Review: Kiss My Math

Pre-algebra students stand at the threshold of adventure. Behind them lie the rocky plains of school arithmetic. Ahead, the trail winds into a murky, tangled woods and disappears in the shadows. Who knows what monsters might live in a place like that?

Actress and math maven Danica McKellar has traveled through the pre-algebra jungle and beyond, up the slopes to higher math. She survived the journey, and now, on the heels of her bestselling book for math-phobic middle schoolers, she has written Kiss My Math to guide uncertain students along their way.

Unlike the case with most Hollywood movies, this sequel is an improvement.

Overview

In college, Nina wanted to be a doctor more than anything in the world. She’d always wanted to deliver babies! She was smart, funny, and totally capable of doing whatever she set her mind to — until she found out that calculus was a required course. The idea of taking calculus scared her so much that she dropped out of the pre-med program and gave up her dream!

And Nina isn’t the only one. Believe it or not, lots of people change their majors and abandon their dreams just to avoid a couple of math classes in college.

So, what does “Kiss My Math” mean?

It means: “Um, excuse me, I’m going to do whatever I want with my life, and I’m sure as heck not going to let a little math get in my way.”

Danica McKellar
Introduction to Kiss My Math

Once again, McKellar offers practical advice from a compassionate older sister who has Been There, Done That with math. Step by step, she leads pre-algebra students through the basics of working with negative numbers, getting cozy with variables, translating word problems, and solving equations — and even a short introduction to functions and graphing.

Along the way, sidebars offer definitions of math terminology, quick tips, shortcuts, and warnings about common student errors. Each chapter ends with a short list of “Takeaway Tips,” summarizing the main concepts a student needs to master.

Teen-magazine-style personality quizzes, quick quotes, “What Guys Really Think…” polls, and testimonials from successful women provide interesting breaks between the math lessons.

At the end of the book is a “Math Test Survival Guide,” which may be worth the price of the book in itself. McKellar offers specific ways to focus your study in the days leading up to a big test:

  • Ahead of Time — Everyday Tips to Make Tests Easier
  • When a Test is Announced
  • 4 to 5 Days Before the Test
  • The Evening Before the Test
  • The Morning of the Test
  • When the Test Is Handed to You

What I Liked

All the best features of McKellar’s first book are back: clear explanations written in conversational English, step-by-step example problems, very short exercise sets, and the “Danica’s Diary” entries, which showcase math in interesting, real-life stories. The book makes pre-algebra feel comfortable, as if the reader were sitting down to chat with a friendly tutor.

I like that McKellar not only explains the commutative and associative properties, but more important, she explains why students should care about something so basic. I mean, we’ve been using these rules since first grade. Why pay attention to them now? (Answer: Because they make life easier by letting us “get around the whole PEMDAS thing.”)

I love the creative ways McKellar found to explain math operations:

  • MINT-egers make working with negative numbers as easy as eating candy.
  • The Mirror Rule makes short work of multiplying and dividing integers and helps students remember how to deal with inequality symbols.
  • Forget poor, old Aunt Sally! The dining habits of pandas make for the best explanation of PEMDAS I’ve ever seen.
  • If you enjoy doodling, you’ll be great at combining like terms.
  • Solving an equation is like unwrapping a gift.

I like the “Watch Out!” sections that tell students how to avoid the most common beginner’s mistakes in algebra, like trying to cancel out the negative signs in \frac {-2+y}{-5}  or distributing the square in {\left(y+x\right)}^2 .

The teen-magazine-style sidebars were more focused this time, coming back repeatedly to the theme of girls “dumbing themselves down” so guys will like them. I laughed at this comparison to “uglying yourself up”:

Imagine getting ready for school and putting brown eyeshadow under your eyes to look like dark circles, and not brushing your teeth or your hair. Yeah — not making a lot of sense…

Most of all, I like the “What’s the Deal?” sidebars that explain why math works the way it does: Why do you have to work from left to right when following the order of operations? Why can you cancel out pairs of negative signs? Why does the Mirror Rule work? Why is 3(x+y) considered a single term? And why does it matter? Why can’t we say that |-x|=x? etc.

What I Didn’t Like

As a math teacher, I can’t find anything not to like about this book.

Okay, maybe one thing: the bubblegum mnemonic image for slope was a bit of a stretch, in more ways than one. Still, I suppose that might help a student remember it all the better.

As a parent, I appreciate the emphasis on being smart and savvy, on paying attention in class, studying, and asking for help when needed. But I found myself cringing occasionally at the unquestioned acceptance of a TV/teen-magazine culture. I never had much patience with boy-crazy girls when I was in junior high, and I certainly don’t want my daughters to be obsessed with dating. I think the “humorous” aside about kissing (in the MINT-eger chapter) is particularly out of place in a book aimed at junior-high girls.

[If you are interested, Maria of Homeschool Math Blog examines this point more thoroughly in her review.]

Buy, or Don’t Buy?

Some students thrive on the challenge of algebra, seeing each problem as a puzzle, eagerly unmasking the mysterious Mr. X. Students like that would find the McKellar books tedious and would be much happier with MathCounts or AMC 8 puzzles, the Art of Problem Solving’s Introduction Series, or a math enrichment book by Brian Bolt. I’ve also had a lot of fun with the inexpensive Dover book, Problem Solving Through Recreational Mathematics.

Many students, however, find themselves lost in a horror story of algebraic confusion. The relentless attack continues, day after day, one half-understood monster topic after another: exponents, absolute value, polynomials… What is a struggling student to do?

If you (or your child) are that struggling student, then Kiss My Math is for you. Buy it. Read it. Go over the example problems as many times as you need to, to be sure you’ve mastered them. Keep the book handy for reference. Whenever you have homework dealing with a tough pre-algebra topic, review the relevant chapter — especially those “Takeaway Tips.”

Next month, our local homeschool support group is holding a forum about teaching math. We’re bringing in the math curricula we use, so new families can look over all their options. I plan to display this book and its companion, Math Doesn’t Suck, and I will highly recommend them to any homeschooling parents who say they “just don’t get math.”

As McKellar writes:

Whenever you don’t understand how to do a math problem, this is actually a good thing, because now you have an opportunity to exercise the part of your brain that makes you stronger, more capable, and successful in life: the part that does not give up.

When you’re struggling with something but you believe in yourself and you keep trying until you succeed, you not only become stronger, but also much more powerful. Doing math has a funny way of expanding our brains, making us better problem solvers, and strengthening our mental fortitude and stamina. As hard as math can seem sometimes, you’re actually benefiting from it in ways you might not realize.

Seek out the things you don’t understand, and seize opportunities to learn how to think in entirely new ways. Believe me, math will keep giving you these opportunities, so take them!


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“Follow the money” disclosure: This is not a paid review, but the publisher was kind enough to send me a free review copy. And I am a member of Skimlinks, which means that I make a few cents profit if you click one of the links in this post and decide to buy a book. no longer, thanks Illinois!


Have more fun on Let’s Play Math! blog:

6 thoughts on “Review: Kiss My Math

  1. Very Cool! I really liked Danica McKeller ever since she was Winnie on Wonder Years. Some people even told me I look like her. And then when I found out that she loved math (as I do), I was even more of a fan. I saw her posts online helping kids with math problems – very sweat. And now this. I’m very happy she’s written a book like this. Thanks for the review!

  2. I am a graduate student in U of WA, hopefully will teach math next year. I haven’t read the book yet, but its attitude is so similar to mine! I am glad I found your recommendation, I will definitely try it.

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