Have you met Fred Gauss? He’s a five year old who teaches math at KITTENS University in Kansas. Unless you’ve made it through Calculus you don’t know how he got to be a math professor at age 5, but if you’ve ever met Fred then you know he lives in his office at KITTENS and sleeps under his desk. Also, he eats out of the hallway vending machine and has a doll named Kingie who is an accomplished artist.
We meet with Fred daily and enjoy his adventures from second grade to ninth grade and a few in between. We started using Life of Fred along with Math on the Level (MOTL) a few years ago mainly with my oldest as he finished up his pre-algebra skills and headed into Algebra. MOTL goes up through pre-Algebra preparing students for success in Algebra.
Initially, we started Algebra with a more traditional program, but found E14 was fatiguing by the end of a problem set. I decided to try out LOF Beginning Algebra to see if it was a better fit. We found that his accuracy improved dramatically.
I thought I’d share our experience with Life of Fred since people often have a lot of questions about it. Most of the time people are intrigued by the story math, but they are not convinced it’s “enough” math. I can identify with that for sure! We are all probably products of the read the chapter and do thirty problem math programs.
However, if you are familiar with MOTL and its “Five a Day” concept, then Life of Fred is not as shocking with its lack of overstuffed problem sets.
So, how did Life of Fred win me over?
- The story nature of the text
- The real life problem approach- Fred encounters a need for the math and then uses it. Usually within the context of a humorous situation
- Encourages a different approach to attacking a problem- it causes students to think. This is a big deal for a linear kid who is a computation king, but has trouble fitting ideas together to come to a proper conclusion.
- Less drill and more complex problems. Just less problems overall. So, less fatigue and increased accuracy
- Cost- honestly for $16 per book for the elementary texts and as much as $30-$45 for upper level math texts, you can’t go wrong even if you just wanted to try it out. Dr. Schmidt packs a lot of concepts into a non-consumable text I can use with all of my kids.
- No workbooks. I am just not a fan of workbooks. You might remember I love ordinary notebook paper.
Please pardon any incorrect answers you see here! Chances are I snapped some photos of unchecked work. J7 is great at addition with carrying, but I see back then he was a little confused on adding with the thousands column present! As a second grader, J7 is using the elementary series and has graduated himself from second grade handwriting paper straight to standard wide ruled loose leaf. They grow up so fast!
With the elementary series, I have my kids read the chapter to me (as in the case of J7) and then he does the problems while I sit with him. Mostly just to keep him focused till the end. I have my fifth grader read his by himself and do the problems and check them. Then he has to narrate to me what happened in the chapter and we talk about how the problems went.
The kids are supposed to write down their problems on notebook paper- even if it is seems easier to do them orally. The older books are written directly to the student. The program is designed for students to read on their own and do the problems and check them. Parents are not directly responsible for instruction. Afterward, I conference with my kids to see how they did and go over anything they didn’t understand.
Starting with Fractions, every five chapters or so there is a Bridge. There are ten problems in the Bridge and students can only get one wrong in order to move to the next chapter. It’s a great checkpoint and students get five tries. If they do well, they keep moving on.
What happens if they get stuck? (at any point or can’t pass the Bridge after five tries)
- I go over the Bridges to see if there are any commonalities in what the student is getting incorrect. If I find one we revisit the concept both with Fred and on our own.
- Pull in other reinforcing activities to practice the skill or reteach it. I don’t get bogged down with this. No matter what program I use, there will be times when a little backtrack is necessary.
- Take problems from several Bridge versions and have the student redo the problems to see if they get it correct (these are tough problems not easy to memorize). If they do, I know they have the concept and we move on.
- Take a break. And come back to it after a few days of math games and general skill practice.
- Give more practice problems. My source? My oldest went through Horizons through Grade 6 (he was pre MOTL authorship and it wasn’t until my artsy girl that I realized it would not work for all my kids) so I use it!
The way Fred tackles a problem has definitely modeled problem solving for R12. She uses this approach often when she encounters a sewing problem. For example, she recently read up on and learned about cones so that she could draft a proper pattern for her Gandalf hats. R12 thrives on needing the math and conquering it. She has been learning like crazy for a purpose and Fred has shown the way on this. Visit The Making of a Wizard & The Crafty Side of Math for how I work with Rebecca’s creativity to teach math. To me, the best part is seeing what she does on her own to get the job done. Seriously, you can’t beat the authenticity in that.
E14 began Algebra in 7th grade and has completed Beginning and Advanced Algebra. He’s currently working through Geometry which is a whole new way of thinking. He’s six weeks in and he’s getting better at being more precise with his proofs.
On the downside, it is annoying to have the answers printed right below the questions. The author considers it an exercise in avoiding temptation which a student needs to overcome. I can get behind that somewhat, but reality says that when a kid is all done trying “as hard as he can before he looks”, he’s gonna look. And probably before he’s reached maximum effort. I have a system which involves paper, tape, and a Post It note and it covers the answers without that accidental revealing slide. You know the one I’m talking about.
You’ll find the upper level math books to have a substantial number of problems that have many steps. Algebra and Geometry have many more problems than say Fractions and Decimals & Percents.
In comparison with our traditional text, Life of Fred accelerates faster with the concepts and does not require thirty problems a day. This is actually a big thing because my student doesn’t get bored waiting to move to the next concept. We did not add on the extra problem book and E14 seemed to do well with what was already provided.
Not everyone is convinced Life of Fred is robust enough and I’m OK with that. But I can assure you it is worth a look if you want to see improved problem solving skills in your students. Our students have been successful with it and it provides fodder for a lot of math discussions at our house. With all the kids immersed in a part of Fred’s story, there is always something lively to share. And there is always laughter. Thanks Dr. Schmidt for bringing the smiles to our math world!
Best of all, I witness a LOT of math mentoring in our house- older siblings helping younger siblings. I especially love when a younger student shares his math for the day and the older student replies by sharing how that concept is taken further by the time you get to a certain level of Life of Fred.
I personally enjoy Life of Fred because it’s a very pleasant way to revisit math for myself. I can hardly wait for E14 to get to Calculus because I just know Fred is going to help me understand what that semester was really all about. Plus, we all want to know how Fred came to be a math professor at KITTENS!
One more tip: If you have your husband, the engineer, going over problems sets with your 9th grader, be sure to pass along the answer booklet to him. He may appear to be one who uses every upper level math he ever learned on a daily basis, but it turns out that isn’t true. As I found out this evening. Hats off to you Dan…for the extra brain work this last six weeks or so!
If you love Fred, share your experience with us here!
** 2014-2015 update: This post is so popular that I thought it would be fun to update you on our progress. My oldest is now entering his junior year of high school. He finished geometry and is almost finished trigonometry and we are poised to purchase Calculus this summer. Fred still works! He’s still our math friend. **