May the 4th be with You: Symmetrical Starships

Today was May 4th… No, it was May THE Fourth! As in, “May the fourth be with you…” This meant the Polite Pirates (my students) simply had to do some Starwars-themed activities.

In preparation for a fun puzzle project, I taught the Polite Pirates about symmetry. I told them that they would be drawing spaceships. They were very excited.

“There is a reason the wings of an airplane are symmetrical,” I began. “Have you ever seen this trick?” I asked my class, taking a piece of paper and placing it just below my mouth. 

As I blew hard right over the top of the paper, the entire paper flew up and fluttered under my breath. “Oooohs” hummed across the room. 

I drew a picture of the paper on the board and explained, “When air travels quickly across the top of the paper, you create a vacuum (Physics Force, 2023). The fast moving air pulls the air that is resting in front of the paper up to join it. With no air in front of the paper, it gets sucked up into that empty space. 

Without any good pics of my teaching from earlier, I reintroduced the lesson right before dismissal to snap this photo of amazement.

“Your household vacuum is a machine that creates a vacuum in order to suck up dirt and dust,” I tell my students. “A motor spins a fan that pushes air out of the machine. When the machine is empty of air, that is when it is truly a vacuum.” Mouths make Os of understanding. 

I drew a crude picture of an airplane wing. “When air flows under the wing, it is going straight. That part is flat.” I draw arrows of air moving straight. “The front of the wing curves up and back. Air has to bend and is angled up when it travels over the wing. This causes the air that is resting above the wing to travel up also, creating a vacuum, or low pressure. As the air goes up, the wing goes up (Shaw, 2021).”

I picked the piece of paper back up, and once again demonstrated air pressure pulling the paper up. Of course, they all wanted to give this a try! After a minute or two of varying successes, I drew an entire airplane on the board.

This Polite Pirate planned out his space craft on paper before arranging polygons on paper.

“If one wing were smaller than the other, the plane would raise unevenly,” I explained. “The aircraft would start spinning. It is important for the wings to be symmetrical, so that the airplane remains balanced.” 

[All of this explaining took longer than I had planned, but it was worth it. The students were really into the science of “lift,” and it lended extra importance to the idea of symmetry.]

After attracting the Polite Pirates attention once again, I explained, “You are going to engineer your own starship space cruiser,” I whispered in a serious, hushed voice. “The main quality that your creation must have is symmetry. Whatever you design on one side must exist on the opposite side of your ship.”

Tracing the shapes with pencil proved tricky.

Each student received one large piece of paper. Students could work in pairs if they liked. Bowls full of plastic polygons were placed in the middle of groups of desks. The Polite Pirates took several polygons each and began assembling space ships. 

I had told them and wrote on the board; At least 8 polygons per ship, and at least 3 different shapes must be used. 

Students were to hold down the plastic shapes with one hand, and carefully trace an outline of the perimeter with pencil. Then they removed all of the polygons and went over the pencil with a marker. 

“You will trade your picture with a partner and try to recreate each others’ space ships, arranging the colorful plastic polygons on the papers,” I explained. 

Students took photos of their creations, so that they had answers to their puzzles.

Creativity swept the classroom! Colorful space cruisers covered desks and flowed across the floor. 

This Polite “Padawan” Pirate even drew an insert to show the movement of her spaceship.

A pair of students asked me if their shape was symmetrical when they had to add a blue triangle to a row of parallelograms in order to make a long thin trapezoid. I told them to ignore the color. “Can you cut it in half and fold the one side on top of the other hiding it completely?” When they saw that they could, they realized the symmetry of the shape. 

The one thing that I’d do differently is limit the number of shapes. While my students had a blast using tons of polygons to make gigantic space ships, the answers to puzzles were too open-ended. A student could use a hundred combinations of shapes to fill a large empty space. The better puzzles were the ones that had a set answer.

It would have been better for space ships to have only a few right answers. Then the refilling of the perimeter with colorful polygons would require more concrete problem-solving.

All in all, this ended up being a memorable, fun learning experience. The Force was very strong with all of the Polite Pirates today.


Physics Force. University of Minnesota . (2023). Retrieved May 4, 2023, from

Shaw, R. J. (Ed.). (2021). Dynamics of Flight: Kids Page. NASA. Retrieved May 4, 2023, from,wing%20up%20into%20the%20air.

Compare & Contrast Zombie Poetry

There are certain lessons that come off so well that I can’t help writing about them. This is one of those. For several years I’ve used a zombie apocalypse theme (#ZombieApocalypseRoom207) to smash a few last-minute math lessons right before the Polite Pirates take their state-wide standardized assessment (PSSA). This theme is exciting and scary, kind of like the test that my third graders take for the first time in their public-education career.

I’ve made videos of some of our classroom characters expressing the need to understand perimeter and area, as well as capacity in order to motivate my class to learn these concepts. It has worked great! They practice plotting data into graphs and review all sorts of math ideas within a story line involving life and death survival from brain-hungry imaginary horrors. They love it!

Scarlet and I recorded this video of our reading these poems (2021).

This year, as April was winding down, I decided to round out the month of poetry by having the Polite Pirates analyze a couple of poems about zombies. I Googled “Zombie Poetry,” and found a few perfect candidates. One of them was written by Kenn Nesbitt, and can be found on

Polite Pirates could watch the video of Scarlet and I reading the poems if they missed the lesson.

“Our Teacher’s Not a Zombie” is a four-stanza rhyming poem (ABCB pattern) about a teacher who behaves like a zombie until she’s had her coffee. The poem compares the educator to a zombie, both her appearance and behavior. It worked out wonderfully to read and analyze this with my students, because I was modeling what they would do between this poem and another! We discussed the way the first three lines from each stanza are simple sentences. The last line of each stanza is a subordinate clause. We had a blast talking about people we know who embody the oxymoron “Living Dead” before drinking their caffeine elixir. 

The second poem, “Java Zombie,” is a concrete poem. LIke the first, I found it through a simple Google search. It was created by John Ecko (2013), and is described as a tribute to the show “The Walking Dead.” The poet explains below the poem that he enjoys watching each new episode of the show when it comes out, but staying up late causes him to empathize with the zombies the next day more than he wishes. The content of this free-verse poem has to do with a single individual who mourns Mondays. He ingeniously describes himself as infected with exhaustion from sleep deprivation. Luckily, there is a cure. It’s the same medicine that the teacher from the first poem takes! Coffee. 

I especially like the way John Ecko has the speaker of his poem hunger for sleep. He feeds, but not on brains. The speaker eats hours. I love the line, “Victim of the dawn.” My students and I talked about what dawn is and what it means in this poem. “How is this person victimized by the start of a new day?” I help my students explore the meaning of the text. “Who are the many mentioned as monsters of the mundane?” I question. “Do you think that the speaker of the poem like his or her job?” I wrote the answers to these questions and some additional notes on the board as we reread and discussed the poetry.


