The Development of a Passion

When I was a child of 6 or 7, I had a delightful blue toy balance scale. The scale came with large, individual, plastic pieces in the shape of the numerals from 1 through 9. They must have had weights inside them, for I found if I placed the plastic 7 on one arm of the balance and the plastic 5 and the plastic 2 on the other arm, the scale would balance. I remember trying many combinations on the two sides: a 4 and a 5 on the left would balance a 6 and a 3 on the right side; a 7 and a 3 on the left would balance a 2 and an 8 on the right. If the numbers didn’t match properly, the scale would not balance.

I was fascinated! – wondering, “How does that work?” It was also the dawn of realizing how the symbols for numbers connected with something in the real world.

Math continued to fascinate me as I grew up. My big brother – two years older – was always showing me the math stuff that he was doing in his classes. Math was cool. 

In college, I drifted from pursuing my love of math, developing a deep interest in what made kids really tick – what built them up and what tore them down. I went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Macalester College in Early Childhood Learning. After graduation, I worked as a teacher in Head Start and then as a camp counselor for the YMCA Camp DuNord in northern Minnesota, and in the off-season helping a friend build a log cabin way back in the woods. 

From there I moved into business for several years, working as a restaurant cook and then in sales. But all the while, I never lost interest in my love of teaching and training, or my love of working with kids, or my enjoyment of math.

This is where some great advice from my wife Sarah came in to play. One day she said to me, “Honey, there are two things in this world that make your eyes light up: one is the Bible, the other is math. Figure out a way to make a living doing one of them.” So I decided to pursue my passion for math, kids, and teaching in a way that would impact kids in the way I knew math could – in ways like I had been impacted and inspired. I went back to school at the University of Minnesota to earn my teaching credentials. After two years of coursework, I began teaching secondary math in the St. Paul Public Schools.


The Novice Teacher

So I started my teaching career at the 7th and 8th grade level. There, I found something that shocked me. I was simply blown away by how many kids just coming into 7th grade were already turned off to math.

So I started looking for reasons why so many kids struggled with math – and more importantly, didn’t even like math. I came to realize that part of the problem was that math was too often poorly taught in the years long before 7th and 8th grades.

Math instruction in the elementary years, I realized, tends to be so symbol-focused and so heavily rule-driven. I knew from research that far too many elementary school teachers – by their own admission – didn’t feel confident teaching elementary arithmetic. And far too often as well, elementary math was taught and learned largely as a collection of rules – lots and lots of rules.

The problem with a rule-based approach to math is that the many different rules are usually presented in disconnected isolation from each other. This disconnected isolation of one rule after another – after another – after another – failed to portray math with the intrinsic connectedness I knew it had. Too often, math instruction failed to provide a backbone, a framework, a scaffolding that would show what I always intuitively and experientially knew: that math already is connected and unified.

However, almost no students – and few adults – and hardly an teachers knew how to reveal the connectedness of math. They lacked any framework of unifying dynamics that would remain both true and helpful across grades and across topics – things upon which students could hang, connect, and relate the many and various facts, skills, concepts, and procedures that they learn over years and years of math.


The Novice Teacher Gets Curious

It was at this point in his career that I realized I had a huge curiosity.

The curiosity was related to this idea of a framework for all those math rules and facts and procedures that kids were taught. If math is already unified and connected, what were those connections? How could those connections be shown? What had helped that young me as a kid see the unity between different topics in math – the unity that so many kids and adults didn’t see? What helped me as a fan of mathematics make connections that others didn’t make?

This was my curiosity: what connections? – what ideas? – what … things – helped show how math was already connected and unified? I was looking for more than tricks and tips. I wanted to find “grand ideas” – unifying ideas that showed how math was already connected. 

After thinking this over for a while, my curiosities became an expectant statement: there surely must be things “out there” that would help people understand math better. By “things” I wasn’t thinking of contrived memorization devices – or artificial one-time tricks – or trite advice like “Show kids that math works in the real world.” I was looking for… practical relationships? – big ideas? – useful principles? – sensible insights? – common sense connections? – down-to-earth notions? – perhaps broad truths? – that would reveal the connectedness in math – connections that were already there.


