Tooth Fairy Helps First Grader in Common Core Math

Declan had a wiggly tooth. “You don’t have to pull it out if it hurts,” I said. “The Tooth Fairy can come any night. No rush.”

He knew, though, that the Tooth Fairy brings money. He likes money.

With the force of and courage of a superhero, he reached in. Plink. One little tooth in his hand. He jumped for joy. He’s been waiting for this. His friends have lost teeth. It’s a rite of passage. He’s an Official Big Boy. One tooth down. A lot to go.

Two seconds later, negotiations began. “What do you think the Tooth Fairy will give me?”

“She gave me money,” I said. “I got a dollar for my first tooth and twenty-five cents for every tooth after.” She won’t get off cheap with Declan.

“I don’t want money. I want a whistle.” There is no way the Tooth Fairy’s bringing a whistle. We have a machine program at school. Whistles are one project. I’d like to tell my freshmen what they can do with their whistles.

“She brings money.”

“How about a toy?”

“Toys don’t fit under pillows. She doesn’t have a sleigh like Santa. What are you most excited about now that you’ve lost a tooth? That you’re such a big boy?”

“Now I can barf without opening my mouth! And stick a straw through the hole!”

He took the tooth. He inspected and brushed it “…so it can be nice. I can get more money.” The Tooth Fairy doesn’t pay for cavities.

He smiled. The first gap. The big boy smile. A parent Kodak moment, but I wanted more…something…good to come out of this. Not just an exchange of calcium and cash.

“You know,” I said. “Big boy teeth have power.” Declan’s having trouble listening in school. He struggles to sit when he’s told and following directions isn’t his thing.

That Tooth Fairy snuck right by me.

That Tooth Fairy snuck right by me.

“I don’t have to write my whole name,” he’ll say. “There’s only one Declan.” Makes sense. Worse yet is the math. “Mommy, I don’t need to do all those things and write the circles. I already know the answer. It’s 17.” He’s right. But I can’t have a kid challenging the system and disobeying Common Core math at age six. Pretty soon, he’ll be thinking for himself and starting a company with his Tooth Fairy money. I already have enough tax liability.

“Power?” he said. “Teeth have power?”

“Power.” I said. I leaned in and dropped my voice. “Remember when you asked how you could behave and be a good boy like your friend? When you told me you were bad and you didn’t want to be bad.” That conversation broke my heart, I never told him. I told him he wasn’t bad. He was a good boy. Mommy, how come I’m a bad boy? I want to be good, but I just can’t listen all the time. I’m bad. I want to be very good like my friend.

“Uh huh.”

“Well, big boy teeth have special powers. They give you super big boy listening skills. And make you faster and stronger. If you need to be good, think of the power of The Tooth.” He gave me the look. The questioning look. “It’s true. It’s how I started to listen.” I hope no one tells him I don’t listen very well. Maybe my braces interrupted the power. I hope he doesn’t need braces.

“Wow.” We’ll see if the power of The Tooth helps him do his math, spelling sentences, and listen. Meanwhile, he slept on his dino pillow with his tooth tucked neatly below. The Tooth Fairy must’ve snuck by me, because there’s a nice note instructing him to eat more veggies.

And a five-dollar bill. I was right. Prices have gone up.

Is School Useless? (Nobody Does Geometry at Cocktail Parties)

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Screen Shot 2014-02-26 at 5.26.50 AMI was helping a kid with his geometry. I didn’t do too bad. I said “shit” once. It slipped out. I apologized. A lifetime of math anxiety rolled up into four letters–coulda been worse. I stepped back and stared at the cleverly infused algebra problem stuffed into one of the angles in the triangles and crossed lines, reasoning that x+whatever must be added to 180-70, because there was an opposite angle labeled “70” without any tricks or algebraic distractions. And everyone knows that two lines tilted next to each other on a straight line has to equal 180 degrees. It’s a complementary angle.

“Supplementary. 180 is supplementary.” Good call, kid, good call. Because I walk around cocktail parties saying things like, “You know, I was figuring out algebraic equations embedded into supplementary angles the other day and I discovered…” Never.

“Miss?” He asked after we knocked off the last angle or two, me as much as him, and I finished up my victory dance. I was pretty proud, I’m not going to lie. I solved tenth grade math. Perfectly. Now, maybe if I have to take standardized tests to prove I’m better than a tenth grader to keep my job someday–it’s not out of the realm of possibility–I’ll be able to succeed on problems with triangles and lines with supplementary angles and algebra embedded inside for no particular reason.