Typically, at this point I’d have the Polite Pirates (my students) compose a paragraph, sharing the similarities and differences about the two poems. This time, however, I threw them for a loop when I gave them all great big pieces of white paper and told them to draw a zombie. I explained that they ought to make it big; fill the paper; because we were going to write sentences around the outside of it. (They had done this before, so they knew what I was getting at.) We were going to make our own concrete poem, as we discuss a concrete poem! A few of them asked to draw mugs of coffee, instead. They argued that this was one of the main things that the two poems had in common. I was sold. “Yes! Definitely, draw coffee, as long as your sentences compare and contrast the two zombie poems.” 

Some of the Polite Pirates watched Youtube videos to help them draw their zombies. Others drew their own unique creations. One girl drew a Mindcraft zombie. Another drew a girl being attacked by zombies. There were big mugs of coffee and small cups of java. Some had zombie hands holding them. One or two have zombie hands hanging from coffee cups. “Yuck!”

Before adding any color to their posters, the Polite Pirates had to first write sentences. Then they had to fine-tip-marker the writing. After that, they had to erase the pencil. Finally, it was time to color… “And, I don’t want to see any white!” They had to color every inch of their papers. “What if I want this part of my coffee cup to be white?” a student asked, pointing to a place that did look like it was supposed to be white. “Here is a white crayon,” I countered, passing a crayon to my student. 

In the end, I have a bulletin board full of super cool zombie artwork, and the Polite Pirates practiced analyzing poetry. It was a great way to deepen my students’ understanding of metaphor and figurative language.


Ecko, J. (2013). Java Zombie: A tribute to The Walking Dead. Ecko Vision. Retrieved May 1, 2023, from

Nesbitt, K. (2018). Our Teacher’s Not a Zombie. Poetry 4 Kids. Retrieved May 1, 2023, from

Beyond the Crib… Playing the Game of Cribbage

At the beginning of each school year I introduce a few fun games that encourage number sense and problem solving. Dominoes are great for mental math, recognizing patterns, and teaching multiples of five (Playification). Another favorite is Cribbage (First “How-To” on Cribbage).

Polite Pirates problem-solve in pairs

Cribbage is a card game that has two parts. I’ve written about the first part, the one that requires players to analyze their hands and decide which cards to keep and which to place into a crib.

During Math Centers, I have students work in teams of two or three to figure out which four cards of a six-card hand will generate the most points. Every student is very attentive, because if a team misses any combinations that provide points, and a student from another team can articulate the potential point-producing combination, this other student gets to claim the points, virtually stealing points from one another. They love that!

The “Starter” is placed face up on top of the deck and shared by everyone.

After a little practice with this, I explain cutting the deck to provide a “Starter” card. This card gets placed face up on top of the reassembled deck and is also used for making point-producing combinations at the end of each round. The Starter is shared by every team and the crib. Now, when students decide which cards to “lay away” for the crib, they should keep in mind the idea of collecting those points later, if the crib is theirs, or potentially providing points for opponents. Students practice mental math and problem solving for a few more Math Centers.

Once my students are well-versed in how to choose the best cards to keep, it is time to learn how to actually “Play” the game. There are loads of rules to learn and remember, but what makes it fun is that nearly everything you do gets you points! When teaching the Play, be sure to peg points. The kids get super excited with each and every point.

Polite Pirates help one another count points. The holes are marked in increments of five, so math can be used even while pegging your points!

The first thing I show students is how to hold their Hand. This is new to some nine-year-olds. They have to hold the cards they’ve kept because we place one down on the table or floor at a time, and you don’t want to get them mixed up.

Something unique to cribbage is that players (teams) will recollect their cards in order to calculate the points their hand is worth when Play is over. For this reason, have students place the cards that they are playing right in front of them; separate from other players/teams. 

Next, I explain that, during Play, we add up a running tally of “Pips.” Pips are the symbols on the playing cards. A “Five of Hearts” has five pips or hearts on it. Each face card (Jack, Queen, and King) are worth ten pips in cribbage. An Ace is valued at only one pip in this game. It is very useful; Hang on to those! (Here is a very interesting blog explaining pips and the symbolism of cards.) As students place one of their cards face up on the table or floor, they don’t say the number on the card. They announce the new sum of all of the face up cards. So, if a King had already been played, and that player (team) voiced “Ten,” and then I play a Two, I will say “Twelve” out loud. If the next player (team) places a Three face up, they will say “Fifteen” out loud, keeping a running tab on the growing tally of pips. 

The player or team that plays the Fifteen is rewarded Two Points on the cribbage board. You get points during Play whenever you form a combination of Fifteen, a pair, three or four of a kind, and/or a run. These point-producing combinations are similar to what students were looking for when deciding which cards to place in the crib and which to keep. But now, students are forming them with the help of their opponents’ cards. 

Let’s say two Queens have been played. The player who placed the second Queen on the table or floor will be rewarded two points. If a third Queen gets played, the person (team) that played it will get six points, because it forms three pairs. 

Similarly, when a run of three or more cards in consecutive ascending order are played in a row, the player (team) gets the number of points that represents the number of cards. In other words, if a Ten, then a Jack, and lastly a Queen were played in a row, the person (team) that played the Queen would get three points. 

During “Play” the pips can never exceed 31. This is the magic number of cribbage play. As players are placing cards face up and voicing the running sum of pips, they are mindful of what cards they have left to play. The closest to 31, without going over, gets a point. If you can play a card to make the Play value exactly 31 pips, you get two points. As the Play gets close to 31, if a player (team) does not have any card to play that would keep the play under 31, they say “Go.” This is when the other team gets a point. That team must play any cards that they can, keeping the tally under 31. They can collect points from pairs, runs, and even score two points for making exactly 31. 

At this point, all of the cards that have been played get turned over (facedown), so that they don’t confuse the players during the next Play. The player (team) who said “Go” during the last play starts off the new play. 

Once all of the cards have been played, and a point was awarded to the player (team) who plays the “Last Card,” it is time for each player (team) to gather up all four of their cards and get points for their individual hands. (Here is a website to reference for points.

This we do one team at a time. The dealer goes last. The crib is counted separately, and that is the very last thing to be tallied. It’s important to count in this order, because whoever reaches the end of the cribbage board first, regardless of how many points are in a hand, wins. In this way, you may not want to be the dealer if a tight game is nearing the end! 

I hope this blog is helpful for learning how to teach cribbage to students. One of the many benefits of  learning this game is the cross-generational play it opens up. It was one of the first games that I was able to play with the “grownups” during holiday celebrations and vacations. My dad told me about a league he played at his Senior Center in Massachusetts. One thing that he complained about was how fast those games were. It was too much pressure.

That being said, you might want to put timers on for students, in order to keep the game moving. Also, you could have a timer for the whole game; Whoever has the most points when the timer goes off wins! Have fun!