A Turning Point


About that same time, I learned of a workshop whose presenter that claimed that he could teach algebra to kids as young as 5 years of age.  So I signed up for the workshop and took my son Brandon (who was five and half at the time) to a demonstration of this method. Very intentionally, I sat us in the front row of a room of 75 people or so. My hope was that the presenter would see this young kid in the front row and demonstrate how a five-year-old really can do algebra. Well, that’s exactly what happened – and 45 minutes later, my son was doing the algebraic factoring of             x^2 + 5x + 6 = (x + 2)(x + 3). I was impressed.  

That’s when it hit me. Instead of doing 6 years of arithmetic, this demonstration showed that kids could start doing algebra from a very early age. Maybe that approach would help kids see the connectedness of math – and prevent kids from getting turned off to math. 


The “Pieces” Come Together

So I started using this methodology in my 7th and 8th grade classes, and I also worked with some kids in the neighborhood who “wanted more” with math and were willing to do math differently and creatively. 

Then for one academic school year, I was able to use this methodology as a stand-alone math program  in a pilot project for two regular first grade classes in a traditional school setting. These first graders by the end of the year had mastered all the usual first grade arithmetic skills and procedures, plus they had also learned variables, exponents – and algebraic factoring. They had even figured out on their own how to multiply – even though we never specifically taught multiplication. This methodology simply worked – and it was powerful. We were using color, shape, texture, music, hands-on activities, algebra and arithmetic and geometry to get kids turned on to math. 

Unfortunately, funding for this pilot project dried up after that year. But as a result, I decided to approach parents directly with a summer math enrichment program in which I would teach elementary-grade kids some very substantive algebra with this approach – all the while connecting the algebra with the arithmetic the kids already knew. This was SAI: the Summer Algebra Institute for Kids. Since that first summer in 1995, almost 4,000 students in grades 3-7 have attended SAI. The success of these camps and the raving response from both kids and parents pushed us to look outside the bounds of geography by using the internet.

At first, I thought the power of this methodology was found in the math manipulative pieces that we used (the same pieces from the demonstration with my 5 year old son). But over time, I came to realize that, although math manipulatives are very helpful, there was something deeper – something behind the pieces – that was helping young kids get a really solid grip on math – arithmetic and place value and operations and fractions and algebra.

I began to realize that there was something more powerful than the manipulatives. I found that there were some broad and practical ideas – I started calling them principles – that revealed the unity of math. Here’s my definition of a principle: a principle is a broad, practical, flexible, grand idea that unifies a subject of study across topics and across levels. 

A principle in biology is that every living thing is either animal or plant – either in the animal kingdom or the plant kingdom. In commodities trading, a principle is buy low, sell high. In physics, a principle is the idea of force – that force = mass • acceleration. In each of these subjects, the principle is used repeatedly in a wide variety of situations, across topics, and across levels of study.

Over the years, I have identified a half dozen overarching principles in math that make all of arithmetic and math become a fun, rewarding, sense-making learning experience for kids. These principles help to reveal the unity of math in ways that cross grade levels and topics. Kids who learn these principles in early elementary grades know that these principles still work in upper elementary math – and they will also work in pre-algebra, in algebra, in geometry, in trigonometry, in calculus – and even in the sciences as well. 


Online Availability

Bob at camp

Now we offer an online 24/7n program called “Algebra For Breakfast” – the online version of the Summer Algebra Institute.  AFB: Algebra For Breakfast is laid out in such a way as to take the immersion style of learning offered through the summer camps and deliver the content  through the tremendously effective, fun, and convenient incremental learning method, with hands-on activities, music, manipulatives, and games, in which color, shape, size, texture, and movement play helpful roles. 




My Resume


M.Ed. Mathematics Education: University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN.

B.S. cum laude Mathematics Education: University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN. 

B.A. cum laude Early Childhood Learning: Macalester College, St. Paul, MN.



2017: Long-Term Substitute Teacher, Pine Ridge Elementary School; Holland, MI.  

2015 to present: Substitute Teacher: EduStaff; Grand Rapids, MI.  

