Math Doesn’t Suck

A few months ago, I bought a copy of Math Doesn’t Suck by Danica McKellar at a BOOKSALE outlet. I know she has experience being a mathematician, but I didn’t know how much experience she has being a mathematics educator. I had done some study on conceptual and procedural knowledge in mathematics so I was very curious to know which she would introduce first—concepts or procedures—and which she would emphasize more.

The book seems to be targeted at middle school students; the topics are mostly arithmetic with some very basic algebra (the concept of a variable) towards the end. I haven’t had time to read the whole book, but I’ll describe one of its 21 chapters. Chapter 5 is titled “How Many Iced Lattes Can These Actors Drink?” and is subtitled “Multiplying and Dividing Fractions … and Reciprocals.”

The chapter is divided into small sections: three introduce the main concepts/procedures (Multiplying Fractions, Reciprocal Fractions, and Dividing Fractions) while the others are lists of steps (Step-By-Step), detailed examples using the steps (And … Action! Step-By-Step in Action), some exercises (Doing the Math), definitions of terms (What’s It Called?), some tips and observations (Quick Note!), and a quick summary of the basic ideas (Takeaway Tips). (Other chapters have other sections that I haven’t mentioned, like Watch Out! and Shortcut Alert!.)

Other chapters start with a real-life situation involving the topic, but this chapter starts with a quick review of the procedure before going to the practical example. The language is friendly and casual with minimal jargon. She doesn’t write like a teacher, she writes more like a tutor or a friend. She uses the pronoun “we” to indicate the she and the reader are the ones doing the math. She uses mnemonics and other memory aides. Some of the math is handwritten (her handwriting) because “sometimes seeing stuff in actual handwriting makes it easier to understand, don’t you think?”

When tackling the division of fractions, she first introduces the procedure of multiplying by the reciprocal, then explains the concept with many varied practical examples. She ends the explanation with:

Now, the easiest and quickest way to get the answer when you’re dividing fractions is to simply use the multiplication/reciprocal method of dividing we learned above—but I showed you the above example because I wanted to help the answers make more sense, since the concept of “dividing by a fraction” can be hard to wrap your head around.

The first thing I noticed when I first looked through the book was that the exercises were quite few in number. She explains why at the start of the book:

You’ll also notice that I don’t include very many practice problems at the end of each section, mostly because I want to be able to give you as many tips and tricks as I can—and I figure that you are probably getting more than enough practice problems through your math class at school, right? But every single problem in this book has an answer—given in the back—and you can find detailed explanations on my website, www. mathdoesntsuck. com. That way you don’t have to think to yourself, “But how did she get that answer?” Dont you just hate that? I do.

Throughout the book there are quizzes (to identify the reader’s learning style), some quotes on math and learning from middle-schoolers (What Do You Have to Say?), some stories from grown-ups on how they use math in their work (Testimonial), and some essays by Danica about her early experiences (Danica’s Diary). There is also a horoscope, which I feel is out of place; I think the book would have been better without it.

I’m very impressed with the book’s quality of writing, design, and production. Everything seems to be very well thought out, including the layout of the sections (icons, borders, background color, fonts, section separators).

I think the inspirational messages spread throughout the book are the most important thing about it. Here’s the last part of the final paragraph of the final section (“Great Expectations”) of Chapter 5:

Every homework problem you think you can’t do—but then through determination, you solve—every time you exercise your brain and your beauty, inside and out, you’re becoming the young woman you aspire to be. I’m here to tell you from personal experience that you can be a glamour girl and a smart young woman—who can certainly do math.

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