Issue #4

The summer ended with excessive amounts of camp, traveling and math. Gearing up for the school year by practicing doing hard work..
Issue #4
The second half of the summer is a good time to make your kids work really hard at things they don't have time to do during the school year. Emphasis on 'really hard' work.
Saturday, September 3, 2018
From the Editor
Summer is over. We survived.

This summer was unusual, almost a summer off for the older child. The younger was asked to step it up in the chore department.

Mr. New Teenager went to boy scout camp for a week, then YMCA camp for 2 weeks, then Spain and Portugal for 2 weeks (thanks to relatives and my wife's summer camp buddies from when she was 11). This left very little time for him to progress academicinsanely, but after a brutal 7th grade qualifying year for high school, he is ready for a year off from me, if not permanently off from me. I feel like my job is over until he ends up in trig his freshman year. More on that in the next issue.

The younger one and I had extra time to spend together. He turned 10 this year, which is a good time to take on adult level chores. It's hard being a single parent. He stepped up his game. Experts consider chores to be the foundation of grit and academic success, by the way.

We didn't have much time to tackle academic pursuits. I'm going to add some material to my evolving elementary school algebra, trig and miscellaneous. By the end of the summer, we randomly tackled exponents. I'll save that for the next issue.

Summer camp

Summer camp is in full swing right now. Demand in our particular camp is so fierce that if you don't reserve 15 months in advance, you won't get one.

Summer camp

Our summer camp is in a dairy state that I won't mention. I made the mistake of mentioning the name of this camp a few years ago and it was sold out within a week. It's worse today. A small number of these camps serve the Chicago area. The modest price is worth it many times over. For the record, Michigan has a thriving dairy industry and many camps, so feel free to look there.

The camp is run by college kids who once attended the camp in grade school. During high school, the older kids help, watch and learn. The younger kids appear to have complete independence, including the opportunity to do what they want including pranks. In reality, there are at least 3 pairs of eyes on every kid at all times. All the counselors look really laid back. It's a lie.

Every week, there are pictures of kids doing stuff - sailing alone, riding horses through the lake, taking a zip line, but mainly doing skits and competitions and other fun all camp or cabin versus cabin events. Each day the kids sign up for that day's activities. There are no pictures of kids shooting arrows or guns, throwing axes, or swallowing flaming swords, the type of stuff that my kids sign up for. The kids learn to camp away from the camp, cook, clean, hide like Indians, and fend off mosquitoes. At night, they play cards, tell stories and jokes, and bond.

I am so jealous of the parents of the girl riding the horse through the lake. I only have boys, and neither want to ride horses because it's a girl sport. There is a counselor right near the girl, but it looks much more cool after I photo-shopped out the counselor.

When the boys are not at camp, they have to do summer math and chores. And whatever kids do in the city that's fun.

This is year number 5 for my oldest. The youngest is only on year 2. When they talk about camp, I listen quietly without showing interest or they go all CIA on me and revoke my security clearance. I rank all the things they do including scouts, chores, math, music, etc on the way to successful, productive independent adults who will one day contribute to our world. I think this camp ranks in the number one or number two spot on the list.


One of my readers asked how I keep the house clean and still find time to work with my kids in At Home Schooling a few times a week. The secret is chores.


There are quite a few good books that explain why chores are so important. Chores teach grit. With grit, a child will set big goals and continue to work toward those goals despite the obstacles or disadvantages. This child will close any gaps in education and eventually surpass her peers at MIT by work effort. Case closed. I added chores as one of our education goals.

Getting your child to do chores is a three stage effort.

In stage 1, you have to do all of the chores after you help them with math or test prep. Hopefully, your children are under the age of 6 at this time. They see you do all of the cleaning. I like to do it on Saturdays in one big 3 hour effort, one end of the house to the other. Chores are important, rewarding, and fun. If I hear you complain one more time about having to do your math I'm going to take that book away from you and give you this toilet brush.

