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Education | 25 Minutes

Steve Demme: Author of Math-U-See

Marlin Detweiler Written by Marlin Detweiler
Steve Demme: Author of Math-U-See

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Get to know, Steve Demme, the founder of Math-U-See! Hear how his passion for teaching math developed into a robust curriculum that ensured students master the foundational principles that set them up for success.

In the second half of the podcast, you’ll be encouraged by his latest endeavors of helping families deal with and avoid generational sins. How do math and generational sin connect? Listen to the podcast to find out!

Episode Transcription

Note: This transcription may vary from the words used in the original episode.



Marlin Detweiler:

Hello, I'm Marlin Detweiler, and welcome to Veritas Vox, the voice of classical Christian education. Today we have with us a dear friend, Steve Demme, the founder of Demme Learning, which includes Math-U-See, a curriculum that we'll be talking about a good bit and many of you may be familiar with. What's really fun about this is Steve and I are neighbors, not literally next door. We live about five or six miles apart and we've got some stories to tell about that would only be true of that proximity. Steve, welcome!

Steve Demme:

Thank you. It's nice to be here, Marlin.

Marlin Detweiler:

Glad to have you here. So tell us a little bit about yourself. I know a couple of things. I know that you went to Grove City. I think you're older than me, so it'd be really a really long time ago. I know you played basketball there. I also know that you thought you were still young and hurt yourself pretty bad playing basketball not too long ago. But tell us about your background.

Steve Demme:

Well, when I was at Grove City College, I was kind of off and on in my faith walk until my junior year. I was offered a job in the summer working with juvenile delinquents. I mean, these were kids are going to come to a camp up in the Pocono Mountains with their probation officers. And I read a book called The Cross and the Switchblade in preparation, which many of you probably know and I put down the book and I said, okay, God, here we go.

And that was when I began to, in my mind, seek first the kingdom. So I went back to my senior year and I had a double major going business and math, and I dropped the math, took religion classes and went to Gordon Conwell Seminary. I graduated from seminary on a Saturday, married Sandy Beth on Sunday, and a few months later we moved to Georgia, where I was working as an assistant to the pastor of the church and it was a small church.

And so I also became a public school math teacher. So I picked up some more classes at Georgia State to fulfill the requirements of the state. And I began teaching as well as preaching. And we at that point had two boys and we went to our first homeschool conference in 1984. We think it was one of the first in the country.

And my wife and I sat there with a four-year-old and a two-year-old and we said, you know what, this is what we're going to do. So we've been committed to home education for almost well, we can do the math real fast, but that's 40 years. So that's a long time.

And it's been a great journey. Our lives significantly changed when our fourth son Johnny was born with Down Syndrome, and I was unprepared for that on many levels. But the first year he spent a lot of time in the hospital with open heart surgery, and intestinal surgery and almost died of a virus. And so we burned out. I don't know how else to put it.

We had different symptoms, but I kept resigning from all my responsibilities. Eventually, we moved back to Massachusetts, where I'd gone to seminary and tried to build our family back up again. And it turned out that I needed to make a living now because I had left the ministry and I started tutoring kids and I didn't really like much of the stuff that was out there.

Steve Demme:

So I started writing my own materials for the kids that I was tutoring, which now, you know, the rest of the story grew into Math-U-See.

Marlin Detweiler:

What year would that have been that you started writing materials that became the Math-U-See curriculum?

Steve Demme:

Well, I was tutoring from ‘89 through ‘91, but in 1990 there was one group of homeschoolers that said, “We don't want you just to come to our co-op and help us with our math. We want you to be the whole program.” And I said, okay. So I wrote a hundred worksheets for those kids over 25 weeks. I taught them with manipulatives on Monday, hoping the light bulb would go on.

And then I left four worksheets for them to practice what I taught them the rest of the week, and at the end of 25 weeks, we covered two and a half years of math. The kids were thriving, parents were happy, and then home schoolers started hearing about my worksheets. But then I had to make videos, I had to make teacher's manuals, the whole thing. So 1990 was the first year. Yeah, first book.

