My Little Monster

My oldest son has good taste. For as long as he’s been in school, his favorite subject has been math.

I was not his first math teacher. That honor goes to video games. He learned to count by tracking the numbers as he amassed green mushrooms. When I noticed that he understood what the numbers meant, I sneaked in some of my own questions:

  • “When you play that level you gain 3 lives?”
  • “Uh-huh”.
  • “How many lives would you gain if you played it 4 times?”
  • “12”
  • “How many times should you play it if you wanted to gain 20 lives?”

So, he was solving linear inequalities in one variable in kindergarten. No big deal.

In 2013, he started his formal schooling. At the beginning of each year, his teachers would tell us he was a bit advanced in math, and at the end of the year, he was…still just a bit advanced. He seemed to just be maintaining the head start that Mario had given him. But with his enjoyment of and aptitude in the subject, I wanted to see him pursue math further. I don’t believe in acceleration for acceleration’s sake, but there was definitely an opportunity for him to be honing his skills at some harder problems.

The differentiation I was hoping for was not happening in the classroom, so I decided to supplement at home with the Beast Academy series by Art of Problem Solving. (Disclosure: I now work for Art of Problem Solving, but I did not when my son started Beast Academy.) The series follows Grogg, Winnie, Alex, and other little monsters as they learn upper elementary school math. At each grade level, there are four guide books, each with an accompanying practice book. The guide books are written in comic book form and the practice books provide the problems.

My son has loved the Beast Academy books from the start. The guides are engaging and the characters endearing. My son takes the guide books to bed to read at night, and then he and I do a few pages of problems in the evenings. My son is currently in 3rd grade, where the Beast Academy curriculum starts. No doubt, he has learned a lot about classifications of shapes and their geometric properties, but the lessons I’m happiest that he’s learned so far are these:

  1. Math is about thinking. It is not just numerical manipulations. We mathematicians get good at numerical manipulations because they make us better thinkers.
  2. You have to read the instructions. There is a strategy that students learn through years of conditioning with word problems: ignore the words, find the numbers, and do something with them. Add them or something. If the answer is wrong, do something else. Watching students mindlessly crunch numbers is maddening, but what makes this strategy so difficult to combat is that it’s effective with many math curriculums. Not with Beast Academy, though.
  3. You have to show your work. The Beast Academy practice books leave plenty of room to work out solutions, and I have had to work with my son to show him why showing work is helpful and what sorts of steps should be written down. As a complete coincidence, he is making fewer mistakes than he used to.

In fact, Point (3) is the source of my favorite Beast Academy story to date. Each practice book is about 100 pages long, and each evening, my son does about 2 pages. We were working on a couple of pages in the late 80s of 3A on one particular evening last month when my son gave me his work to look over. I checkmarked the ones that were right, handed it back, and told him to fix the rest. He looked over the pages, furrowed his brow, glanced up at me quizzically, glimpsed the pages again, and then it clicked: all the problems had checkmarks. He had gotten them all right! He finally broke through because he had learned to check the work he was showing and to find and to find and fix his errors himself before turning in his papers. I’ve seen him get his regular school homework all right on the first try before, but I’d never seen him as happy and proud of it as he was that December night.

I am a big fan of Beast Academy already, and I recommend it to any young students who enjoy math. I’m looking forward to working through the rest of the series, and I’ll be sure to give more updates about my little monster.