creative math


It’s a special Thursday edition of Math for Grownups, and today we have a guest post from Bon Crowder of Math Four, a great blog that was featured in the Wall Street Journal last month. Here’s her creative take on math and zombies.

Math isn’t only in real life, it’s in our fantasy and fear worlds too!

I’m a huge fan of The Walking Dead – the popular zombie show on AMC that returns October 14.

While watching season two, I started pondering if our heroes even had a chance against the hoards of zombies.

I realized that regardless of how science explains the start of a zombie epidemic, the way it continues and the way to stop it is explained with math.

Zombies make other zombies.

If you’re bitten or otherwise infected by a zombie, you’ll turn into a zombie yourself. Since zombies never sleep, and are constantly on the lookout for human victims, they have the ability to create many more zombies very quickly.

Killing zombies is a chore.

According to The Walking Dead the only way to kill a zombie is by ceasing brain function. In other words: removing or impaling the brain.

That sounds simple enough. But just watch one episode and you’ll see how challenging it can be!

Do we have a chance against a zombie epidemic?

There are around 30 humans in The Walking Dead. Let’s assume that represents reality: there are only 30 humans on the entire planet, and the rest of them have been turned to zombies (or will be soon).

We can do a little math to figure out how long it would take for our 30 heroes to rid the world of this epidemic.

There are a little over 7 billion people in the world. That’s 7,000,000,000. (A whole bunch of zeros, I know.)

Each hero will be responsible for killing about 230 million zombies. That’s 7,000,000,000 zombies ÷ 30 heroes.

(Notice I’m rounding like crazy – a fun thing to do when estimating anything. Including zombie deaths.)

Suppose now that each of our heroes could be expected to live 60 more years.

60 years • 365 days = about 22,000 days of life left.

We can calculate how many zombies each hero must kill per day:

230,000,000 zombies ÷ 22,000 days = over 10,000 zombies each day!

Um… we only have 24 hours in a day. That’s 1,440 minutes or 86,400 seconds. So each hero has to kill one zombie every 8 seconds.


Check out Bon’s blog at MathFour.com

For most of us, summer has wound down and school is either in session or just around the corner. The time for preventing summer brain drain is over. But you can continue to reinforce math skills with your kids (and even yourself!) no matter what time of year it is. Here are some really neat games, puzzles and books that help:

Rush Hour

As the video below shows, this game looks like it’s for little kids — but it’s not! I became obsessed with Rush Hour a few years ago, and I periodically bring it out to give myself a challenge. Additional cards can be purchased in expansion packages. Kids (and parents) can play alone or challenge one another to see who can get out of the traffic jam quickest! (Ages 8 years old and up, $19.99, ThinkFun)


If you’ve ever done one of these puzzles, you know that Sudoku doesn’t have much to do with everyday math. But they do reinforce pattern-identification skills, which is critical for basic math skills. These puzzles aren’t limited to numbers, either. For little kids (Kindergarten through first grade), try picture-based Sudoku. Or use a number Sudoku to help your child remember or learn his numbers.

Connect the Dots

For really little kids, this perennial favorite is a great way to reinforce counting numbers. But these puzzles aren’t just for tiny brains. Look for options that count by 2s or 10s or even consecutive prime numbers. Check out Monkeying Around for much more challenging designs.

Set Game

This is an oldie, but a goodie. The idea is to identify a “set” of three cards (from an array of 12 cards), based on four characteristics: color, shape, shading and number. It takes a while to get hang of this, but once players see the similarities and differences in the cards, the game can get really fast. Check out other games made by SET Enterprises. (Ages 8 years old and up, $12.99, SET Enterprises)

Books by Greg Tang  (Bonus suggestion, which wasn’t a bonus until a kind commenter pointed out that I didn’t count accurately. Oy.)

Featuring an intuitive approach to learning and understanding math, Greg Tang‘s books aren’t contrived stories that have a math lesson. Each page is chock full of problem-solving skills that encourage kids to discover new connections in math. New York Times Bestseller, Grapes of Math centers around a series of math riddles that delve deep into kids understandings of grouping and creative addition processes. His website was just amped up with cool online games, too.