“When am I ever going to use this stuff?” I thought hard through my several careers. Career one in insurance came the closest. I used math to reconstruct traffic accidents–but not really. The officer usually did that and gave me a number. I used math to resolve negotiations, but in truth it was more or less like volleyball than geometry, spiking numbers back over the net.

In waitressing, I calculated bills. No supplementary angles there. Just extra costs on upsells. In business, I spent a ton of money, and got bills for a ton more. Still no triangles or supplementary angles. I’ve built lots of things, but when it came down to brass tacks I never used the Pythagorean theorem to plan materials cost or measure distance. More often than not, I eyeballed it and went back to the store several times, or measured an approximate length across what would be the hypotenuse, hacking and swearing until it was close enough.

But I can’t say that because I’ve got a kid sitting here taking an entire course in geometry that’s going to think he’s wasting his time if I don’t come up with something intellectually plausible. I learned “thinking on my feet” from public speaking and negotiations, not math, though. And if I don’t come up with something quick, he’s going to question whether my class is a waste of his time next. After all, what do I teach about? History. Dead people. How many dead people is he going to meet at cocktail parties?

Before I know it, the whole house of cards will come crumbling down and he’ll be questioning all of public education, just because I succeeded in solving one set of geometry problems with algebra snuck inside. Can’t have that.

God intervened. He does that if I’ve been especially good that day.

“Oh, that’s easy.” I said. “In twenty years when you’re helping some kid with his geometry.” I walked away. I didn’t want him to ask me about calculus next.

[image: hillsblockview.blogspot.com]

For a Bad Time, Invite Me

Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 6.35.40 AMThey call it “The Curse.” Kids started begging me not to attend their games. Me! Their one fan. We didn’t get a lot of fans in those days because we’re regional and we didn’t win.

“Casey! You’re cursed. Don’t come, it’s a big game.” I began to test “The Curse” with baseball games. I’d pass by. Dropped ball. I’d stay home. Victory. I’d hide behind a tree. Triple play–other team. I’d stay away, home runs.

The Curse applied to basketball, too. Ever the skeptic, I tested it again. Sure enough, if I went, more turnovers than an Italian bakery. I collected more and more data–as anyone in education knows, the more data the better. Sadly, my scientific study proved The Curse real.

Little did I know The Curse extends to other things, like trips and events. Invite me–your event will be canceled, postponed or a disaster. The Curse controls weather, too. Hurricanes and snowstorms may seem like acts of God, but if I’m on your roster, they’re not. They’re The Curse. One event figured this out and said, “Sorry, stay home.” They’re lucky they caught it in time. Their event was global. If I’d gone for real, world peace would’ve been off the table for good.

Today I was supposed to participate in an awesome event, so the National Weather Service predicted several feet of snow in a radius of 1000 yards around my car. The event’s 35 minutes from me if I speed and seven days away if every Rhode Islander suddenly gets their bread, milk, and Dunkin Donuts coffee in the storm. Rhode Islanders can’t drive on a good day, let alone snow.

The event is called Choose2Matter. The point is this: Kids think school sucks. School sucks because it “doesn’t matter.” I surveyed about 50 of my students both before and after listening to parts of Seth Godin’s and Sir Ken Robinson’s TEDx. Exactly two told me “School’s awesome. Especially this class.” My future Yes Men. The rest wanted something more from their education. They wanted “it to connect–to matter.” They cited “Genius Hour” as the thing that “made it real.” Genius Hour’s based on Google’s concept that downtime makes for productive ideas. Creativity generates value. Employees get 20% of their time to work on whatever they want–provided it could potentially benefit Google. Gmail was created this way.

Good idea! I squashed five days of work into four and cleared the slate on Fridays. They’re actually doing 20% more work–not Google’s intent. But heck, I’m in education. I can bastardize anything I want as long as I mix in some math.

Kids love it. Much more than I thought. They work outside of class. “We can use this in real life!” Kids doing extra work? For no additional credit? Hmmm… Could be onto something here.

“Hey, Kid! Why wait four years before you make your ideas real?” Showing students they have the power to convert knowledge to action–that’s magic.

