Interview Michele Williams PhD, Author of Math Can Be Fun: A Parent’s Guide to Engaging Kids in Math

Interview Michele Williams PhD, Author of Math Can Be Fun: A Parent’s Guide to Engaging Kids in Math

Engaging kids in math is her passion. In her second career she is an author, math tutor, and parent coach. Read our interview with Michele Williams, Ph.D and find numerous tips to help students and their parents “get” math and have FUN in the process.

The parents’ success in influencing their child’s math outcomes is linked directly to how they transmit their enthusiasm, engagement, and encouragement. If you found/find math difficult, Math Can Be Fun: A Parent’s Guide to Engaging Kids in Math by Michele Williams, Ph.D. is the resource you need to make you change your mind.

Math Can Be Fun will help you and your child discover that math is everywhere. Math is woven in all our everyday activities. Math is not only that 30 minutes of sitting down with a tutor once or twice a week because parents have given up on helping their child with math.

The team at Special Needs Book Review recommends Math Can Be Fun: A Parent’s Guide to Engaging Kids in Math as a parenting resource. Parents will learn strategies to help their child find opportunities to learn math wherever they go. Parents will learn easy-to-implement activities to make their child’s math learning experience pertinent to them. They will learn how to make learning math more dynamic by using even songs and dance moves! Read our complete review here.

We thank Michele Williams for sending us a copy of her book and for agreeing to take part in our Author Interview Series.

Lorna: Your bio says, “Michele Williams became an engineer because she wanted to apply math to real-world problems. Along the way she tutored many young people in math, taught math at the community college level, and mentored young women who were fresh out of engineering school. It took many years for her to realize that her true calling was tutoring and mentoring, not engineering.”  Now you are the owner of MATHTUTORPHD, an on-line tutoring and mentoring service. Tell us about MATHTUTORPHD and your Math Coaching for Parents.

<< Michele Williams: I’d love to! Most of my school-age students live in my area, and I tutor some of them in their homes, which gives me opportunities to interact with their parents. I’ve found that while all of the parents care a great deal about their children’s education, they struggle with helping their kids with math. That was my motivation for writing the book — to give parents easy approaches for changing negative mindsets and creating fun math activities. With MATHTUTORPHD, I am continuing that endeavor with one-on-one and group coaching for parents, both locally and on line. This includes helping parents with math problems, but the main focus is to help them get beyond their own negative attitudes about math and to teach them how to engage their kids in math. My goal is for every one of my students and parents to smile whenever they hear the word “math.”>>

What could parents, schools, and universities do differently to encourage more girls to take math and science courses?Lorna: Let’s talk about girls and math, a subject dear to this retired teacher’s heart and the grandmother of five little girls!  What could parents, schools, and universities do differently to encourage more girls to take math and science courses?

<< Michele Williams: That is a great question, and I think the answer has many parts. It starts with parents, of course, since most of the brain development occurs by the age of 5. My recommendation is to seek out toys and books that encourage mathematical thinking. And I’m not talking about high-tech toys. Kids love an old-fashioned abacus (every time I see my autistic student, he asks me whether I brought the abacus), Play-Doh plus craft sticks is perfect for making shapes, and math hopscotch is a real blast! Math story books are also fantastic. Just search for “math story book” on Amazon.

Then the schools come into the picture. A recent New York Times article presented research showing that teachers’ biases about math can have a significant effect on girls’ success in math. Each pre-K, kindergarten, and elementary school teacher must be cognizant of his or her own attitude about math, and then be very careful not to pass negative attitudes on to students. (The same goes for parents.) That, of course, applies to both girls and boys, but some teachers may unwittingly encourage boys in math, while discouraging girls.

No matter how you look at it, mindset is a prominent factor in how well girls perform in math. Research shows that “more often than not, bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.” The article goes on to ask, “How do girls and boys develop these different views? Most likely, it has to do with the kinds of feedback we get from parents and teachers as young children.” Wow. We adults really do have to be careful in our interactions with young students, especially girls.

