This is a picture of me in sixth grade. I’d been sitting at the kitchen table puzzling over the pre-algebra problems in my textbook, which was very good at asking ridiculous (but supposedly relevant) questions, but wasn’t ever able to answer my question “WHY?”
WHY is a negative times a negative a positive?
WHY is multiplying by a fraction’s reciprocal the same as dividing?
WHY does cross-multiplying work?
After half an hour of reading the same problem over and over all I could do was cry. My dad came to help me answer the questions and looking at the word problem, said, “Is Fred crazy? What’s he thinking cutting a rope into halves and quarters and then sevenths? He’s just making life harder for himself!” By then, I was laughing so hard I could barely breathe, and soon we had figured out how to approach Fred’s problem (with a lightbulb moment). From then on, our motto was “Laugh about math.”
A year later, in seventh grade, we had begun our home schooling adventure. Every Monday, I would join my dad at UCLA. We arrived on the sound stage at the film school where catwalks hang from the distant ceiling, stage sets border the walls, and lights perch over the central area where my dad teaches cinematography. I dashed over to a corner and carefully wheeled the huge dry eraser board to the center of the room, my dad pulled over a desk and chair, and for the next hour we would take turns jumping up to excitedly explain something, with much flourishing of dry eraser markers and references to our trusty guide: Math Doesn’t Suck by Danica McKellar. While neither of us believed that math did suck, Danica was a big help for the next two years (and was usually even able to answer my question WHY). With a break for tap dance practice on the sound stage floor (for me) and work (for my dad), our UCLA days soon became known as “Math Mondays.” And we still laughed about math.
At my high school, the math classes are largely student-led; five word problems are assigned for nightly homework and in class the next day, students take turns presenting the problems to their classmates. Now in tenth grade, I love doing my math homework and present almost every day. It’s actually not that different from being on the sound stage. Sometimes I even teach my dad how to do my favorite math problems, and we will fondly remember our Math Mondays.
Note: Danica McKellar is author of Math Doesn’t Suck, Kiss My Math and Hot X.