Marlin Detweiler:

So in 1990 you're still in Boston and you're just starting writing. Take us from there. How did you get to Lancaster and when did Math-U-See become something available to the public?

Steve Demme:

Well, 1991, I felt like an Israelite who had just seen the cloud appear over the tabernacle. My wife and I just both sensed that our time in Massachusetts was coming to an end. And my brother called from Lancaster County, and he said there's a house for sale. It's been a church project. The whole church had kind of worked to build this house for a family, but they needed to move, and they needed to sell it. It was unfinished, and it was within our price range. So my dad financed it, and we moved down here right after Labor Day, 1991. That's what brought us to Lancaster.

Marlin Detweiler:

Okay!

Steve Demme:

I'm a Pennsylvania guy from scratch.

Marlin Detweiler:

Yeah. So now you're in Lancaster. What's the status of Math-U-See? Because that's not too far ahead of when we first talked about Math-U-See to see it as a reality.

Steve Demme:

Well, by 1991, we moved down here. I couldn't make a living on what I was doing with the math because I was still doing a ton of tutoring up in New England, and I painted houses for an Amish contractor. I was a house painter, which I had done all through college and seminary in the summers. This is my first year to do it full-time, and between the painting and doing seminars, and writing material, I was already working on my second book.

By ‘92, I said, “Sandy, I think we can make a go of this.” And so we started in the fall of ‘92 doing math full time, but it was a combination. I mean, I was doing Christian school workshops in the fall, in the winter, at ACSI conferences. I was doing public school training of teachers, in-service training. I was writing material, I was speaking - this is before I'd made videos. So I was the only one that could train people. Okay. And so it was ‘94 that somebody said, “Steve, your program is not the blocks in your books. It's you. You need to videotape yourself.” And I thought, that's kind of wooden, would that really work? But it turned out it did. And so in ‘94 then we were able to start hiring reps to sell this program all over the country. And that's when we really began to be on the national scene.

Marlin Detweiler:

Yeah, I was. I was a bit mistaken. I was thinking it was ‘92 when we first met, but it was actually ‘96. Yeah. And so there would have been several years of development in that process, and that makes a lot more sense to me. I remember one comment you made when I asked you about math and math curriculum, and you said something that I think is worth unpacking a bit here, and that is that you're primarily about making better math teachers. Tell me how that plays out today in the curriculum.

Steve Demme:

Well, I remember when you told me that, and it was an astute comment. You're a smart guy. But what happened was, when I first made these videos, the videos were for the parents. And I filmed them in front of an audience of parents and kids, though. So there were both. But I thought, you know, parents know their kids better than anybody. And parent educators are really tutors. So I felt like my job was to give the tutor the information and the skills and the model, and then they could then adapt it to their children because nobody knows a child better than a parent. So that was the whole vision. And then we found out, though, after a couple of years, parents would come sheepishly to the conferences and say, “I know you said this is just for me, but my children really enjoy watching you!”

And so fast forward a little bit, I kept improving the program, making new videos and things. So at that point, I said, okay, let your kids watch them. But I still want you to watch them with your child so that you can learn together. And some of the interesting dynamics that are that came out of that is parents can maintain their relationship with their child by saying instead of like a conflict between parent and kid, they can just say, “Well, that's what Mr. Steve said.”

And so, and I really believe, and when I say this, “really believe,” I know sometimes in Christian circles we talk about, you know, “that's a gift, And this this, this and everything's God's.” But God has given me a gift to be able to communicate with children, especially if I understand something I can usually communicate to kids. And that's a significant piece in our journey because, as you know, I have nothing to do with Math-U-See right now, my children are running the business, and it was really difficult for me to let go. But God showed me, “Steve, I have given you a gift, and you've done your part. Now let your kids manage it because they're better at that than you are.” And I said, “All right!” And that's what helped me to walk away from it.

