If necessity is the mother of invention, Dawn and Josh Denberg are the perfect case study.
Their son Henry has dyslexia, dysgraphia and ADHD. Because of his issues, his handwriting is often illegible. And he has trouble stringing thoughts together as he’s writing.
When it comes to math, Henry is quick to pick up on concepts. But his trouble with writing has caused a big challenge there, too.
In fifth grade, he started working on long division and multiplication. But he couldn’t line up his numbers neatly enough to successfully complete his math problems. And if he wrote a 4 in a multi-step problem and came back to it later, he’d often be confused about whether it was a 4 or a 9.
“It was beyond frustrating for him,” says Dawn. “He understood the math concepts completely, but he couldn’t get the writing down.”
The Denbergs tried physical tools like pencil grips and raised paper for Henry. They also had him work with an occupational therapist. But Henry still wasn’t able to write well enough to do his math homework.
Coming Up With the Idea for a Math App—and Making It Happen
They started asking around about assistive technology. Many kids, including Henry, use speech-to-text technology to help them write. It lets them say sentences aloud and have those words appear on a screen.
But speech-to-text isn’t much use when it comes to writing out math problems. In fact, the Denbergs couldn’t find any technology tool that really fit Henry’s needs in math.
One evening, after a difficult homework session, Dawn felt totally overwhelmed and frustrated. She told Josh how upset she felt that she couldn’t help her son.
That’s when Josh suggested something different: “If there isn’t an app or technology to help Henry, let’s create one.”
Neither Dawn or Josh are programmers. But through his work in the advertising industry, Josh had helped clients create apps. He knew several developers.
The Denbergs took a deep breath, and they decided to give it a shot. Dipping into their savings, they spent several thousand dollars to hire a developer. They talked to math teachers and writing experts. And they asked their son what would help him.
The result is the app ModMath. (The name was Henry’s idea.)
ModMath is a kind of virtual graph paper. It allows kids to do math problems without pencil or paper. When they click on a square on the paper, kids can type in numbers, math operations and equations. Everything is automatically aligned to be clear and legible. The problems can be saved, emailed and printed.
Making ModMath Available for All Kids Who Struggle With Writing
As the Denbergs worked on the app, they decided to offer it to any child who was struggling with writing. From the beginning, Dawn insisted that it be free.
“People couldn’t believe that we were spending our own money and giving the app away for free,” she says. “But we felt like we wanted to get it into the hands of as many kids as possible.”
She soon realized, however, that creating an app was only the first step. Marketing it was another hurdle. Dawn, a writer, spent countless hours writing press releases and visiting trade shows to spread the word.
She also shared ModMath with parents at EdRev, a big gathering near their home in San Francisco for parents of kids with learning and thinking differences. (EdRev is run by the Parents Education Network, a founding partner of Understood.)
The hard work paid off. ModMath has been downloaded by tens of thousands of users. To support the free app, the Denbergs created a nonprofit organization and raised over $20,000 in donations online. They also received a $10,000 grant from Christopher’s Way, a dysgraphia foundation.
With this money, they updated ModMath this year so that it can work with more complex math, like algebra. The app’s virtual graph paper can shrink and grow to handle math concepts like exponents and fractions. Right now the app is only available for iOS. However, the Denbergs are hoping to create a future Android version.
They feel humbled that ModMath has helped so many kids with writing issues.
“Every day we get emails saying—thank you, this is what we’ve been looking for,” says Josh. “It’s amazing how many families face the same challenges.”
The Denbergs also hope their work inspires other parents to take action to help kids.
“We all have great ideas, but someone’s got to do them. Why not me?” says Dawn. “Why not you?”
As of October 2018, ModMath is only available for iPad.
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