Do you have a favorite game or book that sneaks in some math? Share it in the comments section!

I wrote the following post for Simply Budgeted last August. Given our topic this month, I thought I’d share it as a great example of how parents can extend learning outside the classroom. Enjoy!

You probably find it pretty darned easy to encourage literacy.  In fact, there are countless magazine articles and books and workshops out there on this very subject.  And so all good parents read to their kids every night, play word games with them, give them magnetic letters for the fridge.

But what about math?  If you’re like most parents, the idea of working math into the day probably seems down right daunting.  Scary even.

It’s not as hard as you think, especially if you’re willing to give into your children’s demands for a regular allowance.  Money is an instant math lesson—and can motivate even the most reluctant student (adult or child).

Here’s how:

The Even Split: If you want to use allowance to encourage savings and charitable giving, you’re at least half way there.  One way to do this is to require kids to split their allowance into three equal accounts: spending, saving and giving.  If your five year old gets $3 per week, $1 goes in each pot.  But what about the kid who gets $6 a week?  Or worse, $10 a week?  Pose these questions, and let your child figure it out.

The lesson: Factoring and division

Percent, Per Week: For a more complex math problem, consider uneven distributions, say 20% spending, 20% giving and 60% saving.  Or encourage your child to put aside a certain percent of savings for a particular goal, like a new iPod.  Or enforce a different distribution around the holidays, when she buys gifts for her friends.  If she can’t do the math, she doesn’t get paid!

The lesson: Percents

Accounting for Savings: If you have a little investor on your hands—and some of us do—show him how to create a simple register for recording his savings and spending.  He’ll get a first-hand look at how his stash can grow (or shrink).

The lesson: Addition and subtraction

Project Savings: Your child will inevitably want something she can’t afford.  In that situation, help her figure out when she’ll have enough money in savings.  Can she wait that long?  If not, consider giving her a loan, with interest and a regular payment plan.  Show her how the interest is calculated and even help her figure out the total interest on the loan.

The lesson: Using formulas and problem solving

Math may be hard for you, but with a little bit of creativity allowance can help your kids practice their skills—and become a little more savvy with their own money.  Now all you have to do is remember your kids’ payday.

How have you used allowance as an impromptu (or regular) math lesson? Share your stories in the comments section.Save

Until Wednesday, I didn’t know my daughter’s cell phone number. Yes, she’s had this number for a year. Yes, I’m lazy, choosing to depend on my own cell phone directory. And yes, memorization is not my best friend.

But I should know my daughter’s cell phone, right? If I needed to reach her using someone else’s phone, I’d be up a creek.

So I memorized it. And it was easy, and even a little fun. That’s because she and I both noticed a relationship between the last four digits in her cell phone number. Here, see if you notice it, too.


See anything interesting in there? We did. First off, I noticed that 6 + 2 = 8. I crowed about that for a little bit, until my daughter asked how I was going to remember the 1. Suddenly, it hit me like a train. Duh.

16 = 2 • 8

Cool, huh? And you might even notice more interesting connections. (Share them in the comments section if you do.)

My point is this: Simple math can help you remember important details, like your phone number or license plate or even Social Security Number. Whenever you need to memorize a number, look at the math.

Here are a couple of additional examples. Do you notice any patterns?



These connections can also be geometric — for the more visual of us. Consider this house number: 2684. Ring any bells? If not, picture the touch pad of a telephone? Now do you get it? (When you press the numbers in order, you create a diamond.)

Believe it or not, these little tricks are great ways to keep your budding Einstein’s math brain humming over the summer months. You can even play road-trip games just by noticing patterns.

So share your mathematical mnemonic tricks in the comments section. How has simple arithmetic or geometry helped you remember a number? I’ll bet every one of you has a story to tell.

What patterns do you notice in 491-625 and 1587? Share in the comments section.

I joined Pinterest last spring. I knew it was dangerous. The internet is like Alice’s rabbit hole for me — once I go down it, it’s near impossible to get back out. But I’ve found that I love using Pinterest. It inspires me and helps me stay organized. (One little click, and I’ve filed away an idea for later!) And because I’m a very visual thinker, I find that organizing my online life with Pinterest is much easier than using traditional bookmarks.

