01/27/2014 11:12 am ET Updated Mar 29, 2014

Dear Marcy and Jackie: I Didn't Mean to Eavesdrop

Each week Marcy Winograd and Jackie Hirtz, educators with over 20 years of experience working with students from elementary to high school, will answer your questions regarding reading strategies, essay writing, homework habits and math challenges. Submit your questions to and include Dear Marcy and Jackie in the subject line.

Q. My son doesn't get along with his middle school algebra teacher, and wants his counselor to transfer him into another class. The counselor refuses. What can I do? I'm worried my son won't do well in math and won't be prepared for high school.

A. Your concerns are understandable because more advanced algebra is a gate-keeper or required course for college entrance. You said your son "doesn't get along" with the math teacher, but you didn't say that your son isn't learning in the class. In a perfect world, we'd all have teachers we admire and appreciate, but in the real world we sometimes have to learn to make the best of a tough situation. That's a lesson, too.

If your son doesn't like his math class, he may be confused and need extra help. One option is to explore tutoring programs, often free in public schools, or check out MIT graduate Salman Khan's non-profit Khan Academy, one of the best math sites on the web.

Remind your son to "Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally" -- an easy way to remember the order of algebraic operations: 1. Parenthesis, 2. Exponents, 3. Multiplication, 4. Division,
5. Addition, 6. Subtraction.

Q. I didn't mean to eavesdrop on my daughter's cell phone conversation, but I overheard her ask a friend if she could copy her friend's history homework. I felt uncomfortable talking to my daughter about this because I probably shouldn't have been listening in on her conversation. Now, I'm in a tough spot. I don't want my daughter to get in the habit of copying others' work, but I also don't want to look like a controlling mother. What do you think? My daughter is in 9th grade.

A. If your daughter discussed this within earshot, she may be asking for help -- from someone other than her friend. Apologize for listening in, but then reach out to learn the problem. Why isn't your daughter able to do her own homework? Is there something she doesn't understand? Is it history that's overwhelming or other subjects, too? Often a "won't do" is a "can't do" so getting to the root of the problem is critical.

Peruse a history book together to review the highlighted vocabulary, the chapter headings and subheadings and the questions at the back of the chapter. Set a purpose for reading and encourage your daughter to visualize or draw pictures of the content. The key to bringing history alive is to make connections with current day events and struggles, so listening to the news or reading the newspaper together might also make history class more interesting.

Help your daughter connect the dots between the past and the present and to frame the events in the context of essential questions because history is much more than a series of dates and events. History is about hierarchal power struggles, transformative social movements, and the birth of civilizations.

How did those in power protect their power and privilege? What struggles did the oppressed face? How did the oppressed change the course of history? These are key questions to frame your conversations.

Meanwhile, we also suggest you discuss school and real-world consequences of stealing someone's work. By copying homework, your daughter is plagiarizing. If she does this in high school, she may get a fail on the assignment; in college she may face expulsion. For more on the definition and ramifications of plagiarism, visit

Credentialed in both English and social science, Marcy Winograd now teaches special education students at Venice High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Jackie Hirtz, MS Ed., a writer and writing coach, taught elementary school for seven years. Together, Marcy and Jackie have written for children's television, print, and new media. Their most recent project is the tween novel Lola Zola and the Lemonade Crush, available on Amazon. They also blog at and tweet @tweenorama.