A New Normal

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Last week all of my classes spent their time at home.  They participated in “eLearning” by  visiting a district website, picking their grade level and choice board activities.  Most of the feedback from the community was very positive.  The kids were engaging in content and the choice element was a bonus.  This week we have spring break and I’ve spent a good amount of time outside and away from school work.  I went on a walk outside this morning and ran into many different chalk drawings.  The kids can’t wait to get outside and return to something normal.

As we’re mid-week now, I’m noticing a couple trends.  We still don’t know how long this pandemic is going to last.  Right now school is supposed to resume on April 8th, but that doesn’t seem feasible.  Some districts have closed their doors for the entire year and have gone straight to eLearning.  I’m looking at you Virginia and Kentucky! State testing has been abolished (okay, more like canceled just for this year). Some states have pushed their soft opening date later down the line even closer to the end of school. More will probably follow, but that’s the current status until we get more information from the state of department of education.  The stock market continues to wildly change and the ticker at the bottom of the televisions indicate the new pandemic numbers.  It’s stressful.

Looking forward there are some things that have become apparent.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that as a country, I don’t think we were prepared to teach solely online with eLearning (more like emergency eLearning). Many districts scrambled to get devices into students’ hands in order to send them home for a prolonged period to time to be determined later.  Immediate etrainings and putting together lessons/resources were quickly slotted on agendas and superintendents sent out mass communication emails indicating safety and learning.  For the most part and from what I’ve observed, administrators have done a stellar job in keeping staff and parents informed of what’s happening even though the news is changing so frequently. I’m finding that updates are pushed out and emails are read a bit more critically nowadays.  A “high importance” email has become more of the norm lately. Next week my district will begin it’s second week of eLearning.  It’s not all rainbows, but I believe the first week was a success and I believe we’ll build on that and offer more ways to transition instruction online.

Teachers are often expected to be flexible and pivot as needed.  Fire drills, assemblies, loud speaker interruptions, weather delays, and many other instances highlight the flexibility that teachers often exhibit as they pivot their instruction and make decisions  quickly.  The type of pivoting is now different.  Teachers are now sent into this online world where the expectations are different. Some teachers take to this better than others, but it’s different than what most are used to.  Instead of using educabulary like essential questions and mastery objective, teachers are figuring out how to use Zoom and SeeSaw. Teachers are relying on each other to figure out how to make this situation work. The learning curve is high and teacher are rising to the challenge. Right now differentiation and feedback look different and priority is given to issues regarding access and opportunity. We don’t know how long eLearning will last this year, but I’m fairly confident that it has added to our skill set and has made us better educators in the process.  Ideally, I’d rather be in the classroom and be with my students as we explore pre-algebra concepts together.  I want to be able to see them as we explore functions and algebraic expressions.  I’m a bit anxious even thinking that school might be online for the rest of the year (hoping that doesn’t happen) as I wasn’t able to say goodbye to the students that I’ve looped with over the years.  Regardless, the cards have been dealt and educators and school are working for the best outcomes. We need to make the best of it whether it’s online or in person.  I’m optimistic for the next transition as we reach students through a different medium.

eLearning, Questions and Equity

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Last Thursday night news reports starting mentioning that schools in my area were closing down because of the COVID-19 virus. Early Friday morning teachers in my district participated in a two hour eLearning training. This was brand new to teachers. We’re not a 1:1 device district and technology tools are used, but it’s use is inconsistent.  During the training coaches introduced a landing page that K-5 students will visit (starting Monday) during an elearning day.  Students will visit the page, select their grade, subject area, and pick a certain amount of tasks to complete each day.  A lot of work went into creating the landing page. Coaches and administrators helped create the page and also made sure it aligned to the state expectations so it counts as an official school day. After introducing the page and the expectations for staff and students, teachers were left to ask questions. There were so many questions and anxiety was running high.  t was stressful, but I felt more comfortable after the training than before.  As the training went on the presenters started to briefly discuss issues relating to equity and eLearning.  I thought this was interesting and am going to write down a more than a few questions that come to mind regarding these topics.

  • What about students that don’t have internet access at home?
  • What about students that receive free/reduced meals?
  • What about childcare?
  • What about students that aren’t familiar with the technology tools that are used?
  • What role do school libraries play with ensuring all students have books?
  • Can students make up multiple days in one?
  • What happens if a teacher needs to take a sick day at home?
  • What about the social aspects of learning?
  • Can individual teachers post activities for their students to complete
  • How do you know that students complete the tasks?
  • How does differentiation look with eLearning?
  • How are students assessed with eLearning?

These are just a few questions and some of them were addressed during the training.  Childcare, access to internet and free/reduced meals are such important issues and I think they could be discussed even more.  I’m wondering how many families that are in need will reach out and ask?  Honestly, I’m not positive.  Being proactive is key here and this is uncharted territory.

Later on that Friday teachers and students were informed that school will be closed all next week.  Some students were excited while you could tell others were crushed.  The realization that they won’t be able to see their friends, their teacher, work together and be part of the established routines was challenging for some kids.  As they left I gave them a fist bump and told them I’ll see them after spring break.  I’ll miss working with them and the social aspect of learning is a big part of my classroom.

