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.


What to Do When You’re the Teacher Who Messes Up

Screen Shot 2013-09-12 at 5.11.22 AMHe couldn’t spell “Einstein” or “magic.” I didn’t want to take the class. I needed it. It was one of those “You-Need-This-For-College” classes. I wondered why. I’m certainly not a working in that field today.

He was often making mistakes on the board or misspelling something on a paper. He’d go back and correct himself after a thoughtful student raised a hand, but still, he was the expert. How could he spell something wrong? I was a pretty harsh critic.

He tried to organize me.

“You’ll never be a success.  You don’t take good notes,” he said.  My notes were just fine. For me. “You have to follow the system!” His system was beautiful. Tables of contents with neatly attached note pages… mine was a stream of consciousness with the occasional blurb about the subject.

When I studied… If I studied…I used my notes. I stared at the doodles. They transported me to the point in the lecture where I’d lost focus and drawn them. Today, there’s pens that do that for students.

My college notes are the same. Effective–a good system. I still use them today.

I ran into this teacher later in life. I discovered that as an adult, I liked him very much. He saw a disaster like me–backpack barfing with disorganization, bananas resting in the bottom of my locker inviting fruit flies, bad fashion, generally on a planet other than my own. He tried his best to avert said disaster with the best tools in his box. Focus. Organization. Systems.

What he needed was flexibility.  He didn’t recognize my systems were effective for me, because I processed things differently. He organized thoughts in a productive mental line. Mine were more like a creative spiderweb. There was a rhyme and reason to my thoughts. My systems served me well. As a teacher, that’s an important lesson–sometimes students are on point, even when they appear to be on another planet. My job is to teach them to find their way back to Earth on their own.

I’m merely a mentor teaching connections and assisting students in developing their life systems. I note problems, assist in analysis, and first suggest, not provide, a solution. It’s not that I won’t dictate, demand and command, but good teaching allows me to prompt them to help themselves first.


“I can’t write this essay!” they said. Two good students, staring at a semi-blank paper.

“Is that an iPhone hidden in your bag?” I asked.

“Yes.” I took out my own.

“Let me show you something.”  I hit the microphone. I dictated an intro paragraph using proper dictation techniques, students crowding around my shoulder.

The words appeared. Perfectly spelled text in the proper format. Students awed. You’d think I was Oprah giving away cars. Suddenly, everyone wanted to go home and write an essay.

Flexibility. Thinking and seeing outside the box. A good teaching moment. For a moment, I got to be a hero.

Screen Shot 2013-09-12 at 5.11.36 AMThe other day, I didn’t.  “Miss, you forgot to close the quotations on this sentence.” Indeed I had. Without an end quote, I could speak ad infinitum. I fixed it.

“Miss, you did that math wrong.” We’d been applying math to the social sciences. There’s rust on some of my math.

Math Friend Next Door said, “Yup, you missed a step.”  Both slightly embarrassed and proud, I high-fived the kid and gave him candy. My goal is for my students to be better than me–not because I’m stupid, but when I mess up, I own it. Candy helps.

He looked at me the same way I looked at that teacher who misspelled the words. I invented that look.

He’s super smart. I wonder if he’ll forgive me some day… The girl who edited the quotes already has. Will my good karma teaching upperclassmen an essay hack counterbalance my mistake karma? I’m not sure how history will write my reviews.

Teachers aren’t supposed to be real people. We’re supposed to be perfect. I keep forgetting that and messing up. Maybe if I just have one more cup of coffee…I’ll do better today.



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What Would You LIKE to Learn?

I’m writing my “Welcome Letter” to students. It’s going to a blog post this year. I’m trying to save trees–it’s a pain in the ass to get more paper when I run out. I have to requisition paper just to make the forms to get the paper, and I can’t really afford a virtual assistant. So, digital, here I come.

When I start the school year, I think of my most difficult customer. The kid who doesn’t want to be looking at my ugly face for 180 days and prays for a snowstorm or natural disaster to relieve him of that obligation. I don’t target nerds like me…they show up politely whether they like me or not. If I can convince school haters, I’m golden.

So, within the first day or two I’ll ask a question, “What would you like to learn?”

Life is about learning. The problem with education isn’t that policy’s bad, teachers suck or kids are stupid, it’s a failure to provide an intersection point.

Screen Shot 2013-08-24 at 9.16.15 AMImagine a graph–any graph. There is generally a point where the two lines meet. On a supply and demand or pricing graph, you have a bunch of people trying to not pay for stuff and a bunch of people trying to overcharge. Depending on the amount of stuff in circulation, the lines meet and you get a dot in the middle. If the lines don’t meet, that means you didn’t sell your product.

I wasn’t good at math. I had to go to the Psych Services tutor in college to understand this stuff. She told me, “You’re okay, take a deep breath.” The guy in the next cube over was being treated for his fear of spiders.

Anyway. A graph is a graph. Right now what we have in education is a graph where the lines don’t always intersect. We have one group of people deciding what will be taught and evaluated, another teaching, and a third wishing they could learn something else entirely. Lines that don’t meet. When the lines don’t meet, that means you didn’t sell your product. My product is education. Not just education, but the LOVE of education.

