Author Archives: R. Oranger

Dominoes for Teaching Fractions, Decimals, or Division

Choose a set of rules for dominoes, then pick one of the following variations on score-keeping:

For Addition of Fractions

  1. Each player keeps track of points individually. For competitive games, individuals keep track of their own scores. For cooperative games, each player keeps track of the total score of the game.
  2. As players place tiles, the numbers represent fractions rather than integers. The number on the end touching the existing tile is the numerator, and the number on the free end is the denominator.
  3. Each time a tile is placed, the player must add the resulting fraction to the point total.
  4. If playing a version where doubles are played sideways, use this as an opportunity to enforce the concept that it doesn’t matter which number is the numerator; the answer is still 1 point for that tile.

For Long Division and Addition of Decimals

  1. Each player keeps track of points individually. For competitive games, individuals keep track of their own scores. For cooperative games, each player keeps track of the total score of the game.
  2. As players place tiles, the numbers represent division problems rather than integers. The number on the end touching the existing tile is the dividend, and the number on the free end is the divisor.
  3. Players must divide the numbers appropriately to how the tile was played, and add the resulting decimal number to the score total. The facilitator may choose to specify a certain number of digits to be used (i.e. – “round to the nearest hundredth”) depending on the skill level and desired outcomes of the game.
  4. If playing a version where doubles are played sideways, use this as an opportunity to enforce the concept that it doesn’t matter which number is the dividend; the answer is still 1 point for that tile.

For Division with Remainders, Rounding, and Addition of Integers

  1. Each player keeps track of points individually. For competitive games, individuals keep track of their own scores. For cooperative games, each player keeps track of the total score of the game.
  2. As players place tiles, the numbers represent division problems rather than integers. The number on the end touching the existing tile is the dividend, and the number on the free end is the divisor.
  3. Players must divide the numbers appropriately to how the tile was played until a remainder is found. Then, players properly round the answer to the nearest integer and add it to the score.
  4. If playing a version where doubles are played sideways, use this as an opportunity to enforce the concept that it doesn’t matter which number is the dividend; the answer is still 1 point for that tile.


Dealing with Creepers 101

Edit: Somehow I managed to leave off one of the most effective methods in the original post. To correct this on 12/31/15, I added #11: “Playing Dumb.”

People find themselves on the receiving end of behavior that sits somewhere in the creepy/annoying/scary/violent cloud on a regular basis, but we don’t seem to talk very much about ways to handle it that don’t involve violence, defensive weapons, or relying on others. Below are ten simple strategies that I’ve seen used effectively by myself or others to cut things short before such things are necessary, along with some discussion of when they work best. Some of these will work better for some people than others. It is important to note that some of them may fail even in the best-possible context, which would require a change in strategy. My hope is that readers will take what they want from this list, and dismiss what they don’t.

1. The Invisibility Wall

This strategy involves completely ignoring the antagonizer as if the person does not exist. It seems to work best when in confined spaces that one cannot leave (such as on a bus) or when the interaction is purely digital (blocking features are excellent). Some people who come off as creepy and/or annoying are really just starved for attention. Cutting off what they want can cause them lose interest and move on to other things. This may not be an effective choice in some cases, especially in open public areas where the person can follow you around. When using this method, It is important to keep the corner of your eye on the person in question to ensure that you don’t need to do something else to ensure your safety. Do not use this method if you suspect physical attack may be eminent. That will just make it harder to defend yourself.

2. The Smile and Nod

Many people don’t realize they are being creepy. Sometimes folks are actually staring off into space. Sometimes they don’t realize you could tell they were staring at you. Greeting the person with a quick smile and nod of interpersonal acknowledgement can, in these cases, put an abrupt stop to the staring. I use this method a lot when walking alone. I do not use it in closed spaces (such as on a bus) as it seems to be taken as an invitation for conversation in that context.

I have seen someone try to use this on a bus. For 25 minutes, the gracious smile and polite nod prompted more and more flirting from someone who seemed to misunderstand the terror in the other passenger’s eyes, and either didn’t notice or didn’t care that personal questions were continuously returned with empty answers. Whenever the flirting person looked away, the terror filled the smiler’s face until a grimace reversed the curve of the lips and the three nearest people shook their heads and made sad eyes in solidarity but did and said nothing. From this, we can learn a few things. Sometimes strategies simply fall flat and just don’t work. When a strategy isn’t working, pick a new one. Finally, while you are developing your personal toolkit of strategies, remember not to rely on strangers to stand up for you.