I’m also a hopeless DIYer (hopeless in that I can’t stop trying these projects!), so my boards are filled with recipes, home projects and sewing ideas. And — you saw this coming — all of these require some math. I noticed that any one of these projects could be useful to a parent trying to stop the summer (math) slide, and I started collecting ideas.

You can view my Stop the Summer (Math) Slide board here. (If you’re not following me on Pinterest, what’s stopping you?) Take my ideas to create a board of your own. Then add to it. I’ve outlined a few of my absolute favorites below. Please share yours in the comments section!

1. Make a circle skirt.

This was actually a Spring Break project that, thanks to MADE, I did with my daughter and some of her friends this spring. I’m particularly tickled with how MADE describes the math behind drawing the circle. (Suggestions: Unless you’re a very experienced sewer, avoid slippery fabrics. And if you have a serger, boy-howdy is that helpful!)

2. Find your fuel economy.

Your child can help you track your car’s miles per gallon. This site shows you how (and includes some other nifty tools). But really all you need to do is divide the number of miles traveled by the number of gallons used. (Remember: per means to divide.)

3. Build a tomato trellis.

I featured this project on my blog in June, but it’s well worth mentioning again. The beauty of this idea is that it brings in some higher-level math, like the Pythagorean Theorem and right angles. (But don’t worry, it’s not hard math.)

4. Paint a room.

Last year, my daughter wanted to repaint her room. I said fine, on two conditions. She had to figure out how much paint was required, and she had to help (a lot). This site shows, step-by-step, how to calculate the paint needed.

5. Use coupons.

In this economy, everyone needs to save some cash. Coupons are a great way to reinforce math skills, like estimation and basic operations.

I’ll continue to add to this board, so check back from time to time and see what’s there. If you create something similar, please share it on the Math for Grownups facebook page or here in the comments section. I’d love to write another post later about what you guys have come up with!

What are your favorite projects to do with kids? How is math involved? Share your ideas in the comments section.

Earlier this week, Andrew Hacker, a political science professor at Queens College, City University of New York, opined in an essay for the New York Times that high schools should stop teaching higher Algebra concepts — because kids don’t get it.

I’m sure Mr. Hacker isn’t alone in his frustration with the failure rates of students in these courses. (Trust me, math teachers are pulling their hair out, too.) Yes, math is hard. And it’s also the underpinning of our physical world. By pretending it doesn’t matter or that our future engineers, teachers, nurses, bakers and car mechanics don’t need it one eensy-teensy bit, we risk the dumbing down of our culture. And our students risk losing out on the highest-paying careers and opportunities.

The problem isn’t the math — as Mr. Hacker eventually mentions, though obliquely. It’s how the math is taught. We need to get a handle on why students feel so lost and confused. And here are just two reasons for this.

1. Kids don’t know what they want to be when they grow up — especially girls who end up in math or science fields.

When I was in seventh grade, I thought I was a horrible math student. I was beaten down and frustrated. I felt stupid and turned around. Unlike my peers, I took pre-algebra in eighth grade, effectively determining the math courses I would take throughout high school. (I wasn’t able to take Calculus before graduating.)

And that was a fine thing for me to do. Turns out I wasn’t stupid or bad at math. I just had a poor understanding of what it meant to be good at math. I had really talented math teachers throughout high school. I was inspired and challenged and encouraged. By the time I was a senior, it was too late to take Calculus, so instead I doubled up with two math courses that year.

After graduation, I enrolled in a terrific state school and became a math major. Four years later, I graduated with a degree in math education and a certification to teach high school. And now, 22 years later, my job revolves around convincing people that math is not the enemy.

What if I had been told that algebra didn’t matter? What if I had been shepherded into a more basic math course or track? Because higher level math courses were expected of me — and because I had excellent math teachers — I found my way to a career that I love. Even better, I feel like I make a difference.