Over and over again on Friday I was told that we need to be flexible.  The key is that we’ll need to pivot (seems to be the key work of the year) with eLearning and make changes as needed. It’s not going to be perfect and there will be bumps and redirections. I’m optimistic and am glad that students have the opportunity to still engage in content, but it’s significantly different than what they’d experience in the classroom.

Learning Sync

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One of my classes finished up a unit on multiplication strategies last week.  Before the test I usually have students review a study guide and I meet with small groups to determine if certain skills/concepts need reviewing.  This time I changed up the schedule.  Instead of a study guide I went the route of using a brain dump.

I’ve heard of the term brain dump before, but didn’t really have a way to organize and use it effectively in the classroom setting.  I learned how to refine and apply it based on the examples in the book Powerful Teaching.  I thought I’d try it out with one class, see how it went and then possibly use it with other classes.  If all went well then I’d move to

So I gave each student a prompt.  The prompt was “write everything that you know about multiplication strategies.”  It was in 12 point font at the top of a 8 x 11 sized paper. Below the prompt was a massive canyon of space.  After I passed out the papers I had about a third of my class raise their hands.  Apparently they weren’t used to this type of prompt or activity.  I told the students that I’d answer questions about the prompt, but wouldn’t give them any examples.  Some students were confused at first.  I told them that they would have five minutes to complete the task and drawings to show strategies were certainly okay.  A few students gave sighs of relief.  I started the timer and the students were off to writing.

I walked around the room and observed the visual models and strategies that were filling up the white space on the students’ papers.  After the time was over I randomly grouped the students in pairs and they shared their individual strategies.  I used the questions directly from the book p. 58.

Is there anything in common that both of us wrote down?

Is there anything new that neither of use wrote down?

Why do you think you remembered what you did?

The entire experience took about 25 minutes and it was worthwhile.  Afterwards, students asked about being able to use this activity for our next unit.  I think it worked well with multiplication strategies, but I’m a bit unsure of other concepts.  I’m definitely willing to try it out though.  The class decided to change the name.  We came up with a couple names and then I mentioned Learning Sync from the book and it stuck.

Nice to Meet You Area Model

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This week my second grade students have been exploring multiplication strategies.  We started off early in the year looking at arrays and using doubling strategies.  Then we moved to helper facts.  These are still used to this day, but we introduced a new tool this week.  Enter the area model.  Hello!

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Students transitioned from arrays to squares, but didn’t sit at that spot long.  Through the area model, students take apart numbers and partition (yes, we say partition at second grade) the rectangle into parts.  Each part is a partial product.

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I’m fortunate in my position to see this strategy used at multiple grade levels.  The rectangle evolves over time.  As students progress, I find that place value and advanced decomposing strategies become more prevalent.  You can learn quite a bit about a student’s understanding by checking out their math work with an area model.  How they split up the numbers can also tell a story.  Why did they split up the rectangle that way?

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I find quite a bit of value in using this strategy.  For one, it doesn’t immediately move students towards the standard algorithm and it helps build/show conceptual understandings.  My 2-6th grade math students use it in a variety of capacities. My 5th grade crew has recently been using them to multiply fractions. Short story: It makes an appearance at every grade level.  It’s also a a fairly smooth transition to using the partial-products strategy.

Even though it’s a useful resource, I find there are a a couple things that irk me about using this tool.  Sometimes organization skills can hamper the effectiveness of drawing and organizing.  I’ve had more than a handful of students draw boxes that overlap or numbers that might not be decomposed correctly.  Also, it’s not to scale, but that’s not a game changer for me.

As students progress through elementary school they encounter a variety of math tools and strategies.  Manipulatives are generally used to help students build a better understanding of math concepts. The CRA model is often emphasized at this level. Many tools are brought out to help fill gaps and others are continually used.  At some point, I’m assuming the my students will rely on the standard algorithm to quickly multiply numbers (if they don’t have a calculator handy).  They probably won’t understand why the algorithm works, but it just does.  The area model shows multiplication in a concrete way.  Don’t get me started on lattice.

Surface Area and Improvements

Last year I taught a lesson on surface area that bombed.  I thought it’d be great to have students measure the surface area of a state using a scale model.  This task was found in my course adopted resource pack. Looking back, it wasn’t a bad idea or problem but the execution was far less than stellar.  The problem asked students to find the surface area of the state of Nevada.  They were given a model and a scale at the bottom.

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The class completed this mostly in whole group (which in hindsight was not the greatest idea).  I asked students to use the scale to find the surface area.  Students used rulers and decided to find the area by dividing the shape into one rectangle and one triangle.  After giving students about 10 minutes I surveyed the class and the answers were all over the board. Some debated on the word “approximate” as the class was asked to find the approximate surface area.  Other students thought the 0-100 km was a guideline and could be rounded. While others decided to neglect the missing piece near the southern border of the state.  Needless to say it didn’t go as well as planned.  Looking back, one of the problems was that this activity was completed whole group.  Students didn’t get time to discuss with each other what or how to measure.  There wasn’t a determination of what to do with the missing piece in the south and how to divide up the state.  The class eventually came to a consensus that there was one right answer and we moved on.  I put a note in my planner to do things differently next year.