3. Serious Questioning Face

For the leering, not just staring sort of person, sometimes the smile and nod fails to put an end to the creeping. In those cases, I look directly at the person and raise my eyebrows with flattened lips. “Serious Questioning Face” has put an end to every leer I’ve used it with except two. With one, I mouthed, “what do you want?” from across the room. (Similar to “Direct Verbal Response” below.) That put an end to it. With the other, I got raised eyebrows in return to my “serious questioning face” and the person continued to follow me from room to room at the event, somehow managing to sneak up right behind me twice despite my best efforts. I altered strategies. I went and (with permission after an explanation of the situation) sat on the lap of my muscle-covered friend who also happened to have a black belt in karate. (This is a variation of “A Strong-Looking Friend” below.) The leerer continued to creep on me, so my friends and I left, made sure the creeper was not following us, and had an awesome night somewhere else. (This is “Disengage and Depart” below.) Notice that I continued to switch strategies until I found one that worked.

Side note: Notice how my friends totally had my back? Get friends like that if you don’t have them already. Be that kind of friend.

4. Direct Verbal Response

For the people who touch too much, for those who find the more subtle strategies as invitations rather than “go away” statements, and for people who are really just confusing, direct verbal response is my go-to strategy. Here are some of the things I have used effectively, chosen based on context:

  • “Do you want something?”
  • “I can’t understand what you’re trying to say, because you aren’t using any words.”
  • “I’d like some space to be alone with my thoughts right now.”
  • “Leave me alone,” or “LEAVE ME THE FUCK ALONE.”
  • “Stop touching me,” or “STOP FUCKING TOUCHING ME.”
  • “Do not touch me again,” or, “KEEP YOUR FUCKING HANDS TO YOUR GOD-DAMN SELF.”
  • “That’s not okay. Stop it.”
  • And my personal favorite for people who are being mean and think it’s somehow flirting, “How often does that work for you?”

The loud versions full of profanity are meant for situations where the person seems to be capable of pending violence. The loudness does two things; it draws the attention of passersby who might otherwise not stop to help, and it intimidates your potential opponent. The stares of onlookers and the profanity add to this intimidation, building up a situation where you are less likely to be attacked and more likely to have witnesses and potential help if you are. Draw yourself up with confidence even if you don’t feel it. You might be able to intimidate the idea of assaulting you right out of someone’s head (see “Intimidation” below).

Be prepared to have an actual conversation if you use the calmer lines, especially the questions. Some people find the idea of initiating a conversation with someone creeping them out to be intimidating. Personally, I find it empowering. It usually seems to catch the other person off guard, which allows me to regain control of the situation. The last one on the list above is one of my favorites because it typically prompts a short conversation which can either turn into a longer, more pleasant conversation or end the interaction altogether. It also seems to make creeps stop and think about what they’re doing. I like to think they learn from it.

5. Disengage and Depart

Sometimes the safest strategy is to simply leave the situation. Leave the party, leave the couch, leave the event, what have you. Doing so safely is important. Make up excuses if you feel the need to have one. Be careful that no one is following you. If you are leaving a party alone due to someone who seems to be stalking you there, for example, have someone walk you to your vehicle if possible. Many bars have bouncers who will walk you a short way.

6. A Strong-Looking Friend

Sometimes just hanging close to someone with muscles is enough to keep creepers away. Inviting such friends out with you when you go out to fun places where you might encounter creepers can be an effective prevention tool. It can be wise, however, to talk with these friends about this and be sure they are comfortable with it. No need to make your friends feel blindsided by the sudden presence of creepers and/or used. Besides, if you talk about it ahead of time, you can make a game plan together to be on the samge page later.

7. The Fake Cell Phone Call

Some strangers just want way too much time and attention. A phone call can be an effective shield. You can pretend to be on the phone, or call a real friend and chat about your day so someone knows where you are.

8. Calling the Cops

Threatening to call the cops can intimidate people into leaving you alone (see “Intimidation” below). Actually calling them can help when a person is clearly a danger to themselves or others, or is making verbal or nonverbal threats. When cops arrive on scene, you will have a choice. You can file a police report, or not. If you do, you will also have the option to press charges, but you can file the police report without pressing charges if that is your preference. Make whatever choice you prefer for whatever reasons you believe in.

Edit: This information about your rights with police officers is based on USA laws.
Edit the second: This information as written before I understood the dangers many people who aren’t white face when calling the police. Decide ahead of time where your line is for when you will call the police, if ever.

9. Lying

This is a strategy I do not use and therefore cannot personally vouch for it, but many of my friends find the following to be quite effective. Note that the first and third bullets are genuinely useless when it comes to putting a stop to come-ons in polyamorous and/or swinger communities unless you specify closed/monogamous when you fabricate your relationship partner.

  • Answer, “Do you have a [boy][girl]friend?” or, “Are you married?” with, “Yes,” regardless of the truth. This can prompt some people to immediately leave you alone.
  • Answer, “Come here often?” with, “No,” even if the true answer is yes if you get bad vibes. It is often wise to prevent letting strangers know what your habits are, especially if you find them to be creepy or intimidating.
  • Claiming to have a romantic partner or spouse to go meet can help prevent someone from following you when you “Disengage and Depart.”

