Danica McKellar is the author of a series of popular books focused on getting middle school-aged girls into math. This Q&A was supplied to GeekMom by Rebecca Zook.
What can parents do to support their daughters in math?
From a young age, point out how math is used in everyday life. So if you’re grocery shopping with your toddler, talk about the unit price for the meat you’re buying, and how you multiply that times the weight to get the total price. Add things up in the cart to estimate what you’ll be paying at the front. Or if you’re buying shoes, talk about what the 20% discount means. Show your daughters (and sons) that math is all around them. Get ’em young if you can!
And whether you are a mother or father talking to your daughter or son, please heed this advice: If you didn’t like math in school or felt that you failed at it, please don’t share that with your kids. Math gets enough bad PR as it is for being “too hard” and your kids look up to you! Downplay your own negative feelings about math as much as you can; otherwise, you’re setting the bar low, and they’re likely to meet you there at some point in the near future.
What can parents do to help their kids when they’re struggling or frustrated with math?
Get them some help! Understandably, many parents are not familiar with the math their kids are doing – either because they weren’t “math-y” kids themselves, or the methods feel too different. So look for outside resources – of course I recommend my books for both students and parents wanting to brush up (see danicamckellar.com for pre-algebra and algebra books), but there are also good tutors to be found both online and through local tutoring centers (be prepared that you may have to kiss a few frogs before you find the right match for your kid…). The important thing is to get involved early, because math, more than any other subject, is cumulative and a small confusion today could lead to a major problem later – just like building a house on a rocky foundation. Not good!
What motivates you to help girls learn math?
I was a totally baffled 7th grader, terrified of math. With the help of a few teachers, I overcame that fear and ended up really loving it – so much so that I ended up majoring in math at UCLA. Math made me feel smart, capable, and confident in so many areas of life – it was awesome. But I noticed that only about 10% of the students in my higher-level math classes were female, and after talking to countless women about their views of math, I knew what needed to be done: Math needed a PR overhaul, especially for girls! Shortly after I graduated from college, I was invited to speak in front of Congress, and I pledged then that I would do whatever I could to redefine math, especially for girls. And so was born “Math Doesn’t Suck,” “Kiss My Math,” and now “Hot X: Algebra Exposed.” And every email I get from a girl who’s just read one of my books, telling me how much more confidence she has in math – and in herself -is the best motivation I could ever want. Writing “Hot X” was particularly time consuming, and those emails kept me going many a late night.
What unique challenges that girls face are you trying to address with this book?
Girls get inundated with messages from the media telling them that “girls can’t do math.” And even though it’s an outdated stereotype and totally untrue, it still affects the way they feel about themselves when billboards, magazines and TV shows perpetuate the stereotype 24/7.
Did you feel like it was risky to use such a racy title? If so, why did you risk it — if not, why?
All of my titles have a bit of an edge to them, and that’s because I write my books for the teenagers themselves, and it helps them open the books!
Why did you choose to go with a more procedural, as opposed to conceptual, approach?
Actually, all of the books include both procedural and conceptual methods of teaching. I tend to start each chapter by using fun examples and analogies to help kids memorize the procedural steps they need to solve their homework problems, and then feather in the more conceptual stuff in a natural way, sometimes highlighting particularly challenging concepts in sidebars with headers like “What’s the Deal?” That way kids can immediately get the help they need, but also have the opportunity to gain a deep understanding of the concepts if they want it. My readers are at all levels – from the very confused to the total math lovers, and this is how I’ve made my books are a friendly, illuminating resource for both, and everyone in between!
Some foreign policy advocates suggest that the real way to solve problems in Afghanistan is to focus on educating girls. Are there any plans to translate your book into foreign languages to spread girl-empowering math knowledge?
I wish it were up to me – it would be great to get the books into Afghanistan. The way it works is that a local publisher would need to want to translate the book, and they would then license the right to do so from Penguin USA. So far, there are several countries that have bought such a license, and we’ll see the books translated in many languages soon (there’s even a UK version of “Math Doesn’t Suck” coming out next month) but no word from Afghanistan yet. Maybe they’ll be next, who knows?
Have you gotten any feedback from readers who are boys?
Yes – it’s so cute. Usually the emails will read something like, “Ok, so um, the books are kinda girly, but they really made the math easier to understand. So, thanks. And oh yeah, I think I finally understand how girls think now.” They’re some of my favorite emails!
What’s your next project focusing on girls and math?
Not sure – I might do a Geometry book next, but that’s still undecided. I keep up with my Facebook page (facebook.com/danicamckellar) pretty regularly, so I’ll be updating everyone there. Stay tuned!
If there was one thing you could change about math education in America, what would it be?
Sooner is not always better. I would put more emphasis on understanding the fundamental concepts before moving on to the “flashier” topics that aren’t, in the end, as important to introduce so early. I’d rather see 4th graders stay focused on learning division, and not yet be introduced to Algebra. Tons of kids in Trigonometry are still having trouble with fractions! We should never underestimate the importance of a solid foundation, and that’s something I create for kids in all three of my books.