Sunday, May 25, 2014

Homeschool Review: Math-U-See

My free time is slipping away quickly, so I need to wrap this up.  I have three students in elementary school.  If you consider a traditional calendar, Zeke is in 4th grade, Josh is in 3rd grade, and Malachi is in 1st grade.  I don't really think there is anything traditional about the way these three do school though.  I finally am at peace with their custom-made education.  It seems to be working well for us.  This post ended up being a lot longer than I expected, so I am highlighting Math-U-See and will get to the other subjects in a future post!

I have experience now with Math-U-See for several years.  We have covered Primer, Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta.  We typically spend a full school year on each level.  This past spring I finally settled into a good routine of doing one lesson per week.  If you are unfamiliar with MUS, this is how it works:  a new topic is introduced each lesson.  Each lesson consists of 3 worksheets practicing exclusively that new skill (for example, Lesson 1A, 1B, and 1C).  The next 3 worksheets are review sheets (Lesson 1D, 1E, and 1F) that cover all previous materials and incorporate the new skill as well.  Students are presented with a traditional variety of practice problems, including word or story problems. At the conclusion of the lesson, the student is given a test, by which to demonstrate mastery of the new skill (and retained skills from previous lessons).  Finally, an enrichment sheet (1G) is included.  In some cases this enrichment sheet goes beyond the scope of learning "just the basics" and can be fun for the kids to do.

The instruction pack includes detailed instructions for the parent (including step-by-step demonstrations of how to teach each new skill), the answer key, and a DVD of Steve Demme teaching each lesson before a class.  The DVD lessons are very short and are designed to teach the parent how to teach, not for the student to learn from (though I admit to having my kids watch it when I am short on time!).  The lesson instructions often include some topics that may not be covered by a worksheet.  One such example is "mental math."  This is something that my hubby does in his third grade public school class. My students at home would miss out if I never bothered to pick up the instruction manual.  Also, the instruction manual as well as the DVD demonstrate how to use the manipulatives.  My students sometimes complain when I tell them to get out the blocks.  They want the short-cut to learning math, but I'm here to tell you there are no short cuts.  The blocks actually do help.  We don't need them for very long--usually only to help the students get through rough spots.

I appreciate MUS's clean and simple approach to math.  The worksheets are plain and simple, with no art for distractions (though Josh often illustrates his math page).  MUS is a mastery based approach to math, therefore you should not move on until your student has really mastered the basic facts.  If you find your student struggling in the lower levels (Primer through Delta), I would venture to guess that a refresher of basic computation would help (aka speed drills, flash cards, etc).  MUS does not contain a lot of "fluff."  My students aren't wasting spending their time learning some new-fangled common core nonsense.  (Sorry.)  My kids are spending their days focusing on adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing.

Not this:
 The above picture is a worksheet from Mitch's 3rd grade class.  Don't get me wrong--my students may study some of those topics (in the second picture) on their enrichment pages, and typically they are at least introduced sometime in the school year.  But MUS students are not tested on them, nor are they expected to master them.  They are expected to master the basics.  Honestly the lack of basic facts in the PS math curriculum concerns me deeply.  Keep these topics fun.  Introduce them.  Play with them.  But the primary focus should be to understand My Dear Aunt Sally (Multiply, Divide, Add, Subtract)!

 Now here is the kicker--Zeke is in 4th grade and is not working with fractions yet (we had a basic introduction at the end of Delta).  That is a little different than even when I went to school.  He is, however, dividing crazy big numbers.  So large that I would just give up and get a calculator (who wouldn't?).  So that's where the mastery part comes in.  Once he really really has a grasp of what multiplication and division even mean, he can begin to understand what a fraction is.  He will be able to do so much more with fractions once he dives into Epsilon.  Since MUS introduces topics this way and is a mastery-based approach, it would be difficult for me to decide to do a completely different curriculum for math next year.  I couldn't get Saxon 5/4 math for example and expect Zeke to do it.  It is a con of MUS and the mastery approach, but it's not really--I simply expect to stay with MUS at least through Epsilon next year and Zeta the year after that.  Then I feel that Zeke will have covered all the topics necessary to begin Pre-Algebra.  At that point we will most likely switch to Saxon Algebra 1/2, but I'm not 100% sure.  I have heard that MUS Algebra makes a lot of sense.  It would cost me more money, so I guess I can say that it costs a lot of cents.  I'll look at it when I get there--that's a ways down the road yet.

Bottom line:  MUS is not some magical, easy formula for learning math.  There is no such thing.  It is a solid program, but you really need to follow the instruction book and see it through (many years) to realize the benefits.  You need to make sure your student has really mastered a skill before building on it, or it will come back to haunt you both later in reviews.  For example, last year when Josh didn't really have a firm grasp on all of his subtraction facts, subtracting large numbers with borrowing became quite a cumbersome chore!  I knew it was time to hit the flashcards again.  Know ahead of time that if you decide to switch from MUS to some other curriculum down the road you will have learning gaps through which you will patiently have to teach your student.

(Um, I don't want Mitch to get in trouble here, so you must know that I am expressing my own personal opinion and I do not speak for him when I talk about public school curriculum or common core.  He is a phenomenal teacher and he incorporates much more than the above worksheet into his math class!  He strives to make sure his students have a good foundation and plenty of opportunities to reinforce basic mathematical functions.  In some ways, the students in his class receive a "better" education than my students at home, if you compare apples and oranges.  ;)  Parents need to know that they have a burden of responsibility laid upon them for their own child's education, even if their children are in public school.  You don't have to pull your kids out of public school and homeschool them just because I think the math curriculum is stupid.  ::joking::  I hear all the time parents say that they have no idea how to do math "the new way" that is being taught in school today.  I encourage parents to talk with teachers, figure it out, be involved. You don't have to help your child with every math problem, but if your child is struggling in any area of math YOU should be the one working to help your child master and understand it.  Don't wait for the teacher--who is working with 20 to 30 students--to give your child an individualized education.  It's impossible!  Check your student's homework.  Check their test scores.  Rework missed problems with your child.  Just because someone else is teaching your child doesn't mean that you don't have to be a teacher now.  Ok...sliding my soap box back into the closet.)

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