10. Intimidation

It’s easy to feel intimidated by people who are being creepy. It is surprisingly easy to turn that around. Confidence is highly intimidating, as is yelling (see “Direct Verbal Response” above). Studies have shown that most folks who want to prey on other people want an easy target. Standing strong in the face of someone who sets off alarm bells in your head can be all it takes to make them back down.

I remember a Hallowe’en party where my best friend at the time was dressed as a bumble bee and I was dressed as an early hominid. We were talking to two people, one of whom was very drunk and continued to violate my friend’s personal space as we talked. Despite my friend repeatedly saying “no” and physically dodging hands trying to reach inside that bee costume, this fellow kept at it. I am tall, yet this person was a head taller than me and probably weighed another 100 pounds in muscle. I put myself between them with a strong stance and yelled at him to “BACK THE FUCK OFF!” The big, drunk, 6’+ creeper got scared, and stumbled backwards with wide eyes. My friend and I were then able to “Disengage and Depart” (above). There was a chance that could have turned into a fight I very probably would not have won. To me, it was worth that risk to stop my friend from being violated any more than had already transpired. The “Intimidation” technique is often a bluff, but so far no one has ever called my bluff. I don’t think most people really want to deal with hand-to-hand combat when all they really want is to fondle someone’s body.

11. Playing Dumb (added on 12/31/15)

When people make indirect yet inappropriate comments, such as a stranger making a dirty joke about you without being completely blunt, playing dumb can be an effective defense tool if “Direct Verbal Response” (above) is not something you’re in to. This can be done by silently portraying confusion in your body language, or verbally. For playing dumb verbally, try something like one of the following:

  • “Huh?”
  • “I’m sorry, I don’t think I understand.”
  • “I don’t get it.”

Some people who come off as creepy are genuinely attempting to hit on people. Playing dumb can make them feel like their attempt fell flat, and they will often depart in embarrassment. Others are specifically looking for people who actually find their jokes to be funny. Regardless of the reason for the initial comment, playing dumb can often effectively utilize the other person’s social fears to disarm any intentions towards you. Sometimes, it also means that person will take you less seriously, which can give you an advantage if you need to continue manipulating the person into leaving you alone.

A Note on Gender

Gender does not dictate who is an agitator/creeper/assailant and who is a target/opponent, nor does it dictate who is capable of standing up for others. Look out for your friends, all of them, and find friends who will do the same for you if and when these strategies fail.

First Show, Last Show

For the past five years, a small local theater has put on something like an open mic night every fourth Friday under the name “No-Shame Theater,” and invited all forms of original creativity. Singers, actors, and all sorts of other performers would show pieces that ranged from depressing to hilarious, from cute to offensive, and from truly terrible to delightful. Entry was free, and folks are strongly encouraged to drink from the bar. Last night was their very last round of this evening of fun and the end of No Shame Theater.

A friend of mine works closely with this theater and has attempted to bring me along for the past several months. This was the first time I could make it, and it was really quite an experience. There were all kinds of different pieces. Many of them focused on the artist’s emotions regarding the end of No Shame. One in particular re-wrote the lyrics to “This Land is Your Land” to be about the family nature of No Shame. She played it on an accordion and passed out lyrics. The sing along had a wonderful community feel to it.

I wrote a song a few years ago called Menstruation Rag which makes fun of the experience of menstruation by being brutally honest about the situation without ever actually saying the words “blood,” “menstruation,” “cramps,” “mood swings,” or “period.” No Shame Theater seemed like just the right place to share it with an audience, so I signed up to perform.

I watched the others as my turn neared. With each performance I felt myself moved, but the nerves began to grow. The only time I had tried to perform my song prior to last night, I ran off stage in the first stanza due to stage fright. I promised myself this time, it would be different.

There were pieces that were lovely, pieces that were sad. Pieces I didn’t understand, and pieces that I couldn’t tell if they were serious or trying to be really bad for the sake of laughter. Others were genuinely funny. It really was a wonderful experience, despite my shaking hands and clenching heart. What was I so afraid of? Nothing about performing could cause me actual harm.

Finally it was my turn. I took to the stage. I was in a pool of light surrounded on three sides by darkness filled with people silently watching. Waiting. I reminded myself that when Menstruation Rag had been named aloud in the beginning by one of the MCs during a listing of the night’s pieces, the pun-y title alone had already gotten laughs. I told myself that this audience wanted to hear my song. I told myself they were all drunk anyway.

I took a deep breath. I started to sing. My voice was so tiny and shaky, that I wondered if they could even hear me. My eye caught on someone in the front row who seemed to be listening to me with sincere intensity. I used that to bolster my courage and sang louder. People began laughing at the hilarious honesty. I relaxed ever so slightly. The second stanza fell from my lips and laughter came at me from all three directions. Excellent!