Marlin Detweiler:

Yeah. Are you do you still have some things to create, some things that you're working on from a standpoint of the curriculum itself and the copyrights?

Steve Demme:

Nothing for ten years. This is my 10th year anniversary.

Marlin Detweiler:

Okay. I was thinking that you if you had a second edition or something like that, that you would be involved in updating and that sort of thing. That's not necessary at this point.

Steve Demme:

I have no idea what they're doing.

Marlin Detweiler:

Ha! Well, changing subjects for just a moment when Veritas Press was starting, this would have been in the late ‘96, maybe ‘97 timeframe. I came to you, as somebody has recommended, who had just gone through the process of starting a business that addressed the Christian school and homeschool community. Relate to me what you remember of that interaction, this may be funnier to you and me and all the audience, but it’s worth telling!

Steve Demme:

In 1996 I had probably 30 to 40 reps all over the country. I'm not a good delegator. And so I was working hard to keep this business afloat. At that point, it wasn't to keep it afloat, but just to stay ahead of it. And I was writing a book almost every year because I started off with elementary, and now I was working up into the Algebras.

And so, between writing, running a business, and homeschooling our own children, I was very involved in our church. I didn't have much time. And as you remember, I lived in the southern end of the county. I was almost in Maryland.

Marlin Detweiler:

Down there where they hardly have even any roads.

Steve Demme:

It's remote! And so you called me, you were very gracious, and you said, “I've been told that you're the man I need to talk to because you understand homeschool community, blah, blah, blah. And how about if we get together for dinner? I'd like to pick your brain”, but when I heard “get together for dinner”, it's a half an hour drive from me to the city. It's an hour and a half dinner, another hour and a half that I thought I'm going to lose 3 hours of work. And I said, “Well, no thanks”.

But being who Marlin is, that wasn’t just, “No”. So he just called back about two weeks later and said, “I really would like to talk. How about if we play golf?” And you mentioned a really nice golf course in Lancaster, and I thought, “Now we're talking.”

Marlin Detweiler:

So you didn’t have 3 hours even though you're going to eat, but you could take 4 hours plus the drive time for golf. Okay!

Steve Demme:

Well, this particular course, I knew I wasn't going to get a chance to play unless I jumped at this opportunity. So I said, “sure!” And so we played nine holes. We met your wife and one of your kids for lunch, and we picked each other's brains and talked. And then we went back and finished the next nine holes, and we began a relationship.

And I don't know if you remember, but I sort of pop into your house all the time. When some of my kids were taking high school classes up in the city through co-ops, I would drop them off at the class and come over and get beaten in ping-pong by you.

Marlin Detweiler:

I do remember you showing up one day with a really cool car that I thought was a lot of fun, and there were all kinds of interactions that we had since then, and it really turned into a wonderful friendship that continues.

Steve Demme:

So it worked out fine!

Marlin Detweiler:

Well I'm glad that I had the carrot to dangle that caused no to be yes. So you come from a background of an education in math, teaching math, and a real idea for how to connect to kids. And all of those things kind of came together in what has been a very successful program called Math-U-See.

Can you kind of tell us what sets it apart from other math curricula? What is your “secret sauce” as people are prone to say, or what makes it distinctive?

Steve Demme:

So as I understand education, especially in America, when we do math education, we try to do 100 things not very well. We're like a mile wide and a half inch deep. That's the way that the world describes American math education. And when I was a high school teacher, what I discovered was it wasn't that it wasn’t geometry and algebra that was difficult for the kids as they came in with a very poor foundation.

They didn't understand fractions, they didn't understand multiplication. And those are the two key concepts that you have to have really down cold to do well in algebra, geometry, and upper-level math. And this is what wears out teachers because they want to teach the kids where they are, but they're being told by the superintendent where they should be teaching.

So the first thing is, is that math is a sequential subject, and you need to build upon previously learned stuff. If you don't understand additional subtraction, there's no sense going into multiplication and division, number one. So there's a sequence in math.

