to my topic.  Homeschooling is hard, especially if you have a big family or babies or preschoolers or you’re taking children out of school after a few years of being used to having a few hours of peace and quiet or you’re going from 2 incomes to 1 in order to do it.  So when is it not hard, you may ask?  But then, almost everything worth doing is challenging, isn’t it?

I am not saying that homeschooling is the only way to provide a good education for your children.  Not at all.  It is the way my husband and I (and the older kids too at this point) have chosen, but there are lots of other reasonable options out there.  Of course, I wouldn’t have this website if I weren’t biased toward homeschooling as a very good option and, at least some of the time, the best option.

Lots of really great people out there talk about making the decision to homeschool a year at a time, and I think that’s a good idea overall.  However, what I really want to point out is that the first year of homeschooling is the hardest by far.  Here’s why:

  1. You have to get used to having your children around you 24/7.
  2. You lose a lot of time that used to be available for other things.
  3. You discover that you often have to decide which is more important at the moment–spelling or doing a load of laundry.  The answer varies day by day.
  4. The kids never leave (except for the 15 or so outside activities each week), so their toys/books/art supplies/science experiments are always there.
  5. If your kids were in school before you started homeschooling and unless you have already won their respect at a level far beyond the average parent in today’s society, you may find they don’t take you very seriously as a teacher.  After all, you’re Mom (or Dad), and in our society that carries less weight than the real teacher in a real school.

These are real problems, but it does get easier, or maybe–and better still–we get stronger.  We as parents grow in virtue and organization and die to self as we go about this homeschooling adventure.  We have to, and that’s good.  Look back at your own life and ask if you could have handled whatever your toughest challenge is now when you were 10 years younger.  I bet most people who read this will say that there are things they do or put up with now that, while not easy, are possible now through God’s grace and their own efforts as well.

For that reason, I suggest that instead of giving it a year the first year you homeschool, commit to homeschooling for two years instead and then revisit the decision every year after that.  This is, of course, assuming no enormous change happens in your life in the intervening time.  I think you will find that the second year of homeschooling is so much easier than the first.

If you’re just starting out, you may find this hard to believe, but by the 2nd year, you will probably find that:

  1. You have to get used to having your children around you 24/7. You are enjoying your children’s company, and they are enjoying yours at least a lot of the time.
  2. You lose a lot of time that used to be available for other things.  That other stuff you used to have time to do (like write something for your homeschool website regularly–ha, ha) doesn’t seem as important as it used to.
  3. You discover that you often have to decide which is more important at the moment–spelling or doing a load of laundry.  The answer varies day by day.  The children are capable of helping a lot more than you knew before, and that it’s good for them, and also that the house really doesn’t have to be perfect.
  4. The kids never leave, so their toys/books/art supplies/science experiments are always there.  Yep, but see #3.
  5. If your kids were in school before you started homeschooling and unless you have already won their respect at a level far beyond the average parent in today’s society, you may find they don’t take you very seriously as a teacher.  After all, you’re Mom (or Dad), and in our society that carries less weight than the real teacher in a real school.   By halfway through the second year, your 7-year-old will probably stop saying, “But Mom, Mrs. Johnson said….”  Also, you will have figured out that obedience is actually a really important virtue for them to learn, and they will have started learning that Mom (or Dad) really means what she says even when she isn’t yelling.

May your homeschooling adventure be full of the peace that surpasses understanding.  Really.

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