5 Tips for Using Math-U-See

posted in: curricular | 9

Is there more angst spilt in homeschooling over any subject more than math?

Math is a subject none of us want to mess up. Once our children hit middle school, people start asking how we think we’re going to teach upper level math competently. And we wonder that ourselves, too, even if we don’t like being asked about it.

It’s possible to wing math in the early years, but because math is a consecutive skill, where one concept builds upon another, it’s best to choose a program and stick with it. Different programs use different vocabulary. Different programs teach concepts in different orders, but different logical, step-by-step orders – so skipping around between programs can lead to gaps and confusion more than in any other subject.

I’ve written before about how much I love Math-U-See. We’ve been using it for 9 years now, and with all my students so far. We use the video lessons (I’ve watched them too, so I understand how to teach the material) and the blocks – the whole package. I love it.

In the last almost-decade of sticking with the same program and walking 4 students (and soon starting my 5th) through the process, these are my top 5 tips for using and organizing Math-U-See.

If you use Math-U-See, please share your tips and suggestions in the comments, too!

Math-U-See Tip #1: How to store the blocks

Math-U-See blocks are a core of the curriculum, and they are very cleverly designed and implemented in the program. You can buy a wooden case from them to store your blocks, but that’s rather pricey.

Instead, I use a wide, shallow 25-qt Sterilite container with a latching lid. Kids can dig around and find the block they want quickly, but we can also put them away quickly because we don’t have to sort them into correct cubbies.

Math-U-See Tip #2: Reserved Crayons

In Primer and Alpha, kids do quite a bit of coloring with their math. As they learn the blocks in the first few lessons, they’re supposed to color the blocks the right color. With my first student, we hunted around the crayon bin every time, with my son constantly asking, “Is this an ok color? Is this one ok?”

When I ordered Primer for my third, knowing I had at least 2 more after her, I got smart and set aside hand-picked crayons. I pulled out the colors that best matched the blocks and stuck them in a small container that lives in our math book bin.

When she sat down with her lesson page, she had the little container with just 10 crayons, and it was clear which color was intended.

Math-U-See Tip #3: Pull out the pages, use clipboards, have a “turn in” container

This Math-U-See workflow is probably my best tip. Is it ok to put the best tip in the middle?

First, I tear out the math page to be completed each day from the workbook. The kids do not handle the workbooks themselves directly. If they did, the covers would be torn in no time and I’d have a headache figuring out what I’m supposed to be assigning and checking in each of the 4 books that won’t stay open to be checked.

After all, Math-U-See is a mastery-based program. My kids never do all the pages in the book and sometimes they need more pages than are included in the book (we use the tests as extra work pages and also print extra practice off their website). When I tear out their workpages and stick them on their color-coded clipboards, it doesn’t matter whether I pulled the page from the workbook, the test book, or off the printer – they know and I know their math for the day is on their clipboard.

Plus, we make them correct their work until they get 100% – mastery approach, right? So if a page wasn’t 100%, it goes back to the clipboard. Whatever is on the clipboard is the work to be done.

And where does it go when it’s done? At one point they were supposed to put it onto my clipboard when they were finished so I could check. However, my clipboard could be anywhere and it always had other things I wanted to see on top, too. They couldn’t always find it and I didn’t really want those extra pages cluttering it up.

So, I bought a mail sorter and it lives on the counter. When they finish their math, it goes into the mail sorter to be checked. If it’s all correct, the page goes into the trash or fire-starter bin. If it needs another attempt, it goes back on the clipboard.

Now that my husband checks the math, this process also makes it obvious to him when there’s math to correct. If it’s in the mail sorter, he knows it’s his to-do.

Figuring out a workflow process so everyone knows exactly what needs to be done with the least amount of rifling and questions is the goal.

Math-U-See Tip #4: Lined paper sideways for figuring

I got this tip from Mr. Demme himself.

Place value in Math-U-See is important. Keeping numbers straight and in their right place is critical, no matter which math program you use.

My older students use graph paper to show their work, but that seems a bit excessive (and also not large enough squares) for the elementary students. Once they get into carrying or borrowing, though, it’s super handy and leads to fewer place-value flubs if you simply turn a lined piece of notebook paper on the side to help you keep the numbers in their right place.

Math-U-See Tip #5: Add in regular drill

I appreciate and value the mastery approach of Math-U-See, and they emphasize knowing the facts perfectly before moving on. However, if they don’t use them, they lose them, and knowing the facts isn’t the same as being able to do them quickly.