Sources: (Simple how-to-play site) (Simple, kid-friendly read) (Thorough, interesting, includes “how-to”)

Popularly played by seniors (my dad loved to play, and I was taught by my mom), here’s an article from a Senior Center introducing Cribbage to the game repertoire:

Give ‘em What They Want; Give ‘em What They Need

Several days ago, I was talking with a teacher who was complaining about a student who had hidden his brand new eyeglasses. She told me that he had reported them lost, but he hadn’t left the room all morning. How lost could they be? Rather than having misplaced them, she believed them hidden. “He is just looking for attention,” this teacher informed me. 

At the end of the day the same teacher delivered the news, the glasses were miraculously found. They had been on top of the book case all day. It’s hard to prove, but she thought that the student knew they were there all along. When I asked if she made a big stink about the student finding them, the teacher told me that she thought that’s what the student wanted. 

I told the teacher that she should have stopped everything and celebrated the student’s amazing discovery. Write an ode to “glasses-finder of the year.” Take the student’s picture and mirror it on the screen. Etcetera. The teacher smiled politely, then returned to her room. I’m sure she thought that I was joking, but I was completely serious. 

This little story reminds me of my dog Jane. She pines for attention whenever I am around her. It can be annoying. I’ll be walking through the kitchen, and she will flop down in my way, obstructing my path. She pushes her wet nose into my hand anytime it is within reach. While I wash dishes she is pawing at my leg. And, don’t even get me started on the whining! The thing is, it feels like there is no limit to the amount of attention that Jane needs. If I stop and pet her, she just pleads for more! My wife and I joke about Jane having a bottomless love tank. 

The thing is, I’ve done experiments to see whether there is a limit to the amount of attention that Jane needs. I found that it actually is possible to satisfy Jane’s affection quota. It just takes some patience and sacrifice. One day, I sat down on the floor, after Jane solicited attention. I pet her face and rubbed her belly. She squirmed her 5o pound body onto my lap. She rolled around on my legs and tried to lick my face over and over. Not a fan of face lickings, I redirected her to simply accept my pettings. After a while, Jane got off my lap and wandered off. I was in awe. Wow, Jane’s love tank does have a bottom. I’ve done this affection dump several more times since then, with the same result. 

Jane does not pester me any less than she used to, but she also doesn’t pester me more. I don’t always have the time to lavish attention on her. I think that it was helpful to me, that I found out Jane can have her affection quota satisfied. Her solicitations used to be a source of annoyance and even guilt. 

I had a professor in college suggest that when a student walks into class late, rather than ignoring it, you could draw attention to it. Half the class’s attention is lost to the entering student, anyway. Just welcome them to class, and you will maintain the authority of the person who is in charge. I practice this all of the time. I also use the opportunity to summarize what I have been teaching for the tardy pupil as well as anyone whose attention had faltered before the disturbance. 

Back to our friend with the missing glasses; Who is to say that providing a platform for attention will completely cure a need and fix all future solicitations for public recognition? Like Jane, they will probably seek attention again almost immediately. But, fighting it is like patching up a broken dike with chewing gum. That dam is going to burst. You could redirect the water before it drowns the whole town! 

And, what if the student just found out that he needs glasses? Maybe he is dealing with something deeper than just a need for attention. Perhaps he has recently been teased about his glasses. What if his parents have been giving him a hard time about wearing them, and it is a source of conflict? The missing glasses could very well be bigger than just attention-seeking.

We all have students who crave attention a little more than others. Don’t stiff arm the solicitations. Redirect them, so that the student gets what they need, and the class can stay on task. “You can’t find your glasses? Hmmm… This sounds like a story I recently read… This might require some problem-solving, just like our math work from this morning… Can you remind me what they look like? Use as many adjectives/details as possible. If you were your glasses, where would you wander off? Walk me through all that has happened since you last had them on your face. Use sequence words like first, then, next, before that, after that, etc…” And, etcetera!

How do you handle incessant attention-seeking? What would you have done with our eyeglasses mis-placer?

Deep Teaching with Story Telling

“All of that, just to teach this little lesson?”

How deep does your teaching go? One way to help students understand a concept and remember the lesson is to share a story. On Thursday I was teaching an idea about fractions that was difficult to grasp. We had been working on understanding this concept all week. I had drawn models on the board and number lines on students’ papers. A few simply were not getting it. I was at a loss. 

The lesson had to do with the fact that whenever the numerator is the same as the denominator, a fraction is equal to one whole. It doesn’t matter if it is 365 over 365 or 5/5, they both equal one whole. How? While I could stop at providing the rule, I like to explain the “why” of math. The following story ensued. 

This is my dad, well past his book-binding days.

When I was in high school, I had the worst job! (This got everyone’s attention.) At least it was my least favorite job. I worked in a factory. What we did was kind of cool. This factory bound books. It was a book bindery. My dad worked there. He was a manager, so he was in charge of a team of people who operated different machines. He got the jobs, planned out how to complete them, gave people orders, made sure things ran smoothly, fixed machines, and was responsible for shipping out completed jobs to happy customers. 

The book bindery had two parts. My dad’s part worked on orders of new books. The other part of the business would repair or re-bind old books. This part would get a shipment of books from university and school libraries in the summer. Workers would use a huge cutting machine to slice the spine of a book away. Then the front and back cover would be removed. A new cover would be made and glued onto the old pages that had been either glued or sometimes sewn together. The new cover would get stamped with the name of the book, author, and publisher. There was a different gigantic machine for each part of this process. This is where I worked for a summer right after graduating from high school. 

846-06111912 © ClassicStock / Masterfile Model Release: Yes Property Release: No 1930s ELDERLY FACTORY WORKER IN OVERALLS SMOKING PIPE PUNCHING TIME CARD

What was so bad about it? Sounds kind of neat, right? There was NO freedom. You had to “clock in” at 8 AM, sharp. It was best to do it a couple of minutes before eight. If you were late, you’d get a “talking to.” A manager would come by and tell you that you had clocked in late too many times. One more and you were gone; You’d be fired. The manager might allow you to explain yourself, but there was no empathy. The clock was unforgiving, and you need to be on time. “Clocking in” meant getting your stiff paper card from a metal sleeve holding many cards, pushing it through a slot on the top of a metal machine displaying the time on the front. You’d push your card down until a cha-gump was heard. At the same time the sound happened, you would feel something grab your card. When you pulled it out, a time would be stamped on it. 

One more thing. It wasn’t a good idea to stamp your card more than a couple of minutes early, unless you had permission. The owners of the bindery did not want to pay anyone more than they had to, and if your card had any extra time on it, they would be responsible to give you money for that time. 

A book with the cover removed, you can see the stitching.

After clocking in, I would get to my workstation to pick up where I left off the day before. I was lucky. Whether it was because my dad worked in the other part of the bindery or I was good at it, I don’t know, but I got to operate “The Blade.” This was the gigantic cutting machine that sliced the spines off of old books. I also used it to trim the edges of pages, so that they were clean and straight for rebinding.

