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Parent-teacher conferences always sneak up on me. Labor Day seems like yesterday, but here we are, surrounded by tinsel and eggnog lattes. Between the flurry of work and home, I forget that time is passing at school too. So when the parent-teacher reminder pops up on my calendar, I can only think, “Already?”

I’m driving D to school, taking the cursory two hours away from work. It’s a longish ride.
“Mom, it’ll be fiiiiine,” he assures me. He fiddles with his jacket zipper, catching my eye in the rearview mirror. I’m not sure what to expect and it shows. This year has really gotten away from me. Should I have been quizzing state capitals during carpool? Running times tables before dinner? What do you even learn in the 3rd grade these days?

In 2010, the United States adopted a new standard for assessing student learning. This new standard, the Common Core State Standards Initiative, outlines what students should have learned before they advance to the next grade. While the topics haven’t changed, the tests are built to encourage more critical thinking. For instance, 3rd grade math in the Common Core tests multiplication and division. The focus now is on real-world applications and mental math.

“Math is like scaffolding, and each layer needs to be strong enough to support however many layers will come. So we need to build good habits, early.”

So here I am at school, uncomfortably folded into a chair made for a 9 year old. Mr. F thumbs through his notes: D is creative. Doing well at reading. Somewhat distracted. Focused when motivated. Then a pregnant pause. He applauds D’s reading skills again, then leans over and with some reluctance confides, “He just hasn’t taken an interest in math. It’s beginning to show in his performance.” He continues with a handful of suggestions. Overall, my son is a good student. If there’s one thing I know about D, it’s that he does well when he likes something. If only I can find a way for him to like math.

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‘Real-world application of math and mental math’: the new emphases. Both aspects require practice rather than memorization to master. Mental math strategies are best improved through practice. Math is like scaffolding, constantly build upon what you know and it is well worth investing in those early building blocks. But the topics change over time, and it’s important to build good habits early. There just might be an app that might help us crack this. The family iPad has graduated to becoming a Netflix device. Time for it to get to work. ‘There’s surely an app for that’ methinks?


For most of Saturday, we’re looking into math apps. There are hundreds of them, including paid and popular ones requiring in-app purchases or  subscription fees. I go through a bunch of review sites. We decide to try the two most popular ones.

The first has quizzes with lots of little animations and levels designed to look like a console game. The second app, IXL, lets D fill a virtual room with virtual toys and stars that he wins as he does more quizzes. D and I both agree that the second app seems more interesting.

I sit with D for encouragement on days 1 and 2, watching him plod through a good 10 minutes or more of math quizzes at a time. I help to pick out skills that he ought to work on. Days 3 to 7, I get busier and don’t have the time to sit with him through practice. On day 3, I leave a note on the refrigerator to remind him. D works on the app without my being there! What a wonderfulfind, I’m beginning to think.

IXL for math

IXL for math

On day 8, I’m traveling. When I finally get back to check on the iPad on day 9, I realize there hasn’t been very much progress after that 3rd day. ‘I didn’t really like it that much’ he mumbles under his breath. I see what the problem might be: the app is essentially his homework wrapped into an app. The fun of getting all those virtual stars wears out quickly. Lipstick on the proverbial pig.

“I see what the problem [with IXL] might be: the app is essentially his homework wrapped into an app. The fun of getting all those virtual stars wears out quickly.”

On day 10, I’m back to reviewing more apps, this time wiser. Before I begin, I come up with a little checklist so I know what I’m looking for: an app that covers all the math skills for 3rd grade, Must be engaging enough that D will use it regularly, Must be fun enough that D will use it without supervision. I’m looking for an app that marries math and Netflix, I find myself thinking out aloud. D hears this and offers a smug smile. I find myself looking up ‘fun’ math apps. Being wiser now means that I insist on trying each one for a while. By and large, the ‘fun math’ apps are mostly fun with very little math. Someone’s figured out that putting ‘math’ in the name is an easy way to get parents to download apps for their kids! Somewhat like all those ‘Vitamins’ listed on sugary breakfast cereals.

“The ‘fun math’ apps are mostly fun with very little math. Someone’s figured out that putting ‘math’ in the name is an easy way to get parents to download apps”

Too Many Apps!

On day 12, I run into a math app called Learn & Earn. It’s ‘suggested’ to me via Facebook, which is intriguing. It’s a clever idea – it lets me connect a math learning ‘goal’ to real rewards from The math quizzes are built in. I tap in a budget: 10 dollars for 10 days of math practice done 15 minutes at a time. D spends a fair amount of time running through the list of rewards he can ‘earn’. 5 days of math practice earns him a movie rental. 8 days for a soccer ball (we never have enough of those). And so on. He finally insists on a soccer jersey that will take him 9 days of math practice.

“Three weeks in, and he’s onto his 2nd reward. 18 days of Learn & Earn and counting. It works.”

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I sit with him through day 1, working through different math skills. 15 minutes later we have a dramatic animation to reminds us that D has ‘8 days until his reward’. D offers a satisfied smile, the sort that reminds me of Indiana Jones when he discovers the entrance to the Lost Ark. The next day is Saturday and we’re mostly out and about, so I’m pleasantly surprised when D brings up the the app. He works on it Saturday and Sunday. I’m therefore not surprised (and simply elated) when 9 days from starting, I get an email from the app telling me that D has ‘earned’ his reward. 135 minutes of math practice. 9 days. Over 400 quizzes solved. It’s my turn to put on that Indiana Jones smile. One click and the reward is on its way.

Three weeks in, and he’s onto his 2nd reward. 18 days of Learn & Earn and counting. It works.

The Learn & Earn App for Math

The Learn & Earn App– Passed D’s Test!

“Math is ultimately its own reward. But it takes practice to make perfect and sometimes, a fun app with the motivational support to make it happen.”

Something tells me that the next parent-teacher conference won’t catch me by surprise.

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