Transitioning from the second to third stanza, my voice faltered. I couldn’t remember the next words in a song that I sing to myself every month because I get a genuine kick out of making light of my period. (Ha, ha! Get it?) I paused. I verbalized “I’m sorry.” I tried again. It didn’t work.

“I’m sorry, I’m just so nervous,” I said. The whole room erupted with cheers and applause.

“YOU’RE HOME, BABY!” roared someone in the back, “YOU’RE HOME!”

“DEEP BREATHS!” someone else shouted, as the cheers died out so they could listen.

I felt their support, and thanked them for it. It was amazing. Instead of feeling like one giant block of fear and anxiety, I felt like only about 90% of me was comprised of such things.

I backed up to the transition lyric, re-sang it, and people already started giggling. I got through the next stanza and finished the rest of the song. My hands were still shaking. I was a total wreck. But, I finished it. I did not run. Fear lost. I won. Mission accomplished. I sat down to cheers and whistles.

During the next performer’s piece, I shook in the arms of the person who’d come along with me while my friend across the room nodded at me in support. Adrenaline. Who knew? I closed my eyes, put my head on my friend’s shoulder, and reminded my animal brain that nothing around me was going to hurt me. I was safe. Deep breaths. Calm down.

The last performer took the stage. This piece was a neat little speech about the performer’s experience with No Shame, all tied together with themes taken from the very first piece the performer had ever performed at No Shame. Towards the end, he gestured at me and told the crowd that this was part of why No Shame was so inspiring and important. He talked about the courage to get up and risk failing.

I thought about how the fear of some nebulous, undefined concept of “failure” had filled me with anxiety to the point of causing some version of said “failure.” I thought about how I fearlessly tackle much bigger things in my personal and professional and student lives. I decided once again that fear of failure really is an absurd fear, as real as it is. “Failure” really can’t hurt us, at least, not this kind of failure. I renewed an old promise to myself that when making decisions for myself, the fear of failure will not outweigh the potential benefits when real danger is not a factor in the failure. I hope everyone reading this finds the courage to tell a needless fear, “Here, dear, have a seat and watch me do the thing.”

The Smile

This morning in a paved courtyard at a church acting as part of local food bank network, people of all ages were seated on benches, steps, and planters scattered about the edges. They talked quietly with one another while a small band of 3 musicians played live music in one corner. Having danced for as long as I have, I can often spot fellow dancers in any situation with live music. Sure enough, the elderly man who always sits on the same bench every week with a frown on his face and a WWII veteran’s ball-cap on his head gave the telltale signs of a dancer listening to the rhythm. I walked over.

“Do you dance?”

“What’s that?” he said, sounding grumpy.

“I said, do you dance?”

“Yes, what of it?” he asked defensively.

“Would you like to dance with me?”

“No,” he said, quite firmly. I nodded and walked away.

I spotted another probable dancer in the crowd, and went to ask for a dance. This time I got an enthusiastic yes. I hoped that watching us dance would change the veteran’s mind about dancing. I wanted to give a smile to that frowning face.

For the dancers reading this, this dance was one of those dances where the first 20-30 seconds is spent finding a way to match rhythms and differing skill sets. It would have happened much quicker if I had let go of my preconceived direction for the dance sooner. Our connection was mediocre. We had a lot of fun, but dancing together a few more times would probably turn our connection into something much smoother.

The crowd cheered. We traded off leading and following. Every time one of us spun the other, there was laughter. Whenever I took the lead, I could hear folks mentioning it to each other. My partner was having a blast, and so was I. Our dance finally began to respond to the music. A grin slowly spread across my face and stayed there. When the music stopped, we hugged and went our separate ways, as it was time to line up to get our numbers. Each person I passed looked at me with smiling eyes and said that had been a lovely dance to watch. I thanked them each. I was trying to give one elderly person a smile, but instead my partner and I gave smiles to an entire crowd. I was not expecting that with my rusty dance skills.

After I got my number, I wandered across the courtyard to where the veteran was sitting. His friends had arrived and were talking with him.

“You don’t dance all that great,” he said, teasing. We all laughed. “I could show you a thing or two,” he said.

“Show me!” I said, pointing towards the open space in front of the band. “I’d love to learn. Dance with me?”

His eyebrows shot up in surprise and he turned me down again, but this time he was smiling. Mission accomplished.

The Parable of the Anachronistic Alchemist

A prodigy graduate physics student at UC Berkeley in California’s bay area worked secretly to create a time machine. The device was designed to transport up to two people and their clothing, two small cases of gear, and enough fuel for a return journey through time and space. Calculations regarding Earth’s location in space over time were integrated into the operating systems, allowing the driver the ease of entering a date, time, and Earth surface coordinates into the console.

