Life of Fred Math Series (upper elementary through high school)
|Publisher: Polka Dot Publishing
Author: Stanley F. Schmidt, Ph.D.
Review last updated: May 2012
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Courses available in Life of Fred Math Series:
(*) these texts also have a Fred's Home Companion
Life of Fred Math Series
When I heard about the Life of Fred series, I decided to start by reviewing the Geometry text since the homeschool market has a bigger lack of practical options in this area than in any other area of math.
Two features immediately make this appealing to many families: low cost and a course design suitable for independent study. But there's much more to the Life of Fred books! The books are written by Dr. Stanley Schmidt, a retired math teacher who loves math and wants to share his enthusiasm with students. Part of his strategy is to build his math books around the adventures of Fred, a very young (six years old in the Geometry text) genius who is a math teacher at KITTENS University. The stories shift from silly to serious, outlandish to edgy, and they are likely to be very appealing to learners who prefer something more than "dry" math. Fred's adventures are the jumping off point for math lessons (e.g. Fred plays with his food and creates a polygon), or Fred might be pondering something mathematical, or teaching, or discussing a math topic with friends or students. For example, in the following excerpt Fred's pet llama, Lambda, lives with Fred in his office:
He [Fred] looked across the room in the semi-darkness toward what he called "Lambda's office" and hoped that she was resting well. "Maybe 18 miles was a little long for our first jog," he reflected. Fred had constructed her nest using some fencing that he had found in the general storage closet in the math building. The fencing formed the longest side (called the hypotenuse) of the right triangle (that's a triangle with a right angle) which was her part of Fred's office. The shorter two sides of a right triangle are called the legs. Since many of his students often visited Fred during his office hours, the use of Lambda's office as an example of a right triangle would be a perfect illustration to use in his geometry lecture today.
The page illustration from the book (above) shows another example. In addition, Dr. Schmidt digresses into side comments, footnotes, and "conversations" such as one concerning Harry S Truman and the fact that his name is frequently misspelled with a period after the "S" in official government usage. All of this makes the text much more user-friendly than most others. It also adds a bit to the size of the book—542 pages for the Geometry text.
Surprisingly, the story line and discursions are not used to dumb down the course. The geometry content is actually quite traditional, even though the presentation is not. The content is high level and challenging with proofs introduced in chapter one. Chapter eleven teaches constructions using a compass and a straight edge. There are six "extra" chapters (chapters 5 1/2, 7 1/2, 8 1/2, 11 1/2, 12 1/2, and 13 1/2) that can be skipped or included depending upon the student's ability and rate of progress.
Each lesson teaches a concept, albeit sometimes in a roundabout fashion through the story. Then there's a "Your Turn to Play"—practice problems with complete solutions. Students should work through every one of these problems rather than just jumping ahead to the solutions. There are a number of lessons with practice problems within each chapter.
At the end of each chapter are six sets of problems, each set labeled with the name of a city. Students should complete the first two "cities" (for which all the solutions/answers are available in the student text). They should also complete the odd-numbered problems in the next two cities for which solutions/answers are also supplied. The remaining problems can be used for tests. A separate, very inexpensive answer key is available for the remaining problems. This allows students to work independently for the most part, but still provides a practical way to ensure they are actually studying and learning the material. And if students get stuck and parents can't help, you are welcome to call the author!
Since Geometry operates with definitions, theorems, and postulates, students are supposed to create their own notebook in which they write down each of these as they encounter them in the text. There's a reference section in the back of the book that has all these presented in the order they are encountered in the book, but students should record definitions, theorems, or postulates each in their own sections of the notebook.
At least a few references to the Bible and churches indicate that the author likely has a Christian worldview, but there aren't actually any directly religious statements that I spotted.
In my opinion, the only negatives are that the entire text is black-and-white with clip art and line-drawn illustrations. Also various type fonts are used, and some of them (ones that are rarely used) are difficult to read. These are certainly minor drawbacks for most students.
It is difficult to convey the full "flavor" of this text in a review, but Dr. Schmidt does a marvelous job of helping students see the real value and applications of math.
After reviewing Geometry, I liked the series enough to follow up with reviews of the other Life of Fred texts as they've been published.
I reviewed Fractions, Beginning Algebra, and Statistics as well as the Fred's Home Companion for Beginning Algebra.
All the Life of Fred texts are hardcover books, printed in black-and-white. There are no separate teacher guides or answer keys to purchase although you might want the Fred's Home Companion for those courses where it is available.
It is important to note that Fractions might be used as early as about fifth grade, but it might just as easily be used by an older student who needs a better grasp of fractions before moving into Algebra. Likewise, Decimals and Percents might be used in about sixth or seventh grade, but it really serves as a prealgebra course. Students completing Decimals and Percents might be ready for Beginning Algebra. Fractions and Decimals and Percents texts are each about half the length of Beginning Algebra, and it might be possible for a seventh or eighth grader to complete both within one year. Younger students will probably need more time.
The most recent additions to the Life of Fred series should be slotted between Decimals and Percents and Beginning Algebra. These two texts are Pre-Algebra 1 with Biology and Pre-Algebra 2 with Economics. They treat biology and economics just as they treat math, jumping from topic to topic with vague connections to the storyline about Fred. Pre-algebra is covered in a scattered fashion along with a few more advanced concepts such as functions, calculating the molecular weight of sucrose, and balancing chemical equations.
