# How to Teach a Joyous Math That Solves Real Problems

Special guest Kathleen Cotter Clayton from RightStart Math believes that homeschool math can be so much fun that you fall off your chair from laughter. In this episode, she helps parents find the beauty, the fun, the giggles—even the joy—of math. Math is not math for math's sake. Math is a tool to solve actual problems. And when kids learn to concentrate steadily on math, they will feel empowered and refreshed!

## Podcast Transcript

Janna Koch (00:36):

Hi, and welcome to Homeschool Your Way. My name is Janna Koch, your host and BookShark's community manager. Today, I continue my quest to banish the idea that math is something that has to be done, and look for ways to encourage you as homeschool families to embrace the idea that math can be fun. And in order to do that today, I have Kathleen Cotter Clayton, and she is from RightStart Math. And she is passionate about math. And so, we are going to talk about finding the joy in math and teaching our children that math is everywhere.

Janna Koch (01:10):

Kathleen, thank you so much for being here.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (01:12):

Thank you so much for having me, Janna. This is going to be wonderful.

Janna Koch (01:15):

It is. We have decided that today's podcast and this episode is all about explaining to families and maybe making this idea of joyous math contagious. So let's jump right in and why don't you tell our audience about how you found your way into joyous math?

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (01:37):

Well, thank you. It is actually an interesting story because my mother is Dr. Joan A. Cotter, who is the developer of the RightStart program. And when she developed this program, she didn't sit down one day and go, "I think I'm going to make a math program." She actually started it because her son, my brother, was having difficulties in math. And what she did... He had some, or still has some dyslexia issues, some learning challenges. So she actually started to create card games to help him practice his math facts. And before she would try a game out with him, she tried out on my sister and I. So every day during the summer, we would play card games and that was just what it was. You got up in the morning. You had your oatmeal. You played a card game. And then, when you were done, then you could be released off to the horses, or the swimming pool, or wherever it is that my sister and I were going.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (02:31):

So math card games was just a part of our lives and it was a fun part. It wasn't like, "I have to clean my room." It was a, "Oh, hey, we got to go play games." It was just part of our life and it was fun. And I did the same thing then when it came to my children. I had taught my children how to read before they were age five. One kid made it two days before his fifth birthday, but we got it in there. So all of my kids learned how to read before they were five. And I did the same thing that my mother did where we played games. We learned our math, so math was part of our everyday life. It wasn't something, "We're now doing math." It was a, Oh, do this, do math. It was just part of our life. It was just part of the way we did things.

Janna Koch (03:19):

I think that one of the issues that I have seen in my own life and I have experienced with other homeschool families is that we do compartmentalize that subject. We don't necessarily do it with reading because as you learn different subjects, you're still reading. We don't do it with writing because you still use writing in different subjects, but math tends to be an island of its own in our minds. And I think if we do dispel that idea and bring it into the community of learning, and instead of ostracizing it as its own thing, and maybe it's because it's numbers versus letters.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (03:56):

But it shouldn't be that way. In the United States, people are very comfortable saying, "Oh, I'm not good at math." You would never say, "I'm not good at reading. I don't read well. I don't read." People don't say that. If I can't read, people in United States tend to be very quiet about it. I can't read. You hide it. But we're very confident in saying, "I'm not good in math."

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (04:21):

Now, in Europe and in Asia, you would never say, I'm not good in math. That would be equal to us saying I don't read. And so, I find it very interesting that in our culture we're very comfortable saying that we're not good in math in particular, whereas, other countries they're like, no. They believe that you can learn math, anybody can learn math with some hard work and some practice, just like reading takes hard work and practice. We don't really remember at our age how much work it took to read or to do some of our math. Well, sometimes people remember the math part, but people, you just read. And it's the same thing. With a little bit of practice and some work, you can get it done.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (05:06):