Number two, the reason that you learn math is to do word problems, not to do well on tests. It's to be used in real-life situations. And again, from teaching in the classroom, I had kids that could pass tests all day if you're just teaching the basic operations or formulas, but to do a word problem, they were just stumped. And I realized you have to understand math, not just know how to do it. You have to know why you do what you do.

But for me, and I'm just going to leave it in my court for right now, for me, when I see math, and this is what's really hard on a podcast, but when I saw somebody use manipulative blocks to teach algebra, to teach fractions, to explain place value when I saw it in my eyes, I saw it in my head.

Hence the name Math-U-See, because when you see it with your eyes, it helps you to understand the concepts. And so I like to teach children with something hands-on, visual, concrete, actually plastic. But then I want to teach them until that little light bulb goes on. And only a tutor can do that. Only a tutor. Which is why I like homeschooling so much. But only a tutor has the flexibility to move with the child's pace. So I'm going to teach my child until I see that light on. Once the light goes on, then we're going to move to the textbook for review and practice and application and word problems. But here's the thing everybody moves at their own pace, and so I like to think, number one, that what sets Math-U-See apart is we don't supplement our books with blocks. We supplement our blocks with books. That's a paradigm shift.

Marlin Detweiler:

You referred to a meeting that we had with my wife and one of our children. It was our youngest son. There was more than 25 years ago that we met in a restaurant. This was not related to the golf we just talked about, and you happened to bring blocks and showed him, I believe at the time, a three-year-old, how to grasp division and fractions.

And it was amazing to me to see that light go on in such a young child. He is gifted mathematically. I think he is my kid. You know, everybody thinks your kids are gifted. But yeah, he has proven to be mathematically astute. But as a three-year-old, you got him to see things and caused that light to go on in ways that I had not seen before in him. And it was remarkable.

Steve Demme:

Yeah. And that, to me, that's the joy of teaching is watching a light bulb go on, watch kids connect the dots, understand concepts, and that helps them to be successful and the like. It and I have to tell you that attitude is a huge part of aptitude in a sense. I mean if you really like a subject, then you understand it and you're good at it, you're going to do better at it.

Marlin Detweiler:

So that's very good. Let me throw you a little bit of a curveball here. I'm sure you've thought about this before, but it's something that people will think about what makes math Christian?

Steve Demme:

When I was taking classes at Georgia State, I noticed that a lot of my professors were Christians, at secular universities, but they were believers, which I found interesting. I found that a lot. In fact, I went back to Grove City, started talking to alumni, Christians, you know, these professors I had, I think there's the absolute nature of it. There's something nice and, you know, one is one, one plus one is two.

Marlin Detweiler:

And immutability.

Steve Demme:

Yeah, unchangeable. And there's rules, and there's formulas, and they apply. And once you understand formulas at one level, you can apply them at different levels there. Yeah. So I think that's probably the big one. I've been to seminars where people talk about worldviews, and I generally fall asleep. I've tried to read some of those books, and I don't understand what they're talking about.

But you know, I think two of the biggest concepts in math are zero and one. And I've talked to kids, I said, you know, how many sins do you have after Jesus forgives you? And they said, “None.” I said, “Absolutely.” “How much condemnation is there in Christ Jesus? Romans 8:1. None.” And we talk about the concept of zero. But zero, when mathematicians understood zero, the whole math landscape changed. Because, you know, Roman numerals, they don't have a zero, things like that.

Marlin Detweiler:

I never thought about that, how interesting.

Steve Demme:

Yeah, but 1x1x1 = Trinity. One flesh. So there's some applications, but I think a lot of it is just the unchangeableness.

Marlin Detweiler:

Yeah. Let's change topics a little bit. You said that your involvements in Math-U-See, or lack of involvement as has been ten years now since it's been turned over to the kids. Interestingly, I enjoy working and interacting with Ethan, the son of yours that runs the business, but you have gone on to start something else. You call it Building Faith Families. Tell me about it.

