Math Is More Than Formulas and Numbers

Math Is More Than Formulas and Numbers

Past math trauma or thinking you're not good at math will impact how you approach math in your homeschool. If math is a weak spot for you, tune into this episode with special guest Nicole Thomas of Nicole the Math Lady. She actually became a homeschooler after she started teaching math online. Nicole encourages us to stop thinking about math solely in terms of numbers, formulas, and processes but to turn it into challenges that actually relate to something you're interested in—like how many more Pringles you could fit into a can.

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Podcast Transcript

Janna Koch (00:36):

Welcome to Homeschool Your Way. My name is Janna Koch. I'm your host and BookShark's community manager. Today, I have a special guest with me to talk about, I'm sure, everybody's favorite subject, math. Actually, her name is Nicole the Math Lady, and while we are going to touch on the subject of math, more importantly, we are going to be here to encourage you in your journey of homeschool, so let me welcome Nicole.

Nicole Thomas (01:02):

Hi, Janna. You made me laugh when you said that because I could hear the sigh of a few people going, "Math? Oh, man!"

Janna Koch (01:11):

Yeah, some of those people go, "Wait, I have on the wrong episode."

Nicole Thomas (01:15):

By the end, though, they're going to be like, "Math, this is what I'm going for. Math is where it's at."

Janna Koch (01:22):

Yes. Yes, it's interesting because there is such a feeling of lack of confidence, I think in general, in our society about math. Again, maybe an overgeneralization, and then you take that down a little bit more to education, and then you come down a little even further to homeschool, and it's kind of like, "Math? Eek!" Right?

Nicole Thomas (01:42):

Yeah, I definitely have a lot of people when they see what we do around math, they're like, "Oh." The first thing they say is, "I'm not a math person." I hear that a lot, "I'm more of an English language, a literature person. I'm not a math person.” I'm like, "Okay, I realize." I call it "math trauma." There's a lot of leftover math trauma from when we were in school. But here's the good news, we're going to resolve that math trauma. We're going to do it in the next hour, believe it or not. We're going to resolve it, and we're going to give people the tools that they need to be able to not only just teach math, but be inspired around it, and have fun with it.

Janna Koch (02:20):

Yeah, I definitely want people to walk away with the idea of when they hear the word math, it's not like...

Nicole Thomas (02:26):


Janna Koch (02:28):

It's more that, that laughter, that joy like, "Whoa! We don't have to trudge through it, let's just get through it so we can get to the next thing." We can be in the moment, no matter what we're teaching in our homes, and find the beauty in each of those subjects. I hope that is what comes out of this together today. Why don't you introduce yourself by explaining how you got into the field of homeschooling?

Nicole Thomas (02:56):

Okay. Well, here's what the interesting is, I am currently a homeschooler, but I actually started Nicole the Math Lady before I became a homeschooler. I became a convert. Here's how I started. I had a whole life in the corporate world. I knew very early on, I was meant to be a teacher, I knew that. But I also knew what teachers dealt with, the public schools, the administration, the testing. I just wanted to teach. I just wanted it to be me and the kids and teaching, but I realized that our schools, there's not a lot of that going on lately. I just say it's hard to do that. Love teachers, love what they do, but I knew that part was not for me, so I went into the corporate world, and I did teaching in the corporate world for a long time.

Nicole Thomas (03:43):

But then sometimes life events send us in different directions, right? I call it the hard right turn in your life. You're going down the path, and then whoop, we're going this way now. I had one of those moments and it was around my son. Quick little story. I have a son who at three years old was diagnosed with autism, right? Life became a bit of a challenge at that moment, and I knew me being on the road was not the best thing for him, so I said, "Okay, we're going to reinvent ourselves," and I said, "What do you love to do?" I said, "I love teaching kids one-on-one," so I started tutoring and I was tutoring this one child very far from where I lived. It was such a great session, but I was like, "Man, it takes a long time to get here." Then I thought, "Well, I could just send her a video. I could send her a video," and then boom, that's how Nicole the Math Lady was started. Then I found out there was this whole world of homeschooling where people could use those resources. Then during the pandemic, I myself took my son out of school, and became a homeschooler as well.

Janna Koch (04:51):

Wow. What a journey.

