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)


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.


Stop Teaching Reading!

Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 5.17.24 AMWhoever’s teaching these kids to read–stop. I know, you’re amazing. You have a magic about you. One day, I put Declan on the bus. Seven hours later, he got off spelling. Mysterious!

I like that he’s lying on the floor reading books about bugs and dinosaurs. I have to pull out “Hooked on Phonics” to help.  Understand, though, having kids who read makes parenting a whole new game.

I can’t spell to get around him anymore. “Want to go to the z-o-o with us if we have time?”

“THE ZOO!” Now we have to go.

“Hey Mom? How do you spell ‘ass’?” Who around here was talking about Biblical donkeys?

We always read a story before bed. “Before bed” can be any time up to, or including, my own bedtime. I get no rest. He pops out for a variety of reasons. “I need water.” “My leg is itchy.” “The Red Sox should’ve lost.” “How ’bout that global warming?”

But still, I have to read to him. Reading together is good. They tell me to log the stories we read. This, I don’t like. First off, who believes a kid who read Dr. Seuss for six weeks in a row? Does it count for “twenty-five books?” And if he reads “The Hobbit,” do we need twenty-four more? I can’t help it if he fixates. Second, it’s my job to give homework not do it. I forget and fall asleep.

I tell him we’ll read a short story, since it’s late and he hasn’t gone to bed. He hands me a long one. “READ!” This wasn’t a problem in the past. I skipped pages and said “The end.” Now, he knows. He waves his little finger and says, “HEY! You missed a page!” He knows when I shorten pages, too. “It says, ‘he said,’ Mommy. You forgot to read that part. Do it again.” 

He can read captions on advertisements, like the number to call to order As Seen on TV toys. He keeps a logbook of words he needs to spell into Netflix search to get his favorite shows, sounding out the ones of which I do not approve, asking me word by word when I least suspect it. He writes them secretly on pieces of paper hidden throughout the house.

I check his shelf. No “Steal this Book.” No “Anarchists Cookbook.” Just a bunch of dinosaurs whose names I can’t read properly. I think we’re safe for now.

But it got me to thinking about this moment–the moment where a child learns and becomes more independent, less simple to control.

I’ve been teaching skills I call “Big Money Skills.” Things students can use in the real world–data analysis, public speaking, writing, a touch of entrepreneurial spirit. These are dangerous things. Public speaking may give them the confidence to mouth off, learning about the world could teach them to use a GPS and be out after curfew. Writing might make them use big words, then we’d all have to pull out our dictionaries while they run haywire doing whatever they want. The entrepreneurial spirit could give them big ideas. Soon they’ll be filling out tax forms at the Sunday dinner table.

Watching Declan learn to read made me realize I owe all my parents a big apology. I hope I haven’t given you too much homework or taught your kids things that annoy you. From now on, I’ll focus on skills that will get them to be independent and move out of the house, that’s all. Standards be damned. Then, you’ll have a moment of peace that I crave, and you’ll like me once again.



Learning the Vowels

I was doing hallway duty. That’s where I stand at the top of the stairs and greet everyone as they come in–ask them about their weekend, compliment the new hair-do. Really, I’m supervising, but I don’t like to feel like bad cop when kids clearly haven’t finished their energy drink and I’m only into my third cup of coffee, which is getting cold in the front office.

There are a bunch of rules I have to attend to–taking off of headphones unless you are a member of the CIA, removing hats as one enters the building–the roof leak has been fixed and we have no  outdoor classrooms, and please pull up your pants–the full moon is next week, and “say no to crack” covers sagging.

Today, I heard the “Ohhhhhh!” chorus. That’s when one person says “Ohhhhh,” and everyone follows suit because they have nothing better to do. Usually this is just teen behavior, but at times it precipitates a larger event, so I attend to this religiously.

I walk over. I give “the eye.”  I don’t have “the eye.” They said I’d get it as a teacher, but I don’t. I just can’t pull off mean. I was listening to peer this weekend at the Ed Camp Boston session on “How to be a Badass Teacher.” More on that in another post. But suffice to say, he couldn’t pull off being mean either, “Mr.” his students said, “You just don’t look right when you’re mean.” Neither do I.

But I can pull off annoying. Screen Shot 2013-05-06 at 8.02.43 AMI go to the circle of “Ohhhhhhh!”s and I stand. I invade the space. Now no one can secretly check a message or put on a hat. They can’t say the “f” word or be rude. And the “Ohhhhhh”s stop.

“What’s going on here?” I inquire. “I’m reasonably sure this isn’t Vinnie Barbarino training school.”

Blank stares. No one knows who Vinnie Barbarino is. I am old.


More blank stares.

Then, the perfect answer.

“Miss. We’re practicing our vowels. Reading skills.” Suddenly the chorus re-erupts. This time, it’s a little different.

“Aaaaaaaaa, eeeeeee, iiiiiiiiii, oooooooo uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu!” I stare. I turn. I leave. I am clearly defeated. Game, point, match, circle of Ohhhhh-shouting guys. Time to go.

But not before someone adds in, “AND SOMETIMES YYYYYYYYYY!”

Literacy Common Core achieved.

The bell rings.

I am saved.