In stage 2, they do their math while you clean the bathrooms or vacuum. When they have questions, you stop what you are doing and answer the question. The goal in this stage is to get your children to work independently. The other goal is that you are cleaning their bedroom or 2 days of dishes and if they complain about their work or try to get out of it, you'll be in the proper frame of mind to fulfill your role as a parent and enforce their 35 minutes of math. This stage should last from age 6 to 7. If you skipped this stage, you need to go through it for 6 weeks, even if your child is 12. Six is the magic number in psychology.

In the next stage, give your children all of the starter chores, like picking everything up so that you can vacuum. Look dude, I've got to vacuum the whole house and your crap is everywhere. Help out. You can give them the option of picking up before they do their math or vacuuming after the do their math. They will try each. Consider it vacuum practice. The ideal age is 8. Again, if you didn't think of this when they were 8, do it for 6 weeks.

In the next stage, you just slowly add to their list any chore that does not involve inhaling dangerous chemicals. You can pass on picking up, vacuuming, doing the dishes, paint the trim, resealing the flat roof on your building, weeding, sweeping the garage, anything you like.

You have to keep cleaning the toilets. At each stage, you showed that chores were very important by doing them. Your kids aren't dummies. They aren't going to practice their instruments because you demonstrated how unimportant music is by not practicing an instrument yourself. But they will vacuum if they see you cleaning a toilet.

The kids are at camp. I went up to the roof today with 2 five gallon drums of aluminum sealant. It didn't need it. When my oldest was 11, we spent 4 hours in 120 degree heat sealing the roof, and did such a good job that it will last twice as long as when I did it myself. Next year my sealant expert can do it himself.

When the oldest was at camp our vacation, the youngest got a double dose of chores. It takes a year to warm up, staring with taking the dishes out of the dishwasher. Since there were only 2 of us home, I added clearing the table, cleaning the dishes, vacuuming the kitchen, vacuuming the rest of the house, putting away 7 years of clutter in his bedroom, and painting the trim. In other words, a week of chores.

Algebra corner

This month algebra corner is all about solving geometry problems. Geometry is a good warm up for algebra. In some ways the problem solving techniques for both are simliar...
Solving geometry problems
A good geometry problem

What makes this geometry problem so good is that there is no question. Without a question, the student will hunt and peck through each angle, like this is a puzzle. There are a few geometry axioms that apply here, like the sum of angles in a triangle, the sum of angles in a line, the definition of a right angle (noticeably missing). With a little unstructured practice, most but not all of these are intuitive. With a little more practice the child knows what to look for.

If there were a question attached to this problem, the only purpose of the question, especially if I write it, would be to distract the child from proper problem solving. I could write 40 pages on problem solving algorythms, but hunt and peck is a much better approach. Unstructured work is more conducive to learning. This approach makes problem solving technique second nature.

We do a lot of problems like these. In between, like a quintuple decker oreo, I ask that all geometry axioms be proved from scratch, starting with the sum of angles on a line, with no help. I'll write about that later. It's a quintuple decker oreo because every time I ask, it still take a lot of time to redo the same proofs.

A great geometry problem

This is the world's greatest geometry problem. What is the problem asking? What is the problem definition? Is that triangle equalateral? Where are the numbers?

Kids who solve many problems like the first type may struggle with the concentric equilateral triangle, but the premise is the same. Apply top notch problem solving skills to this problem.

To start with, tell me everything you know about this problem and its contents. Everything. Everything! At some point, we get to the circle which has a radius r. Where is the radius? After a few attempts, the radius is drawn from the center of the circle to one corner of the triangle, and the problem falls like a house of cards, provided you know the basic 4 equations of trig. The missing line or shape is one of the Big Five problem solving skills. Another skill is use everything in the problem. Use everything you've ever learned about anything.

