Ask the grumpies: Math practice and enrichment for different kinds of learners

Natasha asks:

I have a kid who is […] having a tough time with math (3rd/4th grade): he grasps new concepts just fine, does well on tests… and then 2 weeks later he can’t remember any of it! His school math program seems to fly from topic to topic, and even though his teacher assures me that even if he missed something this year, all the same or similar topics will be revisited next year, I worry that he hasn’t had the chance to master the basic concepts. It’s more of an issue with retention of the material than understanding the concepts. I know you love math – do you have any suggestions as to what books or methods may be helpful to practice 3rd-4th grade math? I believe it is so important for kids to get solid foundation at the elementary-school stage.Teachers simply shrug and say it’s the student’s responsibility to practice old material (well, I do agree with that) and point to Khan academy. The school is using the Envision Math program. I am terrible at explaining but love doing math puzzles and fun problems together with kids – and that doesn’t seem to be enough.

On the flip side of the coin – I have a second grader who is doing really well in math and needs more challenge. The teacher gives her additional (optional) higher-level worksheets, but my daughter doesn’t seem to be thrilled about those and prefers to read or draw. We are doing some fun logic and puzzle games at home, but maybe you have additional advice on fun math activities (books, games, workbooks) that provide additional challenge without being too much like homework?

Let’s start with the older child.  There are two potential things that could be going on.

The first is that your kid is a normal kid who is good at cramming for the test and then forgetting after.  This habit is so normal that much of the US math curriculum just assumes it will happen– that repeating topics thing they’ll be doing next year even has an education jargon term.  It’s called “spiraling”.  The best math curriculum for this specific problem is called Saxon Math, which is not the most exciting math program (it can be enervating for gifted students), but does an excellent job of repeating and integrating concepts throughout the year and not doing the standard focus and forget.  There’s a good research base behind Saxon Math working well for average to below-average math students (less well for high ability and gifted).  If you’re attached to a university library, you could probably check out a textbook for 4th grade to see if it is helpful.

The second potential problem is one that I saw highlighted when I did a quick google of the Envision Math program (which I hadn’t heard of before this query).  Apparently Envision Math is  shallow (or at least that’s what people complain about along with it being repetitive) so it is natural not to remember the concepts– there’s not really anything to remember.  If what people say online is true, it’s all surface with no roots.  If you want to grow roots and approach math from a completely different angle, you can’t go wrong with Singapore Math.  That’s exactly the opposite solution of what my initial thought was, but after having read a few of these links of people complaining, I’ve reconsidered.  Another benefit to Singapore Math is that it ISN’T the same as what’s being taught at school.  Being able to do the same math multiple ways is valuable both because it keeps you from getting bored, but also because it gives a much greater context and understanding to how this magical world of numbers and mathematical concepts actually works, how it’s put together.  You start seeing the full 3-d math forest and not just the shadows of the math trees.  Those Aha! moments have always been my favorite part of math tutoring and teaching.  Singapore Math also has a strong research base, although most of this research is done on the full population of students, not any specific group.

Given my morning’s research, I take back my initial recommendation about Saxon and suggest starting with Singapore instead.  They have placement tests he can take to see which books to start with.  You will need two workbooks for each year (ex. 3a/3b) and the textbook is useful.  We didn’t find the home instruction guide or teacher’s guide to be useful– it was essentially a lot more examples and activities for the teacher to demonstrate, but your son is already getting the concepts, so the textbook and workbook should be enough.  It probably does not matter which of the three series (US/Core/CA) you use as long as you’re consistent.  We use the US editions because the other two didn’t exist when DC1 started and we wanted to reuse the textbooks.

If he also needs to know his addition/multiplication facts, we don’t really know any solution for that other than practice.  Flashcards aren’t much fun, but they do cement facts and make later math easier.

Turning to the younger daughter.