Nicole Thomas (04:55):

Yeah. That's the medium-length version. That's the medium version.

Janna Koch (04:55):

Yeah, well, what a journey to kind of almost full circle use the very thing that you wanted to use and are passionate about, but then it come back into your home, and see the benefit of, and then to meet all the families that you yourself are now helping in the homeschool community is a lot of fun to see when you are contributing to a community that not only is growing leaps and bounds, but that you have heart ties to.

Nicole Thomas (05:25):

Yeah. Yeah, I mean, literally I tell people, "Exactly the way you feel about math is the way I feel about other subjects." I do the same thing. I literally, I go through the same angst about making sure, "Am I doing everything? Am I doing the most for my kids?" I think that's just something innate within us as parents that we want to do right by our children. But I go through the exact same cycle.

Nicole Thomas (05:50):

One thing that was interesting for me is that I did not know when I first started Nicole the Math Lady that I thought my customer was the kids. I teach kids, right? I teach them math. But I learn very quickly really, I was just as there for the mamas and maybe some of the papas as I was for the kids 'cause when I go to the conventions, I think I get more hugs from the mamas than I do from, I mean, I get a lot from the kids, but I get a lot of hugs from the mamas. Yeah, it's pretty awesome.

Janna Koch (06:18):

Yeah, I love how we think it's one thing, and then really, I mean, that's parenting, I think as a whole. We think, "We're going to have these babies and they're going to be so much fun and they're going to listen to us," and then the reality of parenting and the hard work that it is. I was saying to my husband the other day, "It's ironic that we go to school for engineering. We go to school for teaching, to be doctors, all these professions. Why isn't it required that we go to school for parenting? Because if that isn't something that requires instruction, I don't know what is."

Nicole Thomas (06:53):

Right. I mean, didn't you think that your kids were going to pop out just like you? I did. I thought, "Well, they'll just be little Nicoles and I'll know exactly what to do with them," 'cause I would just do what I would do with myself, and no. I mean, there's some ways that my kids are very similar to me. Don't tell my daughter that, by the way.

Janna Koch (07:12):

Yeah, don't.

Nicole Thomas (07:14):

But in other ways, it's amazing to me, how much is already there at a very young age. It's pretty amazing when you think about that

Janna Koch (07:23):

And what works for one child who is in the exact same home, and for me, I have twins, so it's even more mind-boggling, but one twin is an excellent driver, she got the license on her 16th birthday. I mean, I trust her with my life and the life of my other children. Now, her sister on the other hand, I'm like, "Maybe driving's just not for you."

Nicole Thomas (07:46):

Right, Uber. Uber. You're going to be Ubering everywhere.

Janna Koch (07:49):

Well, wait, you have a twin, she could drive you everywhere.

Nicole Thomas (07:51):

There you go.

Janna Koch (07:52):

But yeah, so many times, my girls will be like, "We understand the words that are coming out of your mouth, but we do not understand."

Nicole Thomas (08:01):

Right. Right, totally get it.

Janna Koch (08:03):

I'm like, "I don't know how to say it any differently."

Nicole Thomas (08:05):

Yeah. One'll interpret for the other.

Janna Koch (08:08):

Yeah, "What she means to say is..."

Nicole Thomas (08:12):


Janna Koch (08:12):

Boy, this is quite the journey, for sure. Then we add in homeschooling, so not only are you trying to raise good humans, but now, we're trying to teach these good humans at the same time, and the joys and the sorrows that can come in the midst of that.

Nicole Thomas (08:30):

Yeah, it's definitely, oh, my gosh. I mean, I'll definitely say it's been one of the more challenging things that I've done in my life, but also by far the more rewarding. I'm obviously an educator, right, so I thought when I jumped in, I would know exactly what to do. I don't know. There's something that comes with the territory of being the mom and then being the teacher and sometimes I'm blending those roles at the same time. Sometimes that works. Sometimes that doesn't.

