I’m talking about MY math anxiety, actually!

I don’t mind math. I’m pretty good at it. I remember my high school algebra and geometry just fine. I’m a bit rustier on trig and beyond, but I’ve always assumed that I could re-teach myself if needed. As it happens, I’ve never really needed to teach any math beyond

My eldest kid, however, had problems with math. When I started homeschooling, it never occurred to me that one or more of my kids might have learning disabilities, but my daughter definitely had special challenges when it came to math. I knew this was more than garden-variety dislike of numbers, because she had difficulty learning to read music, learning to give directions, remembering right and left, and other assorted abstract, memory-related tasks.

She was understandably intimidated by the subject. But I was the one who developed the anxiety. How would she handle the SAT, I wondered? How would she progress into algebra and beyond?

We started out with “regular” American-style math. Lots of practice problems. Well, that was a total fail. I discovered pretty quickly that making her do a bazillion problems just took up lots of time. She didn’t get any better or develop confidence. She got slower, more exhausted, and more frustrated. And of course, I became even more worried.

Fortunately, I made the switch to Singapore Math after that, and never looked back. Singapore Math is the curriculum developed in Singapore and taught in their public schools. These are thin, paperback texts with accompanying workbooks, emphasizing pictures and logic. There aren’t many practice problems, which suited my daughter just fine. To my surprise, she didn’t seem to “need” them. She did not forget what she had learned as she went from level to level, and developed an excellent conceptual understanding of math. After sixth grade, she went directly into Thinkwell math, which resembles American math a bit more, but by then I had learned my lesson. I had her skip all the “extra” worksheets and practice problems, and focused on the concepts behind the principles.

Everything turned out just fine. She still dislikes math, and she has avoided most math courses since high school. But she made it through high school, the SAT, and college without a problem. My only regret is that even with her superior conceptual understanding of math, she still dislikes it. I blamed myself for this. I feel as if I panicked too much and pushed too hard when she was young, and that if I had handled the subject better and more calmly, she wouldn’t be so averse to math.

However, one of my younger daughters had the same math issues, accompanied by what appeared to be dysgraphia. So not only was she math-challenged, but she was exceptionally slow in writing. We were using Singapore Math already, but this time I decided to gamble with a different approach. After she finished sixth grade math, I enrolled her in Art of Problem Solving’s online math classes. This proved to be, in my opinion, life-changing.

Grace is a rising freshman in high school and has already taken two levels of pre-algebra, two levels of algebra, one class in counting, and is currently taking geometry. She’ll be done with intermediate algebra by the end of her freshman year, ready to take precalculus in sophomore year.

Let me stress that she is not some kind of math genius. She almost certainly has a math-related learning disability, in fact. But she LIKES math. And she likes it because AOPS stresses the part of math that is interesting–problem solving–and has a reasonable amount of practice required. Every week, there is a single substantial writing problem (usually very difficult–something you might not be able to get the answer to, which is okay!), plus anywhere from five to ten “challenge problems.” Many of these are difficult or tricky, although with enough time, Grace can usually solve them all. There is also an automated online practice system that makes you repeat only the types of problems you can’t solve correctly.

Make no mistake, it’s hard. During the first algebra class, when Grace couldn’t solve a problem, we would all pitch in and try to help. Except that there was more than one occasion where no one could figure out the problem! It may sound strange, but I think this gave Grace confidence. It was okay for her not to know the answers. And the teachers required that she write out her weekly problem clearly, even if she didn’t know the answer or was stuck. This ended up helping her English composition quite a bit! She now writes clearly, succinctly, and logically, whether the subject is math or literature.

Another great feature of AOPS is that the weekly class itself is “live.” You are in the virtual classroom along with your classmates. The students and teacher make math jokes and have a good time together. The teacher is not “lecturing,” since the class is conducted via textchat. Instead, she or he is demonstrating the concepts, giving examples, and explaining, while asking the students for feedback or questions. What’s fantastic about the text-based classroom is that you can rewind the chat at any time to re-read a difficult point or to clarify something obscure. You can also read the chat if you missed class.

This was an eye-opener for me as a teacher. Instead of making the material easier, I should have made it HARDER for my eldest. I think she would have stayed interested in the subject, and perhaps she would have felt it was okay to make mistakes or not know the answer. I also think removing myself from the subject matter would have helped. Grace doesn’t have to come to me for math instruction, and that’s less stressful.

Grace would be the first to tell you that she isn’t a math prodigy and that she has no plans to become a mathematician. But she loves AOPS. It sure removed the math anxiety from our household.

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