Second grade is the perfect year for Math for Smarty Pants.  In another couple of years you can get used copies of Aha! and Gotcha! by Martin Gardner which are super fun.  She may enjoy tessellations coloring books (and creating her own using graph paper!) or folding 3-d geometric shapes.  I am having a really time finding anything on amazon, but somewhere out there, there should be workbooks that show you how to use a compass to create a triangle and then other 3-d geometric shapes from that.  A quick google finds lots of the basics with “compass and straight-edge construction” (and some youtube videos where people put together the already made forms) but with cardstock, tape, and something to score with you can make really elaborate 3d designs.  Origami is another fun math craft– DC1 has been watching youtube videos to make shapes, but there’s also a lot of great books out there.  Tangrams are perfect for this age group.  This classic set from Tangoes is my favorite (mine from childhood was black, my kids’ is blue), but DC1 also really enjoyed a magnetic set that comes with a book that is occasionally available from scholastic.  I found the rubix cube super frustrating, but now there are online videos showing you how to solve it so it’s more fun.  DC1 also really enjoyed maze puzzle balls (and saved up allowance money to buy a second)– but I also find these frustrating.  I think it depends on your agility not just the thinking things through thing.  (And, as we’ve mentioned before, DragonBox is fantastic.)

If your son is willing, there are a number of card games that secretly practice concepts that they might be able to play together.  I tend to like the ones that Scholastic sells off and on– they have a really good one called money madness that was a money addition/subtraction game that we liked a lot.  Our kids recently each won the raffle for the university’s math day and got math games.   The one currently spread all over our dining room table is a simple memory game called rat-a-tat cat, and the one neatly stacked in a tin is 7 ate 9 which is a fast little addition and subtraction game.  They’re probably too simple for your kids.  :/

Our math tag has a bunch more suggestions for enrichment at various stages, including items our readers have recommended in the comments sections.

Best of luck!

What enrichment would the Grumpy Nation recommend for these ages?

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Who is selfish?

Warning:  cattiness below.

So I was waiting at the bus stop with DC1 because you have to be I forget how old to wait without a parent.  This is usually DH’s job, but he was out of town on a business trip.

While we were waiting for the bus, a truck with a kid pulled up and parked at the corner across from the bus stop.

Then a mini-van/suv thing came and parked right where one would expect the bus to you know, pull up.

That meant that when the bus finally came, it had to stop in the middle of the street and the kids all had to walk into the middle of the street to load the bus.  The truck discharged one little girl with her dad.  The van discharged two with their mom.  (The two little girls and their mom, incidentally, live maybe two houses farther than we do from the bus stop, so maybe 5 houses away from the bus stop total.  I don’t know where the truck people live, but the bus does stop every block and a half to two blocks and our cul de sacs aren’t very long, so it can’t be that far.)

Let’s see if I can make a picture of the bus stop area using nothing but keyboard characters.

I feel like this is totally selfish.  That bus really should be able to pull safely up to the curb, which would be easier to do if the truck weren’t there and and is impossible with the van there.  (When the van isn’t there, the bus does pull up.)  The van had to make a U-turn to park where the bus is supposed to go and could have very easily parked across the street (on the side that didn’t make it into my picture), though if they’d done that, it would have only been like 4 house lengths away from their house instead of five.  The truck could have parked back a little further to make it easier for the bus to pull up.

But then, maybe I’m the totally selfish one.  I make my DC2  walk three house lengths to wait for the bus out in the cold.  I mean, sometimes it gets down into the 40s(!), and sometimes the wait is as long as 7 min (if the bus is late).  Maybe if I weren’t so selfish, I’d be keeping hir nice and warm in a heated vehicle while we waited for the bus instead of making hir suffer.

I should note that there’s one other family that takes the bus from this stop– their parents are immigrants and connected to the university somehow.  Their kids walk– I don’t know how far, but it’s longer than 5 houses.  (The dad used to walk with them, but the youngest had a birthday and is now old enough to wait by hirself, so they do.  Both kids are super nice to DC2.)

So that’s my catty parenting rant.  I guess if it really bothered the bus driver, the bus system would send out a reminder not to block the bus stop while waiting for it.  It’s a good thing waiting for the bus is usually DH’s job.  (Which is at least partly selfishness on my part, even though it makes more sense logistically and from a who needs to interact with adults standpoint.)

Ask the grumpies: How to teach a kid to code?

Sandy L asks:

How to teach a kid to code when you don’t know how? (And I don’t live in a big city and I also don’t want to spend $1000 on coding camp. There has got to be a better way.)

We don’t know the answer to this question.  Here’s what we had tried on this subject back in 2015.  DC2 did really enjoy the Python for Kids book and enjoyed modifying the programs in the book, but hasn’t really come up with any programs of hir own.  We did not try Teach your kids to code.

