We’ve been working on division in math class recently, specifically, long division…with decimals. It’s challenging stuff, but it has also led to some surprising revelations from my fifth graders.
B., a very capable math student, was having some trouble with a technique we had been working on. Rather than just taking a straight, long division approach to a problem like 78.6 divided by 16, we had talked about how you could break it into two smaller problems. You might first divide 78.6 by 4, and then divide the result (19.65) by 4 again.
It’s not really important that you follow that process right now, or that you agree with the decomposing approach. What’s important is that you understand that we were breaking apart a problem to make it simpler. What’s also important is that you hear how B. responded to this challenge.
He was scratching his head and looking, with a scrunched up face, at the upside down tree formations on his workbook page. I approached and asked if he needed some help. He’s usually very independent.
“Yeah,” he replied, perhaps too loudly, “I’m just not very good at breaking up.”
L. happened to be listening in. “What did you just say?!”
B., realizing his slip up, blushed slightly and tried to correct himself. “I didn’t mean breaking up. Why do I always say that?”
I felt the need to come to his aid. “Well, B., you know, breaking up is hard to do.”
This got a snort from L. and a groan from B. I was pleased with the response, not really thinking that it would appeal to the average fifth grader, so I continued, mostly for my own amusement, “Have you tried saying to the problem, ‘It’s not you, it’s me?’ I’ve heard that sometimes that helps.”
Another snort from L. Another groan from B. This was going well, but I was pretty sure I was not helping him with his math. Nor was I helping the atmosphere in the room. L. was now repeating the exchange to his other neighbor, N. Unfortunately, he reversed the sage advice, making it perhaps more realistic, but far less gentle: “And then Mr. v said, ‘You could say, ‘It’s not me, it’s you.’”
N. pointed out that he was pretty sure this was NOT the correct way to let someone down easy. Now HE was guffawing, L. was snorting into his mask, and B. continued to groan, realizing that this moment would likely live on, with MANY retellings, as that is the way with jokes in fifth grade.
It’s often at these moments that I feel the need to admonish my class, telling them that they really need to concentrate more on their math and that they really should stop cracking jokes. This is serious and requires their full attention. The hypocrisy of this is not lost on L., N. or B., of course.
“I think you started it,” B. notes. True. I decide to extricate myself from that corner of the classroom. I shuffle away, mumbling under my breath, “Just slip out the back, Jack, make a new plan, Stan…”
I had so much more material.