So we add drill practice to our daily math routine, at least for the elementary students. I use both xtramath.org (love it!) and Calculadder. We’ve also added times table chanting to Morning Time before because those facts needed review.

No matter what program you’re using, we as the homeschool mom need to be alert and wise in applying it and adding in supplements or taking a break or pausing to review based on what each child needs to make progress.

9 Responses

  1. Michelle
    | Reply

    We are using Math-U-See but are just finishing up Alpha. How important is it that they know the colors of the blocks? I haven’t worried too much about making my daughter color the blocks the right color because she hates it, and I’ve figured that if she understands the concept that it doesn’t matter that much if she knows the correct color. But…if later on that’s important then I will change that! Thanks!

    • Mystie Winckler
      | Reply

      No, that’s not important except that it allows them to quickly grab the right block without counting the squares. I’d also be watchful for not letting the habit of doing her own thing instead of following the instructions begin. Color isn’t a big deal, but following instructions as written and wrong v. right answers are foundational in math.

      It’s not necessarily a big deal, but just keep your eyes open that you don’t let her call the shots and not do something if she hates it. It’s less about the color of the block and more about paying attention to the habit of attitude and work being practiced.

      • Michelle
        | Reply

        Thanks for that friendly kick-in-the-pants reminder to make her follow instructions, even if she’s not a fan of them. =) I guess it’s not so much that she hates it (and that therefore I let her off the hook), it’s more like if she hates it AND I think that it’s just busy work then I’m likely to let her skip it if she understands the concept. If she knows that 4+5=9 and can answer that and write the correct numbers by the blocks then I don’t really care if she knows the color of them UNLESS it’ll be important later on, which with this I haven’t seen how it could be important. Does that make sense? I always make her correct mistakes so she’s not getting away with wrong answers.

        • Mystie Winckler

          Yeah, I am also allergic to busy work and totally get it. I think that’s fine, especially if it comes across and you making the decision and not her. :)

  2. Dawn
    | Reply

    My kids have struggled in math (except the youngest! 😂). I used to think they just were not good in math, but I realize that they have not gotten a good foundation. We have tried different math curriculums. I was just about to start Saxon, but my son has transferring problems and my 17 year old has not done well with Teaching Textbooks. TT seems to leave out important ideas or their own math vocabulary which doesn’t help,understanding! We just seem to be getting farther behind. Do you think Math U See could help with remediate my struggling students? 😆

    • Mystie Winckler
      | Reply

      Hm, that’s a tough one. I think if they’re under 10, probably. With older students, I think MUS’s different system starts earlier than you’d want to go back and it’d be too different to be helpful. For teens, I’d try xtramath drill and Khan Academy – or try to find tutoring help with a standard text like Saxon. As a struggling homeschool math student myself left alone with Saxon, I know that doesn’t work. :)

  3. Jenn
    | Reply

    Long (looooooonnnnng) time user of MUS here too – I love your tips and use most of them myself!

    1. Yes we dropped using that divided wooden box years ago when I realized my kids were dreading using the blocks every day precisely because they hated the meticulous way the blocks had to be put away. Now ours are in a big tub too, just randomly dumped, and even my toddler loves to “do math” (aka, play with the blocks).

    2. This is so simple and so utterly brilliant and I am downright embarrassed I never thought of it. We are definitely doing this TODAY.

    3. Are your clipboards for your kids filled daily or weekly?

    4. This helps my kids so much, and even my older kids will occasionally sketch themselves some light lines to keep their columns straight when they run across a problem like that.

    5. This is an absolute must!! I’ve used Calculadder but hate hate hate the weird checking method. (Is it just me?) We are currently using the drill page offered on the MUS website, which my kids think is fun, so it works. Xtra math is great too!

  4. Kelly
    | Reply

    We also use MUS and have for the past two years (kiddos are now in 1st and 3rd), and I’ve been contemplating trying a different program next year…but now that I’ve read your post, I’m second guessing again! 🤔 I feel like there are missing concepts that need to be filled in (time, money, fractions, etc.) but I LOVE the mastery approach. So I’ve been supplementing, like you suggested. So thanks for giving me some food for thought! I need to remember that the curriculum serves me and the kids, not the other way around. Ah, the struggles of a former classroom teacher! 😀

    • Angela
      | Reply

      Hello Kelly,
      I have used Math-U-See for many years, and if you like the concepts of Math-U-See, I would encourage you to stick with it. Time, money and fractions will be taught in future Math-U-See books. And you can use “real life” teaching for giving your children any aspects which they need now e.g. measuring during baking is an excellent way to teach fractions.

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