In order to work the machine, you would place the book onto a metal surface and push it against the back wall with the spine facing you. I would adjust the depth of the cut by turning a knob to move the book closer or farther away. When I had it just right, I would press a petal down with my foot. This lowered a metal wall that clamped the book down and held it in place. At this point I could see whether I had lined up the book just right or not. I might need to fine-tune the settings before making my cut. [I had to be careful, because if I cut off too much, the book will not have enough space on the inside of the pages for anyone to read it. If that happened, I’d just wasted an old book. You would get into big trouble if that were to happen. There are no do overs! If you didn’t cut enough off, then you could do it again, but you are wasting valuable time.] With the book held tight by the big clamp, I would push two buttons on either side of the front of the machine with the thumb of each hand, and a giant guillotine of a blade would swoosh down right in front of the clamp, slicing the spine away from the book.

Why the TWO thumb buttons? Let’s say you wanted to push a book against the back with one hand while slicing the binding away. You could accidentally cut every finger off of your hand with one fatal swish of that blade! Forcing you to use both hands at the same time ensures zero accidents. 

Unfortunately, other machines had work-arounds; ways to bypass the safety procedures; and even the cutting machine could be fooled. You could tape a piece of cardboard over one button, tricking the machine into thinking that one of your thumbs was pushing it in. Basically, there were opportunities to become seriously injured on the job. While management might give someone a hard time for doing something dangerous, they would also heap tons of pressure on everyone to achieve inhuman amounts of productivity. You constantly felt like you weren’t getting enough done fast enough. If only there was a way to quicken what you were doing. What if you eliminated one of the timely safety precautions…?

At 10AM a bell would ring, and we could take a fifteen-minute break. The workers would pile into a break room in the middle of the factory where picnic (ironic name) tables were set up. We did this even if it was a gorgeous summer day. It was probably better to NOT know how beautiful it was outside! At the tables we ate snacks, drank coffee, and chatted. There wasn’t any talking on the factory floor; chatting would slow down production, so this was a time for finding out what coworkers had done the night before. We read newspapers to find out what was happening in the world outside of the book bindery. 

10:15AM did not find us exiting the break room. We had better already be out of there and at our stations when the next bell rang. Anyone found lingering would get a talking to

Another bell would ring at noon. [While I was sharing all of this information with my students, I was drawing a timeline of my prison-like day on the dry-erase board.] You would go back to the break room. You better have a packed lunch, because there’s no running to McD’s, even though it was only 2 miles away. I tried it once and the stress of making it back to work on time equaled more indigestion than it was worth!

The factory floor was cement, which caused your feet to hurt. I piled up cardboard boxes to stand on, and I wore sneakers with thick soles, but once your feet hurt, there was no fixing them. Additionally, even though there wasn’t much of a dress code, we did have to wear pants. It was summer time when I worked at the book bindery. Even though the place had air conditioning, the owners were constantly adjusting the temperature to use as little power as possible. It always seemed a little too hot. 

It was difficult to avoid counting the hours between breaks and leading up to quitting time. When would the final bell ring?

Now, we get to the math of the story. I look to my students for an answer. Who can help me get out of here? What time did the final bell ring? I began my eight-hour day at 8AM. One student guessed, “6PM.”

“Was that a guess, or did you work that out?” I query. “Come on. Think. Eight to Noon would be how many hours?”

Another student half-guessed, “5PM.”

“You’re getting closer,” I hint.

You can probably imagine that someone figured out that eight hours would take me from 8AM to 4PM, but we have to account for the half hour of lunch. The owners aren’t going to pay me to eat. That was my time. The 15 minute coffee break in the morning was included in my work day. (Probably, this was meant to fuel productivity with a caffeine jolt, not to mention relieve the tension of not being able to talk all morning.)

Let’s say a guy has a medical condition that requires him to drink some medicine on the hour, every hour. If he takes a drink each hour of an eight-hour work day, his day is split into 8 parts; 8 hours = 8 parts. He doesn’t miss a dose, so he has had 8/8 drinks per day. The 8/8 is one day. 

I didn’t need to stop and take a drink. I only stopped during the allocated break times. With only two breaks, my day was split up into three parts. I work all three parts, so I work three out of my three parts. My 3/3 day is only one day, also. My friend and I both work a full eight-hour day, but mine is simply divided up differently. 

8/8 = 1

3/3 = 1

8/8 = 3/3

I’ve drawn timelines (number lines) on the board. It is easy to see that the same amount of time is broken up differently. 

If my friend keeps his medicinal drink in a 32 ounce water bottle, and his dosage is one ounce per hour, how many days will he be able to use the bottle before he has to refill it? 

How many doses will one day be? With each day broken up into eight equal parts (hours), the denominator will be 8. The total number of ounces (32) will be the numerator. The improper fraction will look like this: 32/8. Is there enough medicine for more than one day? A lot more. How much more?

How many eights go into 32? Or, how many eight-hour days can the 32 ounces be stretched over? You could do repeated subtraction. The water bottle will last four days. 

This Polite Pirate would be celebrating her birthday over the weekend. She got all dressed up on Friday to celebrate. I told her that she looked like a “boss.”

Before leaving this story and transitioning to a different lesson, my students had to know why on earth ANYONE would work at such a horrible place. I told them that there are pros and cons to nearly everything. First of all, this could very well be the only job that some of the workers could get. The book bindery employed many people who did not speak English. Once they were trained on how to operate a machine, they could do their job efficiently, and it didn’t matter that they could not communicate via the same language as the owners. Occupations that require more communicating might require people to know English. 

But, I knew English, so why did I work there? It was a summer job, and although the hourly wage was not very high, it was the only place that offered a full 40-hour work week to a temporary employee. Other businesses weren’t interested in investing training in a worker who would only be there for a few weeks. Also, if I worked over 40 hours, which the boss wasn’t too keen about, I’d get “time and a half.” Ooooh, I feel more math coming on… Groans. 

Many businesses only offer benefits, which include health insurance, to “full-time” employees. This title belongs to people who contract or agree to work a 40-hour week. Sometimes it is worth working a less attractive job, so that you can keep your family safe by having health insurance. This is the American way. 

I’ve told the Polite Pirates (my students) all about running my own painting business before becoming a teacher; There’s lots of math in those conversations! At this point in my explanation I point out that while running your own business means you are the boss, and you have freedom, it is a lot of work! Had the stress of making sure that I had future painting projects to do, because if my work dried up… Then what? There’s no money coming in! So, I had to do a lot of marketing, and that costs money. Then I had the pressure of finishing projects on time. Sometimes I had to work more than 40 hours in a week. Because I set prices with customers before beginning the projects, I didn’t make any extra money if I worked longer hours! And, what if I priced it badly? What if I thought that a job would be lucrative if I charged 300 dollars, only to find out that the product needed to complete the job would cost me $250? Don’t even get me started on spilled paint…! How much of that profit would be left if I had to buy a customer a new carpet? 

Working at a factory is, believe it or not, liberating from the stress of all of that responsibility. You punch in your time clock, put in your hours, punch out, and leave all of the thoughts of work at work. What you didn’t complete will be waiting for you to finish tomorrow. Let the manager stress out about how a job is going to get done. 