I am steeped in the Poyla tradition of problem solving. At one point, I became bored with helping a certain little kid solve complicated problems by reminding him, over and over again, of the Big 5 problem solving techniques. With geometry problems of like the ones on this page, I don't have to repeat 4 of the problem solving techniques. Removing the question paves the way for methodical, structured thinking.

The bottom line for both geometry and algebra, take away the question and let the student solve the problem. Then you're on the short path to graduate level math technique. Once you've solved, it, you can read the question.

Summer writing

Summer writing reached an important milestone last week. We've been talking and reading and talking since May. This week I introduced actual writing. It went better than I expected.

Actual writing

Since summer began, we've been reading short passages and discussing them. Part of the reason is that this is a good way to begin writing. Part of the reason is that I have a 13 year old boy with a two word vocabulary: good and stuff.

For his first writing exercise of the summer, I gave him the choice of writing about one of the topics that we've been discussing or write a historical account of his favorite video game. Guess which topic was chosen?

3 Years of work

A digression is order. When he was in 6th grade, I helped him work on his science labs. His teacher would grade a lab. The kids could resubmit the lab as many times as they want to for a regrade until they achieved the desired score. I would occassionally help because the 5 or 6 page lab narrative was usually filled with shockingly abysmal writing. Once we spent 2 hours discussing what is important enough to include. Once we spent 4 hours recrafting and recrafting and recrafting sentences until the reader could understand the text.

I sent an email to express my appreciation to the teacher. The lower the grade, the higher the incentive, and the more productive our work learning how to craft a sentence or paragraph. Then I wrote the math teacher a 3 page document outlining my math goals from functions through calculus that I wanted to cover before 7th grade was complete, asking for help. I received a restraining order from the Illinois 7th Circuit Court forbidding me from sending emails to his teachers.

In 7th grade I backed off the writing oversight. Thus summer writing.

Immediate Success

After 90 minutes, he had once big paragraph. I told him without reading it that he has at least 3 paragraphs and probably run on sentences. 'This is going to be 6 pages long' he said, justifying the long paragraph. Let's just end it here, I said, I don't have 12 days to wait for your first writing assignment.

My goal as a math and now writing coach is to break up work into 25 or 30 minute chunks and focus on one little bit per day. After 6 months of this, we will make a lot of progress. We won't get to the second day if I'm critical or complain about all the mistakes I see. This day, I would start with paragraphs. After about 20 minutes of arguing, I asked him to name the subtopics within that big paragraph. He found 4. We broke it into 4 paragraphs.

I asked him to rewrite one sentence that started with 'This is because he...'. He fixed it in 2 minutes. In 6th grade, an improvement of this sort would have taken 30 minutes.

It wasn't a bad effort. I was actually impressed with his work and he could see my pride without me saying anything. This is very very important if you want to make it to day 2. I asked him why his writing skills were so good.

'You know those last few weeks after all the tests are over where nothing happens in school? Our teacher was gone most of the time. All we did whether the teacher was there or there was a substitute was write. In the morning, we would get a topic. We would have a few hours to write about what we were going to write about. Then in the afternoon, we would write it, and at 3:00, the time was up and it had to be done.'

Oh my friggin gosh. That's like 3 months of at home writing per week. Could my letter have caused a revolution? Unlikely. But I'll take it.

Nonetheless, there's a lot work left to do. After that first day I created a long list of things to work on (one at a time, of course). For example, how to choose and limit a topic to a doable 45 minute task. There were other grammar and writing mechanics and techniques that I noted need improvement.

I did a bit of research on the SAT - the essay and reading comp - and was surprised to find a) our At Home writing program and odd choice of reading material which I talked about in prior issues is lined up closely to the methods and goals of the SAT, and b) none of the writers understand why the SAT chose their peculiar methodology. I understand. In short, it's no longer the beginning of the twentieth century and our world values more than a novel set in the English country side dealing with people wearing period costumes.

So little time, so much to blog about. The saga will continue in the next issue with the SAT. It's hard to reach goals if you don't know what you're working toward.