There is a group called “Million Women Mentors” that recruits professional men and women to take a pledge to mentor at least one girl to bolster her self-confidence in academics and guide her toward what is known as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) careers. I took the pledge, and I have started a math play group for some young underprivileged girls in my area. There are women (and some men) all over the country who are doing similar things. So hopefully we are reversing some of the past trends.

Once students reach high school and college, guidance counselors and professors come into play. I’ve read interviews with extremely intelligent women who had wanted to enter STEM careers, but were discouraged by their professors. The article I cited before also states, “Previous studies have found that college professors and employers discriminate against female scientists.” I have to say that I did not experience this in my pursuit of an engineering career, but I count myself lucky to have had parents who promoted education at every turn, both for their sons and their daughters.>>

Math Can Be Fun: A Parent's Guide to Engaging Kids in Math by Michele Williams, Ph.D.Lorna: Congratulations on your book, Math Can Be Fun: A Parent’s Guide to Engaging Kids in Math.  You said with your book you want to give parents the tools they need to help kids get their first inkling that math really can be fun. Give examples of activities parents of young children can do that will foster a love of math.  

<< Michele Williams: Thank you! I smile even thinking about answering this question. What I try to get across to parents is that with a little creativity and effort, they can make math learning a fun experience for their kids and for themselves. I know I have just as much fun as the kids when we’re doing math activities. Incorporating fun activities into the math learning process can make a huge difference for the student and the parent when it’s time to do math homework!

Some of my favorite activities for young students are: take a nature walk and look for symmetry in flowers and birds and butterflies; let the kids weigh the vegetables in the grocery store; use wet-erase markers to make math checkers by writing problems on each square; do the same with a Twister mat; buy a set of blank playing cards and make your own math card games; find math raps and songs on YouTube and sing and dance to them; clap or dance while skip counting … I could go on and on.>>

Lorna: Please explain the very important point you make with the connection between reading books and math.

<< Michele Williams: This idea is based on research that was reported by Dr. Gene Fite. The researchers found that kids who are good readers tend to be good in most subjects, including math. This surprised me at first, but after I thought about it, I realized it made perfect sense. As you read this sentence, your brain is taking the images of specific characters that are grouped in specific ways and creating a specific idea. A literal counterpart to this in math occurs in algebra and higher levels, in which symbols are used to represent specific values, such as p (3.141592…), or letters are used to represent Math Can Be Fun: A Parent’s Guide to Engaging Kids in Mathunknown quantities, as in x+y=12. Digging a little deeper, we can see that numbers are symbols, too, and like letters, they represent specific information. For example, the number “6” represents a specific quantity … 6 things. When we put the 6 in front of another 6, this group of characters represents 66 things. The bottom line is that the process of turning letter symbols into ideas is similar to that of turning number symbols into mathematical concepts. So read to your kids, and help them learn to read at an early age. It doesn’t matter whether they’re reading storybooks or comic books, as long as they discover the joy of reading.>>

Lorna: One section in your book, which I totally agree with, is about neat handwriting being a must for solving of math problems because we are not yet able to do math easily on tablets with keyboards.  Please elaborate.  

<< Michele Williams: Right. Computer keyboards are great for typing words, but they are not up to the task of writing equations. I own a USB tablet that allows me to write with a digital pen, but it doesn’t fix my handwriting!

This chapter was based on a specific student whose handwriting was nearly illegible when I met him. His parents contacted me because he consistently made C’s in math and his teachers consistently told his mom that he did well in class. After doing some research (I’m a math tutor, so this was new to me), and observing him as he wrote, I noticed that his poor handwriting was a result of two problems. First, he wrote his letters and numbers from the bottom to the top, which makes the shape harder to control. This should have been corrected early in elementary school, and I didn’t expect him to change this at the age of 13, but I have been able to get him to slow down so that he can form more legible characters. Second, he did not hold his paper in place with his non-writing hand, so the paper moved around as he wrote. I’m still working with him to make holding down his paper a solid habit.

