It was 1992 and my partner Dave and I owned a Sylvan Learning Center. We bought it after Dave got weary of running up and down the hang gliding hill holding on to the kite wires to keep his students from crashing. We owned and operated the Wasatch Wings School of Hang Gliding in Draper, Utah. I sewed hang gliding harnesses, he taught lessons, and we sold hang gliders. Dave was a Masters of Hang Gliding champion and an excellent teacher. We had moved from Colorado to Utah to start our hang gliding business because of the perfect soaring conditions. By now, we had two girls who were under five and we lived near the Point of the Mountain in a 14 foot wide trailer. The winter months were brutal because our flight lesson income dried up. The only way we survived during those years was to lay ourselves off and collect unemployment. After fifteen years, we decided to look for a new way to make money. Dave was interested in a Sylvan Learning Center. He saw a translation from Wasatch Wings since it involved teaching.
We bought an existing center in Bountiful Utah. After a few years of our teachers tutoring kids, we realized there was a huge stumbling block to getting some of our kids to advance in math. Without the times tables committed to memory, they couldn’t do much in the way of fractions, ratios, division, or algebra. We knew we had to go back to the basics and figure out a way to teach the times tables. First we tried flash cards and repetition and the kids seemed to do well during the lesson but just when we thought they’d nailed it, they’d come back the next week and we’d have to start at square one. Nothing was retained.
As luck would have it, Dave was riding in the car on the way to Sylvan one day and heard a guy on the radio telling off the wall stories to memorize the Bill of Rights. By the time Dave got to work, he could remember most of the what he’d learned. He said to me, you know we could teach kids times tables like that. Which clicked with me because I had just finished a college degree, and the only way I could memorize some of the biology terms was to come up with a visual picture or story to help me remember. I am a super visual learner. I have to be able to see a word in my mind’s eye to remember how it is spelled. Things kind of sink-in for me when there is a story involved. So I knew this story method was a great idea for learning times tables which really is just a matter of memorization. The trouble with the rote memorization we tried with the flash cards was that there were no external clues to help the facts stick. We decided to give the picture-story method a try on our kids at the center. The first story we invented was for 8×8 who were, obviously, two snowmen.The story told of the two 8-snowmen who got bored standing still in the yard and when no one was looking, decided to go camping. They got to the campsite and wanted to build a fire. That was when they saw the sign that said the sticks are for the fire. “Sticks are for” sounds like 64.
After the first story was created, we tested it. Holy smokes! The next week, they remembered that 8×8 was about snowmen going camping, who wanted to build a fire and then found the sign that said Sticks are for the fire. 64! They shouted the answer. It was super exciting because the kids loved feeling the success of finally being able to remember the dreaded times tables.
Dave and I spent each weekend coming up with a story and a picture for two facts. At the end of 8 weeks we had 15 stories which represented all the 3s, 4s, 6s, 7s, and 8s. We came up with tricks to teach the easy ones. 1s, 2s, 5s, and 9s. Each creative session we stared at the shapes of the numbers and tried to invent characters that looked like the numbers. They would interact to make a story and an answer.
When we had the story, we drew stick figures and gave the rough draft to an artist who drew it out. After the pictures were created, I wrote a 100 word story to go with the event. When I showed it to one of our teachers she said that I should use words that the kids could read and find a list of third grade level words. It killed me to take out some of the great words I had in the stories but I found a way to simplify the text. It was for kids after all. And we wanted them to be able to read it themselves.
When the Times Tables the Fun Way Book was completed, we presented it to the corporate group for the Sylvan Franchise and they were interested in it. We decided to sell our learning center and devote full time to the educational publishing business. Some of the franchises bought the books from us but it wasn’t as large as we had hoped. Dave tried to peddle the book at the local book-stores. He might have sold one or two but most stores said they weren’t set up to buy from just one vendor. They were used to buying books from a distributor who carried many titles. Alrighty then. We were getting an education. But how could we sell these things? We were able to get a few distributors like Baker and Taylor to carry our book but without the stores requesting them, the sales were meager. We were baffled. We knew we had a good product.
So then we decided to put together a flyer for teachers that said, “Finally a fun and effective way to teach Times Tables” which showed the book and some story samples. Our first flyer was mailed to about a thousand teachers. The flyer had an order form and you clipped that out and sent a check. Just when we were thinking we had to go get jobs to supplement our income, we started getting orders. We had found our market. Teachers were looking for a better way to teach times tables. At the peak of our direct mail campaign, we would go to our mailbox and find a three inch stack of envelopes stuffed full of checks and orders. So we were on to something. Soon we were sending flyers to every elementary school in the US and had developed a teacher’s manual, picture flash cards, and student workbooks. I designed the workbook and teacher’s manual while offering workshops to kids using Times Tables the Fun Way. Some classes were through the libraries and others were from ads in the newspaper announcing the workshops. I learned that parents who have kids who struggle in math are willing to try anything they think might work. I had one student who was darling, so earnest, and sincere. She begged her mom to sign her up for the four week class three times in a row. The mom was thrilled her daughter was so eager to learn. We had a lot of fun with the games, like Name that Story, and Don’t Say It where the student had to give clues for the story but keep from using the words listed on the Don’t Say It card. It’s a take-off on the game Tabu. These games are in the current Times Teacher’s Manual. The kids really liked learning times tables in such a fun way.
The direct mail campaigns to teachers were very successful. As soon as the flyers hit the schools the phone would ring off the hook, one order after the other. We were going to make it! Then I developed the Addition the Fun Way program in 1998 which is based on the same principal of teaching addition facts with pictures and stories.
After about fifteen years from its onset, it seemed that the direct mail campaign was losing its oomph. At this point I bought Dave’s share of the business from him so I was the sole owner. When Dave left the company it was difficult to make all the decisions on my own. I missed not having someone to talk things over with yet I enjoyed the creative freedom to come up with new products and figure out how to make City Creek thrive.
The following year, my daughter Tessie and I collaborated on a music CD called Times Songs to Remember. Each song went with one of the stories in the Times Tables the Fun Way Book. The songs were a big hit, super lively, and added another dimension to the varied learning styles of our students. Computer games were becoming a big thing by now, so I thought it would be cool to design a software program using the Times Book and Tessie’s songs. I envisioned each story being animated with the story text scrolling across the page to help kids with reading. Then a music video would follow by a few interactive games to reinforce the story just seen in the movie. I hired a software company and within seven months, Times Alive was born. This was in 2002. Back then, you slid the CD Rom into your computer’s disk drive and it played a flash version of the animated stories and songs with games and progress reports. Once most customers had good internet, we were able to put Times Alive Online. Just last year we converted it so it is non-flash because as you probably know, many browsers no longer support flash.
Our biggest customer is Amazon who sells upwards of five hundred Times Tables the Fun Way Books a month. And then the Times Alive subscriptions continue to grow especially this past year with a lot of kids doing distance learning. Two years ago, we developed the Times Alive App for IOS and android devices. The great thing about the new Online Times Alive is that progress is stored in the cloud so a student can work on the program in school and then pick up where they left off at home. Teachers can log in to the account and see a student’s progress report which shows lessons completed, dates, and scores. We’ve always been focused on making learning fun by using pictures and stories to help kids learn these crucial math facts in a way that is as much fun as a video game. It’s been twenty-four years and City Creek Press has been the gift that keeps on giving. Thank you dear customers for your kind and valued comments: Here are a few: