Tiburon couples app helps kids do math even when they cant write

Name: Dawn Denberg
Age: 45
City: Tiburon
Position: ModMath app co-developer and freelance writer


Your son is 13 and has dysgraphia, a condition that often accompanies dyslexia. What is dysgraphia?

Dawn Denberg: It’s a clinical term for really crappy handwriting. When it’s difficult to write legibly, it impairs the ability to put thoughts onto paper. There are so many assistive technologies when it comes to writing, but it can be a real problem with math. If you can’t write a math problem, you can’t solve one.

Henry had no problem understanding math concepts, but to do his assignments, he’d have to write out the problem, and his handwriting was so messy he couldn’t tell whether the number he wrote was a 7 or a 9, and the numbers from the 10s column would migrate into the 100s column. So in doing basic math, he’d come up with the wrong answer. It was not because he didn’t understand the concept, but because he couldn’t read his own writing.

Dawn Denberg

J.: You and your husband came up with an app to help him called ModMath, for kids with dyslexia, dysgraphia and ADHD. What does it do?

DD: ModMath is a free app that turns the iPad into virtual scratch paper. It’s like a piece of graph paper you can make bigger or smaller, and type the numbers into it. Then you can do your math problems and email it to your teacher. It eliminates the need for pencil and paper and is also clearly written.

J.: How did you go about doing this, since you have no tech background yourselves?

DD: Basically, if you’re willing to spend the money, [developers] will make anything, so we forked over personal funds, knowing it would help thousands of kids. We’re looking at it as an investment in something not just for our kid, but as a mitzvah project.

J.: Why did you decide to make it free?

DD: Anyone with a kid with a learning disability knows how challenging it is, and we couldn’t see charging parents for this. We wanted to get it out there, so all of these other kids who are suffering can get help, too. We also figured that by not charging, we would get more media attention and get more kids using it. We had a lot of friends saying, “Anyone can afford a buck for an app, and then you can get your investment back,” but that doesn’t help us publicize it. We were more interested in getting it into the hands of kids who need it, rather than making back the money.

How many people is it helping?

DD: To date, more than 27,000 people have downloaded it [from iTunes or ModMath.com].


You recently got nonprofit status and are in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign to take the app further. What are your plans for it now?

DD: The first thing we’ll do is based on reader feedback; we’ll create a version that supports algebra students, as the first version was for elementary-school kids. We get tons of emails from parents and teachers and occupational therapists, asking us to make an algebra version. We also get emails from people who can’t afford an iPad and want us to make one for Android.

J.: What’s your Jewish background and are you involved in the Jewish community?

DD: We’re members of Rodef Sholom [San Rafael]. My daughter went to Brandeis [Hillel Day School] and is now at the Jewish Community High School [in San Francisco].

J.: Have you found support for your son in the Jewish community, or do you feel it could be better at handling kids with learning disabilities?

DD: It’s a big problem in the Jewish community, which is definitely not reaching out to [the learning disability] community at all, which makes it really difficult for kids like Henry to have a Jewish education and get the support that he needs. We drive my son an hour each way to the Charles Armstrong School in Belmont, so he can reach his full potential.

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Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."