Our student had a fondness for alchemists from history. Their obsession with such goals as turning lead into gold did not blind their judgement when it came to the process of discovery. In fact, these individuals began to carefully record the results of their experiments, and ultimately created the fundamentals of what is known today as the scientific method.

When the time machine was complete, our student dressed in destination-appropriate clothing, bid adieu to the cat in ancient Greek, and arrived moments later outside Alexandria in the middle of a summer night in the year 176. After an incredible adventure that is not relevant to this story, our student returned to the vehicle with a new friend who was an alchemical practitioner, and a deeper understanding of the ancient Greek language.

Our student brought the alchemist to Berkeley’s campus, sneaked him in to the chemistry library, and showed him the wonder of one of her favorite collections of knowledge.

“Nearly two thousand years of exploration and discovery have lead us to this and more,” our student said in ancient Greek.

The alchemist looked around with eyes full of wonder. Book after book the alchemist pointed out, and our student translated the title. Sometimes they read in the books. As time went on, the alchemist grew wary.

“This cannot be,” he said. “Elements that are not alive? Metals as discrete, separate elements that do not mature into precious metals? Everything here is based on these concepts, and these concepts must be false. Therefore, this library is full of nothing but lies.”

Our student was perplexed and tried to discuss the matter further, but the alchemist wished to return home. Our student complied, leaving him back in ancient Alexandria where she had found him. Back at home, our student contemplated the situation. It did not make sense for someone who was dedicated to truth and reason to dismiss something just because it conflicted with previously held beliefs.

Graduation finally came, and our student took the podium. After thinking over time about her encounter with the alchemist, it flavored her speech to her fellow graduating scientists.

“…truly embracing discovery can be difficult because it means letting go of preconceived notions, and preconceived notions are comfortable. They help us understand the world, so losing them is scary. As we go forth into the real world let us remember, in former president Roosevelt’s words, that ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ Go forth. Let yourself be afraid. Discover truth.”


On Saturday morning my alarm went off at 7 am, just like every Saturday. I rolled off the couch where I sleep now and changed into jeans and a T-shirt. Everyone else was still asleep so there was no need to use the bathroom to change. I pulled a sweatshirt over my T, grabbed my large bag full of reusable shopping bags, and walked half a mile to the church where I get food.

I plopped my bag down at the end of the line of bags, boxes, and small 2-wheeled carts and joined the group of milling folks waiting for numbers to get handed out.

“Whoa, nice, is that a Call of Duty bag?” someone said, peering down the stairs at my bag. It wasn’t, it said something else on it.

“Nope,” I said, just as my new acquaintance realized it for himself.

“Oh man. I thought it was a Call of Duty bag,” he said.

We then proceeded to discuss video games, role playing games, and of course zombie apocalypses. It was a brief but rousing conversation.

“I had no idea you were a nerd,” he said after a bit.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I’ve seen you around and all, but…I just…I  would never have thought you were a nerd.”

“Oh?” I asked, wondering if it was just because I’m quite obviously female-shaped, and conventionally attractive to boot. “Why’s that?”

“I don’t know. I just never would have thought it.”

“We never know anything about anyone until we start talking to them,” I said.

We continued to discuss nerd-related topics before the conversation turned to our current situations. He essentially asked me in a less rude way what I was doing at a food bank if I was so clearly intelligent. I told him about my double-major at our local community college in chemistry and physics and my intention to become a chemical engineer after I transfer and complete my second bachelor’s before returning the inquiry.

My companion expressed a discomfort with his situation. He told me that he was between jobs at the moment, and that it was difficult for him to find work because he never graduated from high school. After hearing more about his work experience and lifestyle, I recommended a local company with a culture that seemed particularly suited to his needs. He looked them up online with his smartphone and started to get very excited.

By this time it was 8 am. The person with the number distributor device under his arm called out that he was ready to distribute numbers. Everyone moved to stand next to their boxes and bags and carts and tubs, and walked past the distributor one by one to take a paper number. Mine was 327. I glanced up at the lit display to see that the starting number that week was 295. Excellent.

As numbers are not called until 8:30 am, folks tend to settle in on benches or drift across the street to the park. I was in the second group, where I drifted back into close proximity with my conversation partner from earlier. He was looking forlorn again and told me that he didn’t think he could do the job at the company I had recommended. Turns out he’s practically illiterate. My mind went immediately to the seminar I recently attended about learning disabilities.

“If you struggle with reading, that could be the entire reason school was so hard for you that you dropped out,” I told him. His friend who was standing with us nodded.

“What do you mean?”

“Learning disabilities come in all shapes and sizes. If your struggle with reading was preventing you from learning, well, of course school was hard.”

“Oh I’m not disabled,” he said, and his friend frowned and looked like he was struggling to figure out what to say.