Math needs to be incorporated into every day, like you said, because everybody reads. You send texts. You read emails. You read signs. I need to go... Is this exit or enter? You read all the time, but you don't think about how much we use math. What I did with my kids, I had four kids in five years, so they were all pretty close in age. And so, they were all learning the same thing at the same time. We had a thing where we would incorporate math into our everyday life. So we'd be sitting down at the dinner table and we'd ask questions like, how many feet are under the table? Well, there's six in the family. 12 feet. So, that's actually where they started to play with multiplication. How many toes are under the table? Oh, that'd be 60 toes. Or back to the feet again, sometimes we'd say, "Oh, how many feet are under the table?" And the answer's actually 14 because the dog's half in, half out.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (05:59):

So we would play with it just like our culture plays with words a lot. We'd tell jokes that are usually a play on words. We should do the same thing with math and have it be a play on things. My dad is an amputee, so he lost one of his legs. So what was funny, when grandpa would be at the table, so now we have eight people at the table, and we would say, "Well, how many feet were under the table?" Well, seven people, or excuse me, eight people, times two would be 16. But in fact, since grandpa doesn't have a foot, it's only 15. And then the kids would just laugh and they'd have a great time with it, but we played with it. And I think that's what everyone should do. Actually, not everyone. But I think that brings it more to the forefront of learning it, and working with it, and making part of our everyday life.

Janna Koch (06:47):

Yeah. Well, we have proven that statistically that if you play, it sticks with you.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (06:53):

Yes.

Janna Koch (06:54):

It becomes enjoyable. You take away that idea of have to, and you marry it with the idea of get to. And so, it's a totally different environment when you're going at it from a play sense as opposed to this is... Even when you're playing, it's hard work. It's not necessarily easy when you play.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (07:15):

Right. Right.

Janna Koch (07:16):

In anything.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (07:17):

When you're playing basketball, if you're doing it right, you're sweating, you're running, you're huffing, you're puffing, is it easy? Well, not necessarily, but it's fun. So why can't math have the same? Why can't something else that we love have the same aspect? Another thing that I did with my kids, we seem to do a lot around the supper table. That was our time where the whole family was together, especially when the kids got older. But that was our family core.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (07:45):

Another one I would do when the kids were probably seven, eight, nine, is if I wanted them to eat something like broccoli, I'd say, "Okay, take your age, times two, divided by three, plus four, square root of," and then we go through that. And then, when I got done, they had to eat that many bites of the food and they loved it to the point where they say, "Mama, mama, do it again. Do it again." I'm like, "Just eat your broccoli" because I was so tired coming up with the equation, I do one next kid would be like, "Do me, do me, do me." But they loved it and it was just part of what we did. So it brought the joy and the happiness and the laughter into the family with math. And that's where we want our kids.

Janna Koch (08:35):

Yeah. And it's a really good reminder to parents that we set the tone for our environment inside of our homes. And one of the reasons that we homeschool is because we want to be able to bring in value to what we find valuable. We want to present it in a way that aligns with our goals as a family. So-.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (08:58):

Yes.

Janna Koch (08:59):

... we need to remember that when we're talking about subjects that we have had a hard time with in the past, we don't have to pass that onto our children. We get an opportunity to do it differently and we have to be the ones that set the intention for our households when we're talking about difficult subjects. For some people it's not math, it's reading, like you'd said, for some people it's a foreign language, but regardless, we have to be mindful of our own attitudes towards education as we are homeschooling our children.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (09:32):

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (10:24):

And that's one thing that we have at RightStart Math is we have the games that practice the facts. So it's not just a, Oh, let's do four more worksheets. It's, hey, let's go down and play that game. This is going to be really, really fun. And that's what we want the kids to do. So be careful, like you said, what attitude you are giving your children because they will follow. We all know, we've seen those three year olds who do the exact same thing that mama does because they've seen it and they've done it and they're watching.

Janna Koch (10:54):

So a little confession I used to say when my kids were little, just to let off some steam, I'm going to punch you in the side of the head. Never punched my children in the side of the head. I would never, but it was one of those extreme statements I made that it made me feel better for some reason until I heard one of my twins tell her sister, I'm going to punch you in the side of the head. And then I thought, well, I need to take that out of my rotation because nobody wants to hear that when we're out-.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (11:22):

Yes. Exactly.

