Homeschool Curriculum Review: Math-U-See

I have read many homeschool curriculum reviews and while it is nice to hear that people like or don’t like a certain program, I need to know WHY because my kids are probably different than your kids.  After all, that is one of the reasons most of us homeschool, right?

One of the most debated curriculum choices is Math-U-See.  People either love it or hate it or only love it for certain grades.  The people that don’t love it usually fell that way because they believe that it is not rigorous enough and to be honest, I felt that may be true in the past (although not anymore).

The first thing you must know about Math U See, is that it teaches in a linear way and concepts are taught to mastery.  Many math programs are a mile wide and an inch deep.  In first grade they touch on rote counting, counting objects, more than/less than, place value, adding, subtracting, time, measurement, fractions, skip counting, writing numbers, shapes, 2D and 3D, and other concepts.  Because there is so much ground to cover, the curriculum skips around a lot.  Two weeks on one subject and then two weeks on something unrelated, which really does not help the student retain the information.

Math U See’s Alpha book (usually done in first grade) focuses on single digit addition and subtraction.  Period.  Now, in truth, it does teach many of the subjects mentioned above, but it is all within the context of single digit addition and subtraction.  So, skip counting is covered, but might be approached as 5+5+5 when first introduced.  The concepts build on one another and follow a logical order.  When D was younger, I worried about this because I thought that he may have difficulty if he returned to public school because Math U See may not cover some of those things until later (when they fall logically).  However, I came to realize that because math curriculum in schools tended to skip around so much, most of the information had to be covered again the next year and maybe a third year after that before the students actually mastered it!  If he had to take a standardized test, he would have probably missed a few, but who cares?  I have no absolutely desire to teach to a test.  By the time he takes the SAT or ACT, it will be covered!

 Here are the “primary” levels available:
Primer – This is an optional kindergarten level math.  It is the least “linear” of all the levels and introduces a variety of subjects.  This is the only level where you are “allowed” to move on even if your student does not totally “get” the concept.
Alpha – Single-digit addition and subtraction
Beta – Multi-digit addition and subtraction
Gamma – Single and multiple digit multiplication
Delta – Single and multiple digit division
Epsilon – Fractions
Zeta – Decimals
These are considered “secondary math”:
Pre-Algebra
Algebra 1
Geometry
Algebra 2
Pre-Calculus
Calculus

There is also a consumer math class called “Stewardship.”

If you are wondering where they introduce time or square roots or some other subject, you can take a look at the scope and sequence at the mathusee.com site.  It is all in there, but it is taught where it should be taught logically, not just to check a box for some state standards checklist.  For example, D is finishing up Epsilon right now.  The area of a circle is taught with Pi as 22/7 because Epsilon is all about fractions.  They also teach prime numbers here because you need to find factors for fractions.

How it works:

Each lesson (30 lessons per book) has a DVD of Steve Demme (creator of MUS) teaching the lesson.  He is teaching kids, so they have some of the same (right and wrong) responses that your kids may have.  He explains the concept and shows it visually with the blocks and usually gives several examples.  The parent should watch the DVD lesson and LATER either watch it with their child, so that they can do the block activities along with them and check for comprehension or the parent can just teach it to the student.  To be honest, I just let D watch it now that he is older and then I watch it over his shoulder so that I can help him.  For P, I watch but don’t show him the video.  I teach it to him all myself.

Some good things:

  • Concepts are taught in logical order.  Retention is better because lesson build on one anther
  • It is multi-sensory.  It is especially visual, which works really well for my boys and for many kids on the spectrum (and others who are not).
  • You know what to expect.  Each lesson has six pages and a test.  The first three are “Lesson Practice,” which focus on the concept just taught.  The last three are “Systematic Review,” which starts with problems from the current lesson and then gives many review problems.  Because you know what is coming, you can tailor it to your student.  If D gets every problem correct on page one, he can skip one of the lesson review pages.  If he gets 100% correct on the first Systematic Review page, he can skip to the test.  This keeps you from wasting time.
  •  Steve Demme is a very good teacher!  I actually like math, but I am not very good at teaching it.  Usually it just kind of makes sense to me, so it can be hard for me to explain it.  Even though I do enjoy math, I have understood it better after watching the videos.  (Isn’t that true for most homeschool subjects though?)
  •  The program is thorough.  In the beginning I had my doubts, but I have now heard from many, many parents that used MUS all the way through Calculus that did very well (often better than their peers) when they got to the college level.
  •  It seems easy!  I think  this is one of the reasons that some people doubt that it is rigorous enough.  Concepts are added slowly, one at a time, so that it seems very easy.  Many of us think, “I don’t remember math being this simple!”
  •  There are many used copies for sale (especially of the DVDs, Teacher’s Manuals and the Test Booklets).  There are the Spiral Bound versions, the 2004 versions, the 2009 versions and the new 2012 versions.  However, they all work together!  The old DVD with the new workbook is fine.  They don’t change the lessons.  This has been great because I usually buy everything used easily except the student workbook, which I buy almost always have to buy new (comes with the test booklet).