Finally, although this all sounds kind of awful, I am glad that I had the experience of working in the book bindery. I learned all about how books are put together, which was interesting. But, more importantly, I got to see first-hand a type of life that I may not have known had I not worked there. 

As I rose from my chair to erase my notes from the board, my students understood that all of that was to teach a simple lesson on fractions. “All of that, just to teach us about whole numbers…?” a few students said in surprise. Yup.

Candy-Coded Morse Mondays

These two were so excited about earning their treasure through decoding the Morse Coded Monday Message that they just had to take photos of their discovery; a pile of Hawk Tickets in the vacant locker.

Yesterday was Monday, and among other things, that means Morse Code Morning Work for the Polite Pirates! Each Monday, since I introduced Morse code to the class back in January (Coding Teamwork), I’ve provided dots and dashes for deciphering. The prize for first decoder varies. At times it’s an intrinsic reward. One time, I hid a pile of behavior-plan tickets in the locker of a student who never showed up at the beginning of the year. Many of the codes contain riddles, so they are codes within codes.

The riddle within a riddle on this occasion was the vocabulary word “nonexistent” that described the Polite Pirate who had never shown up.

This was the case yesterday. I made up a word problem involving kids and candy. We have been learning fractions, and I was planning on introducing equivalent fractions first thing. Instead of saying, “Today we are going to learn about equivalent fractions,” I buried the treasure within the Morse coded message.  

Admittedly, not everyone was super into decoding this message. When I am coming up with a message, I try to keep it short. I don’t want the task to seem daunting. Another thing I have to look out for is only including letters. I avoid punctuation, and any numbers need to be spelled out. There is Morse code for letters and punctuation, but the image of the coded alphabet that I provide for the Polite Pirates does not have that code in it. (A fun, albeit challenging, task could be having the Polite Pirates figure out the code for numbers by embedding dash/dot combinations into messages that would only make sense after doing some calculating to figure out the answers to math problems. My students could build their own decoder of numbers through doing math, mixed in with Morse code.)

This is a screenshot of what I put into the Morse code translator website.

I messed up yesterday’s code. I accidentally included a number that wasn’t spelled out. When some students came to the “2” within the text, they knew it was a number. Rather than have them figure out what number it was from the problem, I told them it was an upside down five. (I can’t help myself!) It took them less than a minute to understand it was a two. 

Before stumbling across the number within the code, the Polite Pirates had figured out that it was going to be a word problem. This had some of them annoyed and others intrigued. In order to sweeten the deal, I had hinted that there would be a prize for whoever solved the problem first. Of course my hint was also a riddle: “The first to solve this will literally get the answer.” This worked because some of the first few words include “six candies.” My pirates, polite or otherwise, were going to bite onto this extrinsic motivation! Also, I was able to reteach the vocabulary literal versus figurative while they worked. 

When the word “fraction” was decoded, students knew what they were up against. Mr. Weimann was up to his many tricks. This was going to be “fun learning.” We have been working on fractions. The decoding heated up, and students began working in a frenzy. They were ready for this. 

As the final letters and words were discovered a veil of secrecy seemed to lower over the classroom. In order to earn the answer, you must figure it out. Now, students were back at their desks, hunched over their notebooks. “What is the problem about?” I prompted, half for the students working out the word problem, and half for those who were still decoding the Morse code message. I wanted the first half to understand the message of the problem, and I hoped to light a fire under the ones struggling with dots and dashes. This second goal worked, because one of my students who regularly succeeds in decoding these messages first had come into the classroom late that morning. Her pencil nearly carved the letters into her paper as she frantically discovered each letter of code. 

“Candy!” nearly everyone exclaimed, for the rumor had flown around the room like flu germs in a cramped elevator. 

Approaching the students working out the math, I asked, “What are you asked to find?” This is the second of our four word problem prompts that we use as a mantra when performing problem-solving math. 

  1. What is this problem about?
  2. What are you asked to find?
  3. What is the important information?
  4. What are you going to do? (What operations are necessary?)

I informed the front-runners that there was a riddle within the problem within the code. “Don’t be fooled,” I warned. “Look closely at who is getting candy in the end. It is written in the second person,” I instruct. I was hinting at the fact that, while you are sharing the candies with your friends, you still get to have some! “The problem states, ‘What fraction of the candy would each of you get?’” I quietly read to the students who are working out the math. 

One of the students got it. “There are three people and six candies,” he whispers. 

“Mm hmm,” I encouraged.

“Is this it?” His competition showed me her paper. She has not only written the correct answer, 2/6, but she drew pictures to show her work! I tell her yes, just as the boy shows me his paper. He has the same fraction. I then tell them to see if they can “simplify that fraction. Is there any way to make those numbers smaller, but have it describe the same amount of the candy?” They crunch the numbers simultaneously. 

I was so impressed with their work that I took pictures to project on the board.

“One-third!” they exclaim in unison. If I don’t say that they are correct verbally, my face assures them of victory. And, the action of getting a big bag of candy out of a cabinet is more proof of triumph than the class can handle. Everyone’s attention is on the Monday Morse code math masters who have earned the prize; literally the answer to the problem; six candies each to share between themselves and two of their friends. 

Before giving them the candies, I had them explain their work. They took turns writing and drawing on the board, talking their Polite Pirate peers through what they had done. The student who had drawn pictures in her notebook, not only drew them on the board but wrote complete sentences describing the whole procedure. I was so impressed that I was tempted to give her additional candies, but no, I am a pirate captain, if nothing else, and I be stingy with me treasure! (Really, I like to keep my word, strictly, when I can, because I stretch my meanings all of the time!!)

Who to share their treasure with, these two could not decide. I suggested that they witness who goes back to their desk the quietest and does the best job copying what is on the board into their spiral notebooks. The Polite Pirate pair nodded and the race was on… again. This time, every pirate but two were scrambling to get to their seats, sit up straight, and quickly copy everything the first two had explained. The candy captains walked around inspecting the work of their peers. Candy was dispersed, but you couldn’t tell because everyone was feverishly writing. 

And, this is how we began discussing equivalent fractions. As kids crunched on candy, I used the idea of candy to suggest each piece being cut in half or thirds. Halves would produce 4 pieces out of a total of 12 going to each student. Thirds would make it so that 6 pieces out of 18 would be had by each friend. We went backward, too. “How many sixes are in 18?” I asked. I had a worksheet for students to try out, and I circulated my ship… I mean classroom, and checked for understanding. 

One last thing about Morse Code. Some students complained and grumbled about the work of decoding the message. When the dust settled, I told my Polite Pirates that my intention is for them to know the code so well that they do not need to keep referencing the alphabet decoder. I had them try it out. I told them to close their eyes. “What letter is four dots?” I asked the group.

“H!” they called out in unison. 

“And, what letter is only one dot?”

“S,” the class provided. I did this with several more letters that we have seen over and over, and they had used to decipher the message still in front of them on the Monday Morning Board. They were amazed at their memory. I told them that this is how you memorize something. You have to work at it, practice it, use it. I’m planning on helping them memorize the code and see if they can decipher something without me providing the alphabet. 