How many other engineers, scientists, teachers, statisticians and more have had similar experiences? How many of us are doing what we thought we wanted to do when we were 12 years old? Why close the door to discovering where our talents are? To me, that’s not what education is all about.

Look, I can’t say this enough: I was an ordinary girl with an ordinary brain. I can do math because I convinced myself that it was important enough to take on the challenge. I was no different than most students out there today. We grownups need to figure out ways to hook our kids into math topics. I’m living proof that this works.

2. Higher algebra concepts describe how our world works.

How does a curveball trick the batter? How much money can you expect to have in your investment account after three years? What is compound interest?

Students need to better understand the math in their own worlds. We do them a grave disservice when we give them problem after problem that merely asks them to practice solving for x. The variable matters when the problem is applied to something important — a mortgage, a grocery bill, the weather, a challenging soccer play.

We can’t pretend that everyone depends on higher-level mathematics in their everyday lives. But neither can we pretend that these concepts are immaterial. Knowing some basics about algebra is critical to being able to manage our money or really get into a sports game.

For example, when the kicker attempts a field goal in an American football game, he is depending on conic sections — specifically parabolas. Does he need to solve an equation that determines the best place for his toes to meet the ball in order to score? Nope. But is it important for him to know that the path of the ball will be a curve, and that the lowest points will be at the points where he makes contact with the ball and where the ball hits the ground.

That’s upper-level algebra at work. If you were to put the path of the football on a graph, making the ground the x-axis, those two points are where the curve crosses or meets that axis.

What’s so hard about that?

Look, we need to adjust the ways we teach math and assess math teachers. I agree that math test scores aren’t the be all, end all. I agree that most high school students won’t be expected to use the quadratic formula outside of their alma mater. (Though algebra sure is useful with spreadsheets!) And I agree that asking teachers to merely teach the concepts — without appealing to students’ understanding of how these concepts apply to their everyday lives — is draining the life out of education.

And really, how much of the rest of our educational system is directly useful? Do I need to spout out the 13 causes of the Civil War or balance a chemical equation or recite MacBeth’s monologue? (“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day…”) I can say with no hesitation: Nope! But learning those facts helped inform my understanding of the world. Algebra is no different.

What do you think about the New York Times piece? Do you agree that we should drop algebra as a required course? In your opinion, what could schools do differently to help students understand or apply algebra better?

I remember the first week of my fifth grade year. I had a math worksheet for homework, and I was completely stumped.

“I don’t remember how to do this stuff, Mom.”

“What do you mean?” she said. “It’s just long division!”

Yep, in three blissful months of summer vacation, I had completely forgotten to long divide. My mother, a teacher herself, was shocked. Brain drain can sneak up on even the pros.

Being ready for school is much more than having a new backpack, plenty of No. 2 pencils and a healthy breakfast. Studies show that during the lazy months of summer, all kids suffer from “brain drain” or the loss of learning. In fact, students lose (on average) 2.6 months of mathematical competency in June, July and August. Wow!

I promise: I will not tell any parents that they should be teaching math over the summer. I’m not big on academically based summer camps (unless kids desperately need remediation or love these kinds of activities). I hate the idea of kids being subjected to flash cards or worksheets when they could be playing at the pool or reading a great book.

But I do believe — whole heartedly — that parents can help slow the loss of mathematic comprehension with some really simple and even fun activities.

And that’s what August is about here at Math for Grownups. We’ll focus on parenting, primarily, but I’m guessing that even non-parents can gain some additional understanding from some of the activities I’ll suggest. (No one should feel left out!) I’ll also hit on a variety of grades and ages — from toddlers to college students. And I hope to bring you some Math at Work Monday interviews that will inspire even the most reluctant math student.

But first, I want to know: What are your questions? What kinds of activities are you looking for? What topics are you having trouble helping your kids with? You ask ’em, and I’ll answer ’em — or at least point you in the right direction (perhaps to my posts at MSN.com’s Mom’s Homeroom).

So let’s start easing back into the school mindset — so September is not a shock to anyone’s system!