Some possible drawbacks:

  • It CAN be hard to switch to MUS if you have already done a few years in another curriculum.
    One reason for that is that MUS expects you to MASTER the skill taught that year.  After Gamma, the student should be able to do, for example, 8,758 x 6,241.  Some curriculums may not go that far.  They may teach only to the hundreds or thousands times tens.  MUS advises you to go back and fill in the gaps because math should be sequential and you should not move on until one skill is mastered.  I started doing the Beta book with D in second grade.  By the end of October I decided that homeschooling was not a good idea for that year and ended up sending him to public school.  At the end of the year, I decided to homeschool again, so I thought we would do a quick review of Beta over the summer.  Well, it turned out that although he did well in school, he did not know everything in the Beta book, so we just started where we left off and ended up finishing Beta about half way through third grade.  Then we moved on to Gamma.  I hated the idea of being “behind,” but I knew that it was better for him to really know the material.  Now we are ahead because working through the summer worked so well, that we have kept it up every year.  We move less quickly in the summer – usually just one page a day, one unit every two weeks, but we never totally stop. 
  •  It can be expensive.  Once you get the Teacher’s Pack (Teacher’s Manual and DVD) and the Student Pack (Workbook and Test Booklet), if you buy it new every year it is expensive.  You also have to buy the blocks, but that is pretty much it for the manipulative until you reach Gamma, so they will last you several years.
  •  Some things are not done the way you remember them (the way we used to do them in school), so you do need to watch the videos, even if you are good at math.
  •  Some people find it the predictability monotonous.

Personally, I HIGHLY recommend MUS, especially for learners that are not primarily auditory learners.  After using Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon, I think I have a pretty good picture of the program.  It is worth the money for us (even on our limited budget) and I can’t imagine ever switching to another curriculum for math.

Here are some MUS-related links to help you make your decision:
www.Mathusee.com (official website)
Math U See’s YouTube channel (a great resource for FAQ and demos!)
Math U See’s Facebook page https://facebook.com/mathusee
Math U See related yahoo groups (not officially sponsored by MUS):
http://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/MUSSwap/info (for people wanting to buy or sell used MUS materials)
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Seven Senses on a Diet

If you have a child with Autism, you have probably heard of “sensory issues.”  Simply put, a person with sensory “issues” is usually:

  • hypo-reactive (under-reacts) to sensory input (things they see, hear, feel, etc.) and may crave certain types of input or
  • hyper-reactive (over-reacts) to sensory input or
  • has difficulty with integration of the senses – they may have problems processing more than one type of sensory input at a time (for example, they can’t process what they hear when there is too much going on visually)

A related issue is praxis, in which a child may have motor planning challenges (making a plan of what to do and executing that plan), but that deserves its own post.

It is estimated that about 90% (or some say all) people with Autism have sensory “issues.”  However, if a child (or adult) does have sensory problems, that does not mean that they are Autistic.  Sensory processing problems are the main reason for the “stimming” often seen in Autistics.  Stimming, or self-stimulating behavior, is usually done to bring the person to a more ”regulated,” calm and alert state.

As children, we are taught that we have five senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell.  Well, there are actually at least two more: our proprioceptive and vestibular senses.  The vestibular sense refers to your sense of balance.  Our proprioceptive sense is being able to feel where your body is.  It can be thought of as body awareness and it is easy to see that a person with little grasp on just where there body is in space would have multiple challenges, especially with movement.  For most people, their bodies receive information from their joints and muscles to let their brain know just where their body is.  For some people, that information is not received clearly by their brain.  How could one possibly perform complex motor patterns if they have to constantly check where their own body parts are?  How could you feel calm and grounded?  These people often prefer a strong touch or deep pressure because it improves their awareness of their body.

