Thursday, January 26, 2017

Teaching Life of Fred Math, Including Tips for Teaching Children of Multiple Ages Concurrently

What is Life of Fred?

Life of Fred is an engaging story-based math curriculum spanning from elementary school all the way through university math courses such as calculus and statistics.  For the elementary years, Life of Fred includes ten books in the elementary series for 1st-4th grade and three books in the intermediate series for 4th to 6th grade. The beauty of Life of Fred as a math curriculum is that it is humorous and fun for kids.  Rather than focusing specifically on math concepts and then having the child work through problem after problem like a traditional math curriculum, Life of Fred instead weaves the math concepts into the story of Fred's days.

Fred is a 5-year-old math genius who teaches math at a university in Kansas. He lives with his doll Kingie in his office at the university. Although Fred is obviously precocious in math, he is lacking many other life skills and accordingly he often ends up in strange situations (such as when he adopts 30 dogs to save them from being euthanized, or when he ends up being swindled out of all of his money by a con-artist).  In addition to the math concepts, many other concepts are woven into Life of Fred books as well, such as the differences between carnivores and herbivores, details about the Orion constellation, and basic information about nutrition.

After each chapter of the book, there is a short section titled "Your Turn To Play".  This section generally includes a few math problems as well as other questions related to the content of the chapter. As the books move on from the earliest elementary books, "Your Turn to Play" also often includes a "Row of Practice" that can be used to reinforce the math facts (such as addition and subtraction facts).

a random page from one of the Elementary Series books


Our Experience With Life of Fred

We've been using Life of Fred in our homeschool for over 4 years. We are currently working through the 7th book in the elementary series.  My children LOVE Life of Fred.  They ask to read it often, they enjoy the math problems, and they find the bizarre storylines to be very entertaining. I use Life of Fred in addition to games, everyday math, and a few other math read-alouds for teaching elementary math without a traditional math curriculum.

spontaneous answer to the question, "What do you think of Life of Fred?"

My daughter will be 10 years old in March, and my son will be 7 years old in a couple weeks. Because my children are 3 years apart in age, their math comprehension is not at the same level. Instead of reading two different Life of Fred books to match up with their math skills, I just read one Life of Fred book at a time, continuing to progress through the books even though some of the math concepts have moved beyond my son's level.  That doesn't mean that my son doesn't get to learn math through Life of Fred; rather, I customize their experience with Life of Fred so that it works for both of them at the same time even though they are 3 years apart. 

Tips for Teaching Life of Fred to Children of Multiple Ages

When teaching Life of Fred to kids of multiple ages concurrently, I try to keep in mind three principles:
  • Avoid the Glaze
  • Inspire, Not Require
  • Customize the Math Problems


Avoid the Glaze

While my children generally love Life of Fred, sometimes there may be a math concept introduced that my kids are not ready to engage in. I can tell if a concept is a bit too abstract or complicated if I see the "glaze" on my kids' eyes.  For instance, in the early elementary books the author keeps bringing up the idea of cardinal numbers versus ordinal numbers.  This concept is one that I can tell my children are uninterested in or not ready for yet, as they get the "glaze" over their eyes whenever it is mentioned. I don't think this concept is important for them to know at their current ages, so I just skip over those parts and skip over any problems in "Your Turn to Play" that focus on that concept.  There is plenty of time for my children to learn about the cardinality of numbers as they get older (and, indeed, that same concept is introduced later in Life of Fred: Fractions, which is one of the middle school math books).

When reading Life of Fred to kids of multiple ages, sometimes the glaze will only be present in the younger children.  At those times when I note that my son's eyes are glazed over (or he seems otherwise uncomfortable) but his older sister is still engaged, I make sure to reassure him that this particular concept is just for his older sister, and that he'll be ready to learn about it later.  That gives him the confidence to be okay with not understanding the concept, and then I can proceed with teaching it to my daughter.

(As a side note: I think that avoiding the glaze is very important in other subjects in addition to math. Because I am endeavoring to create a Love of Learning in my children, the glaze is a signal for me to know when it is time to back off.  Sometimes the glaze just means that the student is tired and not ready to engage at that particular moment, but other times it means that I need to back off and wait a few months before coming back to that concept.) 

a random page from one of the Intermediate Series books

Inspire, Not Require

"Inspire, Not Require" is one of the 7 Keys of Great Teaching, and applying this principle to our math studies is a crucial part of keeping math enjoyable for my children. I know from previous experience that forcing academics in our homeschool is detrimental to creating a Love of Learning in my children. In applying the principle of "Inspire, Not Require" to our use of Life of Fred:
  • I don't require the children to participate in Life of Fred.  However, they enjoy it so much that they request it often.
  • Both of my children have had periods of time when they did not want to participate in the "Your Turn to Play" section at the end of the chapters. I've given them the freedom to choose whether or not to participate. When they choose not to participate, I just work out the answers to the problems on a dry erase board so they can observe.
  • I am working my way through my own math studies and reading math classics myself. I am working my way through the middle school Life of Fred books as a way to refresh my memory before jumping into the Life of Fred high school and university level math books. In this way, I am leading out by showing my children that math is important enough that I am willing to spend some of my free time brushing up my own math skills. When they see me working on my own math skills, it often inspires them to do the same.


Customize the Math Problems

When we get to the "Your Turn to Play" section at the end of each chapter, if both children have chosen to participate, my younger child gets first dibs at answering each question. If he declines a question (usually by saying "too tricky"), then his older sister gets to answer the question. Because I keep things light and fun, with no pressure, my son has no issue with saying that he can't do a particular problem. If there are no questions that I think would be appropriate for my son, I will make up a few so that he has a chance to participate.

Once we've worked through the questions, if there is a "Row of Practice" to do (for practicing math facts), my son will answer any that he can and the rest will go to his sister. In the books we are currently using, none of the problems are appropriate for my son, so I will make up a few problems for him to solve while his sister works through the problems from the book. In this way, both children are able to participate as much as they want to, and I am able to individualize their math lessons even though I am reading from only one math book for both of them.


How We Use Life of Fred

In case it is helpful, here is a run-down of how we use Life of Fred in our homeschool.
  • A few times per week, I read Life of Fred out loud while the kids eat breakfast. 
  • Because we do our morning chores right after breakfast, reading Life of Fred during breakfast gives us a nice little interlude of learning in the middle of our morning routine. This also helps to break up our school time into smaller chunks, which works better for keeping my children's attention.
  • Both of my kids like using small dry-erase boards to write out the answers to their math problems.
  • If neither of my kids feels like writing out the answers to their problems, or if their hands are too messy from eating, they will just answer the problems out loud.
  • Often, when they are done with their own problems, the children like to quiz me with math problems they come up with. They can come up with quite tricky problems for me to do, such as one where I had to use the order of operations and eventually ended up dividing 2,187 by 26,500. Sometimes they like to use calculators to check my answers. 
  • When there are periods of time during which my children aren't interested in me reading Life of Fred to them, I don't force it. I know that they will always come back to Life of Fred, and it's okay to take an occasional break.  Nonetheless, we've already made it through three Life of Fred books this school year.

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