1999-2015: Mathematics Teacher: Mounds View High School; Arden Hills, MN. 

1988-1999: Mathematics Teacher: St. Paul Public Schools; St. Paul, MN.

1995-2015: Adjunct Faculty:• Anoka-Ramsey Community College; Coon Rapids, MN; 2014-2015.          • Bethel University College of Adult Professional Studies; Arden Hills, MN; 2013. • Augsburg College Education Department (pre-service elementary math methods course); Minneapolis, MN; 1995-2000. 

1995 to present: Founder & Director, SAI: the Summer Algebra Institute: a week-long, half-day enrichment program teaching hands-on substantive algebra to a wide academic range of students in grades 3-6, attended by almost 4,000 students since inception; (

1995-1998: Sylvan Learning Center Instructor (Reading & Mathematics); St. Paul (MN) Public Schools. 

1993-1994: Project Director: the Chelsea Math Initiative (a pilot project using algebra, manipulatives, and music to teach math to regular first grade students in a traditional school setting); St. Paul, MN.

1990-1995: Summer Mathematics Teacher: Science Museum Minnesota; St. Paul, MN. 

1989-1990: Mathematics Instructor: Inroads, Inc. (pre-college mathematics curriculum for high school minority students); St. Paul, MN. 

1989-1993: Mathematics Teacher: Hotline for Homework (extensive tutoring of math students in grades 5-12, by telephone only); St. Paul, MN. 

1988-1989: Mathematics Instructor: Un Primer Paso Summer Institute (Hispanic girls); College of  St. Catherine; St. Paul, MN. 

1988-1995: Mathematics Coach: Cleveland Junior High (1988-91); Saturn School (1991-95); St. Paul, MN. 



2008-2018: Invited Trainer, SORLA (South of the River Learning Academy for teachers); Lakeville, MN.  

2009-2011: Faculty Trainer, Summer Algebra (grades 3-8); Minneapolis Public Schools; Minneapolis, MN. 

2010: Mathematics Trainer for Elementary School Faculty: Stillwater Public Schools; Stillwater, MN. 

1993-1997: Invited Speaker: NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) Conferences:   Durango (CO) Regional; October 1993; Bismarck Regional; March 1994; Omaha Regional; October 1994; Chicago Regional; March 1995; Grand Rapids (MI) Regional; October 1995; Minneapolis National; March 1997. 

1991-1994: Invited Speaker: Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Annual Conferences; Brainerd, MN.

1993-1999: Invited Speaker: MACHE Annual Homeschool Convention; St. Paul, MN & Rochester, MN. 



2010 to present: Founder & Host, Algebra For Breakfast online algebra program. 

1999-2003: Web Forum Host, “Math Experts” forum, Practical Homeschooling website.  

1998: Author (self-published): Keeping Math Connected and Sensible: Practical Principles to Unify Math Across Grades & Topics. Math Games to Supplement Any Mathematics CurriculumI Miss My First Grade Algebra [fiction]. 

1996-1999: Columnist, “Principled Mathematics,” Practical Homeschooling Magazine; Fenton, MO. 

1995-1998: Sylvan Learning Mathematics & Reading Instructor; St. Paul Public Schools; St. Paul, MN. 

1995 to present: Founder and Director: SAI: the Summer Algebra Institute for Kids; St. Paul, MN. 

1995-1997: News feature subject: “Summer + Algebra = Fun,” KARE-11 Television 5pm news article on the Summer Algebra Institute; July 25, 1995; August 7, 1996; June 17, 1997.

1995: Author, “How We Used Algebra, Calculus, Music & Manipulatives to Teach First Grade Math,” Minnesota Mathematics Magazine; premier issue, Winter 1995.

1994: Contributing Consultant: Liafail Multimedia Literacy Solutions; Edina, MN.

1990: Master Trainer: the V.J. Mortensen Math Company; Coeur D’Alene, ID.

1990 to present: Founder and Co-Director of AFK: Algebra For Kids, LLC; St. Paul, MN.

1990: Host Teacher Finalist: Kentucky Educational Television (KET) Adult Education Pre-GED Series; Lexington, KY.