Building Bridges: A Hands-On Math Lesson

This blog serves two purposes: First, I just shared a lesson with the Polite Pirates (my class) that went so well that I want to share it with everyone. And, second, due to its complexity, several students need additional clarification. I am hoping that by writing this down, I can make clear how the business of bridge-building works.

Yesterday morning I dug out the colorful, connectable, plastic blocks I’d stored away in a bin under the counter. I told my students that they would be building bridges. Cheers rang out. They were to work as a team to construct a way for a car to travel from one pile of dictionaries to another. The Polite Pirates cheered with joy.

“There’s a catch, however. You have to buy the blocks!” I exclaimed. The class groaned. “Each one costs ¼ of a dollar. (I’ve been teaching fractions and mixed numbers.)”

“How much is that?!” a few students grumbled.

“You know how much a quarter of a dollar is,” I accused. 

“Twenty-five cents?” a student clarified.

“Yes. You will work as a team of engineers. Use your Spiral Notebooks to keep track of the number of blocks. You’ll need to figure out the total cost of your bridge.

“Oh, one more thing: Your bridge is going to make you money. That’s right! Sure, it will cost you to build it, but once it is done, you can charge a toll for cars to use it. For every foot of bridge you are allowed to charge one dollar. 

Making money got their attention;)

This is the slightly confusing part (one of them, anyway): If about twenty vehicles travel across your bridge per hour, how long will it take to make (dramatic pause) one thousand dollars? 

Before setting them loose, I showed them that this problem was doable. (The looks on their faces were incredulous.) “Let’s say you build a 10 foot bridge. How much money can you charge to cross it?”

“Ten dollars.”

“Right, but that is $10 per car. If twenty cars travel across your bridge in one hour, how much money do you earn?”

Thinking… “Two hundred dollars,” a student offers. 

“Good; You are correct. Where did that number come from?” I prompt. I want the class to know how to do these calculations.

“I multiplied ten by twenty.”

“Right. If your bridge makes $200 every hour, how long will it take to get to a thousand dollars?” Their minds were working, now! 

“Five!” several students shouted in unison. 

“Don’t forget that you need to use some of that money to pay for the building blocks that you used to construct the bridge,” I remind them. And, they’re off! 

The Polite Pirates had a blast working together. I was impressed that they almost instantly formed the idea of making supports to hold up longer sections of bridge. In this way they could earn more toll money. Of course, they had to count the blocks that they used to hold up their bridge when tallying up the cost of building materials. I didn’t let them use anything other than the building blocks for construction. 

Once the bridges got to be several feet long, every single student on the team was needed to hold the bridge in place as more supports and lengths were added. I overheard one third grader explaining to his partners that even though it would cost more to use extra blocks, they would make more money from tolls, because they could make their bridge longer. I reinforced this idea by sharing, “Sometimes you have to spend money to make money, folks!”

After a timer I had set went off, I had everyone stop building and count up the number of blocks that they had used. One team split up the task by divvying up the sections to be counted. They then added all the numbers together. Next, it was time to calculate the cost of all of those blocks. One team had used 355 blocks! How could they figure out 25¢ per block? 

I reminded them that they already knew what a quarter of 100 was. “Separate the 300 from the 55,” I told them. “Each 100 would be how much?”

“Twenty-five dollars,” someone answered. 

“That’s right. Now, how many twenty-fives do you have? We’re talking about 300 blocks.” I wrote 100÷4=25 on the board. When someone suggested that they needed 3 twenty-fives, I put X3 under the 25. “These might seem like really big numbers, but you already know what ‘three-quarters of a dollar is,” I prompt.

“Seventy-five cents!” a few blurt out. 

“Not cents, though…” I can see the gears turning behind my students’ eyes. It feels like I can hear the steam coming from their ears. They even gasp with understanding. 

“Seventy-five dollars.”

“Now, for the 55 other blocks. Is there a number close to 55 that is divisible by four,” sounded like Greek to them. I reworded my question in a more leading way. “Can 48 be evenly divided by 4?” This connected with their math facts. A student raised his hand.

After deciding that 48 blocks would cost $12, we tackled the leftovers. “What’s left?” I asked the Polite Pirates who were sitting so patiently on the carpet in the front of my classroom. Counting up from 48 to 55, we discovered there were seven blocks left. “How can we figure out the cost of these?”  

When this question was met with blank stares, I quickly drew seven (very ugly) squares on the dry erase board. I drew a hasty circle around the first four. “Each of these cost 25¢. How much money is four quarters?” Lights blinked on in every students’ eyes. 

“One dollar…!”

 “And…” I prompted for the cost of the remaining three unaccounted for blocks. 

“A dollar and 75¢,” a student finished the thought.  

“So, these seven cost $1.75, the 48 blocks cost $12, and the 300 blocks cost $25 X 3,” I summed up our calculations thus far. “What will this team need to do next? Tell the person next to you.” Then I sent everyone back to their seats to work out the costs of their bridges. I told them to figure out the prices independently. Then compare your work with your teammates. In this way you can double-check your math accuracy. 

I walked around the room, helping students with their division facts. There was a wonderful hum of productive struggle. Some individuals figured out that they would have to add more than one additional hour on to their original answer in order to account for the cost of the bridge. Most found that only one hour would do the trick. 

Now that all of the math was done, it was time to write about it. I had posted a question in the Polite Pirates’ Google classroom: “How long will it take for your engineering firm to make one thousand dollars?”

They could work with partners and discuss their writing with their team, but each student was responsible for producing their own explanation of what they did. I left the math that I’d shown them on the board, so they could copy it into their notes, or just write about what we figured out together. 

One of the things I like most about using Google classroom on iPads is how easy it is to use the “Speak to Text” feature. It’s true, you have to teach and practice rereading and editing your text, in order for students to use this effectively, but it speeds up typing entire paragraphs. It also helps facilitate a more “Discourse” -style text. When my students purely type, they are less likely to include opening statements, and they will leave out key details. Through the process of “Telling” their iPads what they did, you get a more structured description. And, because it is easy and fast to do, students don’t have a problem including more details. 

Here are just a few samples of the amazing answers that the Polite Pirates typed into their Google classroom assignment.

I hope you enjoyed hearing/reading about this lesson that my students experienced this week. If you have ideas on ways to improve or modify it, let me know in the comments. Thanks, and take care.

Surrogate Class: When You Are Substituted by a Classy Individual

This blog is an homage to the incredible experience of having a very classy person fill in for me while I was recently detained from my Polite Pirates. It is inaccurate to say that Katie Boraske filled in for me. It is true that she fulfilled the role of substitute. That is what temporary teachers who replace an educator for a time are technically called, but Katie was so much more than that!

A dairy substitute replaces natural cream in coffee. One might use it if they want to cut down on their fat intake, save money, or want to store it longer than half & half will keep. It is able to be kept without refrigeration and longer than natural cream because it’s made using a variety of manmade chemicals. While there may be some benefits to having dairy substitutes, this coffee snob sticks to organic half & half, only. 