So it is now next year (2020) and I have a different class.  This year I gave the same problem, but did things a bit differently.  I first front-loaded information about the state itself as a whole class discussion.  The class discussed the shape of Nevada and how it’s not exactly one rectangle and one triangle.  I reinforced that we can’t just neglect the small corner of Nevada.  It may be helpful to find that area as well.  Students were then randomly selected and placed in small groups of 2-3 students per group.  I asked the students what was meant by the scale in the bottom left and how they could use it to help them find the area.  Student groups had time to discuss and report out how they would use it.  Some students even found that the 0-100 km was actually 1 centimeter. I then gave each group a ruler/straightedge to help construct shapes within the state itself. Students had approximately 15-20 minutes to discuss and find the surface area using the tools that they were provided.  Students were busy slicing up the state and using a straightedge to find the approximate surface area.

The class then came back as a whole and each group submitted a response.  I received all the responses and students were given time to think about their submission and possibly make a change.  It’s interesting how peer pressure and consensus will sometimes make you second guess a decision.  In this case students mostly received affirmation and there was justification that came along with that decision.  All but one group was in the ballpark and that group didn’t initially convert the scale.  There answer ended up being extremely small compared to others.  Some of the groups decomposed like this:

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The majority of the class was within the approximate range and it was a productive discussion.  If you’re wondering, the surface area is approximately 278,000 square kilometers.  So now you can win a trivia contest.


I put a note in my planner to use this method next year.  Last year it bombed and this year was much better. Part of teaching is improving your craft and I had more than a couple pieces of humble pie last year. I tend to hear the phrase best practice thrown around in the field of education. I’m more of the mindset of emphasizing better practices and looking forward to tweaking this even more to make it a better experience next year.

Exploring Perimeter

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My third graders have been investigating perimeter and area for the past week.   I find when the terms are isolated, students are able to define them fairly accurately.  When put together it’s a different story.  Students tend to switch them around or heavily rely on one term based on what the class has been working on for that day.  So this year my students worked on a project that focused specifically on perimeter.  Area is part of it, but only if a teacher wants to pursue that avenue.

Students were put in groups and given two sheets.

Students outlined the map and personalized the city.  The construction zone is intended to be used for the actual city piece.  After the maps were distributed, each group received a centimeter grid.  The grid was used for students to cut out and create a city based on a certain criteria.  Each group received one sheet that indicated certain dimensions.

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Students then filled in the rest of the grid to match the dimensions.  Some of the dimensions were non-negotiable, like the height for the school or perimeter for the police department.  Others had some leeway.  There was a lot of erasing and rewriting for this sheet.  Once they completed the sheet students started tracing and cutting out the centimeter grid paper.  Trial-and-error was part of the process.  Students then cut out the buildings, put together some supports and glued them to the construction zone.

Students put together the cities and attached the dimension sheet to the bottom.  I’d say that around half of the class is finished and the rest are making some great progress.  I’m looking forward to seeing how the rest of them turn out and the gallery walk that will happen afterwards.  Here are the files that I used and feel free to use it in your own classroom.

Class-generated Quizzes

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One of my classes explored multiplication, factors, multiples and arrays in December. Students solved problems involving using different multiplication strategies and we thoroughly discussed how arrays can be arranged using the rows and columns as factors.  A unit assessment is scheduled for January so students were given a task before break.  Students were asked to create a problem involving multiplication. They had to write out the problem, provide three close but incorrect answers, and one correct answer.  Students could use dice or a random number generator to create the problem.  Most opted to create an original problem.

Students picked problems involving arrays, while others decided to add to the challenge and have students identify factors and distinguish between the product and factors.  Other students created square array problems.  I found that in the creation process many students had to erase their model and start over.  They had to be clear and I reiterated that everyone in the class would need to be able to clearly distinguish the rows, columns and total of an array.  Students realized that the array had to be in the form of a rectangle or square and some used a ruler for precision purposes.  Yay!  Others didn’t. I collected all of the potential questions and answers and brought them home over winter break.  I didn’t look at them again for another two weeks.  I

Yesterday evening I took pictures of the drawings with my iPad and inserted each question into a quiz.  It didn’t take as long as I originally thought to put all the questions and pictures into the quiz.  Feel free to access the actual quiz here.

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Today I paired students up and they took the class quiz.  Students were stoked to see their question on the quiz and the excitement was contagious.   It took the students around 15-20 minutes to complete the quiz and the class reviewed each question together.  The author of each question revealed themselves as we went through the questions and drawings.  Students gave feedback on the questions and I was impressed with how close the incorrect answers were to the actual solutions.   They wanted to make sure the students actually read the questions carefully.  Good call!

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In the future I’d like to add more topics to the quiz.  Adding variety will also give students more options to review the topics discussed in class.  I feel like this idea has legs and I might use it again later in the year.