Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Math Essentials: No-Nonsense Algebra (Homeschool Review Crew)

Last winter, Celia found herself struggling in math, and was moved from the advanced placement Algebra I class to the "regular track" Pre-algebra program at her school.  At the time, there was a concern that she didn't have a good grasp of fundamentals, which would have been a definite problem going forward because so much builds upon these. While going from grades in the 60s and 70s to high 90s was great for her self-esteem, I was concerned that now she wasn't being challenged enough.  In going over her work, I began to think that it wasn't her aptitude but rather her processing speed that was holding her back -- the AP class was moving very quickly, and I think she was just always a step or two behind.  She had a school assigned math review packet to work on for the summer, but even only working an hour or two a day, she had it completed in about a week.  When we had the opportunity to review No-Nonsense Algebra from Math Essentials, the timing was perfect - now she had more math to both keep her skills sharp and to challenge them.

No-Nonsense Algebra is a complete algebra course that is just that -- no fluff, no filler.  It's straight up lesson and practice. As Celia flipped through the book, she realized that she already knew much of the beginning.  We decided that if she knew how to do the problems, she would do either odds or evens (her choice) and move on; if she didn't know how to do things right away, we'd slow down, using the included access to the video tutorials presented by author Richard W. Fisher.

While this program is part of the Math Essentials series, it is easy to pick up with Algebra despite never having used the program before.  Celia has decided she prefers the learning style of short lessons and then practice, where concepts are broken down into single-idea sections, rather than teaching and practicing them as a group. For example, rather than being "Arithmetic and Integers" all at once, there is a page for addition, multiplication, and division, so that she can make sure she understands each concept.  She recalls her school program lumping some ideas together in one lesson. (I wonder if this was part of her inability to grasp things quickly -- she was trying to master too many ideas simultaneously.)  Celia liked the way this program presented lessons because she knew that she was practicing one "new" operation until she had a solid grasp of a concept, while the daily reviews allowed her to practice what she had learned before.

The videos are no-frills as well.  There is a voice over in tandem with writing on the screen as problems are shown and solved step-by-step.

Celia has been working on this program three days a week for just about five weeks, and has completed all of the first unit and is partway into the second chapter.  I'm not surprised that she's finished close to thirty lessons in this time because much of Unit 1 is a review of Pre-Algebra concepts.  Only once did she have to stop and watch the video, and once she did, she had an "Oh, duh, I knew that!" moment.

However, I'm glad we didn't just say "You've done pre-algebra basically twice now, so we'll just skip the beginning and jump into new stuff," because of the areas she found she did need a refresher.  (Much to her chagrin, she had assistance from fifth-grader Jude on a basic fraction problem.)  Regardless of what elementary math program your child is coming from, I would highly recommend starting at the beginning.  Given that almost all higher maths and math-based sciences use Algebra as their foundation, it's much better to spend a few weeks reviewing than several years with frustration and backtracking.  Since it's summer break for her, she hasn't had a full course load, making doing one in the morning and one in the afternoon not that onerous.

While a softcover book, No-Nonsense Algebra is a textbook, not a work book.  You'll want a notebook or looseleaf and a binder to go along with it. (I expect we'll also want some graph paper when we get into graphing chapters.) One of the things the book wants you to do is copy the example problems - don't just read through them, but copy and do them so you can get a feel for what you need to do.  Again, we skipped that part for Unit 1, because it was review for Celia, but expect her to copy at least one sample problem as she gets into new things.  (You also can copy from the videos, to work along with them.) When you first open the book, it seems like you can just work right in the book, because you're only adding and subtracting integers. However, as you go farther into the program, problems will become multiple steps, and you just won't have the room.  Go right to the notebook!

After the Unit 1 basics, the program then moves into meatier algebraic concepts: equations, graphing, and polynomials.  In comparing this to two other programs (one that is the Algebra level of the math curriculum that the younger boys use, and the program that Luke and Matthew used for Algebra), I'm confident that it covers a complete Algebra I curriculum.   In fact, Celia and I have made a deal.  She's entering 8th grade and considering homeschooling for high school,  I told her that if she worked through the book and carried an 85+ average, I'd start her right into Geometry next summer.  She's definitely interested in this route because it would put her back on the same timetable she had been with the Advanced Math program. While it would be extra evening work for her, the time involved (about 20-30 minutes per lesson, perhaps), I think is not so overwhelming that she couldn't work on it "part-time, evenings and weekends."

I'm the first one to tell anyone that I'm not a math person.  I passed high school Algebra thanks in substantial part to a dear friend who patiently re-explained things to me until I finally got it (why he holds a Ph.D. in mathematics and is a successful college math professor and department chair and I was an arts major).  While Celia and the boys are much stronger mathematicians than I am (they totally inherited that from their daddy!), if I go slowly, even I can understand the concepts shown.  This is isn't a program that is only for advanced students. With the single-concept lessons and videos to explain things carefully, this program makes Algebra accessible to all students.

This mama is pleased that the answer key is included, for both exercises and the review. Even clear graphs for graph-related units are included. This makes it very easy for me to check that she understands what she's doing.

The key doesn't explain how to get to the answer, but I'm not so worried about that.  I'm hopeful that by my fourth time through Algebra I have enough of an understanding to be able to help her figure out where she may have gone wrong, but if not...that's when we either refer back to the book and videos.  I have really come to appreciate video-based learning because you can rewind the video and try over and over without feeling stupid or as if you're imposing on a teacher.  If worse comes to worse and we just need a new way of looking at things, we can always call in the big gun reinforcements named Luke and Matthew!

In the book are also a few pages of encouragement, like this one.

First, I like that it gives a listing of frequent error sources. If I had a nickel for every time I said, "You didn't reduce the fraction!" or even "Did you read the directions?" when checking math answers over the last 14 years, I could probably be wealthier than Bill Gates! I've noticed that often Celia's mistakes are made because she's rushing and either skipped a step or subtracted instead of adding, etc. but of course, if Mom suggests slowing down and paying attention, well...what could she possibly know? This is a page that I think we are going to book mark with a sticky note to refer back to for when things just aren't working.

I like this program.  I believe that it's suitable for the advanced student who wants to work faster - short lessons means two or three at a time don't take up an entire day.  It's also appropriate for the average, who needs to go at a more moderate, or even the slow-but-steady Team Turtle mathematicians who need to rewatch the lesson videos and retry problems to really grasp things.  No-Nonsense Algebra is a book that I definitely see becoming well-used in our home.

For other reviews of No-Nonsense Algebra, click the banner below!

No-Nonsense Algebra {Math Essentials Reviews}

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