Here are some signs that a person may be having difficulty processing these senses:
(note that there and an infinite number of other symptoms, but I am hoping to give the reader a representative picture for each)

sight

  • Purposely looking at things from different distances or from a different angle (when not related to poor eyesight)
  • Closing eyes in visually over-stimulating environments (maybe stores that have things constantly in view with little empty space)

hearing

  • constantly changing the volume on videos, radio, etc.
  • covering (or constantly covering and uncovering) ears
  • making noises to drown out other noises

taste

  • refusing to eat certain foods with strong tastes (although this may be a touch/texture issue)
  • a need to taste things, even when they are not food (not just mouthing, actually tasting)

touch

  • a constant need to explore things by touching them
  • becoming upset when having to touch certain textures

smell

  • bringing things constantly to the nose to smell
  • inability to concentrate when in the presence of strong perfume

proprioception

  • clumsiness, running into things
  • unable to copy certain movements

vestibular

  • gravitational insecurity, unsure in movement
  • constant spinning, excess movement

So what do you do if your child (or you) have problems with any of these?  Most occupational therapists (OTs) would develop a “sensory diet.”  Don’t think of it in the sense of a restrictive diet (I won’t eat carbs).  Instead, think of it as what you feed yourself.  If you are on a high protein diet, you will feed yourself a steady stream of protein.  If you have a sensory diet for your child, it will provide your child with the appropriate amount of sensory stimulating or calming activities to bring your child back to an alert, calm state.  For example, a child who is over-reactive to smell, should avoid strong smells, but you would want to slowly introduce them to desensitize the child to it, so that they can eventually still function when the school cafeteria is making broccoli.  A person whose vestibular sense is constantly needing input should have scheduled times during the day when they can spin or engage in activities that will satisfy that need.

Add to all of this that sensory systems change over time.  A person who once struggled with one sense may later struggle with another.  Sometimes people even go to extremes back and forth between craving and avoiding input in the same day.  That is why consulting an occupational therapist is so helpful.  We all do things to stimulate or calm our nervous system.  Some people clench their teeth.  Others doodle or tap a pencil.  We have just found “socially appropriate” ways to do this.

It should also be said that for many people, especially those on the spectrum, these issues will probably never completely disappear.  Some people find “stimming” by autistics or others uncomfortable to watch, but once you know the reason behind it (or even if you don’t quite get it), hopefully you can understand and allow them to be themselves.  It takes a great deal of effort for some people to not do these things that are calming to them, whether it be flapping their arms or jumping or some other movement.  Why not allow them to concentrate on living their own lives successfully rather than trying to appear “normal” (whatever that is)?

If you have an autistic  child or has a diagnosis or Sensory Integration Disorder, Sensory Integration Dysfunction of if you have been told that your child has sensory “issues,” you will save yourself a lot of frustration by trying to understand in depth what this is and understanding more about your child’s own sensory system.  Make sure to speak to the occupational therapist at school or in early intervention and get recommendations for sensory diet activities at home.  It is effective and worth your time and effort.

A few additional resources

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED VIDEO (60 minutes): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v7UIFMpoabA
(I am not a big fan of the organization that sponsored this lecture, but the information here from Lindsey Biel is the best I have seen in one presentation)

Books:

Lindsey Biel, who presented above, co-wrote this excellent book: “Raising a Sensory Smart Child” http://www.amazon.com/Raising-Sensory-Smart-Child-ebook/dp/B004IE9QM2/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1380939083&sr=1-1&keywords=l.+biel+sensory

“Out of Sync Child” by Carol Kranowitz (not my favorite, but a good starter book for people not familiar with the subject) http://www.amazon.com/Out-Sync-Child-Carol-Kranowitz/dp/0399531653

“The Out of Sync Child Has Fun” also by Carol Kranowitz http://www.amazon.com/Out-Sync-Child-Revised-Edition/dp/0399532714/ref=pd_sim_b_1

“Building Bridges Through Sensory Integration: Therapy for Children with Autism and Other Pervasive Developmental Disorders” by Paula Aquilla, Shirley Sutton, Ellen Yack  (This book is really not just for Autism.  It’s all about sensory issues.)

Disclaimer: I am not an occupational therapist.  This information is based on my own experiences and research.