The Biology text touches on topics such as seed germination, life cycles, teeth brushing, photosynthesis, eyes and vision, the circulatory system, breathing, bones and calcium, dermis and epidermis, chromosomes, DNA, genes, and alleles.
In Economics, Dr. Schmidt teaches some basic concepts along with some "conservative" ideas. He discusses the need for sufficient capital when starting a business, the value of tools in increasing production, the law of comparative advantage, demand curves, and other topics of basic economics. He also throws in some politically-oriented discussion advancing views in favor free-market economies rather than socialism or communism. He discusses the difference between freedom and liberty. He also points out how Congress has ignored constitutional limitations on the role of the federal government.
Beginning Algebra obviously follows these texts. Parents have urged Dr. Schmidt to create more problem solving practice for algebra, so he has produced a supplement titled Zillions of Practice Problems for Beginning Algebra.The first 57 pages of this hardcover book are the problems and the next 198 pages are complete solutions and answers. Problems are grouped to correspond with each chapter of the textbook. Groups of problems for each concept allow you to select problems for only those topics that need extra work. A set of "Mixed Bag" problems for each chapter provides mixed and cumulative review problems. The index helps you locate problems on specific topics. Interestingly, Dr. Schmidt has chosen to number the problems randomly. He explains that numbering consecutively allows students to easily see the answer to the next problem when they look up the solution/answer to the one immediately preceding it. So the problems in the first exercise are numbered 45, 888, 500, 317, etc.
The story of Fred is very much a part of all the courses and the teaching method is pretty much the same from Fractions through Statistics. Most students should be able to work through all the books independently.
There are a few features unique to one or more of the books that I need to point out.
Fractions, Decimals and Percents, and the two Pre-Algebra texts have from 32-46 chapters each. Within chapters are "Your turn to play" exercises with complete solutions as described for the Geometry text. However, there are no "cities" of practice exercises at the end of every chapter. Instead, after every three to five chapters in the first two texts and after every seven to ten chapters in the Pre-Algebra texts there are sets of five or more "Bridges" which are cumulative tests on all chapters to that point. You need not use all Bridges/tests, but they allow you to test, have the student review if he/she doesn't do well enough, then retest again. Or they allow you to assign two or more Bridges for a more comprehensive test. Students should get 90% correct before moving on. Solutions to all Bridge questions are at the back of each book. Final Bridges at the end serve as your final test.
The other texts follow a format similar to that of the Geometry course with the "cities" of exercises at the end of each section.
Beginning and Advanced Algebra serve as first and second year Algebra courses and cover traditional content at a relatively high level. Both of these texts and the Trigonometry text have an optional Fred's Home Companion book that I highly recommend. Fred's Home Companion outlines lesson plans for the core text, including which "cities" of questions students should do, making it easier for students to pace themselves if they are working independently. The core text has answers to some of the "cities" problems, and Fred's Home Companion provides solutions to the rest of them. In addition, there are extra problems (with their solutions) for students to solve. Advanced Algebra also has an optional extra book, Zillions of Practice Problems: Advanced Algebra that is similar to book for Beginning Algebra I described above.
Beginning Algebra allows but does not require the use of a basic calculator. For Advanced Algebra through Statistics, students will need a scientific calculator but not a graphing calculator.
Trigonometry should be taken between Geometry and Calculus, serving to some extent as a Precalculus course.
The Statistics course really is college level. However, it is so engagingly written that it actually makes me want to study statistics. It might be possible for a high school student to work through this text, then test for college credit, but I haven't investigated those possibilities. This text might be unique in that it includes a chapter (Chapter 4 1/2) on moral guidelines for the use of statistics and statistical devices.
There is also a new Elementary Physics course written for students to use before tackling high school math. It might be used as early as sixth grade. (I have not yet reviewed it.)
Throughout the series, Dr. Schmidt tries to teach for conceptual understanding rather than mere memorization of formulas and strategies. Students often see the practical application of a math concept before they learn how to solve the problem. Students are likely to begin thinking about math more like solving puzzles or critical thinking exercises than lists of problems to solve. The story of Fred is an important part of this approach. The story does take up significant space within in each text. And while it sometimes meanders into "entertainment" unrelated to the math topic at hand, most of the time it stimulates students to consider how math might be used to deal with a real life situation.
One other factor important to many families is the low cost of these texts. Texts range in cost from $19 to $49. Home Companions are $14 each. There are no other teacher manuals, answer keys, or anything else to buy. In addition, the texts are non-consumable and might be used for a number of students.
Life of Fred now also has a complete series for the lower grades. Read my review by clicking here.
Sample pages are available at the publisher's website, so you can check out this unusual math series to see if it's right for your students.
- Suitable for: independent study; might appeal most to Sociable Sue because of the story line.
Audience: grades 4-12
Need for parent/teacher instruction: minimal
Prep time needed: 0
Need for Teacher's Manual: Not available although Home Companions have some solutions/answers
secular but Christian friendly with a few religiously-oriented references
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