The teachers I’m watching do not engage in that peculiar type of magical thinking found in low-performing schools. By that I mean, yes, teachers teach and students learn. That’s indisputable. But whether or not the kids are learning what the teacher is teaching is not routinely ascertained. The classrooms I’m watching have teachers that make it their business every minute of every day to make sure the kids are learning what they’re teaching.

What happened to me when I was in 4th grade would never happen in these super classrooms.

Fourth Graders! Today we will begin our Adventures with Long Division!  Miss Cambridge fills the board with an avalanche of marks.

Then you bring this number down…like so! She waves her chalk in the air and aims it at the numbers. And then you add this… She piles numbers on top of numbers. …to this!! Watch the digits. She stands aside. Always watch the digits!

Patricia, come to the board and the go-home-for-lunch-bell ring out simultaneously. Miss Cambridge sniffs. We’ll have Patricia show us how to do long division when we get back. Class dismissed.

I’m dead. I moan to my mother as I come through the kitchen door. We started long division today.

Relax. She smooths a sheet of newsprint on the table. I’ll show you a trick.

Remember this phrase. She writes Dad. Makes. Scrumptious. Brownies. Then she underlines the first letter of each word. These first letters remind you what to do in what order. D for Divide. M for Multiply. S for subtract, and B for bring down.

I’ll name the steps.

Camels are the main mode of transportation in the desert. Mom draws a camel. They get very thirsty. So, at the oasis, Mom sketches a little pool of water surrounded by palm trees and more camels, a camel drinks twenty-six gallons of water in ten minutes, how many gallons can it drink in one minute? This is important for a camel driver to know, just in case he needs to jump on his camel after only a minute of drinking at the oasis.  She pauses. So: Dad makes scrumptious brownies. Divide. Multiply. Subtract. Bring down. I watch Mom, and the fog lifts. 2.6 gallons.

Now you do it.

I name the steps, do a few more camel problems, and eat a PB&J.

Back at school Miss Cambridge writes a problem on the board. A caravan of six camels is carrying 348 pounds of exotic rice to Egypt. The rice has been divided equally. Each camel carries the same amount of rice. What size is each camel’s load?  She hands me the chalk.

I write out 348 divided by 6.  I mouth Dad and divide 34 into 6; Makes and multiply 5 times 6; Scrumptious and subtract 30 from 36; Brownies and bring down the 8. I stare at the 48, think Dad Makes Scruumptious Brownies, and start the process again.

58. I put the chalk down and look at my teacher. 

You’ve got it! Miss Cambridge looks very pleased with herself and her magic.

Patty 11/7/11

6 thoughts on “No Magical Thinking for the Teachers I’m Watching; Not So for Miss Cambridge in 1953. More Stories Inspired by These High-Achieving, High-Poverty Classrooms I’m Watching

  1. Welcome to my world ~ If a train is travelling at 22mph, and a car is travelling at 89mph, how long will it be until the car catches up with the train if the train left 4 hrs before the car did? There wasn’t enough newsprint or Mrs. Raymonds in the world to make me learn this…I just didn’t care. I think kids succeed when I’m-dead-Patricias and their moms partner up with teachers, that’s magic.



  2. I remember when Mr. Cohen, my long-suffering Algebra teacher, told me, “while you won’t need this when you get married and have babies, you will need this next week.” He gifted me with a B and a “don’t take any more math.” (Now I wish I had. When I took a math course at Hampton Institute the year we were in the Navy–well, not we, but I came along to keep him company–him meaning Jack, not Mr. Cohen–I loved it. I got it. Maybe my math brain was a little slow at developing? As for the magic. You’re spot on. While I spit on magical thinking I adore plain old ordinary magic. (Spit? Almost a four-letter word for me.)


    1. Blessings on all you Algebra teachers, long-suffering shall be etched on their gravestones.
      My math brain kicked in during a summer class in college, Geometry, that I passed. If p, then q…who knew?
      Oh, and then I married my math tutor.


Plz leave a comment here.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s