The Life of Fred

A whole new way to teach math, that is actually working.

I need to start with a bit of honesty and personal information. I am an engineer. When I was a kid, math was hands down my favorite subject in school. I was even a mathlete in middle school. But my oldest son learns in a different way than I do. He has always struggled with math. For years, I spent hours helping him with homework every night, I payed hundreds of dollars per month for math tutors. In March of 2020, my son had an A in English and a D in seventh grade math. He will never follow in my mathletic footsteps.

Now we’re homeschooling, and I have to figure out how to teach this kid math. Remember, I’ve been trying and failing to teach this kid math for years. It’s time to get unconventional – we’re using Fred.

The Life of Fred is about as unconventional as math curriculum can get. It’s a story, about a 5 year old boy named Fred who teaches math at Kittens University. Fred is very good at math, but he’s only five, so he isn’t very good at life. As Fred lives his life, he runs into all kinds of problems that he has to solve with math.

Basically, “The Life of Fred” is a novel length story problem, that’s supper funny. There are lots of smaller story problems sprinkled all the way through. It’s perfect for my very intelligent son, who loves to read and completely hates math.

The biggest con for “The Life of Fred” is that it isn’t comprehensive enough. Students who only read Fred won’t know every single math concept taught in common core math. Um hello, my son had a D in math, with a tutor while attending public school. He was never going to learn every single math concept taught in common core math. But with Fred, he’s learning a lot. He doesn’t hate math anymore, and because all concepts are presented in a story form, he understands not only the idea but also the real life applications.

If you’re interested in trying Fred with your own children, here is a little more info about how it’s laid out and how we’re using it. Each chapter (usually 3-5 pages) presents a new math concept in the framework of the full story. At the end of the chapter there is a “your turn to play” section that has three to five math problems for the student to solve on their own. The answers to these problems are given on the next page, so this really isn’t homework.

At the end of every five chapters there is a bridge quiz. The bridge is a list of ten story problems that the student has to solve in order to cross the bridge. If the student answers 9 of the 10 questions correctly, they pass the bridge and move onto chapter six. If they get 8 or fewer questions correct, they have to take the bridge again. There are six quizzes provided for each bridge location. If the student fails the sixth attempt, they have to go back and read the chapters again before moving on.

My son loves to read, and he’s 13, so he always reads the chapters to himself. He reads all five chapters at once. His reason for wanting to do five chapters in a single day is driven more by his enjoyment of the story than anything else. Once he’s ready to attempt a bridge, we sit down together and review the concepts covered in the chapters he read the previous day before he takes the quiz. I read each question out loud to him and he solves the question in front of me. If he gets stuck, I guild him toward the right answer without letting him practice doing the math wrong. Because we’re basically taking the quiz together, I’m a little looser on the 90% to pass rule. Instead I judge how many hints he needed and how much help he needed. If I have to do any of the problems for him, or he needs more than two or three small hints, we re-read the chapter that covers the concepts he’s struggling with together before he makes a second attempt on the bridge. Using this system, he’s never had to try a bridge a third time.

Honestly, I wish I’d known about Fred years ago. Even when my son was in public school, reading these books would have been way more useful than paying for private tutors and crying over homework assignments. Fred definitely isn’t for everyone, but it’s perfect for us.

If you’re thinking about giving Fred a try and are curious about levels, here are those details. The elementary series has 10 books with titles in alphabetical order (Apples through Jelly Beans). Regardless of grade, they suggest starting at Apples and simply moving through the early books quickly if you have an older student. There are then three extra books (Kidneys through Mindshaft) that can be added in once the series is finished if needed. If a student gets all the way to the end of Mindshaft before completing 4th grade, they actually recommend going back and reading all the books again – not moving on to the middle school series.

The middle school series is five books (Fractions, Decimals & Percents, Pre-Algebra 0, Pre-Algebra 1, and Pre-Algebra 2). My son started the Fractions book last spring, when he was in the middle of his seventh grade year. He is now working his way through Decimals & Percents. I am hoping that he’ll be able to get all the way through Pre-Algebra 2 by the end of this year. Completing Pre-Algebra by the end of 8th grade will have him back up to grade level in math, something he hasn’t been for years. There are also longer single subject books for each high school level (Algebra I, Algebra II, Geometry, and Trigonometry).

What are you using to teach math you your students?

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