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Sandy and Fractions

I came across this piece of writing I did during Hurricane Sandy and thought I should share it.

It was 2:28 Sunday afternoon October 28, 2012 when I noticed the first raindrops. Hurricane Sandy was coming and both my children’s schools and my wife’s work had long ago sent notices that they would be closed tomorrow. The state offices had also decided to close. The only place that had yet to weigh in was, of course, the NBBOE. For all I knew, I was supposed to report to work in the morning.

Almost exactly one hour later my daughter’s school joined my son’s school in extending the closed notice through Tuesday. My school was still not heard from. I was supposed to have my yearly evaluation preconference with our new vice principal tomorrow for my scheduled evaluation on Thursday. But I don’t care about that. I do what I do and the vice principal can walk in out of the blue and evaluate me if she likes. In fact, once already this year the state team of evaluators had come into my room in force unannounced and taken copious notes without any feedback for me, so a friendly face that will give me a printed copy of my evaluation sounds good to me. I go to bed before the rest of my family, as usual, thinking that eventually my school will get around to reality and at least close for the day so I should relax and I reset my internal alarm to 7 am.

I am restless and after going to bed at 9, I am up at 1, checking on the house, and needlessly fussing with the ribs I left in the oven to slow cook overnight. I take a tip from a coworker and take a little Nyquil and I actually sleep until almost 7. I feel so good I hardly mind the already steady rain and occasional gust of fairly high winds. The tv tells me that NY, CT, and NJ have all had declarations of emergency signed by Obama and rain suited talking heads looking like open faced HAZMAT workers are showing me pictures of incredible waves crashing into some recently visited shores.

I am worried about my kids. Well, my son for deciding to ride this out with friends instead of here with us, but I mean my school kids. New Brunswick is right next to the river and floods easily in parts. Lately, more and more, I feel like an idiot for my unrequited caring about them, but this is why I became a teacher. Through all the bullshit this one simple truth is what has kept me doing what I do. I love them all. Like I always say to the kids, “You gotta do what you love and find a way to get paid for it.”

So I get to work. One way or another, these kids are going to be able to demonstrate their deep understanding of the concept of a fraction to the satisfaction of any and all interested parties. At Friday’s meeting, the state representative looked at his watch and said that as of 16:00, 10/26/13 we were required to provide papers proving this deep understanding. The state guy admitted that if we were to ask him again at 18:00, it may all change. This may well be my last year teaching public school, but my kids have always succeeded and as long as I am working they will continue to succeed. So I think about how to present their projects. The way I see it, there will be about 50% of them who will just hand in a nicely colored poster if I let them. I do not intend to let them.

I start by thinking about what I can do to show them what I want them to do. To show them, I need to put on a show for them. I will bring in a whole, uncut, hopefully hot pizza and I will cut it in half with my pizza wheel and show them half. Then I will cut one half in half and show them a fourth. Then I will cut one fourth in half and show them eighths. At this point a break to compare a half to an eighth seems about right. After doing sixteenths and thirty-seconds I plan to stop because, as luck would have it, I have thirty-two kids in each of my classes. One final comparison between one eighth and one thirty-second and then each kid then gets to eat his share of the pie, or a slice one fourth as wide as a traditional slice. Now that should really show them what a fraction is. I stumbled across The Pizza Lesson a long time ago and I decide that, if I ever write a textbook, it should include a coupon for a free pizza.

But before I show the kids how to do a great project, first I want to show them the wrong way. I think about my phrasing, I always think about my phrasing. If I frame it first as incomplete and then show them a pretty good poster board project, I think I can get them to set their sights further. I set my daughter to work on a poster of two well-drawn circles with a section colored in showing two different fractions. I am proud of her as she takes it seriously and does a very neat and colorful job. The poster looks great. This should do nicely as a deterrent. She asks me what grade I would give her project and I tell her probably a C-. She is crestfallen, protesting that she did a nice, careful job and did just what I told her to do. I explain to her that she did a perfect job of making what I wanted to show off as a C- project. She says she thinks she understands, but her frowny face tells me she really doesn’t.

I also find a group project about Justin’s Garden from our book which may just be the best thing about the entire Connected Math program. This poster has a huge hundred grid, which is a square divided up into 100 equal smaller squares. Different amounts of the grid are colored in different colors and each section is also represented in number form as a fraction and a decimal. The entire thing follows a set of instructions that have the students figure out each new section by multiplying or dividing a previous section. I think this will be my baseline project. I’ve found that to get 100% compliance I always need one project that the third timers, as well as any others too lazy to think for themselves can do. Now I have a good example done by a competent group that they can use as a model.

If there was one thing about me that you would never guess by looking at me, it’s that I can rap. I figure I can come up with a minimally decent rap about fractions fairly quickly. “Cut a thing in two and you’ve got half, Stay focused now and don’t you laugh. A half of a half is a quarter, the forth is smaller and it’s shorter.” Not my best work but it doesn’t have to be as this is another relatively low end project compared to a demonstration involving slicing something up. But perhaps as part of a larger presentation it might fit in, so I will at least put on a good show. I go to my music library for some old school beats from my library of about 100 that I have stored from when I used to write a lot. I practice a few times until it sounds like a straight ripoff of an old Beastie Boys song. I am nothing if not old school.

It strikes me as funny that I am vain enough about my rap skills to try to dumb my rap down a bit. I don’t want to write a hit single here, just give the kids an example that I’m sure at least a few will follow, most likely in Spanglish. But I want it to be lacking in mathiness so that when we go over it I can make sure the kids can give both the positive and negative aspects of the rap. As I think about it I decide this is something I need to do with the kids for every project we look at. Having them list the good things and the bad things of each one will reinforce the ideas much more than I could alone. The general rule is that if it comes from the mouth of someone their own age they listen, but if it comes from someone older…

I don’t have my own office in our house. On my salary, I’m just happy I have bedrooms for both kids so I don’t think about it and I work out of a corner of our family room. I have my wife’s grandmother’s old black desk set up with my slightly too old desktop computer, a pad of paper, pen and pencil, and a mass of was-once-important papers and business cards. I make a mental note to buy a laptop and give this vista running dinosaur to one of the kids in my class for a prize or xmas present. But, as frustrated as my computer makes me, there is no greater technological dinosaur than the small black oval shaped hunk of plastic just to the side of my monitor. I actually have one of those old clocks that mechanically simulates digital time by flipping over cards to show the minutes and hours. I am still working on my lesson and the cards on my clock are showing 3:26 when the power goes out.