Last summer DC1 did a week long video game design daycamp.  That used a program called Unity.  Zie fiddled around on it for about a month after the camp and then accidentally deleted or broke hir game in a way that locked it and lost interest.  Next year there’s a middle-school class that *might* teach programming but it also might not.  If it’s taught by the same teacher as the gifted-only version of the class we’re definitely not interested [update:  because DC1 is gifted, zie is only allowed to take the gifted-only version].  But there will be programming classes once zie gets to high school which is pretty exciting.  (We don’t live in a big city either, but having the university here adds a lot.)

DC1 and DC2 have both done Hour of Code in school and have links to practicing outside of school.  There’s also Khan Academy.

I dunno, does your local community college offer an intro programming class?  If so, it will probably be in Java or Python.

Any better suggestions for Sandy L?


  • DC1’s algebra teacher quit to join administration a couple of weeks after the second semester started (after a week long absence).  I guess we’ll have to keep a closer eye on the rest of the semester since algebra is so fundamental and I’m pretty sure zie doesn’t now how to factor polynomials even if zie does know how to multiply them.
  • Super bummed that Teen Vogue is no longer doing a print edition.  The last few issues were AMAZING, including one guest edited by HRC.  Irritatingly, they switched DC1’s subscription over to Allure magazine “the magazine for people who care about beauty” or something like that.  Full of “beauty tips.”  This month’s issue was on nudity and had a nearly naked airbrushed stereotypical model on the cover.  Completely not appropriate for an 11 year old or really anybody.  And very different from a magazine that features people like Malala Yousafzi on the cover.  I will be getting a check for $2 in the mail for my cancellation– Teen Vogue should have been charging more.  It’s a different market and was worth much more than the ridiculous $10 for 2 years or whatever it was I paid.
  • Forgive me, for I have referred to a paper about fertility as “seminal” in published work.  Next up:  referring to a paper about religion as “canonical”.  And a paper about building cities as, “ground-breaking” (or should I save that one for agriculture?).
  • it is weird to me that my kids have had macarons before having had macaroons.
  • DC2 has moved onto chapter books at school.  Zie is in love with the Geronimo Stilton that DC1 read maybe once or twice.  They have such different taste in books.  Really the only commonality is that they both love Jim Benton, author of Franny K Stein and Dear Dumb Diary.  I so wish we had Scholastic so I could indulge in buying sets of series we don’t have (like Thea Stilton!)
  • Preserved walnuts are really good.  If you ever get the opportunity to try/buy them, take it!
  • My cholesterol is fine this year (whew!), so maybe all that additional lunchtime walking did some good!  Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have helped with my vitamin D levels (which may explain the fatigue I’ve been having), so my doctor wants me to go from 2000 iu to 5000 iu.  I’m going to compromise and do 4000 iu because that means I can have a 2000 iu when I brush my teeth and keep another bottle of 2000 iu in my office when I get my mid-day slump.
  • It isn’t a bargain if you can’t afford it.
  • We owed an additional $2846 in taxes this year, not counting the estimated taxes for this next year.  [Update:  We forgot a whole ton of donations– didn’t go through the school email folder or the check register, so it’s actually $100 less than that.  With the additional donations, we’re just a little over the standard deduction.  Also turns out there’s no point for us to declare a home office since we don’t get anywhere near the minimum for it to count for us– We make too much and our house is too big and too cheap.]
  • DC2’s school was having a performance for parents/relatives and one of their dances had them shooting with finger guns.  This disturbed DC2 enormously given that they started practicing right after the FL school shooting.  Thankfully someone decided to change that number to something in less bad taste.

Ask the grumpies: Private vs. public colleges

Sandy L. asks

Cost benefit of public vs private college. What is the value of the network, etc.

The question isn’t really about public vs. private.  Berkeley is going to open a lot more doors and have a much more impressive network than the expensive small regional private liberal arts college one of my sisters-in-law went to.  The question is really about the prestige of the school.  There’s a lot of interesting new research on that topic.  And the answer is that, first off, we don’t really know, and second off, it is nuanced.

In general, for your white upper-class/upper-middle-class kid, it doesn’t really matter where they go.  Harvard, top flagship, regional state school– it just doesn’t matter.

For your lower income family, minority, etc. etc. etc. student, it can matter quite a bit.