I want to hear from you! Ask your questions in the comments section or email me

When I started doing Math at Work Monday interviews, I thought of it as a little experiment. Would people I talk to actually recognize the math they do? Would they feel confident in their math skills? Would the the math they need to succeed in their careers get in the way? I had a theory: Most people don’t realize that they’re doing much of the math they need for an average day.

Now that I’ve got about a year of Math at Work Monday interviews under my belt, it’s a great time to take a closer look. Did my hypothesis stand up? Reading through these interviews again, I’ve noticed five interesting themes.

1. Everyone does math in their jobs. Okay, that’s a duh conclusion, right? But when you consider the number of school kids who ask, “When will I ever use this stuff?” it’s not necessarily a foregone conclusion. In other words, if kids think that by avoiding science, they’ll avoid math in their careers, they should think again.

Kiki Weingarten, a NYC-based executive, corporate and career coach uses math to help her clients understand the financial implications of a career change. Criminal profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole looked for patterns and used statistical analysis to help solve crimes.

2. Many folks don’t know that they’re doing so much math — until someone asks them about it. This has come up over and over again. I’ll ask someone to do a Math at Work Monday interview with me, and they’ll say, “Why would you want to talk to me? I don’t use math in my job.” But once they think about it — even a little — many of them are surprised by the sheer number of numbers in their jobs. From managing their business to practicing their passion, math is everywhere.

Painter Samantha Hand said that she didn’t realize how much math she uses, until we talked about it — then she started making big connections, including using proportions to help paint to scale. When I asked my sister, Melissa Zacharias to participate, she first said that she didn’t really use math. She soon discovered plenty of places that math is useful in her job as a speech therapist who works with adults.

3. Math is particularly prevalent in the visual arts. So much for the myth that people are either artistic or mathematically minded! In fact, math is required in a variety of different aspects of art, from working with materials to managing sales to envisioning the final design. That’s one of the reasons that I devoted an entire month to math in the arts. (And we didn’t even scratch the surface!)

From noted jewelry artist Shana Kroiz to glass artists Ursula Marcum and Beth Perkins, it became clear that the connection between math and art is undeniable. Even museum curator Ann Shafer uses math.

4. Using math tools is fine, but many people depend on their brains. I expected people to tell me that they depended heavily on computers or calculators to do the math they needed. But most folks admitted that they do a heck of a lot of mental math — from basic addition to finding percents.

Kim Hooper uses a calculator to check some figures, but as a copywriter, she also does “margin math,” a grownup version of showing her work. Executive vice president, Gina Foringer uses mental math to quote labor percents for new contracting jobs.

5. People generally like the math they do at work. Of course they don’t always think of the math they do as math (see #2), but the folks I interview feel confident in the skills they need to perform their jobs well. This includes those who say they didn’t do well in school math classes or that they feel like they’ve never really “gotten it.”

Costume designer, Katie Curry says that she doesn’t feel comfortable with math outside of the calculations she needs to draft a creative design (though she can balance her checkbook, of course). When hair stylist Nikki Verdecchia opened her salon a few years ago, she worried that the math would get in her way, but she quickly became comfortable with the calculations she needs to make her business work.

So there you have it — the unscientific results of my unscientific experiment. As I suspected, people don’t mind doing the math in their jobs, and that’s because they don’t even realize that they’re doing math. We’ll see if that trend continues in the upcoming year of Math at Work Monday interviews.

What about you? Do you like the math that you do at work? Are you now realizing that there’s more math than you originally thought? Share your ideas in the comments section.

In redesigning my blog, I’ve read a lot of the posts I’ve written over the last year. In fact, take a look at this math: On average, I’ve written 13 blog posts each month or 164 posts (counting this one) since last May. And so I decided to repost this one, in honor of Math Awareness Month, which addresses the language of math.

When I was in college, majoring in math education, I learned that math is the language of science.  In fact, we called it the Queen of the Sciences.  (You’d better believe that gave me a sense of superiority over the chemistry and physics majors!)  And yeah, I think that the math I was doing then–calculus, differential equations, statistics and even abstract algebra–is mostly useful for describing some kind of science.

