Life of Fred
Got a math lover? How about a math hater? With either one, the Life of Fred series of math books may be the solution for your math curriculum needs.
I first saw the Life of Fred books at a homeschool conference. The author and his wife were there talking to families about their books and I stopped to chat briefly with both. One thing that struck me instantly was that the author, Stanley Schmidt, Ph.D. , loves math and that seems to be his main motivation for having created the Life of Fred math books. You know how it is when you love something so much that you just want to share it with the world? That is exactly what I got from Dr. Schmidt and this love shines throughout his texts.
The first thing I noticed about the books is that they are, well, BOOKS just as much as they are texts to teach. Each book is based around a 5 year old genius, Fred Gauss, who encounters all sorts of situations and adventures sprinkled with plenty of humor. The stories are so entertaining you get caught up in them instantly. I can't recall any other time I've picked up a math book and actually wanted to keep reading for the "story's sake".
My daughter, who could be generally categorized as someone who would rather hand wash Thanksgiving dishes than sit down and work on some math, grabbed the Life of Fred Beginning Algebra book and started reading it with breakfast. I saw her sitting with it cracked open at lunchtime too! She then was reading it the next day and I also "caught" her on the couch when her schoolwork was done, browsing through, you guessed it, more Life of Fred math. The sound of the occasional snicker came floating over. She informed me on the second day that she wanted to use the Life of Fred books for her math studies.
What is so special about these books that my daughter, a "math hater" , would sit and browse through math textbooks for hours just "for fun"? (*Ok she's not really a math hater anymore thanks to her experience with Teaching Textbooks). I think it's the fact that the math is tied to something that is meaningful and that the stories are such a riot. So many homeschoolers are recognizing the importance of "living books". The Life of Fred texts are living books that teach math. They are not just a dry text full of unrelated lessons and run of the mill story problems. They have a continuous thread running throughout them and each lesson is tied to something that means and/or accomplishes something, at least in the hilarious and wacky world of Fred Gauss! When your student gets drawn into the story, he finds himself doing the math as part of the story and wanting to move on and read more about Fred's silly adventures. The books don't just teach math either. In each book there are all sorts of interesting tidbits sprinkled throughout like vocabulary, references to literature, history, and a few life lessons thrown in to boot.
Each text books starts with a story and is designed to be entirely self-teaching. As you progress through each story you run into math because it is needed for an issue or adventure in the context of the story. Each math concept has clear explanations and you are actually invited to call the author if something still isn't clear after working through it. Here is a quote from a personal email from the author about the self teaching philosophy behind the books:
"The Life of Fred books are self-teaching. Parents are encouraged NOT to teach the material. Here's why: I believe that English and reading are more important that mathematics (and I have a Ph.D. in math!) Increasingly, as the children go through their years of elementary school, high school, and college, they learn by reading more than by lectures. In kindergarten, virtually everything they learn is from the teacher's mouth. By graduate school, sitting around in seminars discussing what you have read becomes normative. And after college, the graduate faces 40 or more years in which virtually everything of importance that is learned is from reading---not from the Discovery Channel on television. Children are human. They seek labor-saving approaches to life. When reading in any math book, when they hit something they don't understand, they immediate choice is to cry from help from mama. And mama comes running (it's hard-wired into our species) and "helps" the little one. And this has several negative effects: (1) It teaches the child to whine (which can drive parents crazy) and (2) The child never learns to read in order to understand. If the parent says, "Dr. Schmidt says that I'm not supposed to help you," the child will go back and re-read the passage a second time--at a slower speed--and will find it understandable. The Life of Fred books are clear if they're not read at the same speed you read comic books. I have told parents that if the child still can't understand the material, they can phone me! I've had about five or six calls over the last half dozen years."
After each lesson there is a "Your Turn to Play" section with practice problems, including word problems. These sections have the complete solutions listed after them. Many of the problems require some puzzling through, others are pretty straight forward and still others may have several possible solutions. Your students will also appreciate that some of them are just plain fun.
Once you've worked through these, you get to continue on with the story. At the end of each chapter there are several "cities" of math to assign. If your student hasn't mastered the material after doing the problems in several of the cities, there are more to practice in.
The books designed for younger students only have a "Your Turn to Play" section in each chapter and then a "bridge" at the end of several chapters where if you get 9 or more right you get to move on. If you don't, you get extra tries to master and work on the material. Students will probably work hard to really understand the material and get "over the bridge" in fewer tries.
There are also Fred's Home Companion guides available to complement some of the levels. These home companion guides schedule daily readings, have a complete answer key and offer extra practice problems. They make a nice addition to the series and I highly recommend them, especially because they are so reasonable price-wise.
That's another factor about the Life of Fred series. They won't cost you an arm and a leg. Each hardback book costs anywhere from 19 to 39 dollars. The Home Companion guides are 14 dollars each. That's pretty reasonable when you compare these books to other popular homeschool math programs. If you don't want to buy the Life of Fred books for your main text(s), you still might be able to afford to use them as an entertaining supplement.