Nicole Thomas (09:07):

Like last night, we were working on something, and my son was getting frustrated. I had to really listen to how I was speaking to him and I was like, "Okay, you're the cause of the frustration, Nicole," because I was speaking to him a little and then I was like, "Let's use some of the tools that you share with parents, Nicole, and see if it actually works." Then it's amazing. He relaxed, I relaxed. He started to get things right. I was like, "Wow, it's good to know that when you actually turn it on, it still does work." Sometimes you have to just find your way on which role you're playing at which time and at which moment it needs to be blended and which moment it doesn't, and you usually can look at the child, and they're a great indication of, "Who are you being at this moment?"

Janna Koch (09:57):

Yeah, and which child needs it and which child doesn't because I have one child that is incredibly easy going and I can stay mom because that relationship probably because we are very similar and laid back in ways, so it's like, oh, okay, yeah. I don't have to get firm with this, and her twin, she was like, "Why are you yelling at me?" I'm like, "I kind of feel like you don't hear me until I take it up a notch," and I would love for it not to be that way, but let's find a happy medium here, and so the joys of parenting. That brings us to our time for a homeschool hack. What do you have for us, Nicole?

Nicole Thomas (10:37):

Ah, a homeschool hack. Okay, so this is something I know that we've chatted about in the past. I am the perfect outsourcing woman. For example, with my mom, I'm really blessed. One of the reasons we moved to Florida was that my parents were here, right, and we wanted our children to grow up around my parents, and to have that grandparent relationship. Every day, my mom calls the house and handles three things with my son. It's like the homeschooling and the family hack at the same time and my mother is in charge of Justin practicing his piano and they read a book together because it frees me up to go and do some of the things that I love to do in that moment. My parents love it because they get to connect with him every day and they get to have a concert, right? We say that it's not practicing, he's putting on a concert for my parents, and then they read a book together, so my hack is, hey, if you've got grandparents, aunts, uncles, anybody that might a teach back, a concert, a moment with your child, you can make that a routine, so it gets done with somebody other than yourself, and you're creating special moments for them.


Nicole Thomas (13:55):

Well, can I tell you, it's even more so when you, you hear your mom say something, you're like, "Man, I wouldn't have done it that way. She did it better than me." You're like, "Okay, yeah, I guess." I mean, obviously I'm doing it because I trust my mom, again, I love that they have this great relationship, but sometimes I'll be like, "She got him to do things that I haven't been able to do," and at the end of the day, that's really what I want. But I have that, too. I'll be walking past, again, the pianos and our obviously living room space, so I could hear when they're talking and they're laughing.

Nicole Thomas (14:29):

Here's the other thing, too, I'm always amazed at how much energy they have because sometimes as a parent, we're down to this much then, but they're fresh. They can come in for, it's literally 30 to 40 minutes a day, right?

Janna Koch (14:45):


Nicole Thomas (14:46):

They come in with all this energy and with all this different perspective, and I'm like, "I'm so tired. I just want to go over here and sit while you guys are doing your performance." But you know what? I'm so thankful that I'm able to do that, and if you don't have a grandparent or aunt, it could be the neighbor's kid that you're swapping lawn mowing services with. It really can be. Sometimes they just need an audience to practice something or do something, so yeah, that's my hack. That's my hack.

Janna Koch (15:20):

Yeah, that's good. For those people who feel again, we're still in the virus is still around, I mean, and there are still people who are very protective of their time, like you said, FaceTime is a good way. But my goodness, animals. They have proven kids who read to animals, who play for animals, who talk to animals, it doesn't even have to be a dog. My one daughter has a tortoise and she's in there talking to her tortoise and so I'm always, "Does he respond?"

Nicole Thomas (15:49):

That's a captive audience right there.

Janna Koch (15:51):

Yeah. At least with the dog, you get a tail wag or a lick or head on the lap. The tortoise, I don't know what she's getting, but hey, it's working, so we'll let it keep going.

Nicole Thomas (16:03):

I love that. I love that. I'm taking that hack, too, 'cause we have a dog.

Janna Koch (16:09):

I remember going into our local library in one of the rooms that was closed off and they brought in dogs and they were having the kids, especially kids who were reluctant readers or hesitant readers or had some issues with reading, and then that was safe to do with a dog because there was just love there. Nicole, why don't we do this with math? I mean, if we're talking about anxiety.