In some ways, everyday math is also the language of science.  Home cooks use ratios to ensure that their roux thickens a gumbo just right.  With proportions, gardeners can fertilize their vegetable beds without burning the leaves from their pepper plants.  And a cyclist might employ a bit of math to find her rate or the distance she’s biked.

But I think too often we adults get caught up in the nitty gritty of basic math and lose the big picture.  This is when many of us start to worry about doing things exactly right–and when math feels more like a foreign language, rather than a useful tool.

Earlier this week, I read a blog post from Rick Ackerly, who writes The Genius in Children, a blog about the “delights, mysteries and challenges of educating our children.”  In Why Mathematics is a Foreign Language in America and What to Do about It, he writes:

Why do Americans do so badly in mathematics? Because mathematics is a foreign language in America. The vast majority of children grow up in a number-poor environment. We’ve forgotten that the language of mathematics is founded in curiosity.  We too often think of mathematics as rules rather than as questions.  This is like thinking of stories as grammar.  Being curious together can be a really special part of the relationship in families.

These Stevendotted ladybugs are not wrestling. Photo credit: Andr Karwath

And I couldn’t agree more.  For all of you parents and teachers out there: how many questions do your kids ask in one day?  10? 20? 100? 1,000?  As Ackerly points out, especially younger children are insatiably curious.  They want to know why the sky is blue and what makes our feet stink and how come that ladybug is on top of the other ladybug.

A full 90% of the time, we can’t answer their questions. Or maybe we just don’t want to yet.  (“That ladybug is giving the other one a ride.”)  With Google‘s help, we can find lots of answers.  But how often are we asked a math-related question–by a kid or a grownup–and freeze?

For whatever reason, many people are afraid to be curious about math.  Or they’ve had that curiosity beaten out of them.  I think that’s because don’t want to be wrong.  As fellow writer, Jennifer Lawler said to me the other day:

It’s funny because when I make a mistake in writing—a typo, etc.—I let myself off the hook (“Happens to everyone! Next time I’ll remember to pay more attention.”) But if I misadd a row of numbers I’m all “OMG, I’m such an idiot, and everyone knows I’m such an idiot, I can’t believe they gave me a college degree, and why do I even try without my calculator?”

The same goes for answering our kids’–or our own–calls of curiosity.

So what if we decided not to shut down those questions?  What if it was okay to make some mistakes?  What if we told our kids or ourselves, “I don’t know–let’s find out!”  This could be a really scary prospect for some of us, but I invite you to try.

What’s keeping you from being curious about everyday math? What do you you think you can do to change that?  Or do you think it doesn’t matter one way or the other?  Share your ideas in in a comment.

Our first Math Treasure Hunt winner is Marcia Kempf Slosser! Congratulations Marcia, you’ve won a copy of Math for Grownups (or if you already have a copy, I’ll send you a gift card). Want to enter? All you need to do is find an example of the daily clue, which is announced on the Math for Grownups Facebook page each day. 

elebrate Christmas, you’re heading into the home stretch!  As of this morning, there are nine days until the fat man comes down the chimney.  I hope you’re more ready than I am!  (My careful schedule has gone to pot, in some ways, derailed by a sick kid, aging dog and some unexpected work stuff.  But I’m getting back on track.)

If you’ve hung out with me here at Math for Grownups for a while, you know how much I love Vi Hart.  This chick is something else — a musician and a “recreational mathematician.”  (According to her site, she now calls herself a recreational mathemusician.)

In short, Vi is the daughter of a math professor and a wonderful musician in her own right.  She creates these really, really cool videos that explore the intricacies of mathematical concepts — from number theory to geometry.

Yeah, she’s a huge geek, but she’s one of those geeks who won’t make you feel dumb, and she’s funny.

This week, I came across her video, The Gauss Christmath Spectacular.  (Gauss was a 16th and 17th century mathematician who dabbled in a huge array of topics, from optics to statistics.)  There’s some stuff in here that will probably fly right over your head, but don’t let that discourage you.  Instead, grab a cup of eggnog, plop your favorite high school or college student next to you, and jot down the math that you do recognize.  You’ll probably surprise yourself.

