For last Sunday’s study group, we focused on algebraic expressions. The kids were a little out of sorts at the beginning. “Math is boring,” one said.

“The way it’s taught in school, maybe. But math is really useful in life, so it’s good to learn it,” I said. I shared a few examples of saving money with math, enjoying life with math.

The group warmed up using a matching exercise, matching the word problems on the left side with the algebraic expressions on the right. Then we worked through some of the problems I’d prepared. In one afternoon, we talked about:

- cats and how much food they eat (1/4 cup, twice a day, 365 days, n cats…)
- T-shirts, sleeping cat toys, and chopsticks that look like lightsabers
- how much it might cost to eat onigiri for every meal, every day, for a year
- how long you might be able to eat onigiri given a particular budget
- Scott Pilgrim, Wallace, and Knives Chau
- more cats, including Neko on my head

There are several types of exercises. Completely abstract ones (here’s an equation, solve for n) get lots of confusion and little engagement. Practical exercises (how much would this cost after tax?) get some interest. Outlandish exercises drawing on the kids’ interests get lots of laughs – and solutions. So we mix practical exercises and outlandish ones, one to show math in real life and the other to get the kids involved. It’s like improv comedy, but for education.

This is where parents and tutors really need to step in and mix things up. Textbooks are written for everyone. They can’t take individual interests into account, and they can’t be revised each month to take advantage of pop culture references. When you make up your own exercises, though, you can do whatever you want.

I know J- likes Scott Pilgrim, Fruits Basket, and cats, so they turn up in math exercises. It’s not hard to pick up some standard forms of exercises from textbooks and translate them into more interesting situations.

Helping someone learn? Make up exercises based on their interests and see what happens.