After working with this student for several sessions, I convinced him to let me help him organize his book bag. (You should have seen the look of shock on his mom’s face!) At the bottom of the bag, we discovered a treasure … a crumpled math test that he had forgotten about, so neither I nor his parents had seen it. His grade on the test was 80, a C. I was very surprised at that because this student had really not had any problems with understanding the material. Then I looked at his work on the test and everything became clear.  All but one of the errors was the result of misreading his own handwriting as he progressed through long division problems. This kid is great at long division, but his handwriting was his downfall. This also points out the importance of the teacher looking at each student’s work, rather than just recording the grade, and it shows the importance of partial credit in math. It is frustrating to a child when he knows how to work the problems, but they are marked completely wrong because of little errors along the way. Partial credit would not have helped the people who programmed the Mars orbiter, but we’re not talking about professional mathematicians here. Let’s give students credit for what they know!>>

Lorna: To be effective, you pointed out that math sessions must use a “multi-sensory approach”. Please give examples of this that parents can do easily in their homes or even on road trips!  

<< Michele Williams: Research has shown that multi-sensory learning (using sight, sound, touch, and movement) is absolutely critical for special needs students, and I learned this first hand with my student who is autistic. Math worksheets would never work for him. Once I figured out what does work for him, I began using those approaches with my other students, and they really appreciate them too. Many of the activities I mentioned before fit into the “multi-sensory” category. Here are some others.

  • Perimeter and area: Measure how many steps it takes for your child to walk around the coffee table. That’s the perimeter. Then use the side measurements (in steps) to figure out the area (steps squared!).
  • Shapes: Find circles, squares, rectangles, and triangles in pictures of scenes or artwork or anything that is of interest to your child. Outline the shapes, measure them, and calculate perimeter and area. My autistic student loves the Mona Lisa, so we did this early on. Now he’s into Picasso, which is fantastic because the paintings from Picasso’s cubism period are perfect for geometry.
  • Make up little songs to remember math rules. I came up with “flip and multiply,” along with a little hand/body/head movement to help a homeschooled 5th grader remember how to divide by a fraction. Kids love to sing and dance!
  • Make a game of M&M or Skittles fractions. Have your child count the number of candies of each color and write the fraction for each color. Then let them eat the candy!Make a game of M&M or Skittles fractions. Have your child count the number of candies of each color and write the fraction for each color. Then let them eat the candy!
  • Buy an outdoor thermometer and record the temperature at about the same time every day, for 30 days. Then graph the data. Students are so much more interested in data that they recorded themselves, compared with working with a table of numbers from a book.
  • I just added glyphs (also called icons) to our sessions. I wrote about these on my blog recently. You can easily make your own; just be sure to focus on a subject that interests your child.
  • There are lots of great math activities you can do on road trips. Have young children count all the red cars, blue cars, and green cars that you pass within a 10-minute period. Then figure out the fraction of the total cars that are red, green, and blue.  Draw pie charts or bar graphs to represent the data.>>

Lorna: Please tell us about a program you offer you call Mathutainment because it focuses on fun group math activities.

<< Michele Williams: This is a service that I just began offering to home school groups in my area. I originally created the program for the group of girls that I work with on Saturdays, and I thought it would be helpful to home schooling parents who are trying to get their students more engaged in math. Really “mathutainment” could describe every session with my autistic student, but I use it more specifically to talk about multi-sensory learning with groups of kids. For younger children, 1st to 3rd grade, I offer: glyphs, moving with math, math hopscotch, art geometry, Play-Doh geometry, Geoboard geometry, Fractions Tower games, and math dominoes. For 4th and 5th graders I add Pizza Fractions games, math card games, math checkers, and math Twister! Each individual activity focuses on one area, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, exponents, or square roots.>>

Lorna: In closing, we wish to thank you for making time to take part in our Author Interview Series and for informing us about your book.

<<Michele Williams: It was my pleasure!>>

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This post was written by Lorna
Lorna d’Entremont: Co-owner of SentioLife Solutions, Ltd. the company behind KidCompanions Chewelry (2007) and SentioCHEWS (2013), mother of three, grandma of 5 and wife. She is a retired teacher and special needs advocate. Throughout she has taught all levels from grade 2 to grade 9. Lorna loved teaching and enjoyed seeing the students progress in the school system. During her 30 year career she took a few years off to raise her three children.