School matters when we make it matter. Choose2Matter asks this, “What breaks your heart?” Kids solve those problems. When kids matter, they’ll change the world.

Turns out, adults will, too. We want to feel we’re not replaceable cogs, easily retrofit with the next guy down the road. When we matter, we transform things, too.

“There aren’t many history jobs out there these days…You’re lucky to have one,” someone said to me.

I should’ve replied, “You’re wrong. There’s only one of me out there these days…They’re lucky to have me.” Maybe if I’d said stuff like that earlier in life, I could have converted “The Curse” into “Magic.”

That’s what I want for my kids.

Still, there’s no denying the weather. The event’s postponed. I’ll be teaching tomorrow, so I can’t go. I’m disappointed. Anytime kids stay up praying there won’t be a snow day, a snow day’s a sad thing. Don’t worry, guys, you still matter. You’ll matter tomorrow, the show must go on.

Here’s the secret–you’ll matter for the rest of your life, too. Maybe a little snow makes everyone all the more determined to make a difference when the work starts tomorrow? Maybe it’s not a curse after all.

Maybe–just maybe–it’s the start of magic.

 

[image: digitaltrends.com]

I’ll Never Be Beautiful

Screen Shot 2014-02-12 at 5.39.36 AMI’m looking at everyone’s profile pictures. They’re all rock stars with awesome pictures–pictures of hair blowing in slow-mo, light hitting unblemished faces in just the right way. Pictures of scaling Mount Everest. Pictures of scuba diving, standing in front of race cars, meeting Clint Eastwood…

My picture, for years, was me on a rock wall with Declan. I didn’t have a rock star picture, so I picked a picture of a Screen Shot 2014-02-12 at 5.45.50 AMrock instead. One that looked intentional, like I left my rock star picture at home because I was cool.  It was far enough away to hide my imperfections–slightly bigger than a spec, yet not big enough to pick me out of a police lineup. Certainly not big enough to see that don’t photograph well. That I wasn’t beautiful.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m okay with average. I have redeeming qualities even if my picture isn’t beautiful. Even if I don’t radiate “superstar.” I’m an okay human being. A human being, however, who really did need a better profile picture.

“Please send a professional head shot…” I guess The Rock didn’t work. Try hard to look passable at least, professional at best if supermodel’s off the table. I picked a happy day. I smiled at my iPhone. Click. Done.

It’s me. And it’s real.

The other day, my students hijacked my class for their Genius Hour project. It’s a Design Your Own Project that connects their passions with a spirit of entrepreneurship and a quest to save the world. These students transformed a buzzword–bullying– into a multimedia presentation that gave me goosebumps. At the end, I thought, “How can we let what another says define us? Why am I not “beautiful?” Because someone told me in high school? Because they nicknamed me ‘Ultragorgon’ after our unit on Greek mythology, wrote it in my yearbook, weren’t nice, and a quarter century later I like myself just fine but the idea that I could be beautiful never crossed my mind? Why does a fifteen-year old girl feel like a slut because someone said she was on Facebook or Twitter? Why would a kid shut down in the face of taunting rather than say “I’m awesome,” and walk on by? Transcend? Why would a teen say, “My life has no value? I want to die.”

Teens say adults say, “Don’t worry about it, ignore them.” Then we, the adults, go about our real adult business, stressing because people aren’t nice to us, office politics stabs us in the back, or the clerk at the grocery store gave us The Eye. And that sets the tone for our day. But that’s different. We are in the real world where life really matters.

Head Shot for BioI tell the teens they’re amazing, and I’m sorry that every individual in the universe doesn’t always agree, but they have this group of friends right here, now, and they must first love themselves regardless of what the world thinks. They must learn to deal with “crappy people.” They must know they are great.

These are important lessons to preach. And even more important to practice. After watching their presentation, I decided I’m pretty darned good at the preaching part, but the practice…I’ll improve.

Oh, and by the way, I really like my picture. It is, indeed, beautiful.

Death of the Five-Paragraph Essay

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 10.17.21 PMThey looked at me. “How long’s this gotta be?” It was the midterm essay.

“As long as it takes to be informative. And interesting–don’t put me to sleep…I only write zeroes when I’m asleep.” Actually, it’s a puddle of drool.

“How many paragraphs?” We train them to write paragraphs and fill in circle tests. I hate the five-paragraph essay. What if I need six? Or forty-two? Or one? I have a piece of Russian literature that has a twelve-paged paragraph, so no one better ask the followup “How long’s a paragraph?”

