Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Taxing Math

            Hi.  I’m Bob.  And I’m an alcoholic.

             AA really has the right approach.  You can’t get help until you acknowledge your need.

            “Guys I noticed you were having trouble in math today calculating tax.”  I passed out small whiteboards and markers to Landon, Jeremy, and Ramon sitting at the table in front of me.  All three boys have learning disabilities, and the classroom instructions on moving decimals had sailed right past them.

            “When you did the Restaurant Game, you did a good job adding up your orders, but none of you seemed to know how to calculate the tax.  Before you multiply, you have to turn the percent into a decimal.”

            As each boy got their board, they immediately began drawing on it.  Landon scrawled his name in big loopy letters.  Jeremy drew an alien, and Ramon began pounding dots.  I handed everyone a dry eraser and grabbed a board of my own.

            “OK guys, look up here.”  I wrote 6% on my board.  “I want you to change 6% to a decimal.”

            “I need to go to my locker and get my notes from class,” said Ramon.

            “Just stay here,” I said.  You didn’t take notes.  “I’m going to go over whatever you need.”

            “I already know how to do this,” Ramon objected.  “I just need to get my notes from my locker.”

            You didn’t write a single thing down in class.

            I ignored him and continued, “Think of 6% as six cents.  How would you write six cents as money with a decimal?”

            Landon and Jeremy erased their boards and began writing their decimal version of 6%.  Ramon just continued to stab dots on his board.

            “Ramon.  Come on.  Give this a try.”

            “I don’t need to try.  I already know how to do this.  But you won’t let me go to my locker, so I can’t do it.”

            “If you know how to do it, then just show me a couple on your board.” 

            I waited.  I could see both Landon and Jeremy had written .6 on their boards.  They shielded their work waiting for Ramon to write something.  Ramon finally stopped dotting and wrote 6.0 on his board.

            “You’re almost there,” I said.  I wrote .06 on my board and turned it to show the boys.  “See how if I add a dollar sign to this it looks like six cents.”  To the left of .06 I added a dollar sign.

            “Why do I have to do this?” Ramon argued again.  “I know how to do this.”

            I wrote 8% on my board.  “OK guys.  Now try another one.” I turned my board around.  “How would you write 8% as a decimal?”  

            Landon and Jeremy bent their heads down and began writing, but Ramon was now stomping dots on his board.  I reached over and softly tapped his board.

            “Give it a try please.”

            “Is this right?”  Jeremy turned his whiteboard towards me.

            Jeremy had .08 written.  I watched as Landon finished writing .08 on his board. 

            “Just a sec.  Let’s wait for Ramon.”

            Landon and Jeremy turned and looked at Ramon.  He ignored everyone for a minute, but then stopped his stabbing and wrote .8 on his board.

            “That’s not right,” Landon said showing his board to Ramon.  “Make it look like eight cents.”

            Ramon glanced at Landon’s board, then at his own.  He scrawled a dollar sign to the right of .8, and stabbed three dots over it.

            Now it’s money!” Ramon growled.

            I dropped my voice to a lower register.  “Ramon.”  I wrote .08 on my board and turned it around.  “This is how you write 8% as a decimal.”

            “Told you,” Landon said triumphantly.

            “That’s how I wrote it,” said Ramon furiously erasing his board.  “I know how to do this.”

            I blew out a little sigh.  As I wrote 3% on my board, I fantasized Ramon standing earnestly in front of me.

            “Hi. I’m Ramon.  And I have no idea how to do my math.”

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

When Jesus Cooks

There is no school today, so I can sleep in.  But I didn’t.  I have a turkey to brine, dressing to prepare, and a sweet potato casserole to put together.  I woke up at 5:30 with a million things on my mind.  So I write.

When you were on earth . . .
You touched water and it became fine wine.
You touched small loaves and fish,
And they became a feast that fed thousands.
During your last meal on earth
You touched bread and wine and elevated them to a reminder
Of Your great sacrifice for our salvation.

Thank you for taking delight in touching broken lives
And transforming them into a shining picture of your image
So that the world can see what You can do today.

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels,
that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.
2 Corinthians 4:7

Friday, November 9, 2012


            “Landon, you didn’t finish the ‘Excellent Elections’ assignment for Social Studies.  Your grade’s down to a D minus.  You’ve got a 0/45 in the grade book.  What’s up?”

            Landon turned around from the computer he was working at and stared at me.  He was frowning, concentrating. 

            “It was due yesterday,” I reminded him.  “You had two days in class this week to get it done.”

            Landon grinned.  “My bad.”

            “Noooo.  That’s not going to cover this.  Why isn’t it done?”

            Landon’s eyes widened.  “I didn’t know that was due this week.”