Janna Koch (11:24):

... and about in the world. So yes, they do mimic us. And we do have a responsibility, but it's also an opportunity as parents to relearn math in a fun way. We get this opportunity when we homeschool our children to do it over for ourselves as well. So if we are excited about learning it a new way, a different way of being joyous in this subject that has nationally not been a very joyous subject. And maybe that is a lot of times the way it has been presented. And so gaming is such a great way to change that for everybody. The entire environment, if you're homeschool, by adding games in there.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (12:08):

And making it play based, making it fun, making it so that when you're playing a game or you're doing something, it's so much fun that you fall off your chair from laughter. That's where we want our kids. They've actually done this study that what you have learned, let me back up. The emotions you had at the time you learn something stays with it. For example, my sister is a world class unicyclist. She actually holds the record, I think she still holds it for the woman on the tallest unicycle. My mom was there on the day that she was unicycling from point A to point B on this, I don't know, 16 foot or something ridiculous unicycle. And right before my sister did that, my mom found out that her dad had passed away. So she couldn't say anything to my sister who's doing this dangerous thing going across.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (12:58):

And every day, every time now that somebody brings up that my sister's a world record holder, my mom has that feeling, Oh, I lost my dad. So the point of this is, is that the emotions you have at the time you learn something, stick with it, rational or not. So you don't want to have negative, ugh, we're going to go do math now. Instead you want to be, hey, we're going to go do math now. So then you have a, Oh, this is going to be really fun what mom's going to teach me today, or what's daddy going to teach me today? We want that happiness, that joy, that anticipation, the excitement, the beauty of math there at the time as you're teaching it.

Janna Koch (13:40):

Yeah. The other thing that I have heard is if you smile when you're talking, it changes the tone of your voice and it changes your entire attitude as you go forward. So there are times that we tell parents or just adults, anybody fake it till you make it. And while we want to honor your feelings, obviously we don't want to teach our children to constantly be fake, but at the same time, just putting a smile on your face and saying the word math can really change how you're going to present that subject to your children.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (14:15):

It's an attitude. There's also another piece that again a lot of people don't know is there's 200 branches of mathematics. So arithmetic, your multiplication facts, your division facts, that's one out of 200 types of mathematics. So you can be bad in arithmetic and really good math. There's statistics, there's algebra, there's geometry, there's fractals, which are really cool. There's actually a branch called recreational math, believe it or not. And most people are like, Ooh, those two words don't go together. Yes they do. What is Sudoku? It's not really math in the sense I'm adding the numbers, but I'm playing with the numbers. That's recreational math, which I just think is so cool.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (15:02):

So remind the children that there's multiple different ways that you can approach math. Now, if you're not good in arithmetic, things are going to be a little bit tougher with algebra or geometry, well, maybe not geometry, that doesn't have as quite as much arithmetic in there, but there's different things. So you might be a little handicapped if your arithmetic isn't good, but you could still be really, really good in math. I got two statistics in college and I loved it. It was my favorite. I would do all my homework and then I would save my statistics homework to last because that was the icing on the cake. Could not wait for that, because I enjoyed it. And that's what we want our kids to do, is to find that joy and that happiness with it.

Janna Koch (15:45):

Yeah, I was unaware that statistics was even a math course and I absolutely loved it, so it threw me for a loop. Oh, I guess there is a branch of math that I'm pretty good at.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (15:56):

Yeah. Yeah. And that's the thing is you got 200 to pick from that you can be good at with math. So it's not just arithmetic, it's all of math.