Katie Boraske has worked as my school’s “building sub,” off and on for the past couple of years. Building substitutes are available all of the time, in case an educator experiences symptoms of illness (Covid carefulness) and has to leave on short notice. When my father passed away recently, Katie was there to fill in for me. 

In addition to working as a building sub, Katie has helped me coach our elementary school chess club this year. Her love for the game, desire to grow in chess play, and gifted classroom management is invaluable to our biweekly meetings on Wednesday afternoons! 

When I found out that Katie would be the one to substitute for me, I was ecstatic. She let me know the moment that she found out via text message. Then we communicated about a few details in the lesson plans that I had left. What happened later on in the morning, though, was off-the-hook awesome. Katie texted me pictures and videos of what my Polite Pirates were doing. More than a substitute, Katie provided a portal to the classroom. 

At the time, I was going through tons of photos, preparing a slideshow for honoring my father’s life. When I came across a picture of myself with lots of hair (I’ve been bald for the past couple of years), I thought it would be funny to share with the class. I texted the image to Katie. Not only did she mirror the photo onto the screen in my classroom via Apple TV, but she video taped the Polite Pirates’ responses during the dramatic reveal. When she shared this video with me, my heart nearly burst with joy and laughter. I felt like I was there in the room with them!

The excellence in instruction, classroom management, and communication that Katie Boraske demonstrated daily made it not only comfortable, but fun to put together plans for her to teach my students for me. More than taking my place, it felt like Katie was a supplement to my teaching. A supplement is something that completes or enhances something else. We take vitamin supplements to fill in our deficiencies and help our bodies be the healthiest they can. 

We don’t always have control over who will stand in for us, but I hope that you can have the experience of someone as classy as Katie to substitute you when the need arises. It would be fun to hear some stories of other great surrogates to class. What funny, awesome, or unique experiences have you had with substitutes? 

When a Bully Uses the Insult, “You’re Dumb!” Are They Attempting to Mute Their Victim?

Text that I am struggling with

At the beginning of the new version of “Scarlet’s Superpower” four bullies are introduced. I’ve been laboring on what I want them to say. As it turns out, what they actually say out loud doesn’t matter, because Scarlet can’t hear them. It is the act of making fun of Scarlet that is important to the story. However, the reader will take in the message of these characters. 

As I dream up this fictional scenario, I am thinking to myself; What do I want the reader to experience? My method of writing in first person, present- tense is designed to create maximum empathy. The reader ought to feel what Scarlet is feeling. Am I bullying my readers? 

And, once again I am totally over-thinking my writing! Time to blog. 

In a blog about “11 Common Grammar Mistakes” Brian Clark (2021) suggests poor grammar might make an author seem “dumb.” Does he mean ignorant, unintelligent, powerless to push one’s message, or all three?

First of all, according to the Anti-Bullying Alliance (n.d.), bullying is defined as “The repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power. Bullying can be physical, verbal or psychological. It can happen face-to-face or online.” Is it even possible for an author to bully their readers? Why would they read the texts?

This idea of an author “bullying” readers is thought-provoking to me. I can imagine this happening in some texts. The reader is hooked on a cool book. They have “become friends” with the characters, enjoy the scenery of the setting, and feel enmeshed with the problems of the protagonist, when all of a sudden, things go awry! All of a sudden your imagination is getting pummeled from all sides, and there is no escape. I have read books that stress me out. A person who has suffered trauma could be triggered. 

Most people probably know what they are getting themselves into when picking up a book. I listen to a lot of the books that I consume, and go through them faster than I can research them. It’s common for me to find myself halfway through an audiobook before I decide to look up some information on it. This recently happened to me when I listened to “Where the Crawdads Sing.” I’m deep in the “Marshland” of North Carolina, surviving on a truly minimalistic existence of mollusks, when the author takes every last thread of hope away from me! Kye is left with an impossible situation. 

This is an awesome book, and I highly recommend it. The plot kept me guessing all the way to the end, which I love! I look forward to reading this again someday and realizing how much the poetry keeps me and Kye afloat throughout the text. If you’ve read it, you know what I’m talking about. Hints without spoilers. 

Again, the bullying scene this blog is addressing

Back to Scarlet’s book, though. I feel like one kid calling another kid a “baby” is a universal put down, and relatively painless.. Thus, I start off the bullying with a kid suggesting baby-like behavior, when in actuality he is just stating the fact that she is lying down in the room that has the youngest charges of the daycare. You can almost hear the cadence of his words, as though they were a chant, “Scarlet is sleeping with the babies.” 

I give the kid braces to show his age. All of your grown up teeth have to grow in before you get braces. Perhaps he thinks he is older and more mature because he has braces. 

I also have him spit the words so that you know that this kid, while stating a fact, is sharing it as a put down. He is “spitting” his message at Scarlet, whether she is able to feel it or not. I don’t particularly like the way the words work, though. I’ll most likely change or omit the “spitting,” even though I like the concept. I think I’d have to add another sentence to get the point across, and I don’t want the tiny text to be as cumbersome as this silly blog! Ha ha.

One thing that I think this scene gets across is that these four kids are real bullies. The fact that they are making fun of Scarlet on the other side of a glass door, where she can’t hear them, whether she had her coils on or not, makes it seem like this is not the first time that they have singled her out for ridicule. Also, does it fit the definition of bullying if no “intentional hurt” happens?

Here, I am faced with a serious dilemma. Scarlet HAS actually been the target of some unfriendly social situations this year. She has had difficulty making, keeping, and being friends. When Scarlet and I first came up with this idea of incorporating bullying as a theme of her story, there wasn’t even a hint of peer problems. Is our text beginning to touch true trauma, and will that be troubling? 

This is the last page of the original “Scarlet’s Superpower.”

The theme of the book is Scarlet’s overcoming obstacles and therefore becoming empowered through the acceptance of her limits. While my first text, written when Scarlet was in first grade, tackled the potential problem of Scarlet hating that she had to deal with her devices, and no one else did, this one could focus on social problems; Scarlet’s Superpower could morph from just “not hearing” to choosing to ignore. In this way, I am hoping to help my daughter, and readers everywhere, to find a power within them to look and live beyond the ridicule of others. 

Feel free to download a free copy of the book from the Apple Books.

And now, I come to the word “dumb.” I chose this insult because it is so dumb ignorant. Kids do not know the etymology of this word, but it wouldn’t hurt them to learn that words have histories. If you are still reading this, I assume you are educated enough to know that the word dumb means “unable to speak” (O’Conner & Kellerman, 2014). 

I love playing with words, and that is what I am doing here. Rather than having the bullies bludgeon Scarlet’s character from a distance; something she can’t even feel; I have them discussing taunts. This is to paint the picture of peers plotting put downs. Especially, when I have one student explain that they were planning to use the term “dumb” to mock Scarlet, the idea of intentional hurt is clarified. The admittance of purposeful, targeted taunting seems to take the breath away from these bullies, because they, themselves are left “dumb” in the wake of it. 

