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How a summer of studying an upcoming math course can change your child’s life

Posted by John Reed on

This summer, I am tutoring my 6-year-old granddaughter in first-grade math: addition, subtraction, counting by 2s, 3s, 4s, etc. coins and dollars, shapes and comparisons of size.

My son, her father, asked the first grade teacher what “book” they use. IXL was the answer: an on-line bunch of questions set up like a computer game. I also use Khan Academy, and ABCya.

Stumbled on this trick in high school

Studying next year’s math is a trick I stumbled on in high school. Before my junior year, I decided to make a little bit of productive use of the summer since we lived in an apartment above a beauty shop, so I did not have to work in the fields.

I knew I was going to study Algebra II Trig in the fall so I sought out a book on the subject. There was only one book store then: Leary’s Old Book Store in Philadelphia. The only other place to buy books were the book departments of department stores. They did not have text books. I was not aware of how to use direct mail to buy books then. No, we did not use horses. But the junkmen still did.

Anyway, I found a paperback text book on the subject in Leary’s. I wanted one with problems and the answers at the back of the book and got one.

I counted the number of days until school started and the number of pages in the book and set a schedule so as finish the book just before school started—which I did. Seemed a rather innocuous thing to me at the time.

Wrong! I essentially aced the course during the school year and astounded the teacher. As you would expect, I often solved problems using methods the teacher had not taught yet. I was not showing off. I could not remember when or where I learned the technique in question.

Yes, I got an A, but more importantly, they moved me up to advanced math for senior year. I thought that was nice—initially.

Summer before senior year, I was busy. I went to Boys State and worked an an office boy in Philadelphia. No math study.

Run over by a bus

When the school year started, math felt like I had been run over by a bus. It was calculus and probability and statistics. I suspect I failed a bunch of tests, but I still got a B or an A, I guess because it was their damned idea to put me in advanced and they knew I was a good math student.

The following summer, I entered West Point. They gave us a math placement test. I ended up in advanced math again—at West Point which is a helluva a lot higher on the food chain than advanced math at my high school.


I washed out of advanced math there—because I was falling asleep in class and during tests.

We had massive amounts of home work, and it was against regulations to not do it all. I was staying up until 1 AM and getting up at 5:45 AM. Not enough sleep.

So I decided that I would just go to bed at 10PM and get up an 5AM and if I could not pass my courses and had to leave West Point, so be it. But I knew I sure was not going to last falling asleep during tests.

Seven hours

Did it work? Yes. I learned I had to have 7 hours of sleep; not more, no less. In regular math, and being awake, I was a star. I made deans list—at West Point no less—several times.

Why was I doing well at math? It was calculus and probability and statistics. As with algebra II trig, I was taking calculus and P&S for the second time. Even though I did not get it very well the first time in senior year of high school, I apparently got it enough that I was a whiz at it second time around. By the end of sophomore year at West Point (integral and differential calculus), I was sort of back in advanced math in that my grades were so high I did not have to take the final exam.

Part of why I was on dean’s list was I was taking another freshman year course for the second time: Russian.

They had advanced Russian there, but all the guys in it had Russian or Ukrainian names and had spoken it at home growing up. I had no Russian on my high school transcript (that said I got A+s in Spanish and German.)

I taught myself Russian with a course on four 78 RPM records over about three years. West Point assumed I knew zero Russian and put me in with a bunch of rookies. I blew the department head’s mind the first week.

He had defected from Russia. They taught us the alphabet sounds and he asked each of us to read words from a Russian book. The other guys sounded like second graders reading English one syllable at a time: Cock vee pah jahveye ee tee. (You can see me saying exactly that line in a recruiting film made at West Point when I was there.

When it was my turn, I read it as if I were a Russian adult with a near perfect accent (from hearing the records of it when I was 15, 16, 17).

Enough sleep and advanced study of STEM and  Foreign language

There is a pattern here. 1. Get enough sleep 2. Studying your upcoming math course and upcoming foreign language in the summer before you take it produces wondrous results.

Can you do it in other subjects? Not that I know of. We tried it with biology when my oldest son Dan was in high school. We even borrowed the exact text book from the teacher who was also a football coach there, as was I. The problem was there was only time to teach parts of the text and we did not know which parts. It did not work and was not worth the trouble.

I think it only works with STEM courses and foreign languages where what is taught each year is well defined, as is what is tested. In other courses like English and social science, being a BS artist and a suck-up seems more determinative of your grade.

So I am teaching my granddaughter first-grade math this summer. Here is what I hope will result:

1. She will do great in math and thereby have more time to study other subjects.
2. Her teacher will consequently have higher academic expectations of her in general, which studies have shown is a self-fulfilling prophesy.
3. I expect Courtney will gain academic self-confidence in general.
4. I expect she will think “I’m good at math” which is reportedly uncommon among females.
5. At some point in her K-12 career, her great performance in math and hopefully better performance in other subjects will get her placed in classes for gifted kids, like her father and uncles were, and in advanced/AP courses. She is extremely competitive so I think it is a must to make sure the students around her push her.
6. All of which will have the sort of domino self-esteem and academic performance effect my studying algebra II trig did in the summer of 1962.

She is also being redshirted by virtue of her birth date—September 2. She took pre-K at age 4, T-K at age 5, Kindergarten at age 6, and will be 7 in first grade.

I wrote about all this in my Succeeding book.


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