Yet someone does. I walk over to some boxes and open one. It contains a five-foot blank scroll. I hold up the scroll. “About this long. Want to read?”

One kid comes up. “Miss, it’s empty!”

“It is. There is no secret ingredient.” When Lao Tsu’s busy, I quote Kung Fu Panda.

“Here’s the thing. I write a lot. I know a lot of big words. If I use all my big words in a paragraph will you read it?”

“No,” said one engaged listener, “It’ll suck.”

“Great feedback.” Never ask kids. They’ll tell you. “Well, I used to research academic material…things only five people in the world cared about. When we met, we’d high-five each other and have a good old time…But nobody read my stuff. Ever. Now, I write differently. From the heart. No showing off. No big words without a reason. No extra paragraphs. I even use…sentence fragments. And you know what? People read it. What’s that tell you?”

“Writers suck?”

“No. It tells you that if you want people to read your stuff, you have to write for them in a way they want to read. Who goes online and reads five-paragraph essays?” No hands. “Then why are you writing them?”  I assure them there will be consequences if they say I said never to write five-paragraph essays.

“The point is, write for your audience. I learned the hard way. I took a beating learning this. Just do it. Write what you love in a way you’d want to read.” Everyone decides that the prompts are, in fact, halfway decent, and they get started. I put away the scroll.

I hear a kid mumble how he hates f-ing five-paragraph essays. I tell him to find some better f-words for his piece before I find a hundred or two for him to incorporate.

They write. And they don’t look that miserable after all.

Appreciation of Appreciation

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 7.18.36 AMLast night was our second parent night. I feel honored when families take the time to come see me. Anyone drives a couple of towns to pay respects to a child’s education is someone for whom I’m very grateful. Many can’t come–parents who work or care for others, or have to put little, little children to bed. I try not to bring Declan to night events. It’s tempting disaster taking him out that late in the evening–I appreciate brave parents who bring little children even more. It’s a real effort.

It’s why schools have to make every event for families productive–not just five minutes of face time that could better be served with Face Time, but events that build the community and climate of the school. At our school, we’re starting to get more and more of these types of events–things that generate buzz and bring everyone together. Schools that do this well report amazing things. I don’t know what the stats are in terms of test scores and such but the climate and happiness factor increase exponentially–the weight is taken off the parent, the school, and the student–it’s shared equally. A three-legged stool never falls. A pogo stick does.

“Before I go,” said one mom, “I just wanted to take the time to thank you. Elementary teachers receive a lot of appreciation. High school teachers do not. I really appreciate what you do.” She handed me a gift card for coffee with a fancy sticky note that expressed her sincere appreciation. I was so touched–she was right. This appreciation will Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 7.19.18 AMwarm my soul long after the duration of the coffee. Gifts are not part of the high school culture, so much so, I nearly ruined my son’s gift giving experience by not preparing to give gifts in his elementary school.

In high schools, we don’t always take the time to properly express appreciation. I have one colleague who makes it part of an exercise for students to write thank you cards to any teacher they want. I get some of these cards, and feel like I’m winning the lottery. We should make appreciation a measured data point on standardized tests. If appreciation was a test score, I bet we would put it right the curricula. Truth is, we could all use a bit more practice on this one.  I think of the times I’ve failed to appreciate my family, colleagues, friends, or even the hard work I do myself. If it were measured on my evaluation, I’d learn to get it right.

One day, I read this James Altucher post, where he discusses how he saved the global economy with chocolate. I’ll admit, that’s a tall order. I had doubts. Turns out, he stood outside the stock market exchange giving out chocolate during the market crash. There was a decided lack of morale during that period where everyone wondered if financial life as they knew it would end–I remember it well, because I was wondering the same thing, just far away, so I he didn’t give me a chocolate bar.

I decided I’d steal the idea with very little attribution. I distributed Hershey bars on the Ides of March–the day a person is most likely to be stabbed in the back by someone–life, a good friend, The Man. Could chocolate raise morale in education–the field with the highest burnout rate in the nation? It did. I saw people I didn’t even know I still worked with. I reconnected. We smiled. I got hugs. Turns out it’s not about chocolate or coffee–I’d have felt the same glow in my soul if that mom said what she said and handed me a post it note alone. Or even nothing. It’s about appreciation. Gratitude. Taking the time to recognize the work, life, humanness of the person on the other side of the conversation rather than rushing through the paces in an overloaded day so we can go home, get some sleep, and rush through tomorrow.

