Queen Julia

Julia came to us during the summer before she entered the fourth grade. At the time she was struggling, and a full two years behind in reading. Over the summer she attended four days a week. We had begged her mom to send her that frequently — I remember guaranteeing that “If you give us Julia four days a week we will give you back a totally different girl at the end of the summer.”

When we began working with Julia she was the big sister, but her little sister bossed her around. When she came into our center she would stand passively in the middle of the lobby with her head down, staring at the floor. Her skills were all far below where they should have been except for one — she could write quickly and beautifully. Everything else was far below.

As we worked with her she became increasingly skilled in reading — we started her at the beginning of our reading program, and she worked rapidly to build fluent decoding skills. She soared through all of the waypoints of learning. She got increasingly skilled, and her skills blossomed. She was remarkable to teach, and Kerri Duval and I worked with her exclusively to build her skills as rapidly as we could.

We did it! Julia was at or slightly above grade level by the end of the summer — and she was, in fact, a different girl. She had been shy and quiet when she first began in July — she would walk in and stand passively in the entryway waiting for someone to tell her what to do next. By early August we were calling her Queen Julia and insisting that she behave as confidently when she walked in as she did during her sessions. She had mastered all of the multiplication facts as well as bringing her reading to an excellent level. She was amazing, and she was always thoughtful about what she had learned.

But during the first couple of weeks in September, when I told her it was time to work on division, she said, “I can’t do division.” I pointed out that she was as fluent as any high school student in multiplication facts, so why not. She insisted she could not. So I showed her the divide by 2 worksheet, and asked her a simple question. “2 times what is 10? “Five” she answered. ” 2 times what is eight?” She once again answered quickly, “four.” I let her know she already was doing division, but she wasn’t having it. I said I would time her, but I would write the answers while she called them out.

What I learned then is something that I have since seen play out hundreds of times. Many of the students we see have become fearful about some element that they are required to do. Often it is reading, so they keep their hands away from what they are reading as though it might burn them.

And many students are afraid of division — they won’t even attempt it! So two steps are necessary — one is to get rid of the word division itself, and the other is to help the student by doing the writing, so they won’t have to touch these frightening strange formations of numbers. Julia was comfortable with calling out the answers, but only briefly. We did a one-minute timing and the two of us did 12 division answers, she calling out the answers and I writing them. After that timing Julia said firmly, “I don’t like the way you write! Give me the marker.” She immediately took over and did 24 division answers in a minute.

After that she never had any difficulty with division — and now, years later she is attending a private school after doing very well on the entrance examination. She never looked back!

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