But even with that mattering, some schools are better than others at elevating kids into higher socioeconomic status.  And some schools (like Harvey Mudd) are phenomenal at elevating low SES kids, but don’t actually admit very many of them (that $72K/year sticker fee and all).

I’m too lazy to source and cite this, but if you’re interested in finding out more, flip through the NBER working papers abstracts for the education group.  If you need to narrow your search window down, Carolyn Hoxby is a good place to start– she’s written extensively on this topic and cites a lot of the other work that has been and is being done.

Ask the grumpies: How do you pick a preschool?

Leah asks:

How do you pick preschool? Our best options are the Catholic school ($6,300 tuition, and that includes lunch and the before/after care, but Catholic school), public school ($6,300 tuition and does NOT include those things, so we’d pay an extra $2k for lunch and care), or staying at our current daycare/preschool that our daughter seems to be aging out of (~$5,500ish, includes full day, breakfast, lunch, all snacks and no random vacation days). The other two preschools have random vacation days. We’d have to send in snack about once a month at the Catholic school, but at least they have snacks.

We are just so torn and are not sure what’s the most important and whether it’s worth it to pay $2k more for public school. That’s a lot of money for us.

Here’s our answer to a more general question 4 years ago on how to pick a daycare .  The fundamentals are still the same– visit the schools and look for teacher/student interactions and student/teacher happiness.  What’s slightly different for older kids is first that your child will be better able to tell you if something is going wrong, and second, intellectual stimulation may be more important.  So ask about differentiation if applicable.  (I also have to say I am in love with the way Montessori gets kids to clean up after themselves– a huge benefit, so keep an eye out for who cleans up after activities when you visit.)

Given that your current daycare is cheaper and less of a hassle (those random vacation days are no joke, also remembering snack once a month is non-trivial for us, though at least it’s just once a month), have you talked to their administration about getting more intellectual stimulation for your kid?  It may cost less than 1-3K to provide materials.  On the other hand, if the school just isn’t set up for that, it isn’t set up for that.

What is most important to us:

  1. Happiness
  2. Hassle
  3. Intellectual and physical exhaustion by the end of the day
  4. Actual learning

But YMMV.  Happiness is non-negotiable for us.  There are tradeoffs with hassle and learning that we’re willing to make, and indeed, getting DC1 to start K early was significantly more hassle than just keeping hir at preschool another year.  DC2’s public school isn’t leaving hir exhausted at the end of the day (zie still misses hir Montessori director’s math classes), but zie is learning Spanish so that’s pretty cool.  Thankfully we have paid care options for the random days off.

Regarding the religious aspect– ask them how they handle the Easter story.  That’s a good test for if they’re creepy religious or story-based religious at these ages.  I want to say that most Catholic preschools are story-religious, but I was a little traumatized by the Easter story in my Catholic kindergarten– how they handle these things really varies, even among preschools with the same denomination (as we found out with two different Missouri Synod Lutheran preschools).

Grumpy Nation:  What advice would you give Leah when making this decision?


How do you deal with dinner when everybody is scattered all over the place?

I asked this question in the Frugal Girl’s comment section on a post where she mentioned several nights where her kids weren’t there for dinner.

What do people eat when they’re out and about? That’s getting to be an increasing occurrence with us as DC1 gets older and has more after-school activities. Occasionally zie’ll be at one where food is provided, but most of the time they assume meals before or after (but there’s no time before and after is pretty late!). I am embarrassed to say that my kids had trailmix (emergency snack in the car) for dinner at least once this week (after that they weren’t hungry for dinner when they finally got home).

The comments were mostly that trail-mix is fine– maybe add a banana.

I guess I shouldn’t be implicitly shaming trail-mix meals!  And I know nuts are fine, but I’m not 100% sold on the merits of so much chocolate or sugary dried cranberries or the lack of anything green (other than pistachos).  A great snack, but maybe not a regular dinner plan… Plus there’s always the worry that kids will (gasp) get tired of it or that we’ll run out before making it into the city for more.  We’re at the point now where 3-4 days of the week are in this weird spot where one or both of the kids don’t get home until ~6:30 or later, sometimes with some downtime (sometimes briefly at home after bus dropoff, sometimes only in the car) sometime between 4:30 and 5.

What do you do for meals, or to stave off the low blood-sugar grumpies, on days where your “regular” routine is disrupted?