Janna Koch (16:58):

Well, Kathleen, I would love for you to share with our audience a homeschool hack to really help us know how math can be joyous.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (17:08):

My number one thing, I've actually got two. My number one thing is simply play with math. And we had talked about that. To me that is so important to incorporate it, to make it part of your life, make it part of you as you're working with it. The other thing is, and this is not so much math related, but of course it can be put into math, is that tasks have three parts you need to gather. So I'm going to get the materials ready, whether I'm playing a game, I need to get my card deck, I need to get my area ready, or maybe it's I'm going to the zoo, I need to get my shoes on, I need to figure out where am I going to the zoo. You gather, you get everything ready. The second part of the task is to perform the task. And this means I've got notes over here on the side, but this means to keep your attention on it properly.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (17:55):

It doesn't mean that when you're at the zoo and the kids are looking at the whatever it is, the four-legged creature, and you are over there going, I wonder what we're going to have your supper tonight. I wonder if I should do this, that, or the other thing. Or when you're playing a card game, again, you're sitting here thinking, well, I wonder if I should buy a new vacuum cleaner. Play it. Be there. Be part of it when you're with the kids and remind them to be part of it also. Then the third thing is, and this sounds silly, but we as parents usually know this, is put everything away properly. And that's something that the children need to learn and some adults need to learn to put everything away. So when you're done with the card games, put all the cards away, push the chairs up to the table, line your shoes up neatly.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (18:40):

Janna Koch (19:34):

And what a great reminder that in those three steps you come full circle. I feel like so many times in our society we try to shortcut or cut out steps in the name of multitasking, or time saving. But in order to start and complete things and be intentional and aware when you're doing those things, those three steps I think are really challenging, I would say for even most adults. Because while I can do one and three really well, being mindful and present in the moment, I struggle because I do. I'm constantly thinking of the next thing, the next thing.

Janna Koch (20:15):

And now as my children are getting older and getting ready, we're talking about college and them leaving the home. I have really tried to center myself and when we're sitting down and we're talking, be there because I know that that time is very short. But I shouldn't have waited until the end of their teenage years. If I could go back, well now I do have a 13 year old. And so learning that with my older two, I'm trying to be more intentional. My kids tell me all the time, I'll be in mid-sentence with them and I wander off and I'm somewhere else and they're like, Hello?

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (20:50):

Yeah, Mom?

Janna Koch (20:50):

I'm like, I'm sorry. Where were we? Because my mind... So it's such a mental exercise that step number two to be present.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (21:00):

And I think that's hard when you've got, just talking to us moms or parents. We've got so many things on our plate, so many things. And I can multitask. I can do this while I'm doing that and that and the other thing, you're really not, you're mentally, you're scampering back and forth between things very rapidly, but you're not following just that one. There's a difference between paying attention and concentrating. When you're paying attention, I'm focusing, I'm listening to Janna, I'm listening to Janna, I'm listening to Janna. And it's actually exhausting to pay attention because you have to keep pulling yourself back to the task at hand. If you're concentrating, I'm so in the conversation, I don't even realize that, Oh wow, time just went by, or Oh look, it's time to do this. I'm so in it. it's refreshing to actually concentrate. Paying attention is exhausting.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (21:58):

Now kids need to learn how to concentrate. It's not something that you can teach them to concentrate. It's more of an experience. For example, when you've got that one year old or six month old, you're trying to get them to sleep through the night, you don't wake them up in the middle of the night and go, Oh, you still sleeping? Oh you're not. You let them sleep. And then pretty soon they learn how to put themselves to sleep and to sleep through the night, or if they wake up in the moment, they can go back to sleep and then wake up in the morning. So it's the same thing with the children. They're going to naturally have some concentration, but we adults quite frequently will interrupt them with, Oh, you're doing so good here, smile. Take a picture. You've just ruined their concentration. Let them concentrate and when they're done, and hopefully you all have been in a situation where you experience it when you get done, you're like, Oh wow, an hour just went by. Oh, that was really fun. I feel good.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (22:54):

You feel empowered and refreshed when you've concentrated. And we need to allow our children to learn that. And so many, I don't really want to pick on TV shows, but a lot of program, a lot of screen time interrupts that, it does not allow the concentration to develop because things move too rapidly, or TV will interrupt with a commercial. And so you don't... I'm in the storyline, Oh did you hear about Cheerios? Or whatever the topic is, it interrupts. You're like, Oh, okay, all right. Then you get back into the storyline and then interrupted again. And so our culture almost doesn't allow us to concentrate. And that's one of the joys of homeschooling, as we all know, is we can develop our environment to fit our children and to help them learn these things, learn how to concentrate.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (23:48):