We think of bullies as people who pummel others with insults (words) and/or inflict physical harm on others. Prohibiting a person from being able to share can also be a form of bullying. Taking the power to communicate away from someone could be worse than labeling them something negative. It literally renders them powerless to affect their situation. When someone calls a target “dumb,” whether they use that exact word or not, are they really attempting to silence them? The bully is saying to those within earshot, “This person is not worth listening to.” 

Scarlet explains her cochlear implants in the original “Scarlet’s Superpower.”

The irony of the bullies in my story muting themselves will not be understood by the youth the story is written for. Thus, I feel the need to explain it here. Scarlet is deaf, literally. She has devices that help her hear. When she has them on, she takes in every sound that hearing people experience. Not only has she taken her coils off to nap in this opening scene of this new version of the book, but she is separated from the bullies by a glass door. This is because the bullies do not understand that she can’t hear them, even if there were NO door. The reader does not GET this yet, either. It is explained later on. 

The bullies are sharing insults with each other in mock bullying fashion, practicing what they might do if face to face with Scarlet. With the realization that insulting Scarlet on the other side of a glass door, where she can’t hear them (coils or not), it dawns on the bullies that their words haven’t even gone as far as falling on deaf ears! This transforms them, the powerful in numbers and insults, powerless. They have no voice without an ear to hear. They are the dummies. 

Here is a taste of what is to come: Scarlet’s new improved superpower is to “Ignore the Ignorant.” 


Clark. (2021, March 30). Common Grammar Mistakes: 11 Goofs You Might Know Too Well. Copyblogger. Retrieved February 9, 2023, from

O’Conner, & Kellerman. (2014, July 3). The Grammarphobia Blog: Speaking of dumb. Grammarphobia. Retrieved February 9, 2023, from

Our Definition of Bullying. (n.d.). Anti-Bullying Alliance. Retrieved February 9, 2023, from 

Don’t Count on Potential

I have a chess board set up at the table, right next to the door to my classroom. This former (but always) Polite Pirate stops by regularly for a quick game before the morning bell.

It is common for my students to want to sneak in a game of chess before school. This morning I’m playing a beginner. The student has pushed four pawns forward. I instruct them to, “Develop your pieces. Those are the ones that are not pawns.” Once again, a pawn is advanced. I inquire, “Why are you only moving your pawns?” as I capture one with a Knight. 

This student has been getting to class early, just to be able to squeeze a game of chess in before the bell.

“If I get them (pawns) to the other side, I can turn it into a queen.” Now, I understand. This student has learned the exciting idea of promotion. When a pawn, the lowliest of chess pieces, is able to traverse the entire length of the board and achieve the final rank (the row farthest from its starting point), it can be exchanged for Rook, Knight, Bishop, or Queen. The idea of having more than one Queen can make a novice chess player possessed with potential. 

When I am introducing chess to students for the first time, I have them take what I have taught them and try out the concepts in an online app called “ChessKid.” This app is totally awesome! While a paid-for membership will open up a world of resources, students can access some basics for free. The main thing I have students use is the “Play vs Bot.” Students can play the first 3 robots for free. The beauty of using this app is that it won’t let students make illegal moves. Also, there is a feature that allows students to see potential moves when they press on a piece. Circles will appear on the squares that a piece can move to.

Admittedly, the first 3 (free) robots are pretty easy. They will give up their queens early in the game. Students will need to know what they are doing to beat the third, but it is very doable. I end up challenging the students to win their games with as few moves as possible to up the challenge. This teaches them “tempo.”

Something students discover while playing the robots on the Chesskid app, even before I teach it to them, is that their pawns can transform! The first couple of robots hand over piece after piece, so that beginner players can easily push pawns past pieces to acquire multiple Queens. Some of my students have bragged about having 5 queens parading around the board. I point out that they ought to have won the game before accumulating all of those Queens. Really, though, it is fun to explore this feeling of power. (That is an idea to be explored in a future blog.)

Back to the game I’m playing that began this blog. I point out that my Knight just captured one of their pawns, and more captures are sure to follow. “What makes you think I’m going to let your pawns reach the last rank?” I probe.  

The student ponders this a second before advancing one more pawn. I’m incredulous. Should I sweep the board, capturing every pawn? They are sitting ducks! Should I allow the student to push a pawn all the way to promotion, so that they feel vindicated? They weren’t theoretically wrong. 

“I don’t have to study in school; When I grow up, I’m going to be a professional baseball player.” Have you ever had a student say something like this? 

“Even successful, rich baseball players have to know how to read, write, and do math,” the teacher retorts. 

“I don’t need to save money. I’m making it hand over fist right now.”

“What do I have to worry about? I’m the healthiest person I know!” Or, “I’m perfectly happy without exercising. What do I have to be fit for?” 

Do not count on potential. Plan for a challenging future. Play life like there are threats around every corner, but enjoy the game. 

These two analyze a recently played chess game. What moves would have been better? How could Black have avoided the mate?

“You already have a Queen, right there,” I suggest to the opponent sitting across from me. Even as I say it, I know the feelings the student is experiencing. They don’t want to jeopardize their only Queen. If they had a back up, then they could feel comfortable with the possibility of losing one. I know this feeling. Once a piece is in use and moving around the board, it becomes vulnerable. 

“The smart thing to do is to protect your potential pawn promotions by holding back a little.” From player to coach, I transition roles throughout my play with this pupil. I instruct my student to “Position your pawns so that they are backing up a more valuable piece. In this way, if your opponent captures your piece, you can retaliate by capturing the offending piece with your pawn.” I show the student how pawns can even back up one another by staggering mine in a large V. “Bishops can slip through on the diagonal, but Knights are waiting to snatch them up!”

There have been times I’ve thrown away my pawns in order to clear a file for my Rook. Recently, I’ve preferred to position a Rook behind an advancing pawn. Go ahead and take it, Queeny! I’m even more keen on this strategy when I’ve saved other potential pawn promotions for the future. Sometimes, I’ll slide my Rook up the side and start cleaning out my opponent’s pawns from behind. Then mine can easily advance, straight toward the last rank. 

Have you ever known someone who walks through life like a bull in a china shop? Every tiny bad look or perceived insult is grounds for war. They blow up over the smallest thing. A pawn is not a Queen until it actually makes it to the last rank. Don’t assume more power than you have. Some people go through life proudly proclaiming their importance before actually earning it. 

As it turns out, the bell rings before my game ends this morning. No one wins. All of my blabbing about protecting promotional material has slowed down our game. An observer looking at the board might conjure a picture of the Red Coats marching in a straight line, being picked off by Revolutionary Rebels hiding behind trees during the war for Independence. I have pieces attacking the center of the board, and my opponent has a wall of pawns waiting for the picking. Saved by the bell, or unused potential, this game will end with this blog. I hope someone finds the metaphors useful. Pawns can be powerful; They can be a pain for an opponent; But they have loads of potential. [Insert closing sentence, here.] <–I plan to have the Polite Pirates help me come up with a classy closing to wrap this up.