When the lines meet, you get a dot in the middle of the graph. You need the dot in the middle of the graph. The dot represents the place where we all come together and agree on something. Cost effectiveness. The price we’re willing to pay. The salary we’ll take. Work efficiency. Break-even point. The willingness to teach and learn. It’s all the same. The lines need to meet.

I’m a writer–I don’t generally write about graphs.  But the truth is the truth whether I like it or not–the dot in the middle–the point of intersection–is the truth in all things. In math or relationships, we need that common ground.

One student put this in perspective, “You write a lot of curriculum. Teachers meet for this. Why don’t students meet with teachers and write it? ” Brilliant. Especially at the high school level where students are my customers. They express what is useful to them. Then, I guide them on paths to the top of the mountain.

So, this year, I’ll be asking “What do you want to learn?” We’ll decide together.

“Casey,” you might say, “How will they know what they need?” You’d be surprised. Given guidance and an objective, they soar. When I get customer dissatisfaction in the ranks, I say, “Here’s what I was aiming for. How can you achieve this to show me you learned?” Most of the time, they do far more than I’d have assigned.

Learning isn’t top down. I learn from my students.  This year I learned from the world. I’m a better writer, a better person…I have the type of friends who push me to be great. I push my students to be great. Better than me. Students often ask me a question.

“Miss, why are you teaching?” You see, everyone views teaching as the job you get if you can’t get another job. It’s a perception I’m trying to change.

“I’m here because I love you guys. I want you to be better than me.” It takes a while for that answer to sink in. When it does, when students believe this truth, we learn great things together.

This year, I’ve learned things I love–things I wanted to learn. Why would my students be different? That is why we will start with the question, “What would you like to learn?”  

And then, we’ll accomplish that goal.


How a Rhombus Ruined my Relaxation

Screen Shot 2013-05-31 at 6.02.33 AM“Mom!” I can see we’re going to have the nightly bed struggle. I just sat down, fantasizing about relaxation.

“I put you to bed, get back there.”

“But I made you a rhombus,” said Declan, extending a white rhombus of paper.

Oh, in that case, stay up all night. If I’d have known you made me a rhombus…A rhombus does not get you out of bed. A fifty, maybe, but not a rhombus.

“Excuse me, Ma’am, do you know why I pulled you over?” the officer says.

“No,” I say, “but I made you a rhombus. Can I go now?”

I don’t think that’s an effective life strategy.

“Mom!” he says. We are having parallel conversations. I want him in bed. “I MADE you a RHOMBUS!”

“Great. I like rhombuses. Or are they rhombi? Anyway, you’re out of bed!” I refuse to be cheated out of my one hour of peace before my bedtime by an inanimate geometric shape. Moms never get peace.  The world waits for me to sit before it needs something. And if I don’t respond right away, it stares me down until I do. It’s not like I can enjoy my dinner when someone “needs juice NOW!” “Do you know where the thing is?” “Do we have any more….” “Wipe my hiney!” “I NEEEEEED YOU!!!” No. I am not getting up. Not now. Not even for a rhombus.

“It’s a rhombus. See, it’s made of two triangles.” he pointed out. That’s pretty advanced. I’m fairly impressed, to the point where I’m almost distracted from the mission. Bed.

My husband chimes in. “Yeah, he brought that to me today, and I thought, like, WTF is a rhombus? In my day we called it a diamond. We had normal shapes–triangles, squares, what’s the heck is a rhombus?” I help him out with the geometry. He’s right, though. As a high school teacher, I think it’s odd that everyone knows what a rhombus is but no one can tell time on an analog clock or remember their multiplication tables.

“Excuse me,” Declan says addressing our side conversation. “It’s not a diamond! IT’S A RHOMBUS.” he said.

“Great. Get back to bed. It’s a nice rhombus–see, no ninety degree angles. A square is a rhombus, but a rhombus is not a square.” I reiterate.

“I know.”  You KNOW? You’re in kindergarten. Tell me how this isn’t a problem.

“Time for bed. Go.” No movement. Just a study in rhombus.

“Okay, you forced me.”  I pick up my iPhone. I pretend to hit an app.


“Putting notes in this app.” I say

“What app?” he asks. Something…is…not…good.

“The punishment app. It sets an alarm and makes up a punishment. It’s not a wise idea so close to your birthday…” He believes me. I hold it up and click an imaginary something. “See, it has a scanner. It knows you’re not behaving.” That’s actually a great idea for an app. I make a note to have someone make this for me. It’ll be a killer startup. I’ll use it every day.

“Ahhhhh!!!!” He runs away.

“Hey, wait!” I say. I pick up the little white piece of paper. “You’d better take your rhombus with you.”  He snatches it from me and runs off into the sunset.

I look down at my watch.

Ten o’clock. Bedtime. No relaxing for me.

I have been….defeated.

By a rhombus.

Thank you, kindergarten teacher. Thank you.