I had a family situation a number of years ago. We had a very devastating situation in our family. And during that time I was also working on another project and I could get away from the family situation by going into this project. We were actually working on a book, I was working on a, writing on a book, can't talk. I was writing a book. And that allowed me to go into that project, because I knew how to... I concentrate very well and I could concentrate on that. And so I could escape this other bad situation for hours because I had such good concentrating skills. I could go into my book and I could write it and work on it. And then when I would get done, whether it be an hour or four hours later, I'd come back and it's like, oh, that's right. The other situation's here.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (24:38):

And it was interesting, at the time, I knew it was happening because I knew I wanted to work on the book, because I could concentrate and escape the other situation. But I realize now, looking back, it's been a number of years, I can look back and see that I don't know how I would've done if I would not have had that ability to concentrate, because that saved me, that allowed me the relief from the real situation that was happening that I could almost rebalance my brain to go, okay, all right, I can do this. And I'd come back to the family situation and then like I said, then I could get relief because of the concentration. So I know it was a little bit more information, but I think that's something important that we need to teach our kids so that they learn. I can't teach it, that we allow our children to experience and learn to teach themselves on how to concentrate.

Janna Koch (25:32):

Yeah. I think that in our day and age, with so much at our fingertips and available to us, there are so many times when even in my family, we have the TV on, but people are on their phones at the same time. And so I laugh and I say, my mom used to just want to restrict our TV time. Now I'm just happy if we cannot double screen and just look at one screen at a time. To me as a mom, I'm like, Oh good, we're just all watching TV as opposed to we're all watching TV and on our phones, and I'm just as guilty. I've certainly, and again, modeling is probably-.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (26:11):

It's our culture.

Janna Koch (26:12):

... It's what we do. Even if I'm playing a game that helps my mind where as opposed to what I think my kids are doing is fluff or ridiculous, I guess that's probably just showing my age at that, but we pride ourselves in being able to, like you said, multitask, or get these things done. But really we probably are doing ourselves a disservice by not ever focusing all of our attention on one thing. And that may be why math has become even more of a challenge in this up and coming generation, because we have less time to concentrate on one thing and we are constantly asking our kids to be able to multitask. And a lot of subjects do need concentration. And so there's ways that we can foster that in our homeschool environment.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (27:07):

And that made me think of something that when you have just arithmetic, eight times four is 32, just because, I have that and I learn it or I know it, or maybe I might do eight times two is 16, times two, because I still want eight times four. Eight times two is 16 times two is 32. And I've got a way to figure it out. And if I have that instant, but I haven't learned how to concentrate and pull that out and work through it to have the ability to carry that forward. When I've got something like trying to figure out the area of a trapezoid, I may need eight times four, but I have to do more with it. I need to concentrate and pull that out and pay attention. So I'm going to start the process. Let's not use a trapezoid, that's a little bit harder. Let's use a triangle.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (27:58):

So one half width times height. Okay. So I know what the area, I know I'm starting it, I know what my formula is, I have to go through and figure it out. Where's the width? Where's the height? Is one of the sides a height? You have to go through and figure this stuff out. So I'm going to take the task and do it. And then at the end of the task, a third part is to, look my notes here, to put it away properly. Well in this case, I would look at and say if say my area of my triangle is 9,833 square centimeters, I don't think that's right. So I'm going to look at it and say, is that a logical answer? No. The answer is 90 square centimeters, not 9,000.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (28:45):

Janna Koch (29:42):

Yeah.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (29:42):

So it's interesting, I think, to go through and again, look at it and find out, is that a logical answer? So often I see kids will just throw up, so the calculator said, I'm done. Think about it. Does that make sense? No. Okay. Try it a different way. What possibly went wrong? Doing the exact same calculations isn't going to fix it. Think about it a different way. And that's, again, comes back to part of that concentrating.

