Jo Otto has gone from being a primary school teacher to developing a maths app that has had nearly half a million downloads and means she can reach far more children than she did teaching face to face.
Jo was a primary school teacher for over 15 years. Over that time she saw more and more children coming to class without knowing their times tables after they were taken out of the Australian curriculum.
Jo, who lives in Sydney, decided to take action. She devised a way of teaching times tables to music. The kids loved it and eventually she wrote maths lyrics to well-known rock songs. “It was magical,” she says. “It brought those at the top and those with learning difficulties together. Kids who were having difficulties with maths suddenly felt equal to the best students. They started wanting to do times tables instead of sport or art.”
Jo believes it is vital students know the basics of maths so they can learn confidently. “It’s like spelling,” she says. “Once you know the basic skills you can work on harder concepts. It’s like teaching kids to swim. Once they can do that they can learn to surf or whatever without having to think about the swimming. Once you learn your times tables you can do fractions, algebra and trigonometry.”
Jo was having adults who she had taught as kids coming up to her saying singing her songs had got them through high school maths. Her husband said she ought to do something about it so she filmed a pilot video of kids singing and dancing to her songs for ABC tv. “It didn’t get anywhere because I was told I had to get the publishing rights to all the songs, including Abba songs, and it was all too hard,” she said. Then she got pregnant.
New mum, new app
Her son was born in 2009 and Jo took time out of work. A few years later came her daughter. When she was two years old she thought she could go back to work part time or she could do something about her maths idea. “I thought if I don’t do anything I will feel I have missed my calling,” she said. “I was always talking about times tables. I knew in my gut that it would work.”
She realised that she could use an app platform to get her songs out to people and that there was nothing like what she was offering around. She made her first phone call to APRA, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority, in early 2015. They are the governing body for copyright issues relating to songs. Around “10 months of hell” followed with Jo trying to fit get the rights to contemporary songs that would fit the different times tables, finding out who wrote them from APRA and then contacting all of their publishers. She says some had five or so writers and five or so different publishing companies. She then had to get them to agree to let her use her versions of their songs and draw up a contract to that effect. The writers get 20% of every $1.50 download.
At first she was getting quite a few nos. “I got 15 nos for 11 songs and the first couple of times I got a no I cried. But then I started getting tougher and tougher. As Kelly Clarkson said – and I used her song for the three times table – what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” says Jo. “I was quite a soft person and teaching is different from business, but I learned from my husband, who runs his own coding business, to start asking the questions in a different way. I got more and more confident. I started getting more yeses and not taking the nos so easily. When you believe in something so passionately you keep pushing.”
Katy Perry was one of the first to say no. For others, she worked with the publishers to identify the right songs and nearly got a yes, for instance, she did demos using Beyonce’s Single Ladies and then got turned down. But her disappointment was balanced by those who said yes. They included Pharrell, Pink and Lady Gaga.
The Maths Rockx app has had over 480,000 downloads since February. “It’s mind boggling,” says Jo. “I want to change kids’ lives and help parents, especially. The feedback I’ve had from parents has been very humbling.” Some of those mums have come to her in tears because their children have been struggling with maths and have hated it and say how the app has helped them. Jo has also had emails from schools who want to find out how to purchase the app. Jo has developed support material and networks to go with the app, including maths quizzes, and the songs have fun elements such as clapping routines and air guitar moments.
Jo has been able to work on the app from home and around her own kids, aged five and seven, using them as her guinea pigs. The children also sang the songs with her for the songwriters. Her developers are in Brisbane and she speaks to them regularly on the phone and online. After initially working flat out to get the app up and running, Jo now works at full pelt three days a week, getting up at 5.30am to do an hour’s work before the kids get up, but makes sure to have time for her family. “At first I was doing two jobs half as well. I needed to do something as I was facing burnout because I was staying up so late,” she says. “A home business mum cannot do it all.”
Her focus now is on getting the app out to more people around the world. She has recently launched it in the US, but says the US is a hard market to crack. She says the UK could be a good market as she knows children in the UK need help with their times tables. She also wants to develop workshops and tutorials for parents to help them know how to guide their children’s learning. “It’s not just an app to play with. It teaches kids their times tables, but the learning is hidden,” she says. She also had a Facebook page where she interacts with parents and children.
Jo thinks she may eventually develop other maths-related apps and envisages creating certificates and competitions.
The reviews say it all. One parent wrote: “Our little princess was struggling to learn her times tables. Now she has them locked into her memory permanently so much so that whenever the song plays on the radio she doesn’t sing the words she sings her times tables. I have a confident little girl who now loves maths instead of dreading it.