“The definition of ‘learning disability’ is just anything that makes learning more difficult,” I said, “it’s really a very loose thing.” His friend nodded. We waited while unknown thoughts crossed his face.

“It does seem to hinder me,” he said with a sad sigh.

He went on to say something that I can’t remember clearly, but portrayed a self-image of a lack of intelligence. His friend looked like he wanted to face-palm.

“You seem pretty smart to me,” I said, and his friend nodded.

“I do?”

“Yeah. That much is clear just talking to you. There is actually a high correlation of learning disabilities with intelligence.”


“Yeah. See, people fall on a bell curve,” I said, drawing one in the air with my hands and following it up with appropriate gestures. “Most people fall somewhere in the middle, then on either end we’ve got people with less intelligence and more intelligence. Our school system is designed to meet the needs of the people in the middle of this bell curve. It makes sense that folks who fall to either side – no matter which side it is – would struggle with that system and therefore meet our loose definition of what it takes to have a learning disability.”

He stared at me, dumbfounded.

“See?” his friend said, “I told you you were smart.”

“If you’ve had trouble reading, of course you’ve had trouble learning. Our public school system is based on the presumption of literacy. The thing is, there are programs out there just for this. Our local community college offers reading classes and they’ve got a disabilities services office that can help you figure out exactly what is going on so you can address it and move on with that information.”

“I…need some time to think…” he said. His friend and I nodded and stayed put while he walked away.

“I keep telling him he’s smart,” his friend said. “He has what it takes. He just doesn’t have the confidence,”

I nodded, thinking again about the seminar I had just attended and how lack of self-confidence seems to be a commonality among folks with learning disabilities, especially in people who don’t know that they have one. The disability students I tutor are often clearly lacking in confidence, sometimes to the point where it seems to be its own disability. Some of them have even consciously identified it as an obstacle they intend to overcome.

I wandered back across the street to check the numbers. The sign had been updated to say 300, but no one had gone in yet. Excellent. I was even closer to the start of the line.

When I came back across the street, I found my new friend sitting on a bench. I was going to give him space but he waved me over. When I sat down, I saw tears forming in his lower eyelids.

“I never thought I could…This is so…Wow,” he said, unable to articulate  his feelings.

“Do you feel overwhelmed?” I asked.


“Hope can do that to you.”

He laughed and sniffed, and we sat in silence for a moment.

“You really think I can do this?”

“Yes,” I said, noting inside my head that he had been able to look things up online without ever having had any help for his reading troubles. “Have you ever wondered if you’re dyslexic?”

“All the doctors I saw just thought I was making things up,” he said, looking at his feet. My heart sank.

“Well, like I said, the people at that office I was telling you about offer extensive evaluation services. They can help you figure out exactly what’s going on. You might have to enroll as a student though, I’m not sure.”

“What kinds of things do they have?” he asked.

As we talked, our conversation meandered between opportunities, services, observations of those around us, and some really intense introspection on his part. His comments sometimes betrayed what appeared to me to be a very strong intellect and awakened critical thinking skills. I took care to point it out to him whenever this happened and let him know that it’s not something other people find easy to do, as I have learned in my tutor training that it is very important to encourage this kind of confidence in people. He was surprised each time.

“What’s the catch?” he finally asked me. “Every time I think there’s an opportunity there’s some kind of catch. What’s the catch to everything you’re saying?”

“The catch is that you have to decide for yourself whether you’re going to embrace all this, and if you do, you have to put in a very large amount of work, time, and effort.”

“Hard work I can do,” he said with fierce determination. “I am going to contact that office and see what I can do. This is how I can get my life on track.”

Learning Disabilities

It’s a new school year, and with it comes new changes. I am now working on campus as a math and chemistry tutor while attending my own courses. After working for about 2 weeks as a drop-in tutor, I was promoted to a tutoring position wherein I work one-on-one with students with disabilities. I discovered early on that the only clear difference between my assigned students and those in the drop-in tutoring center was an extra dose of self-doubt.

Last week, my employer sent me to a seminar about learning disabilities. There was a panel of 7 experts, each of them from a completely different background. There was a neuroscientist, a psychologist, one of my own campus’s guidance counselors, and so on. They even managed to get the person in charge of our local system of services for K-12 disabled students on the panel. After an intense session, here are a few of the main points I gleaned:

  • Learning Disabilities are Not an Indication of Intelligence Level

While it is entirely possible for a student to struggle due to a lower intelligence level, a learning disability operates independently of intelligence. In fact, many students with learning disabilities are at the top of their class, graduating from high school with 4.0 GPAs, and the evidence suggests that there is a high correlation between learning disabilities and very bright students. It was clear that the panelists viewed learning disabilities as any sort of difference which causes more struggle with learning than a given student’s peers encounter. Our school system is designed to support the common student. Very bright students fall outside this bell curve. It makes sense, then, that some of them learn so differently that they technically meet the definition of having a learning disability.