Nicole Thomas (16:32):

Yeah. Well, I mean, it's so funny. As I said, for many moms who come to us, they come to us, and they're almost like, they pick the heavy burden of math, and they're like, "Here. Help me," and I'm like, "It's okay." I say we're a tag team. We're like a triangle. There's our student that we're trying to take care of and then you're the mom. I said, "Mom, I'm going to take some of those teaching duties, some of those grading duties away from you. But you're still involved. I still need you to be the coach. I need you to be the person overseeing all of this, that it gets done, when there's corrections." I can't necessarily see all of that, so I said, "We're going to come in and I'm going to become part of your team."

Nicole Thomas (17:17):

I mean, I love to see that when a mom, literally, we'll hear stories of moms who will say, "You saved my homeschool. I was literally thinking I couldn't go on, really, it was so difficult," whether it was the relationship because we know at a certain time, sometimes they get a little older, and they're like, "Yeah, I'm kind of done hearing from you. I need to hear from somebody else." We know we have those moments, or just that again, it's not their passion math, right? Math isn't their passion, they have some of that math trauma from when they were in school themselves, and it's really hard to teach on top of something that you hate, or that you don't enjoy.

Nicole Thomas (17:59):

Now, I do tell mamas, though, here's the cool part, and see if you've noticed this, when you relearn things as an adult, you have context that you did not have when you were a kid. To me, relearning things as an adult is so much cooler. I'm like, "Why don't we just play until we're about 18 and then go to school?" Because I love learning things as an adult. You're like, "Oh, that makes so much more sense," so I always tell parents, "Listen, if you want to do it, you can relearn it." We'll have parents who just use our service just to reteach themselves and they'll write into our Facebook group, "I stunk at math when I was in school, but I really want to improve myself. I want to tackle that. I want to know that I can do that," so they'll use our tools to teach themselves, which is just as exciting for me knowing that we're affecting not only the child, but the parent as well.


Janna Koch (19:47):

Well, what's interesting about math, and I don't know if you find this, when we talk about other subjects, we can talk about integration, right? I know with BookShark our history and our language arts are integrated, and so they work together. What you're learning about, you're reading about, you're connecting with, you have an emotional experience surrounding a story or character. For some reason, at least in my experience, math is kind of put on its own island, and they're like, "Now, go to the island of math, and when you have completed it, we'll send the boat back for you, and you may come back into the world." But it's this idea of a separate entity.

Janna Koch (20:28):

I've had parents come to me and say, "Hey, do you recommend a life skills kind of math?" I want to say, "All of math is life skills."

Nicole Thomas (20:37):

That's right.

Janna Koch (20:38):

Why are we separating it? When I can say to my girls, when they're like, "Why do we have to know this? I can do this," whatever. Well, you can do it, you can use a calculator your whole life, but if you don't know how to use the calculator to get what you want, if you don't know how to put it in properly, or what functions to use, that calculator does you absolutely know good. But when you need to know how much 60% is off of that dress that you want, okay, that's important.

Nicole Thomas (21:03):

That's right, that's right.

Janna Koch (21:03):

Now, we're talking fractions, decimals, percentages, right?

Nicole Thomas (21:08):

Yeah. Can I tell you something funny? Okay, I know this is going to be a little difficult for the podcasters who are listening, so I'm going to have to be very descriptive, but I've got all my little tchotchkes that I use to play with in my seminars sitting next to me here, right, so I'm going to grab one of them for those people who might see it on YouTube. But give me one second here. Hold on. You know when we are taught geometry, they usually hand you a page full of formulas, right?

Janna Koch (21:35):


Nicole Thomas (21:35):

Pi radius squared, I mean, a page full of formulas, but memorize it. I know when I was in school and I was taught it, those formulas meant nothing to me. Now, I was a good student, so I could memorize them, but the formulas didn't mean anything, which means they didn't stick, do you know what I mean? One of our workshops we teach, okay, I don't really want you to know the formula without knowing what it is, what it's for, right, so we're talking about finding the volume of a cylinder, and I whip out the Pringles.