Janna Koch (30:10):

And what a beautiful opportunity for problem solving. I think that's one of the elements of math that people ignore, that math is really building the skill of problem solving. And who doesn't need to be a better problem solver in our world, more than ever, than our generations coming up to solve some really big problems? Math is the language that solves the problems.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (30:37):

Exactly. Math is only a tool. Math is not math for math. Math is a tool to solve the problems. Do I decide, okay, I want to be a farmer. If I want to put seed on my field, do I just pour in three bags because that's all I got? Or do I look at it and say, how many pounds of seed per acre? Well, that's a calculation, that would be math. Or do I say, well, I've only got this many hay bales and I think we're going to have a rough winter. Okay, I need about this many. Do I sell the cows now and get lower dollar because they don't weigh as much? Or do I go buy the hay which will cost me this much and then feed it to the cows and then they gain enough weight and now sell them at a better price? That's math.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (31:26):

So math is just the tool to help me solve the problem. For the people who have like, well in your case, you've got teenagers or older teenagers, they want to buy a car. Do they look at it and go, Ooh, that's red, I'm going to get that one. No, you look at it and you say, okay, this is what it costs. Here's my payments, here's my insurance. I got caught on that once and didn't check. Here's my insurance, here's my resale value. Do you know what tires it takes? What about the oil filter? And so you have to put all this together and then you can end up with, yeah, it's red, I'm getting it. But you have to look at the details of it instead of just looking at it and making one fast decision without any calculations behind it.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (32:11):

Another one too, I want to buy a house. Do I use the 15 year mortgage? Do I use a 30 year mortgage? Do I add in geothermal? Maybe I just rent. Well again, they're all calculations. And that's what math is. Math is simply a tool to apply in the real world. And it's not just problem solving like the dog ran three times around the circle, who cares? Just the dog's running let it go. Is he having a moment? But it's real life stuff. Another one, sometimes people say, well my daughter just wants to get married and have a pile of kids. Well, that's awesome, but do you buy these diapers or do you buy those diapers? Do you buy a van or do you buy a new van, or a used van? Do you buy 50 pounds of flour? You might have some spoilage because there's that problem with bugs. Not really, or do I buy five pounds, but it's going to cost more by having spoilage.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (33:07):

So you're always, life just has these things. And you have to figure them out. You don't just go, Oh, it's shiny. I'm going to get that one.

Janna Koch (33:17):

Yeah. And I believe that a lack of love for math has created more problems in our world because why do we have these quick and lone places on every corner that charge you interest, that if you logically sit down and did the numbers, you could actually, you would never be able to pay it back. There are so many instances that we don't equate being good at math, which actually will equal being good in life.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (33:56):

And it's not even so much being good in math, it's the ability of using math. Using math well, because if I don't know what eight times four is, okay, use a calculator. You still need to figure out, do I buy this or do I buy that? Do I put it in a savings over here, or do I put it in the stock market? Ooh, that's scary. But I could get still, it's still a tool that's going to help me make the best decisions as an adult, as a young person, and even as a 16 year old that wants to start a business, as a mother, as a rancher, as a business owner, as a engineer, you're going to be using that as a tool to help you succeed in life.

Janna Koch (34:44):

Well, we definitely need to be using math more in our everyday life, or recognizing when we are using math so that we can be a little bit more conscious of the need for it, and then we can help translate that to our children, that it is a subject that has real world application.

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (35:08):

Yeah.

Janna Koch (35:08):

So in closing, Kathleen, what would you like to leave with our listeners?

Kathleen Cotter Clayton (35:12):

I want you guys to look for and find the beauty in math, the fun, the laughter, the giggles, the joy. It's there. I promise you it is there. If you're struggling with some of the basics, check out a curriculum that brings in the joy, not the drill, not the kill, but brings in the joy of math. And I would like to have you look at RightStart Math.

Janna Koch (35:38):

And RightStart Math is a wonderful option. I have always told people that had I been taught the RightStart way, I may have been an engineer instead of a communications major. So thank you so much, Kathleen, for being here. We want to thank you guys for spending time with us in this episode of Homeschool Your Way. So until next time, bye.

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