Without further ado, Vi Hart’s take on the 12 Days of Christmas (my absolute favorite Christmas song when I was five years old — much to my parents’ dismay).

What did you recognize?  Show off in the comments section!

I have a love-hate relationship with the winter holidays.  I love the hustle and bustle of shopping for the perfect gift, making cookies and candies, decorating the house and going to special events.

But every single December, I find myself completely overwhelmed with all that I’ve attempted to achieve.  Some years are worse than others.  There was that time that I was frantically trying to finish up a scrapbook for my sister — at 11:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve.  And then there was the year I sobbed because I didn’t have enough time to string cranberries and popcorn for the tree.


Like most 40-something folks who celebrate Christmas, I’ve spent the last few years trying very hard to get and stay organized during December.  I’ve prioritized what’s important to me and my family, and I’ve tried to let go of the things that we just don’t have time for.  (We no longer send Christmas cards.  We wait until February, sending Valentines cards.)

This month, I’ll spend a great deal of time here at Math for Grownups looking at the math that is used during the holidays — from making cookies to planning a holiday buying budget.  You’ll meet a candle maker, a personal shopper and (hopefully) a pastry or candy chef.  I’ll introduce you to some fun activities, as well as show you how math can help make some of these bigger tasks much easier.

(This is a good time for a little disclaimer.  In December, I celebrate Christmas, the Solstice and, if I’m not too worn out, New Years Eve.  But not all of my dear readers do.  During this month, I’ll make all attempts to be inclusive, however, I’ll often refer to my personal preparations, which are not all-inclusive.  I hope everyone will understand.)

But first, organization.

Organizing your tasks for the month may not seem like math.  And in some ways it isn’t.  But it does draw on your problem-solving skills — the very same abilities you put to work when solving a word problem in school.  Do you need to make a table? Draw a picture? Make a list?

For me, holiday planning revolves around the calendar.  Already I have certain deadlines to meet and events that are set in stone.  For example, my family is purchasing gifts for another family who is currently living in a shelter.  Those gifts must be delivered no later than December 9.  That means, I have to shop well before then.  And we travel to my mother’s house on Christmas Day, so all wrapping and making and buying and cooking must be done by then.

What is easiest for me is to create a weekly calendar.  I could dole out tasks for each day, but inevitably I end up with far too many changes in my schedule.  It’s easier to think about things one week at a time.

So here goes:

Week of November 28: Finish shopping for adopted family, string cranberries and popcorn, get Christmas tree, decorate tree and house, make sugar cookies, start shopping for my family, help daughter make her Christmas gifts.

Week of December 5: Ice sugar cookies, make little cakes, make peppermint patties, continue shopping, rehearse singing for Solstice and Christmas services, attend neighborhood party, attend cookie exchange, help daughter make her Christmas gifts.

Week of December 12: TAKE WEEK OFF OF WORK! Make peanut butter balls, rehearse for Solstice and Christmas services, help daughter make her Christmas gifts, continue shopping, send cookies to parents-in-law, finish crocheting scarf.

Week of December 19: Finish shopping, finish daughter’s homemade Christmas gifts, make Kiss cookies, package tins of cookies for friends, make Solstice cookies, wrap gifts, get car ready for the trip to Virginia, pack, make potluck dish for Christmas Eve.

Week of December 26: RELAX!

Now I can look at that list and see if anything is out of order — I’m not wrapping gifts before I buy them.  I’m not attending the cookie exchange before I make the cookies.

I can also ask myself if there is anything missing. Or does any one week look overly burdened?  Ideally, I’d like to get most of my preparations done before December 19, leaving that week to tie up loose ends.

How do you organize your time when you have way too much to do — and too many other things that you want to do?  How do your problem-solving skills help?  Respond in the comments section.

Curtains are the ultimate nesting project.  Not only do they finish off a room, but they keep out drafts and provide privacy.  And lined curtains are even cozier.  Making curtains is not as hard as it may seem.  If I can do it, so can you — I promise.  All it takes is some skill in measuring, a good plan and the ability to sew a straight line.