Janna Koch (22:09):

Now, you're speaking my language,

Nicole Thomas (22:12):

Right? "Oh, the volume of the cylinder, and then knowing what the..." People will be like, "It's some formula," or it's finding the volume of what's in this can. How can I fill up this can, right? We're going to get mathy here for a second, okay, But if you're going to learn one formula, right, learn this one, which is the area of this base, right? The space is what? It's a circle. Those of you, I'm holding up the Pringles can, and I'm looking at the bottom, I see a circle, so the area of the base is the space of the bottom, right, all the space in the middle of the circle. All right, well, if you can learn just that one formula, you can learn half of geometry that has a circle in it, right? That one formula pi radius squared, all right? It's a whole other class to explain what pi is, but most people remember that one, right, pi radius squared.

Nicole Thomas (23:06):

All right, well, if I said, "What's the formula of a cylinder?" You could sit there and memorize it, or you could say, "Wait a second. I'm just trying to fill this can of Pringles," so isn't it this circle pushed all the way up through this can? It's all the space, and I have salt and vinegar, so it's like, woo. It's all the space in the can, right? What's this thing called from the bottom of this, to the top of this or the bottom of my feet to the top of my head is called the height, and I go, "Well, guess what the formula for a cylinder is the area of the base, pi radius squared, times the height."

Janna Koch (23:45):

That's it.

Nicole Thomas (23:47):

They'll remember that. They're not going to remember pi radius squared times the height on their own 'cause they memorized it when they were 10 or 12. They're like, "Wait, I can imagine this Pringles can with a circle, push it through with. How many Pringles can I get in here? We can get..." But then wait, I have to mess them up a little bit, and I have to even go further. This is my cone. But these are the same, right?

Janna Koch (24:12):


Nicole Thomas (24:12):

Well, isn't this cone just, I took, it's kind of hard. I took my Pringles and I cut off a third on this side and I cut off a third on this side and I got left with a third in the middle? Well, so the area of a cone, a volume of a cone is one-third by radius squared times H. Okay, I gave you this math lesson. Hopefully people who are listening followed that. But my point is who cares if you've got the formula? Just so you can do a problem? I'm talking about life here. How many Pringles can I get in that can? Let's talk about importance or how much-

Janna Koch (24:48):

More importantly, how many Pringles could they have fit more in that can because we know it's not full when we opened it?

Nicole Thomas (24:54):

... Right? To me, that's the excitement of math. It's everywhere, right? You go to the grocery store and we're talking about measurements and we're talking about how do you convert measurements? It's just literally everywhere. But for some reason, we get very mathy when we talk about math, we're going to talk about it in the silo of numbers and formulas and processes. It's like where I get excited is making it turn from some generic formula sheet to how many more Pringles can we get into this can, Janna, you know what I mean?

Janna Koch (25:29):

That's right, yeah. Yeah.

Nicole Thomas (25:32):

That's why I love math, it is everywhere, and when we think about it like that, then really just anybody can do it, it just needs to be explained to you not mathy.

Janna Koch (25:42):

Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Yeah, there has been times in the last few years where I've been introduced to different types of math curricula and I go, "Oh, that's all it is?" Again, I'm at a 44-year-old's brain and not an eight-year-old anymore, but I'm like, I tell parents, "I could have been an engineer if somebody would have explained math that way." I always thought I wasn't very good at math, I went, "I'm not a math person," but as I've retaught myself, teaching my children at home, I'm excited. My problem is it's clicking for me because now I have the reference of the lessons when I was a child, I have the frame of mind as an adult, but then when my kids go, "I still don't get it," I'm like, "I don't know how to say it."

Nicole Thomas (26:35):

We're going to talk about that. I love that because, well, so in one of the workshops we do, we talk about the different learning styles. What's so funny is I just read some research that recently came out that we think there are these learning styles, and essentially the research was supporting that we really don't have styles, we just have different ways that our brains can get information, right? Typically, how do we teach to most kids? We teach in the style that we're most comfortable with, right? If I'm a visual learner, I'm going to do things where I'm creating visual images for you to learn because that's how I learn best.

Nicole Thomas (27:11):

It used to be that when you're talking about styles, they would say, "Well, find out your child's style and teach that style." But now, what the research is showing is your child has, like all of us, we have all of the styles, so if you talked to them, or you showed it to them in a very visual way, and they say, "I don't get it," usually what we do is we just go, "Okay, let me try it again," and we do the same exact thing, and they're thinking, "I didn't say I didn't hear you. I didn't get it. Those are two different things."

