Saturday, October 27, 2012


            “I’m really worried about Ramon’s math grade.  He has a C-.”

            I was one of 16 teachers sitting at 16 tables in the cafeteria at 8 p.m. There were 24 additional teachers at 24 tables in the gym.  I had been at school since 7 a.m.  Welcome to Fall Parent Teacher Conferences.
            “There’s only two grades in the book for the second quarter,” I said.  “You should wait until there’s at least five grades before you get excited.”  I smiled.  But no one smiled back.

            “I don’t want him to have any bad grades.”

            OK.  The humor didn’t work.

            “Well let’s see where the C- came from.”

            I flipped open my laptop and opened up the grading program.  All of Ramon’s classes came up, and I quickly scanned the list.  There it was – Math, 70%, C-.  I clicked on the grade and the teacher’s complete grade book opened up.

            “OK.  Ramon got three out of five on his last warm-up and four out of five on his group activity.  That’s only a total of ten points so far for this quarter.  He got a B+ for the first quarter in math, so I really don’t think you should be worrying at this point.”

            Why do teachers put stinky grades in just before parent teacher conferences?

            I knew the real purpose of the fall conference was to discuss the first quarter grades, but the second quarter had started, so most teachers did have a few grades entered.  Ramon was doing a great job in his classes, and I wasn’t worried at all about his grades.

            “It bothers me to see Ramon dropping the ball on any assignments.  He has to stay on top of things,” Ramon’s mother explained. “He forgets things, and I have to help him keep up with all his grades.”

            Ramon is the oldest of three children.  Tonight was the first middle school conference his mother had ever attended.  I knew she was rattled not having specific appointment times, and having to track down eight different teachers.  Her daily emails at the beginning of the year had dwindled down to one email per week.  I thought things had calmed down, but tonight’s conferences had stirred things up again.

            I wished I could tell her that three-fourths of the students had a C or lower in math this quarter.  It was by design.  It was the math teacher’s philosophy to start the second quarter grading really tough, so the kids would put in a good effort before the holiday crash began.

            I wished I could tell her that Ramon is just eleven years old and he’s allowed a bad grade every so often.  The world wouldn’t end if he got three out of five every now and then.

            I wished I could convince her that the 25 year old young man Ramon would grow into would bear no resemblance whatsoever to the forgetful little eleven year old she was fretting over.

            But instead I said, “I’ll stay close during warm-ups next week to make sure he’s more careful while he’s doing them.”

            “Thank you Mrs. Jones.  I just worry so much about him.”

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Dividing Fractions - Part Two

            “Dun da-da DAH!”

            I looked up towards the sound.  Landon stood in the doorway with a big grin on his face holding his test out with a stiff right arm.

            He goose stepped towards me singing.  “It’s Friday, Friday, got to get home on Friday . . .”  His head bobbed back and forth keeping time.

            As he came closer, I could see the happy lime green Sharpie markings.

            “You got a 54%?”

            The smile dropped off his face.  “Is that bad?”


            Landon put his tongue between his lips and made a fart sound.

            “Sit down.  Let’s do your corrections.”

            Bad news does not weigh Landon down very long.  He pulled out a chair and resumed singing.  “It’s Friday, Friday, I’m going home on Friday. . .”

            “OK Landon.  Look over at the board.  What are the things you need to remember?  And you need to stop singing, please.”

            Landon turned around and stared at the reminders still posted on the white board.

Change everything to a fraction
Keep, Change, Flip

Word Problems:  What are you dividing?
Put it first

 His singing had stopped, but his head continued bouncing back in forth.  The song played on, but it was beyond my reach.

            “Here’s the first problem you missed.  Copy it on to this separate sheet.”  I slid a clean piece of notebook paper in front of him and watched Landon copy 1-1/2 divided by 2-1/4.  “What do you do first?”

            Landon tapped “1-1/2” with his pencil.  His pencil taps softly kept time to, “Friday, Friday . . .”

            “OK.  Change it to a fraction.”

            Landon’s head bobbed back and forth, keeping time to his inner music as he softly said, “Two times one is two, plus one is three.”

            I watched as he wrote down 2/3.

            Now I tapped with my pencil.  “How does 1-1/2 become 2/3?”

            Landon turned and looked at me like I had lost my mind.  “You flip it!”

            “That’s step two.  You don’t flip until step two.  And you only flip the second one.  Remember Keep, Change, Fuuulip.”

            Landon’s inner music turned down a few notches, but his head continued the beat as he stared at his problem.  Then he turned to me and smiled.  His tongue went between his lips and out came his fart sound. 

            “My bad.”

            The music continued in Landon’s head.  I continued tapping his mistakes with my pencil, and Landon continued acknowledging them with his fart sound until his entire test was corrected.

            “Now go give this back to your teacher.”

            “Thanks Mrs. Jones.”

            “You’re welcomed.  Have a good weekend.”

            It’s Friday, Friday, got to get down on Friday.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Dividing Fractions

            “Mrs. Jones, Caitlyn’s grade on her math test was just posted and she didn’t pass.  I studied with her last night.  What’s going on?”

