Challenge Math: Finding Fun Along the Way to Learning

by Leslie Nathaniel, Springfield


I’m really looking forward to seeing and hearing Ed Zaccaro at the 2012 VaHome- schoolers conference in March—he’s one of three featured speakers and I’m looking forward to them all. I’ve been using two of Mr. Zaccaro’s math books off and on with both my kids for a couple of years and I really like his approach. One of the things I like the best is that I can use the same book with both kids even though they’re roughly four years apart in “grade levels”—and my kids enjoy the process! Of all the ways we approach math learn- ing, my youngest daughter most enjoys the times we take one of our Zaccaro books to a comfy spot or a favorite coffee shop and do some math side by side. I can’t wait to hear what kind of ideas, insights, and wisdom I might learn from the man who writes math books with humor and fun to go with a solid approach to problem-solving.

Mr. Zaccaro has written seven different math books, but the ones we happen to own are the Challenge Math series of two books: Primary Grade Challenge Math and Challenge Math for the Elementary and Middle School Student (Second Edition). Across the top of the cover is a quotation: “Math is often taught as all scales and no music. This book contains the music!” His Challenge Math books definitely bridge the gap between math worksheets and real-life math: these books are exclusively about word problems that define the sorts of situations that really do come up in life, or the sorts of questions that kids ask. If your child has ever stared at a math problem and wondered how or why it could ever be useful, Ed Zaccaro likely has a word problem that would make a perfect example of how and why!

Each book is divided into chapters that focus on a specific topic or skill. The beginning of the chapter offers a short narrative about the lesson with an example (or several examples) of the problems being solved. The narrative is broken up by black-and-white graph- ics and plenty of white space so the pages don’t appear overwhelming or cluttered. Once you’ve read through the narrative, the problem sets come next, and that’s where the fun begins. The problems themselves are engaging and puzzle-like. The problem sets are divided into different levels (Levels 1, 2, 3, and “Einstein” for the Primary Grades book; Level 1, 2, and “Einstein” for Elementary and Middle Grades book) for each chapter, too. Answers to the problems are presented in the back of each book, sometimes with a short description about the problem-solving or reason for the answer.

When we first started using these books, I would read the narrative lesson aloud (frequently at the breakfast table) and demonstrate the process of solv- ing the example problems on a small white board. Then the kids would take turns, each tackling a problem from the appropriate level. While one worked away, the other ate some breakfast and watched. In those early days, my younger daughter only worked on the Level 1 problems from the Primary Grades book. My older daughter would tackle some of the tougher ones. Because we usually worked the problems aloud and on a white board we could all see, the kids could coach each other if one of them got stuck. As time went on, we used sections of both books and my younger daughter began working more of the levels. The skills they learned working these problems translated to other math programs and to daily life. These days, the kids may read the narrative portion on their own and work through the problems, only coming to me if they have difficulty. The second book includes chapters on trigonometry, graphing equations, and calculus, so not all of the later problems are presented as word problems, and not every chapter is broken down into different levels of difficulty.

Gauging the grade level of these books is a little tricky because they were designed with gifted education in mind. The topics and skills addressed go into greater depth than you might initially expect, so these books can be used with a broad age range depending on math skills and interest. They’re definitely not just for gifted kids! We’ve made more than one lap through some sections as a child’s skills expanded and she was able to solve additional levels, but sometimes we’ve also been able to do all the levels of a particular chapter the first time through.

We’ve enjoyed these books enough that I’m looking forward to adding Mr. Zaccaro’s book Real World Algebra to our line-up this year while I wait to hear him in person at the 2012 VaHomeschoolers Conference and Resource Fair in March.

About the Reviewer

Leslie Nathaniel has been homeschooling in the wilds of Northern Virginia since 2002; this year, her elder daughter is taking her into the new territory of “homeschooling the high school years.” So far, the journey is looking good.

This review first appeared in the November-December 2011 VaHomeschoolers Voice.

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