Nicole Thomas (27:40):

To me, this is what the excitement is about teaching, right? You could, "Okay, that didn't work. That tool didn't work. Let's let me go back into my tool belt and take out another tool and try it this way." To me, if I tried something one way and that's not working, I'm like, "Ooh, ooh, ooh, what can I come up with? Maybe we'll try it like this and see if they get it that way." If they don't get it that way, you're like, "Okay." I like the challenges. It's all on the challenge for me, right, like, "Okay, that didn't work. Okay, give me one more shot. What about this?" Then again, it's all about finding the way, finding the puzzle piece that for them goes click. That's the excitement of teaching to me is how do you find the way that they learn and speak to them in that language?

Janna Koch (28:27):

For parents who have multiple children teaching all of the subjects, while that sounds great in theory, I don't have the time nor the bandwidth, because at some point I'm going to have to start dinner, I know that my husband is on his way home, he has this strange expectation that he will be fed after a hard day's work. I think that leads us right into what you actually offer because we are saying, yes, this is great, and if you had an infinite amount of time and only one child, how does that work in the real world? What do you offer parents to help them, let's just say, outsource the math?

Nicole Thomas (29:09):

What Nicole the Math Lady is is I decided again, when I said, "I could make videos," I literally took a curriculum, I took the Saxon Math curriculum and I stood in front of, I actually stood in this very room that we're in, right, and I took the curriculum. I started at third grade and I taught every lesson of the curriculum up to 12th grade, up to the advanced math textbook, and I taught it on video.

Nicole Thomas (29:35):

Now, here's one of the cool parts. Again, my passion is math, so when I teach math, I love doing that thing that we were just talking about. I love going, "Okay, let's find it. Let's teach it this way. Let's try it this way. Let's also try it this way," because we're trying to reach everybody out there. What parents can do is they can come to our website. It's a membership, so they have access to our site for a year, and they can find or use any textbook that their students are using. For single students we have a single student plan, for families we have a family plan, and they are led into the library of videos, and the students rather than saying, "Okay, Janna, you're going to sit with your student and you're going to talk through the math or just give the student the book," they watch me, and I'm having a ball. I'm gonna have a great time. Students will say, "I felt like you were talking directly to me," and I'm like, "Yes, that's what I was going for." I really do feel like I'm talking to the students. That's the video portion of it, so I do the teaching.

Nicole Thomas (30:37):

But then remember I told you, I learned my customer just wasn't the kids, my customer was also the mom who needs to start dinner because maybe her husband's thinking he is going to get fed. See, that doesn't happen in my house yet, thank goodness. My husband, yeah, that's not what he looks to me for, thank goodness. He's a cook. We also heard from our parents that the grading. We know Saxon Math is a rigorous curriculum. It's a lot of practice problems. Keeping on top of the grading can be a challenge.

Nicole Thomas (31:07):

We wanted to take that away from them, so we created an online grading automated system where students can enter their answers. It'll grade them instantly, but it'll still send that mom as soon as they're done a report, and they'll say, "Here's how they did on every question," so from that report, the parent can still be that coach that I was talking about, that we can still be that triangle of support, and they can say, "Okay, I can see you had the same problem wrong twice, the same type of problem, so let's go handle that." They can be more focused and be like, let's put the correction in where it's needed rather than spending their precious time doing all of it. We're here to help and take some of that off of the mamas and a few of my papas, so that's what we do.

Nicole Thomas (31:56):

We try to do it, I really believe that math is all around us. It's in our real world, we're going to make it fun, so we have some things on the site that we do with the kids. We have something called corny brain breaks, which the kids will tell you it's their favorite part, where one day I just decided to tell my daughter to have her friends come over and we videotape the kids telling jokes to each other and we put them on the site. We thought it'd be a nice little break. Well, that has turned into quite the thing because now we do corny brain break drives where the kids film their own videos and they send them in and they put them on the site and it just adds lightness to, we know they're working hard, but it's like, hey, you can have fun with math going to. That is our whole flavor, so we're going to enjoy what we're doing every second of it.


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