So what about the rubber meeting the road? Do the Life of Fred books really work? Well, that is a question I intend to find out with all three of my children. I have the fractions book and plan on using it with my youngest over an upcoming summer (or two). My oldest will start using the statistics book as well. Just by looking through the texts though, I really believe that they will work out great and that the math is rigorous while at the same time understandable (and let me say it yet again, even FUN).
The author was very helpful in suggesting that my youngest son might not be ready for the material when I first contacted him and was reassuring in that there is no need to hurry. A student working through the Life of Fred books could conceivably finish the entire series by 9th or 10th grade.
Here is a quote from the author's email to me about our son waiting to start the series:
"I want success (with a moderate amount of effort) for each reader, and so I encourage parents not to start things too early. Besides learning a lot of math, my goal is that they enjoy it. There's plenty of time. The two books before algebra (LOF: Fractions and LOF: Decimals and Percents) each should take, on the average, less than a quarter of a year. LOF: Beginning Algebra and LOF: Advanced Algebra---as scheduled by their Fred's Home Companion study guides should each take a little over a hundred lessons. That means that each of the algebra books should take, say, a half year. LOF: Geometry has a lot of fun stuff in it. The concept of proof, which is central to why we teach geometry, is a new way of thinking for most kids. Schedule a year for the geometry. LOF: Trig has about a hundred lessons. Another half year. Then they're in calculus! Well before the end of their high school years. LOF: Calculus is covers all two years of calculus. That's why I say that there is no hurry in starting the Life of Fred series."
How in the world can you go all the way through fractions to Calculus in just about 4 years or so? I believe it's because kids aren't bogged down with tons of "extra" problems that are not essential. Students MUST understand what they are doing in order to proceed through the Life of Fred Series. Children CAN learn quite a bit of math in just a few years, if you give them the opportunity. In my opinion, it's also important not to be learning specific algorithms by rote memorization. In order to succeed in the Life of Fred math books, students really have to work through and puzzle out the material. You just can't move on by memorizing the "how to do it". You must understand what you are doing and why. I believe these textbooks encourage a true understanding of math and tie learning to concrete situations that have "meaning". When you truly understand something, you don't need a million practice problems. When you are enjoying things, you will often want more, too! The LOF books will leave plenty of time to pursue math contests or extras like library books featuring math concepts, math software or math games and puzzle books and/or other similar activities.
The possible downsides are that some students just will not do well with a self teaching program they must read themselves. This is not your push in the DVD type of lesson where you watch and listen. You MUST be a good reader and you MUST be able to think through the problems with a minimum of assistance. Sometimes the concepts will not be readily apparent to some children on the first pass through and will require some rereading until a "light bulb goes on". This could be frustrating, but as my husbands says, this could also be beneficial because it enforces the child to discipline himself mentally to accomplish the task at hand. There are also no manipulatives. While manipulatives are used less and less in higher math levels, parents may want to buy a few inexpensive fraction pie or bar pieces for younger students using the Life of Fred Fractions book, or print some out for free here.
Parents may also not like the books because there is no scripted teacher's manual. Remember though, the author is a phone call away. Some parents have stated that the materials are wonderful for a supplementary program, but not for the main math course. Others have reported, that for their children, the explanations were not thorough enough.
All in all, I think the Life of Fred math books are an affordable, welcome and unique addition to the myriad of math programs available to students and parents. They manage to stand out because they are fun, funny, engaging and connected to stories that keep you involved in what you are learning. I can say that personally, I am sold on the Life of Fred math books. I am putting in an order for the texts I don't have and will go through the complete set with my youngest. My older two will also be using some of the higher level books, at their request. Check back for an article about our experiences and any updates about how the LOF books are working for us.
I recommend you go over to the official website and take a look at the sample pages to see if the series is a fit for your student(s). You may just like what you see and join the quietly expanding fan base of the Life of Fred math books. ;-) We did!
Life of Fred Math Books Official Website
Visit the website to make an order or take a look at sample pages and get even more information as well as user comments.
Life of Fred: Fractions
Life of Fred: Decimals and Percents
Life of Fred: Pre-Algebra I with Biology
Life of Fred: Beginning Algebra *with optional Home Companion
Life of Fred: Advanced Algebra *with optional Home Companion
Life of Fred: Geometry
Life of Fred: Trigonometry *with optional Home Companion
Life of Fred: Calculus
Life of Fred: Statistics
Life of Fred: Linear Algebra
I have read a blog post by a concerned parent about some of the material in one of the higher level Life of Fred books. Please note if you read that the Life of Fred books contain "questionable" material, I have personally looked over some of the books and not found anything that is inappropriate, in my opinion, for my children. The author is an unabashedly Christian man and I believe his values are reflected in the books (though there is no "preaching" and I do not believe anything that would offend or put off non-Christian families).
There were allegedly some items that some parents may not have felt comfortable with, but some of these were reportedly removed, replaced or changed in subsequent editions.
Please refer to this post on the Well Trained Mind boards, if you have any concerns and want details.
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