It’s not easy. But it needs to be said once in a while. I really appreciate the parents who entrust me with their kids–even if it’s just because we all need a break from our own. I appreciate the chance to make a difference in a single life, or in education in general. I appreciate that somehow, somewhere in the universe, there’s someone doing something great in life, and that I got a chance to be a part of it. And I appreciate those who did it for me.

Most of all, I appreciate my family and friends who put up with this, because a teacher’s work, no matter what the pundits say, is never done.

 

I’m Terrible…by the Numbers

I woke from a nightmare. I was taking standardized tests. I bombed. I’m glad it was a dream.

It’s standardized test season, a time that strikes more fear in the hearts of schools than a life-sized poster of the Bieber mug shot. Everyone’s defined by these numbers. The media has a frenzy like Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.

We say we want schools to succeed but it’s completely untrue. Let’s be honest. We want to see blood. It’s a proven fact that Americans produce, consume, and enjoy more bad news than ever. My friend designed a blog dedicated to good news in education. She doesn’t have as many readers as a news story about drama, destruction, and gore. It’s what America wants. 

So, just to prove pundits wrong, teachers spend our valuable time compiling numbers to show our students are learning. I’ve spent an entire year this year logging numbers in spreadsheets. My husband laughs at me and calls me a bean counter. I’m a historian. I’d rather tell you the history of beans than count them–I’m not very good at that.

Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 6.08.26 AMAnyway, numbers can prove anything, depending on what we want them to show. 

I recently read this TechCrunch article where Facebook and Princeton duke it out using big words and math nobody can understand. Princeton intellects prove Facebook’s about to die and Facebook retaliates by showing on graphs and charts that in five years, Princeton will have no students. And it’s all “good” math.

What it shows is this–I should stop worrying about all these numbers that affect my life and start graphing. Do it in color to boot. In my first job, I prepared diagrams for arbitrations. This was before cool computer programs, so I’d sit down with rulers and colored pencils. Nobody else used colored pencils. I rarely, if ever, lost an arbitration. The key to life is colored pencils. When people see pretty things on paper, they are always predisposed to nod and say, “Yeah…” and agree. I have to make my numbers look pretty. And use colors in my graphs. 

Incidentally, this is why I spend so much time teaching my students to detect bias. 

I wish our educational system wasn’t based on testing and numbers. It’s hard to look at a student and say “Well… you look like an 85….Yes, you, indeed are a 92.” I’ve had smart students miss midterms and had to give them zeroes, as if that one grade made all the difference in their success. It does to the grade book, however. 

So, back to my nightmare. I have taken every standardized test alive. I sort of enjoy them because I didn’t grow up with video games. SATs were the nerd way of beating our friends. I enjoyed the idea that someone out there was trying to defeat me and I had to stop them. Nerd “video” games.

But I fell asleep on section three every time. The silence. The lack of communication. It was like meditation with multiple choice questions. Trivia questions. I fought sleep…then…out cold, drooling. But I always scored well. I wondered what I’d have scored if I stayed awake. 

The point is, test numbers aren’t a solid measure any more than Facebook or Princeton’s predictions. I don’t like basing graduation or teacher careers on them.

If the numbers don’t prove much to me, what does, you ask.

Vision. Creativity. The ability to work and stick with a problem until it’s solved–the recognition that learning has changed and that students have the power to blow things out of the water and follow their passions. All I do is connect it to success. I’m the guide, not Alex Trebec.  If students have those three things they are well on the road to amazing. 

In my dream, I failed the standardized test. In real life, if every adult out there took these standardized tests, I think the media would have fun. It’d show I’ve forgotten all the trivia that once made me great. Made me able to defeat tests even while half asleep. I bet we all have, but we’re still successful. I am. I do a lot, and I like the person I’ve become. 

But if you give me that test, the numbers will show you I suck. 

So today, I pause for a moment to tell students how awesome they are. “You are not defined by the numbers. You are defined by you. Do the work. Stop at nothing to keep learning things you are passionate about–for your whole entire life. Be great…No, don’t be great. Be amazing. Regardless of what the numbers told you you’d become.” 

 

 

[image: valdosta.edu]