One Room Schoolhouse Math, by Jen N.

This crazy idea came to me while reading the Little House on the Prairie series for the – I don’t know – 90th time? Back in the day, kids had the school books their parents owned. When they started a new school, the teacher would quiz them on the material in the book and if they knew it, they went on to the next book. It didn’t matter how old they were or what grade the age cut off chart said they should be in. Simple: study the material, learn it, and move on. The first few years of homeschooling I was frustrated by math books that included only a little new material in the middle. It seemed as if children spent seven years learning only basic arithmetic over and over.

If only there were a better way. . . .

My love of vintage books led me from antiquated readers to turn-of-the-century math books. I saw then that even math could be learned in a fun, fairly quick way. The old books really played with numbers. They didn’t spend two years adding and subtracting – these books played with numbers up to 10, multiplying, dividing, adding and subtracting all in the first book. Kids know how to multiply and divide from a young age using real-life situations. Give any group a plate of cookies and ask them to divide them equally; they can divide. I bet they even understand fractions if those cookies don’t come out evenly.

Here is an example from the Fourth Book of Graded Arithmetic:

A boy had $1. After spending .60 and earning .90, how much money had he?

A man worked 10 days and earned $18. At what rate per day was that? If he spends .70 a day, how long will it it take him to save $6.60?

This kind of “real world” math appeals to most kids. It is much less intimidating then a page of rate problems. The way these vintage books are laid out, all of the basic skills get reviewed without the drill-and-kill method.

After reading through several of these books at and Google books, I came up with a good list of math skills. Sometimes there is no need to reinvent the wheel; you just have to have the wheel in sight. My list starts with the student being comfortable with numbers under 10, then 20 and so on. I use the white board liberally and pull both written and oral work from various math sources. We also play math games almost daily.

Hopscotch math is a winter favorite for us. Put any numbers in the squares. The first square you land on is doubled. After that each number you land on is added to the running total. When you reach the end, you subtract the numbers on your way back to the start. We play it up to some huge numbers when I have enough tape on hand.

Another of our favorite math games is War. Divide a deck of cards in half. Each player flips a card over. The person with the higher number adds both cards together, if they add (or subtract, multiply, or divide) correctly they keep both cards. If they are the same, then each player draws another card and the winner gets all of the cards that are out. This goes on until one person has all the cards.

You can play an advanced version of this game with fractions. Each player turns 2 cards over making a fraction with 1 card above the other. Whichever fraction is larger keeps all the cards. If they are equal than each player makes another fraction of 2 more cards, until one is larger.

I call this game Make 10: I deal 12 cards face up. Players then take turns removing the card combinations that make 10. When everyone agrees there are no more combinations possible, we deal the next 12 cards. There is no “winner” with this game; it is more of a cooperative exercise.

Math version of the HedBandz game: You need 3 players for this one. We have the headband game, but players can rig a headband or hold the card over their forehead. One player is the dealer and gives each of the other 2 players a card. The dealer tells the sum of the two cards. Each player can see the other card and guesses what the missing number is. For example, the dealer says the sum is 10. Player 1 can see that Player 2 has a 7 and Player 2 can see Player 1 has a 3. Whoever guesses the missing number first wins. We play best out of 10, keeping track on the whiteboard. This works for addition or multiplication.

Card Fling- This is especially popular when we are all riled up or just have cabin fever. Each player gets 3 cards and throws them in the air. Each player adds (or multiplies) only their own cards that land face up. Points are earned for every card that lands face up. The first player to reach a designated amount of points (50 or 100) wins. This is great for a group of mixed ages because everyone loves throwing cards.

Practice making change can be done easily playing Life or Monopoly with your child as the banker. You can also use your take out menus to practice math. Add up your normal order or specify a budget to feed a family of four. For more fun, have your child make their own pretend restaurant menu and pay them with Monopoly money. Older kids can learn to figure tax and tips as well.

Using the white board each lesson includes both written work and oral work. We also compile some written work in a main lesson book. I try to find math concepts that are visually appealing so that this book becomes something the student wants to keep as a showcase of their work. Any blank sketch book will do for this. We also keep a good supply of graph paper handy to tape in where it is needed. Lining up numbers becomes a lot easier when the grids are printed. My artistic kids, who seem to have an allergy to the black-and-white printed page, enjoy using different mediums to illustrate these pages.

The one room schoolhouse approach to math appeals to my teaching style which has a definite classical base.

The study of mathematics should instill in students an ever-increasing sense of wonder and awe at the profound way in which the world displays order, pattern, and relation. Mathematics is studied not because it is first useful and then beautiful, but because it reveals the beautiful order inherent in the cosmos.

(from The Education Plan of St. Jerome Classical School, Hyattsville, MD)

And that is worth striving for.





Jen N. – Jen has spent her time homeschooling her five children since 2001. She has read over 5,000 books aloud. A fan of all things geeky, she calls her children her horcruxes — each one has a talent for something she might have pursued herself. Jen and her husband have created a family of quirky, creative people that they are thrilled to launch out into the world. With the three oldest graduated, Jen now has time on her hands and has started a blog:

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