  • Chronic Depression is Common in Students with Un-Diagnosed Learning Disabilities

Students who struggle more than their peers and don’t know why face a unique set of challenges. Their self-worth is called in to question. The constant nagging of, “why can’t I do this like everyone else can?” can prompt chronic depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and a host of other related thoughts, feelings, and symptoms. This is part of why diagnosis is so very important.

  • Late Detection is Quite Common

The term “disability” is laden with stigma, and behavioral differences which are symptomatic of learning disabilities are not easily recognized for what they are by people who are not trained in these matters. As such, it is not uncommon for families seek to control their children and/or cover up the disability rather than seek help. An example one of the panelists gave of such behavior maintenance involved imagining a child with ADD/ADHD, or perhaps mild autism. The parent of this child might view related behaviors (such as becoming absorbed by video games or not sitting still at the dinner table) as problematic and provide a system of punishments and rewards to correct it. This is behavior management, but does not provide the support and treatment a student with ADD/ADHD needs to thrive in schools that are designed for a particular type of student. Diagnosis is important in order to provide that support.

Students with learning disabilities who make it out of high school without discovering the disability are sometimes diagnosed in college, if they can overcome the social stigmas attached to the phrase “disability” in order to seek out their campus’s resources. In California, typical college and university campuses are equipped with evaluation and accommodation services. If you are a student reading this and you are struggling in any way with your courses, I suggest you seek out such services on your own campus. The worst thing that can happen is that they cannot help you, in which case you are just back where you started. No harm done.

Chemistry Games!

There are only a few weeks left in the semester, which means it’s time to create chemistry games for my students to play at our last meeting.

This trivia game is meant to be played in small groups. I will ask the class whether they want to play with cell phones and Google, or without. If they want to play with, then we’ll arrange the groups so that each one has someone with a phone with internet. There are fifteen questions, so they will only get about 5-6 minutes to complete as many of them as they can. When the timer goes off, scores get tallied, and the winning group gets a prize. The answers, the trivia handout linked above, and other chemistry games and resources can be found on the “Chemistry Games and Resources” tab above.

There will also be a chemical equation balancing relay race. Each team will line up behind a line. One person from each team will run to the front of the room, take the top page from face down in their team’s stack, flip it over, balance the equation, and run back to tag in the next team member. I will stand behind the desk to check answers. If the first person got it wrong, the second person must solve the first equation correctly, and must tag in a third person to solve the next equation in the stack. The first team to get through their whole stack wins a prize.

The class has also decided to hold a potluck that last week, so there may not be time for more games. Eating and studying will finish out the hour. I’m so proud of my students. They’ve all worked really hard, and it’s paid off.

An Amazing Food Bank Day

Food Bank Food

Saturday morning, I woke with the sun in my eyes, just rising over the hills outside my window. Excitedly, I hurried to dress and fetch my reusable bags. Today was the day I would finally get good food to eat. Food that would not be rotting. Food I would enjoy eating.

I drove across town to the church where the distribution would be. It doesn’t start until 9am, but some folks had already been there for two hours when I got there at 8. I placed my bags on the ground behind the line of bags of those before me, and dashed into the bathroom. Before I got back, they started handing out numbers, so I lost my spot, but I was still #437, and they started that day with #413, so there really weren’t many people ahead of me.

I walked through the courtyard in search of a patch of warm, direct sun. People, mostly 40+ (and probably half of them were 65+) intermingled, laughed together, and partook of free coffee and pastries provided by the church program. That atmosphere was so much more pleasant than the one of the Wednesday morning location – despite a large degree of crossover in the user group – that it struck me once more as being a beautiful bit of social engineering.

When my number was called, I took my place in the food line. I wrote my name on the sign-in sheet, a little “1” for number of people in my household, and “0” for number of children. Every time I do that I pat myself on the back for good choices. Some folks make poverty and children work out okay, but it’s not a thing I desire for myself.

I looked up from the table to see a line of food tables down the middle of the church gymnasium. Each one was piled with food, with volunteers standing on one side to control portions and to help stack more food on the tables as they emptied. A line of hungry people stretched through the gym on the other side of the tables, slowly trickling along.

The first table I came to had two coolers so big I could probably fit inside them – and I am rather tall. Each was filled with packages of raw meat, most of it from Trader Joe’s. As I was only one person, I was limited to one small package, but I got to choose which one I wanted, and that is part of what makes all the difference about this location. I am treated like a person there. Folks address me by name, and ask about my life, and assume that because I am a human, I will have my own tastes and preferences in food, and that this is normal and to be respected. They even refer to the process of going through the line for food as “shopping.” The fundamental ability to choose is really far more humanizing than a lot of people understand, I think.