            “I know you studied with Caitlyn.  She told me this morning.  She and I worked on the math every day this week, and she was doing the problems very well.   I was disappointed too that she didn’t pass.”  Caitlyn’s mother struggles almost more than her daughter, over her daughter’s work in school.  It’s unusual to go more than a day or two without a phone call or long email from her.

            “Is she getting the proper accommodations when she tests?”

            Sometimes I feel uncomfortable when people talk about “accommodations.”  We throw out that word like there is a specific set of special things we do and kids suddenly are able to remember things and perform on grade level.  I looked at the reminders still written on the white board.

Change everything to a fraction
Keep, Change, Flip

Word Problems:  What are you dividing?
Put it first

            “Yes,” I answered, “Caitlyn took her test in the Learning Center and we reviewed things before she even started.”

            “I don’t understand why she doesn’t pass a test when I study with her.”

            “I’ll help Caitlyn do the corrections on her test and get those in this afternoon.  Her teacher does give extra points for corrections.”

            Two periods later Caitlyn quietly slipped into the Learning Center.  She shyly handed me her test.  Even though her teacher had used a lime green Sharpie to grade the test, the 58% at the top of the page still looked mean.

            “How ‘bout you sit at the round table with me, and let’s do your corrections.  We need to figure out what you did wrong.”

            “My mom’s going to be mad.”  

            “No she won’t be.”  Yes she is.

            We slowly worked through her corrections.  She would calculate two problems correctly and forget to flip a fraction on the third problem.  On the next problem she’d flip both fractions.  Then she’d do three problems correctly.  She was correct more than she was wrong.  I made a mental note to sit by her side for the next test and verbally remind her of each step.

            The second page was simple word problems about pizza.

            “Caitlyn, what are you supposed to always do when you have a word problem?”  I pointed to the reminder still on the white board.

            Caitlyn stared at it for a minute, then said, “Figure out what you’re dividing up.”

            “Read these four problems.”

            “Five people have to share one and a half pizzas.  Six people are sharing three-fourths of a pizza.  Eight people are sharing two and a half pizzas.  Twelve people have to share three and one-fourth pizzas.  How much pizza do the people in each group get?”

            “Look at how you did the problems on your test.  Can you see what you did wrong?”

            Caitlyn stared at her work for a minute, then slowly began to smile.  “I divided up people instead of pizzas.”

            “Good job figuring that out.  Now go ahead and fix your answers.”

            Caitlyn bent her head down and began working.

            “My mom’s still going to be mad.”

            “No she’s not.”  Yes she is.

Sunday, October 7, 2012


            The first quarter of school will be ending this Friday.  We’re very busy this next week having students finish projects and assignments, so we can get all the grades in.  On Friday a fourth of the school year will be over already.

           Parents are most anxious during this first quarter of middle school, and I’m relieved when we get past it.   Instead of 10 to 15 long emails from parents every morning, I’m down to just one or two – or none!

            The kids will get their progress reports in a week or so, and it’s rare for anyone to be failing at this point.  Everyone is breathing a little easier.  But there’s information that parents won’t get on these progress reports that I wish they could know.

            Parents won’t know how bright and happy their kids’ eyes are when the bell rings.  Every 45 minutes they get a fresh start.  Whatever is going on in class is over and they move on to something new.

            Parents won’t know how good the kids feel about mastering their schedules and lockers.  They now know where they go eight different periods a day.  Two periods a day they negotiate the A-B schedules for PE and Electives.  They breeze through shortened schedule days and block schedule days.  Ten times a day they twirl the combination locks on their lockers and pull them open without even thinking.

            Parents won’t know that the kids aren’t sad about not having their old friends in their class because they’ve made new friends.

            Parents won’t know that their student has figured out that Mrs. Sneldon is not nearly as scary as they thought.  She has a mean bark when they are messing around in class, but she’s a sucker for sad looks and sorrowful excuses.

            Parents won’t know that the kids have figured out Mr. Ableman forgets to announce the homework sometimes, and he can be talked out of a due date the next day by telling him he never told them when it was due – even though he did.

            Parents won’t know that the kids have figured out that Miss Crawford hates her students to get bad grades on tests and she gives tons of hints if you go up and ask her a question during the test.  If you get a bad grade, well, you’re just not using the “tools” available.

            Parents won’t know that even though there’s a lot of homework in math, most of the kids have figured out that math is one of those subjects you can’t learn by just watching someone do the problems on the board.  You have to do some math problems on your own.

            Parents won’t know that the kids have learned that a novel can start out confusing and hard to understand, but by the time you finish it, it’s “the best book you’ve ever read.”  And there’s six more books in the series.

            Yes, it was an anxious, scary time starting middle school.  But it was scary starting 5th grade, and 4th, and 3rd, and 2nd, and 1st, and especially scary starting kindergarten.  It was scary leaving your child with a babysitter for the first time.  There was a lot of anxiety leaving your baby in the church nursery for the first time.

            It was scary going into labor and giving birth.

            But all these anxious, scary times starting new adventures are turning out to be doorways into bigger, brighter rooms.

(from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" - no joke intended)