            I swept my hand over to the homework board.  “Excellent Elections – due Thursday” was still written on the whiteboard.

            “But I didn’t see that,” Landon wailed.

            I walked over to Landon’s notebooks sitting on the desk.  “And you should have written it in your planner.”  I flipped through the pages to yesterday’s date.  “You should have written it right . . .” I stopped.  “Oh look.  It is written down.  Due Thursday, just like we said.”

            “But I didn’t know how to do it,” Landon moaned.

            His last remark caught Mrs. Oliver’s attention from across the room.  She was the para in his Social Studies class.  Her head popped up like a chipmunk’s.

            “Landon!” she said.  “I asked you several times in class if you needed any help and you always told me you knew how to do it and you didn’t want me helping you.”

            Landon winked one eye and pointed to Mrs. Oliver.  “True dat!”

            Mrs. Oliver and I exchanged glances.  Landon reverted to “gangsta” talk when he was running out of options.

            “So you knew when it was due, and how to do it,” I summarized.

            Landon pursed his lips together.  His eyes narrowed and darted back and forth.  Then, “I tried to do it last night, but the internet was down at our house.”

            “All night?” I asked.  “The internet was down at your house all last night?”

            “No.” Pause.  “Just a little.   But my dad said I had to go to bed when it came back on.”

            How far is he going to take this?

            “Did you tell your dad you hadn’t finished your homework?”

            “Yes.”  Pause.  “No.”  Pause.  “What?”

            I slowly enunciated.  “What did you tell your dad last night?”

            Landon stared back several seconds and then slowly began to smile.  “I told him I finished it.”

            I gave Landon a long sober stare.  “What do you think he’ll say when he gets the update on your grades Monday morning.”

            His smile slowly faded.  A sad little puppy looked back.

            “He’s not going to like that you lied to him,” I added. 

            His eyes suddenly widened.  “You won’t tell him will you?”

            “No.  You’re going to tell him.”  I opened up the grade book on my computer and clicked the tab that showed contact information.  “And you’re going to tell him now.”  I located his dad’s phone number, and began punching the numbers in on the phone.

            “You know,” I continued, “If your dad’s going to get bad news, it’s better coming from you than an email.”

            Man up kiddo.  You’ll probably be giving your dad a lot worse news than this in the years ahead.

            Now Landon was desperate.  “When he finds out I lied, he won’t let me go to Ramon’s birthday party tomorrow.”

            True dat, I thought.  True dat.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Help We Don't Want

            “Jeremy doesn’t want to get help from the Learning Center any more.  He says it’s embarrassing and makes him feel dumb.  Is there any way we can get him off of his IEP?”

            I could have predicted this request from Mrs. Watkins the second week of school, so I wasn’t surprised to hear it come up at Jeremy’s IEP meeting.  I paused a minute and nodded my head.  I wanted Mrs. Watkins to know I really did understand the struggle she was going through. 

            “I know this isn’t new information for you,” I softly explained.  “But Jeremy really does struggle decoding the text he’s reading.  Once he’s got it decoded, his comprehension is great.  But his fluency decoding the words is very low.  It takes him three times longer than a typical sixth grade student to read material in class.”

            “I know his reading is really slow.  That’s the main thing he’s always been working on, but it’s taking so long for him to get faster.  I just don’t know what to tell him.  He said he wanted me to get him off his IEP today.  He says the other kids think he’s dumb when he comes into your room.”

            How many times have I had this conversation with a parent? This is the most common problem parents and students with Learning Disabilities must work through in Middle School – identifying strengths and weaknesses and learning how to use one to pull up the other.

            “Mrs. Watkins, we both know Jeremy is not dumb.  In fact, he’s got to be pretty bright to be getting the grades he has considering how hard it is for him to access any reading material.”

            Jeremy’s mom sadly nodded her agreement.  “If there was only some way his tests could just be over the material he’s heard in school.  If he just wouldn’t have to read anything.  I know he’d get good grades and he wouldn’t have to be on an IEP.”

            That’s how he’s surviving right now, I thought.

            “Listening and remembering what he’s heard is his strength,” I agreed.  “The problem is, there’s going to be a ton of material in the years ahead that’s going to be in written form that Jeremy has to get hold of.  He needs to continue working on his fluency.  He’s going to need some strategies and help accessing all that material.”

            The room was quiet.  Mrs. Watkins was quiet.  The clock on the wall was making a clicking sound. 

            Then, “I know.” 

            We continued sitting in the quiet room listening to the clock click.  Mrs. Watkins stared down at the IEP sitting on the table.  She knew her son hated it, but she also knew he desperately needed it.  She picked up her pen, checked the box that said “I give my consent,” and sadly signed her name.