Most curtain panels are just rectangles.  So you need to know two things:  the width and the height of the panel that you’ll be making.  And that means knowing a little bit about the measurements of your window.

For these kinds of projects, I always count on a trusty diagram.  I don’t pull out the graph paper — any scrap will do.  The key is to measure carefully.

I have three windows that I’ll be covering, but they’re all the same size and shape — so one drawing would do it.  My goal was to determine the height and width of the finished curtains.  Then I could take those dimensions to figure out how much fabric to cut.

(Yes, that’s a giant coffee stain. It was Saturday morning — early. But I didn’t get the coffee on anything else.)

I wanted floor-length curtains, so I measured from the top of the curtain rod (or where that rod would be) to the floor.  Then I needed to take into consideration the curtain rings.  I’m lazy — give me a break, lined curtains are enough work! — so I chose to use clip-on curtain rings.  (In my drawing, those are the little circle things at the top of the window.) That added about 2″ to the hardware at the top of the curtains, but meant I wouldn’t need to sew tab tops or button holes or a pocket for a curtain rod.  (Besides I like the look.)

The measurement from the floor to the top of the rod is 92″, so the finished curtain panel would need to be 90″.  (92″ – 2″ = 90″)

Now for the width.  There is all sorts of advice for this measurement, but most sources say to make a curtain panel like I was planning, each one should at least 1.5 to 2 times as wide as the window itself.

But threw that advice out of the window.  As I described on my guest post for Harmony Art on Wednesday, I felt the design of the fabric was strong enough that I didn’t need more than around 34″ for each panel width.  This had another benefit: because the fabric I was using was 110″ long, I only needed one yard of fabric per panel.

(Did you see what I just did there?  I broke the rules!  Being a grown up is really freeing.)

So, now I had my finished fabric width and length, but that’s not how much fabric I would cut.  Nope, I have to consider the hems, unless I was okay with frayed edges.  (I’m not.)  And that required a second diagram.

Notice that there are two rectangles here: The larger one is for my curtain fabric. The smaller one represents the lining.

Basically, I have two rectangles here. The larger one is my curtain fabric.  The smaller one is my lining.  If you think of this diagram as looking at the back of the curtain, that will make sense.

The ultimate goal was to figure out how much fabric I needed to cut — based on the finished size of the curtain panel.  So what I ended up doing is adding to the finished panel size.  Here’s the basic formula for the length:

top hem + finished panel + bottom hem

For my design, that meant:

5″ + 90″ + 5″ = 100″

(Ignore the 7″ measurements at the bottom of the drawing.  They should have read 5″.)

Same goes for the sides:

left hem + finished panel + right hem

1″ + 34″ + 1″ = 36″

Ta-da!  I now know what size to cut my curtain fabric: 100″ x 36″

The lining is a bit different.  I want the top edge of the lining to line up with the curtain fabric.  This way, the top of the curtain is sturdy enough for the curtain clips.  But the sides should be smaller, to allow for the little “frame” of curtain fabric all the way around.  An added benefit is that I don’t have to hem the lining fabric at all — the rough edges will just tuck inside the curtain fabric hem.

Lining length: 100″ – 2″ = 98″

Lining width: 36″ – 1″ – 1″ = 34″

If I’ve done my math correctly, the only thing left to do is cut, iron and sew!

This is the lining pinned to the curtain fabric. (The top doesn’t match up perfectly because of the selvedge, or manufactured edge, of the curtain fabric.)

Starting the top hem of the curtain (upside-down). First I fold the rough edge over and iron.

… Then I fold over to tuck in the rough edges of the fabric and make the finished hem.

After a few hours of cutting and ironing and ironing and ironing and sewing and ironing, I finally had two finished curtain panels:

So I’m already looking at my mistakes. This weekend I’m going to revisit at that right panel, which seems a bit long. I’ll probably take out the top hem and re-do it.

The diagrams made all the difference in the world with this project.  Without them, I would have had a terrible time visualizing what I needed.  And honestly, that little bit of math was much easier than the sewing (and ironing and ironing and ironing and ironing).

When have you used a diagram to help you solve a problem or complete a project?  Share your experience in the comment section!