## August 31, 2008

### Review of Kiss My Math and Math Doesn't Suck by Danica McKellar

Recently I had the delight of receiving a review copy of Math Doesn't Suck and Kiss My Math by Danica McKellar. Danica is well-known for her acting career, and her books are best-sellers.

First some basic info. Math Doesn't Suck covers middle school math topics: factors and multiples, fractions, decimals, percents, word problems, and a little algebra.

Kiss My Math covers pre-algebra: integers & negative numbers, variables and working with expressions, solving (linear) equations, word problems, intro to inequalities, exponents, and an intro to functions and graphing lines.

There's a website for each book: KissMyMath.com and MathDoesntSuck.com.

I've split this review into two parts: the pros and the cons. Let's go with the pros first.

Pros:

Danica's writing is excellent. It's conversational and catchy, very friendly. Reminds me of Dr. Math books.

I absolutely adore some of her illustrations that she uses for math concepts.

For example, she tells us to think about positive and negative numbers as breath mints - mint-egers. The positive ones have a good taste, and the negative ones are yucky, getting yuckier as they get more negative. And then she combines the integers as if they were mint-egers in her mouth! It's a fresh, fabulous comparison. You see, that'll stick to your mind for sure... you imagine TASTING something in your mouth, it will SURELY help kids remember.

Another thing I loved about her book were the little motivational "talks" in between the math stuff. For example, on p. 19 she asks, "Ugly Yourself Up?" Since you wouldn't make yourself to appear uglier than you really are, Danica argues, then why do the same as far as your smarts? She is truly encouraging girls to be smart, to study math, to do well in school and even venture into math careers!

It's really hard to put the book down, it's so delightfully written. How about remembering the order of operations by what Pandas Eat? And she goes further than the PEMDAS rule - Multiplication and Division are the main course, while Addition and Subtraction come at dessert.

For EVERY SINGLE topic she's come up with some kind of catchy illustration. For factoring, it's monkeys hanging off of trees. For the x (variable), it's a pearl bag, so 2x + 3 means "2 bags of pearls plus 3 loose pearls" (it's a GOOD illustration, I feel). For inequalities, she talks about how tall you'd want him to be? Perhaps h (his height) should be at least 2 inches taller but no more than 9... For isolating x in equations, she uses the analogy of gift wrapping and unwrapping. For exponents, there's the Ms. Exponent who's a high-powered executive. And so on.

You can see she's given each concept some thought, as to how to present it in a way that helps kids remember it.

She also helps us remember all these difficult math words (such as mean, median, mode, coefficient, variable etc.) with some clever mnemonics. I'll just tell you one. Mode is like "mood", whatever occurs most often, and she gives an example of a person who's iPod playlist contains mostly samba songs: "I guess she's in the mood for samba, huh?" Mode = mood.

The real power of the book is actually in these memorable analogies and in the very friendly tone she uses all through the book. She's talking to a friend, and it makes you to just keep reading!

Now, some might feel that it's all just nonsense. Will it really work to talk about Ms. Exponent being so powerful that all she has to do is say a word and things happen - you know, all she has to do is say "3", and 4 multiplies itself 3 times? Will it help students? Isn't it just silly to do math that way?

I feel it is truly powerful, because it has to do with our EMOTIONS. If it makes you laugh out of silliness, it creates an emotion while studying, and that helps you remember. It's a proven fact from brain research that we remember things better IF they're tied in with some strong emotion, be it fear, embarrassment, joy, surprise, etc.

You can also see from the feedback she's gotten that it IS working. Even math teachers have written to her how good her illustrative ideas are.

Another reason why this approach works is because she starts with the simplest stuff and in a friendly way "lures" you into the more difficult ideas. She basically "bends backwards" in order to not make math intimidating or scary - and that is one of her missions, as she has publicly declared.

I also liked the little "Watch Out!" boxes which contain alerts or explain common errors and misconceptions. Definitions come in "What's It Called?" boxes. Then in between the main text we also find "What's the Deal" boxes, Quick Notes, and Takeaway Tips, all decorated with smart and fashionable looking girl-figures.

Both books have some material on solving word problems. I feel Danica does an excellent job here and has really good common-sense advice AND great example solutions for this difficult topic. And I really liked chapter 12, The Art of Gift Wrapping/Solving Equations in Kiss My Math. It is one of the best "treatises" on solving linear equations that I've seen anywhere! The analogy of wrapping / unwrapping a gift is excellent.

## Are the books just collections of tricks and shortcuts?

Some people have characterized Danica's Math Doesn't Suck book as simply a bag of tricks, concentrating on the "how-to" and not on the conceptual understanding. Well, it is written in a "how-to" style. It's like she's talking to you and coaching you through problems — and it's written so interestingly that it's hard to stop reading!

Sometimes she doesn't explain why things work the way they do, but most often she does include something along those lines - usually after the "how-to". So you can't say she's omitting the conceptual side (the why's). The books could use some more explanations on those lines, though.

## Cons:

Now, I've checked around on the Internet, and it seems I may be a lone voice in the criticism that follows. However, I do not want to leave this part out so here goes.

You know, there are some of us (and I include myself in this) who don't feel we want our teenage daughters to start thinking about dating at such early ages as what her books audiences are. (Her books often refer to kissing, dating, having crushes, and so on.)

I'll give an example. She talks of integers as "mint-egers", which (like mints) taste like peppermint, spearmint, cinnamon and so on if they're positive. And they taste like vomit & dirt, etc. if they're negative. You combine (add) them in your mouth, and check which kind of taste wins. A great analogy! But right in the midst of several pages of discussing integers there's this one sentence: "These are good before a date, in case, you know, there's going to be kissing involved."

Another example: Chapter 9 in Kiss My Math is titled "Do You Like Him Like Him?" This catchy title is used as a mnemonic for the like terms in algebraic expressions — two terms such as 2x and 3x "get full-on crushes".

Now, she DOES also go against the popular culture in some ways. For example, she strongly encourages girls to study math, to be smart, to work at becoming smarter, not to feel that smart & pretty can't go together, not to underachieve and so on. The Kiss My Math book includes great testimonials from gals who overcame their struggles in math and are now "fabulously successful women".

I just wish she wouldn't go along with the "teen magazine culture" so much when it comes to crushes and boyfriends.

## Recommendations

Teachers: I can heartily recommend these books for teachers, as they will be able to collect all kinds of ideas for their own teaching, and also learn from Danica's relaxed teaching style.

Parents and students: If you can keep from being influenced further into the boyfriend craze, go for it. If you can't, consider Dr. Math books (I've reviewed them as well). They are written in a somewhat similar, friendly, relaxed manner, though they don't contain nearly as catchy mnemonics and analogies as what Danica's do.

Review by Maria Miller

(The links below go to Amazon)
Math Doesn't Suck and Kiss My Math by Danica McKellar.

You may leave comments on this blogpost, but only intelligent discussion, no flaming, please!