After meat was the dairy table. Beyond that they had an entire table dedicated to the specialty grab-and-go sort of things that expired that week at grocery stores, but were still good to eat. Sometimes they have sushi. Prepared salads are the most common. After that was the one table in the whole row that has nonperishable food. We are usually given our choice of one small bag of one type of grain, and our choice of one can. It totally destroyed my image of what poor people get from programs like these.

The next three tables were covered in fresh fruits and vegetables. Whatever is in surplus from local farms, or about to expire in local grocery markets, is what we get to eat. This place (unlike the Wednesday place) never gives us rotten vegetables with the expectation that we should be happy we are getting anything at all. Vegetables at Saturday’s location may look a little droopy sometimes, but when that happens the workers all look apologetic, which I find adorable and heartening. Again, this place is humanizing in ways all the others could take a lesson from.

The last table was covered in dessert items. Cookies, pies, cupcakes, even sheet cakes sometimes, and more! The last thing after the tables was bread. There was a set of wheeled shelves that has the freshest bread, and each household got their choice of one loaf from that, but there was a row of boxes along the far wall with the rest of the surplus bread. We are usually asked to take as much as we want from those boxes, lest the surplus be thrown away. The only exception is when there is less bread than usual and/or more hungry people than usual.

When I got home, I took the above photo of the food I had chosen. I will eat very well this week. (In fact, I already have.) Not only that, but the way this place runs their program has boosted my mental health by giving my self esteem a dose of validity, and that is just as valuable to my success in life as is the nutritious blueberries and pork chops. Indeed, it is more likely to boost me towards a life where I don’t need their services than the food itself.

Balancing Chemical Equations: Simple Example

I have a lot of people asking for help with balancing chemical equations. Below is my personal method, with a simple example. Click here for a PDF of a redox example.

Feel free to use this material in any way you find valuable. It would be great if you cite in any handouts, and if you use the printer-friendly 2-page PDF version, it’s already on the page for you.


  1. Make a table that shows how many of each element there are on each side of the equation.
  2. Identify an atom that is both out of balance and located in only one molecule on the left, and only one molecule on the right. (If no such atom exists, try to find one that is only in one molecule on one side, even if it is in more than one on the other side.) Start by adding coefficients that balance this atom on both sides. Cross off and update the numbers in your table to reflect the new totals for each atom.
  3. If that was not enough to balance the equation, proceed to the next atom that is in the fewest number of molecules, and repeat Step 2. Continue to do this until all atoms are balanced.
  4. Double-check by re-adding the totals for each atom to ensure that your answer is correct.


___KI(aq) + ___Pb(NO3)2(aq) ___ PbI2(ppt) + ___ KNO3(aq)

Step 1:













*NO3 (nitrate) can be listed as one unit here because it does not separate. If nitrogen or oxygen appeared separated in the product, or if nitrate was present in the product in addition to oxygen or nitrogen appearing in some other part of this product, then this would not work. NO3 is the same on both sides, so we are able to treat it like a single unit for the sake of balancing this equation.

Step 2:

Iodine and nitrate are the only things out of balance here. Iodine is only in one molecule on the left and only in one molecule on the right. The same is true of nitrate. This means it doesn’t matter which one we start with. Let’s try starting with iodine, chosen arbitrarily:

_2_KI(aq) + ___Pb(NO3)2(aq) ___ PbI2(ppt) + ___ KNO3(aq)

2    1



2    1









At first glance, this might seem wrong because the potassium (K) is no longer balanced. Take a look at what else is not balanced: nitrate. Nitrate and potassium happen to be in the same molecule on the right, so the next step is to choose a coefficient for that molecule that balances both potassium and nitrate if possible. Luckily, it is!

Step 3:

_2_KI(aq) + ___Pb(NO3)2(aq) ___ PbI2(ppt) + _2_ KNO3(aq)

2    1


1    2

2    1








1    2

This looks balanced now, according to our accounting table. The last step is to double-check to make sure it is right.

Step 4: To check your work, translate the formula into an equation for each element or molecule.

_2_KI(aq) + ___Pb(NO3)2(aq) ___ PbI2(ppt) + _2_ KNO3(aq)


(2 X 1) + 0 0 + (2 X 1)
Therefore, potassium is correct.


(2 X 1) + 0 (1 X 2) + 0
Therefore, potassium is correct.


0 + (1 X 1) (1 X 1) + 0
Therefore, potassium is correct.


0 + (1 X 2) 0 + (2 X 1)
Therefore, potassium is correct.

FINAL ANSWER: 2KI(aq) + Pb(NO3)2(aq) PbI2(ppt) + 2KNO3(aq)

Feel free to use the printer-friendly 2-page PDF of this material in any capacity you find valuable.