Steve Demme:

Well, way back in the nineties, I began speaking at homeschool conferences and Christian school conferences. And I used to when I first started, I used to just speak on math topics. And I remember going to one of the convention coordinators once I said, “You know, I've got more stuff in my bag if you're interested.” And he said, “What?”

And I said, “Well, I'd like to do a talk on how to have family devotions.” And another talk that I've given in the past is the family that prays together, stays together. Just the vision for the Christian home. And so, probably now mid-nineties, I was speaking on both topics at homeschool conferences, and to this day, I still do.

I'm still the face of Math-U-See. I mean, I'm the guy in the videos. So when I go to a homeschool conference, I sometimes will do four family talks and then two math talks. So my hand is still in on that level. Yeah, but my passion, if you want to put it that way, an overused word. But the thing that makes me tick is families.

You know, God created the family. He created the world in six days he rested, and then he created the family. It's his first divine act after creation. And the family is before Israel before Moses, is before Abraham, is before the church. It's the foundation of everything that we do today. One man, one woman. Do you realize how radical that statement is?

That one flesh might be the greatest miracle in the Bible. Two people from different planets, the world tells us, and it makes them one flesh. So family. And then he told them to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth - have kids. And so this is what I lie in bed at night. Thinking about, is how can I encourage moms and dads, especially dads, because dads are just under attack. They just are at every level. They're trying to be emasculated, trying to make them feminized. And they're just cutting up their legs right from under them. But at the same time, I believe God is restoring families, and I believe he's turning the hearts of fathers back to their kids and kids back to their dads. And then, in the big picture, I think home education is more about restoring families than creating smart kids.

Smart kids to me, is a fruit. It's an afterthought. But having kids that still honor their mom and their dad but still know how to get along with their siblings that love each other and learn how to communicate with each other. When you live together 24/7 in a homeschool setting, you got to figure out how to get along with them.

Marlin Detweiler:

Yes, you do.

Steve Demme:

But you also have opportunities to teach your kids God's word. Yeah. And when we first started, I said, you know, we could put our kids in the public school, but I don't have the energy to re-teach you when you get home that everything you learned was wrong. Let's just do it right the first time. So Building Faith Families is just what I've always been wanting to do. But I can do it full-time now.

Marlin Detweiler:

Here's a statement from your Build Faith Families website I'd like you to unpack for a minute, “I'm absolutely convinced that the single most significant influence in a child's life is that of his parents.”

Steve Demme:

Yep. I didn't know how deep you want to go here, but I'll just see if I can do it quickly. That business transition in 2012 was the hardest thing I ever had to do. I had no idea. I thought it would be a piece of cake because we'd homeschool our kids. I loved them. I thought, “Wow, we can work together. This would be great.” And what it did was though, with the help of a consultant, it provided a safe place that my sons and my wife could begin talking through what it was like working with Steve, but it was really bigger than business. What it was really dealing with was my own stuff, my baggage, and it was hard to hear.

My dear wife got her courage up, sat down with me, and she said, “Steve, you're wonderful at so many levels, but you have this root thing. And here's the way she said it, ‘You can't do enough to please God and you're hurting our family,’” because she was watching. She was Mama Bear. She was watching her cubs get hurt and wounded by my wounds. And I had no idea what to do with that statement. All I knew was she was absolutely right. I knew she loved me. I knew she knew me better than any other human. And she saw that I had a root issue. And that's what made it the hardest year of my life. But it was also the best year of my life because I had to go to God in a whole new way.

I had been to therapy. I checked myself into a relationship place for five days. I read books. I sought the help of people, and I worked through my baggage. And what I discovered is a lot of my issues had to do with the way I was parented. I really viewed God through the eyes of my mom and dad.

And that's it in a nutshell. And I realized that I didn't really understand God's nature. I saw him through my earthly dad. I didn't really understand God's grace. I didn't understand His covenantal love. I didn't understand those things. I thought I had to earn it. I was like a poor Galatian who had begun by faith and had moved into works. That somehow God loved me more if I did more stuff, and I knew in my head that was faulty, but I was still living that way.

