Improper Fractions and Kitchen Counters: A Real-Life Math Story


The following are actual events that occurred on December 30, 2022, at 3:22 pm.

Let’s Set the Scene. 

My son, Justin is sitting at the kitchen counter with his laptop. He’s doing seven math problems from Mastery Bank on simplifying fractions. (As some of you may remember from my last email, Justin and I are working on closing some of his math gaps over the holidays.)

The system gives him the following problem to simplify: 10/6

Hmmm…an improper fraction.  Let’s see how he handles it.

He picks up his pencil and scribbles something that vaguely resembles numbers on the page.  He then looks at me and says, “1 4/6?” with that questioning tone that is checking to see if he’s got the right answer.

I respond, “Have you simplified it all the way?”

He picks up his pencil and reworks the numbers.  He then eagerly types in 1 2/3.

The site pings back the sweet sound of success that he has gotten the correct answer.

Disaster averted. 

All is well in the Nicole the Math Lady house….or is it?

The Plot Twist

There is an uneasy feeling in my stomach, but I let it subside long enough for him to tackle the next problem.   

Cut back to the kitchen counter.

Justin moves on to the next problem.  The computer tells him to simplify 14/8…another improper fraction. 

He picks up his pencil and scribbles some numbers on the page.  He again looks at me and with that questioning voice asks, “1 6/8?”

This time, I say “Try it!” 

He enters “1 6/8” in the answer field.

Instead of that sweet ding of success, he gets the “nope, you didn’t get that right, mister” whistle.   

My heart stops in anticipation wondering how he’s going to react.

He scrunches up his eyebrows and says “Humph.”  Once again, he picks up the pencil, scribbles some more numbers on the page, and enters “1 ¾” into the answer field.

This time, he gets the bing! 

What did I do wrong the first time? 

OK..the word “wrong” might be a bit harsh, so let me rephrase that.  What did I do better the second time?

The second time, I gave him the gift of getting it wrong.

See, when I put on my supermom cape and “helped” him along to the right answer, I actually robbed him of the thought process that takes place when we get something wrong.  You might not have been able to see it, so let’s check the replay to see what really happened. 

Rewind to the scene at the kitchen counter…

When he got the “you didn’t get that right, mister” whistle, he stopped and asked himself, “Why did I get that wrong?” 

He rechecked his answer to make sure he typed the numbers correctly. 

He did.

He then looked at his answer.

He wondered.

Then, he thought.

Brain synapses fired.

Then he had his aha moment. 

He said to himself, “Oh, I didn’t simplify it all the way.”

He simplified the problem and with zeal, typed in the correct answer.

His ace-troubleshooting skills found the issue!

And that’s exactly what we want to happen. 

Let’s face it.  Most of our kids, once they are grown, are not going to use trigonometry or calculus in their daily lives.  But they are going to need to use troubleshooting and problem-solving skills EVERY DAY.

This is why we do math! 

So, in the New Year, I’m going to calm that instinct I have as a mom to help my kid get to the right answer.  It’s okay for him to struggle a little.  In fact, it’s absolutely necessary.  Without the struggle, the caterpillar can’t build up the wing strength to get out of the cocoon.  So next time you feel the urge to jump in and help, remember we’re creating butterflies here. 

Happy New Year!

Nicole the Math Lady

P.S. For the New Year, I’m focusing on trying new things.  So I’ve signed up for a Beginner Pastels painting class on Zoom that a friend of mine is doing. (Link provided in case anyone wants to do it with me.)  What are your plans or what are you focusing on for the New Year? 

P.P.S. Using Mastery Bank has been very helpful for Justin. You might find it helpful too!


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  1. There is something about your whistle telling my kids they got a problem wrong that is far superior to my words telling them they’re wrong. It has removed all the emotions from the situation. They take it far better than they ever took me telling them to try again. I am SO grateful for the peace you have brought into our math time! Finding you was seriously life changing.

  2. Thank you for that reminder. I struggle with “helping “ a little too much at times. Happy New Year. So thankful for your videos.

    1. That’s an excellent question. So glad you asked! Mastery Bank is a new feature of Nicole the Math Lady that has over 10,000 practice problems sorted by topic. It’s for those moments when you need a few more practice problems to help your student nail down a particular topic. Mastery Bank makes it simple to add a mastery component to Saxon’s spiral style! For more info on Mastery Bank, click here.

  3. Hi Nicole! Just wanted you to know that thanks to you, I learned division! It is super easy for me now!

    (Please text back!😄)

  4. Hey Nicole!!!!!! I have never liked fractions but…………. [ drum roll please]………….I THINK THIS ADVICE IS HELPFUL!!!!!!! I cant believe you came across this prob with your son!!!!