Marlin Detweiler:

It's hard not to operate that way. Yeah. I had one of my children one time said to me how important it was, and he meant it very graciously, and he said it very graciously as well, how important it was for him to stop what he observed as multi-generational problems, things that I had as problems he didn't want to have as problems.

And in some instances, it was limited visibility, especially with my parents, because my father passed away just a few months before he was born, and he knew my mother, but as an elderly grandma type. But he was able to observe some things. He said he just wants to do everything he can to stop multi-generational problems. And I think there's a lot of wisdom in that.

And if we can recognize the problems that we have, and I think that some people would say to me, I've done some identifying my problems, and there are some that I'm not willing to admit to yet. But the point is to be a very open parent helping children know and avoid passing down problems that we may have infused in them.

Steve Demme:

Very, very well said. Yeah, but it's just hard. I wouldn't have gone there. I wouldn't have done the work that I've done if I hadn't had that crisis. And the thing is, is that that business was just a small piece of it because what happened is I began realizing that I wasn't receiving criticism well about the way I ran the business.

And I began to realize that I was defining myself as a Christian businessman, as a church member, as a speaker, or, you know, as a godly husband trying to be a Christian dad. But if you criticized any of those things, you criticized my person. And now, if you ask me who I am, I am not the math guy. I'm not even the family guy. I'm not a speaker. I'm starting to cry telling this. I'm an adopted child of my dad, and he thinks I'm the best thing since sliced manna.

And I really believe that now I get it, that God loves me. And the verse that helped me was John 15:9, where Jesus says to his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.” And when I read that verse one day I went, “Are you kidding? You mean God loves me as much as He loves his kid? And I have no question how much the father and the son love each other. Yeah, and we're included in that because of what Jesus has done for us. And I got it. And I still work at it, though, because I still have this old stuff that I got to work through once in a while and say, “Oh, we're not going back to that work stuff. We're not going back to that unhealthy stuff. We're going to walk in grace and walk in the spirit and walk in the truth.”

Marlin Detweiler:

What a great place to stop. That is, a wonderful lesson for us all to really contemplate and let that sink in. The idea of God in Christ loving us as much as He loves his own son– a remarkable thing to contemplate. And it does make a difference when we understand there's nothing we can do to earn God's approval that was done by Christ for us, and I'm probably going to write on this at some point in the near future.

But we really fail to recognize the nature of God's holiness when an entire collection of billions and billions of people was condemned for the simple act of what Adam and Eve did, we failed to recognize how holy our God is. And then what He did to satisfy that holiness for our sake is just as remarkable.

Thanks so much for your friendship, and for joining me here. Do you want to say one more thing?

Steve Demme:

I got a stick in a little plug. So you said you want to write about this. I have written about it. So if anybody wants to go to building faith families, I've written several books. One of them is Knowing God's Love, Love to Love, and How to Have Family Devotions, even a hymn book. But those are all not only available as books, they're free as PDFs on my website.

Marlin Detweiler:

Oh, wonderful!

Steve Demme:

Want to read them? Check it out. www.buildingfaithfamilies.org.

Marlin Detweiler:

Very good. Thank you, Steve. And how many times do you typically speak at homeschool conferences these days each year?

Steve Demme:

I'm trying to maintain pretty much the same schedule that I always have. And I counted them up one time. I did like 98 talks two years ago, and so I'm already signed up for 2023 for about six or seven conferences.

Marlin Detweiler:

Wonderful.

Steve Demme:

But I also speak at men's conferences, and Iron Sharpens Iron events and homeschool. I'm leaving tomorrow for a Jonnie and Friends family camp up in Minnesota.

Marlin Detweiler:

Very good. Thank you so much for joining us. Thank you so much for what you're doing. This is Veritas Vox, the voice of classical Christian education. Thanks for joining us today.